Almost every news service today carried the story about the discovery of a ‘plague pit’, one of the mass burial sites from when Europe was too overwhelmed by the deaths of the Bubonic Plague to bury each of the deceased individually. Examples: [BBC News] and [CNN].
The discovery occurred while the city of London was building a new rail link. Since London is such a historic city, with many archaeological layers, archaeologists were working alongside the builders of the track.
Due to Europe’s strong history of civilization, building anything new means a high chance of uncovering something old. The relationship between engineering and construction firms and archaeologists is fraught with tension. It’s no fun trying to finish a project on time when you have to stop for every archaeological find. And it’s no fun as an archaeologist when insufficient time is given to salvage important finds.
This is why it’s interesting that the same thing happened in Thessalonika, Greece with quite the opposite results. The city is creating a large-scale metro project and the resulting excavations have just uncovered a large Byzantine city, including an original road in very good condition. However, Greece’s economy is not in the same condition as Britain’s. The archaeologists would like to build a museum within a metro station (for e.g. Athens’ metro contains a similar museum), but the engineering company says that in order to save the ancient road, the central station would have to be scrapped. The entire project is stalled while everyone argues.
In the meantime, 450 construction workers have been laid off because the work has stalled, local shopkeepers are distraught about the delay because of the already fragile economic situation, and archaeologists are upset that this road may be destroyed to make way for the metro station.
Who has the right of way? How do we balance preserving our culture while at the same time balancing our present responsibilities? I love history. Love it. But if I had to choose between present humans’ well-being and preserving the past, living humans always win. However, I know that often when an engineering company says it’s ‘impossible’ to accommodate archaeological finds, they often just mean “inconvenient” or “unprofitable”. It’s an interesting debate.
Source [BBC News]