Wednesday, 3 October 2012

In a ritual landscape

Like so many people in what we might call the Late Time-Team Era, I’ve become over the years something of an armchair archaeologist. So I know a good Ritual Landscape when I see one.
Classic examples are in Orkney, Brittany, County Meath in Ireland and around Stonehenge. I’ve visited them all.
There aren’t any obvious examples in Suffolk, probably because we don’t have big stones capable of standing around in circles for very long.
The definitive thing about a good Ritual Landscape is that several outstanding archaeological sites are all found within a short distance of one another – often in sight of one another.
Another thing (the clue is in that word “ritual”) is that archaeologists confidently ascribe a religious meaning to them. When, for all we really know, their original significance might have been something completely different.
What, some future archaeologist might speculate, was the religious significance of all those very tall buildings that the global culture of the early 21st century erected in all its big cities? They were obviously great temples – to the glory of the great god Mammon, perhaps? Mammon was certainly very highly revered in that period.
And what of all those ribbon-like concrete-and-asphalt structures connecting one temple complex with another?
Surely they had some great ritual importance? (Yes, indeed – worship of the internal combustion engine.)
Back in our own time, I’ve just returned from a highly enjoyable weekend in what I can only describe as a ritual landscape of the early industrial age.
In fact, Ironbridge in Shropshire is proud to call itself “the Birthplace of Industry” (though this does rather beg the question of what went on in the extensive copper mines of the Bronze Age and how the Iron Age got its name).
It may be fair to say that the Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century and had its full flowering in the 19th had its genesis at what became Ironbridge – though parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham and Cornwall also played crucial early roles.
What is certain, though, is that outcroppings of coal, iron ore and limestone along the sides of the same narrow valley made a perfect place for iron-smelting to be developed in industrial quality and quantity. And that the river Severn, whose erosive effect had brought the minerals conveniently to the surface, also proved convenient for shipping out the finished product.

Model of 18th-century industry in the Ironbridge Gorge at the Museum of the Gorge. All pictures are mine
The ritual-landscape quality of the Ironbridge Gorge is now marked by the profusion of brown signs pointing to a multiplicity of museums all within easy walking distance of one another.There are ten of them in all, from the Coalport Tar Tunnel to the horribly named Enginuity, Blists Hill Victorian Town to the rather disappointing Museum of the Gorge.
And that’s not counting the Iron Bridge itself, the famous and picturesque structure thrown across the Severn in 1779 by Abraham Darby III, grandson and namesake of the man generally credited with revolutionising iron.
What must in its heyday have been a very busy, smoky, smelly and rather dangerous valley is now a delight to stroll round. A little over-touristy perhaps – unsurprisingly, given its World Heritage Site status – but clean, charming and slightly other-worldly.
And it’s not too hard to escape the crowds on a walk that takes in the Quaker burial plot of the founding Darbies, a 19th-century railway bridge that curves attractively over the mill-pond of an earlier works, and passes Georgian and Victorian houses from the grand to the humble.
Even the Youth Hostel, where we stayed, is a perfect example of grand Victorian paternalism, having started out as the Literary and Scientific Institute. (If there is any institute I’d rather be a member of, I can’t think of it right now.) It stands splendidly on the valley side on a thoroughfare known, perhaps a trifle optimistically, as Paradise.
Even the distinctly 20th-century power-station cooling towers that loom over the western edge of town are somehow neither inappropriate nor unattractive in this setting.
The Ironbridge Gorge, in fact, was very much a ritual landscape throughout the era when industrial process was the ritual.
And after falling into decay in the middle part of the last century, it’s come back into its own in this era of ritual tourism.
Like Orkney’s stone circles and Brittany’s monolithic alignments, Weardale’s old lead workings and Cornwall’s tin mines, the valley was once full of people hard at work. Now its population is largely transitory – visitors intent on reviving the lives of those long-ago folk in imagination.
The ancestor-worship of our times.

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