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Conservation of Ruins

July 2008 (112.3)

Book Review

Conservation of Ruins

Edited by John Ashurst. Pp. xlii + 344, b&w figs. 41, color figs. 250, tables 3. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford 2007. $91.95. ISBN 0-75-066429-0 (cloth).

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Joseph Severn’s 1845 Portrait of Shelley at the Baths of Caracalla, which now hangs in Keats’ House, Rome, perfectly captures the romantic ideal of poetic inspiration. It shows the poet Shelley in a typically romanticized setting, in the act of composing Acts 2 and 3 of Prometheus Unbound in 1819 amid a famous, and famously picturesque, ancient ruin, one still visible in Rome today. Of his visit to the baths, Shelley wrote: “Never was desolation more sublime and lovely.” Overrun with rambling vegetation, the arched ruins look the very essence of the Romanticist view of classical antiquity. It is the view of antiquity that inspired Byron, fresh from a tour of the Mediterranean, to write his impassioned portrayal of Greece in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and Keats, at home in London, to wax eloquent about sampling Chapman’s recent translation of Homer and first seeing the pilfered fragments of the Parthenon sculptures, newly housed in a temporary room in the British Museum. The backdrop of Severn’s painting, with its idealized vision of an amalgamated nature and culture, with just a whiff of vanitas, presents a visual synopsis of the spirit that inspired, for Shelley, poetic dramas like Prometheus Unbound and, later, Hellas, not to mention translations of Plato’s Symposium and a certain play called Swellfoot the Tyrant. Keats produced the five great odes of his miraculous year (also 1819), culminating in the Ode on a Grecian Urn. Shelley drowned, it is said, with a volume of Sophocles in his pocket.

Attractive scenes of ancient, hewn-stone monuments in the process of being reclaimed by nature, while they have historically been inspirational to poets, are anathema to archaeologists and conservators. For, as we learn from reading this valuable book, vegetation is ruinous to ruins. The contributors are not immune to the seductiveness and the suggestiveness of overgrown ruins—witness the lovely vintage sepia photograph of Tintern Abbey (fig. 4.1)—but counsel that foliate growth can be severely detrimental to the life of crumbling structures and in most cases must be removed (on the other side, ch. 6 explains how to respect the natural ecological conditions of a site while preserving a ruin). No plant is more destructive than that most clichéd of vegetal parasites, ivy. Once the ivy was removed from Tintern, it was noticed that the north chancel wall had been slowly migrating westward (85). The measures that were taken to stabilize the structure might not have pleased Wordsworth, but they saved the ruin.

This edited volume, with contributions by a consortium of experts, mostly British, should be required reading for anyone, romantics included, working in archaeology or interested in pursuing a career in the field. It emphasizes sites in the United Kingdom, primarily medieval in date. However, the ethical issues facing concerned preservationists that are at the forefront of each author’s contribution are universally applicable. The overarching message, heavy-handed though it occasionally may be, is a serious one. Ruins may be ruins; however, whether temple or cathedral, modern railway terminal or ancient marble quarry, irrespective of artistic worth, they must be conserved and “preserved as found” (83). Any further deterioration must be inhibited with the aid of the most up-to-date methods and materials.

Essentially a handbook of the “how-to” variety, its authors—all specialists in multiple disciplines, which include archaeology, ecology, conservation, stonemasonry, surveying, architecture (the editor’s profession), science, and engineering—offer guidance over the entire preservation process, not excluding more mundane tasks such as hiring properly trained personnel, drawing up blueprints, and allotting individual work assignments. There is lots of “shop talk,” and not every reader will read every chapter closely. The plentiful illustrations, taken at sites ranging over a broad spectrum of periods and places, while not always of the highest quality, are compelling, as they document the minutiae of deteriorative situations and their solutions. The volume’s virtues are its comprehensiveness, its lack of cultural bias and indifference to aesthetic issues in the monuments it treats, and the obvious integrity of the contributors. But its greatest service will be in inspiring the professional archaeologist, the amateur of ruins, and that most lowly of players, the common tourist, to respect what needs to be done if the past is to be preserved for the future.

A few sections (e.g., preface, introduction, chs. 1, 4, 9) are more philosophical or conceptual in tone—“Kunstwollen” appears in the index—but the real business of this publication is practical. Chapters 1–8 convey the collective message that ancient masonry is a highly individualized, fragile entity; in each instance, its particular nature must be investigated and understood before its ailments are expertly diagnosed and the prescribed treatment carried out with the utmost care and craft. Numerous deleterious masonry conditions, on terra firma and under water, are described and fully illustrated, along with the prescription and implementation of corrective measures and the preservation program recommended in each case. Contrary to common assumption, minimum intervention is not always the most advisable course. Sometimes more drastic measures must be taken to rescue a ruin; for instance, there is no point in merely tamping and pointing fractures without ascertaining and correcting their underlying cause (88–9). Chapter 9 deals with the interpretation and display of ruins on-site and the impact of visitors and visitors’ services (p. 248 becomes inadvertently funny as it methodically lists the desirable and the undesirable types of visitor; among the former, those who value a site “merely as a pleasant backdrop to a drink, meal or retail opportunity,” and among the latter, “looters” and “unofficial archaeologists” armed with metal detectors). Chapter 10 presents three case studies at some length: Guildford Castle in Surrey; the palace of Herod in Masada, Israel; and Gosport Railway Terminal in England, which was heavily damaged during World War II. Appendices cover in greater detail narrower topics such as materials and techniques, various structural interventions, personnel selection, and monitoring and maintaining abandoned ruins and sites. Appendix 4, “Visitor Perceptions,” is especially interesting, and it uses the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, as a case study.

While the classical and the romantic have always been viewed as oppositional and mutually exclusive sensibilities, in truth, one can scarcely exist without the other. Anyone who assumes the role of caretaker of the past by definition must be something of a closet romantic—even the editor of this pragmatic and sobering text could not resist using Shelley’s Ozymandias as the epigraph to the book. But ruins must be attended to, with clinical detachment and the latest technical expertise. Whether your professional bailiwick is “art,” literature, architecture, or ideas, or whether you are a nonprofessional who simply loves and values the past, this work is indispensable.

Mary Stieber
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
The Cooper Union
51 Astor Place, Room 113
New York, New York 10003

Book Review of Conservation of Ruins, edited by John Ashurst

Reviewed by Mary Stieber

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 3 (July 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1123.Stieber

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