Student Blog — Archaeology Angel

Here is Nic’s blog post, which weaves together the works of Benjamin and Sebald, the idea of the angel of history, and how archaeology is essentially a process of reconstruction of abandonment. — Kate

An angel brought me to the Ontario Field School this spring. That angel is the one Walter Benjamin saw with ‘horrified fixity’ while gazing upon a painting by Paul Klee. This is the “angel of history” whose

“face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is brewing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Basement wall of excavated structure

This is a famous passage from Benjamin’s Thesis on the Philosophy of History from 1940, and it is an image which creates a vision of time and humanity in opposition to the material determinism present in modern Western thought. For many authors and historians living in the wake of the horror of 20th Century Europe it captured the meaninglessness and chaos hanging in the air as the rubble piled high in the streets. It was his last published written work. Benjamin was a Jewish refugee hiding in Vichy France at the time and in June as the Wehrmacht entered Paris with a warrant for his arrest Benjamin fled to Spain with hopes of reaching the United States.

He carried with him in his briefcase a manuscript of the Thesis, and another unknown manuscript, which has never been found. After the Franco government in Spain cancelled all travel visas and trapped escaping refugees he rightfully feared being sent back to France where arrest and deportation to a concentration camp awaited. On the night of September 25th at the Hotel de Francia in Portbou, Catalonia, he committed suicide with an overdose of morphine.

One European author in particular influenced me to look through the eyes of Benjamin’s angel of history. W.G. Sebald devoted his short writing career to unearthing and steeping in the rubble of humanity, the ruins of great undertakings, and the personal aspirations and tragedies of esoteric and seemingly universal dimensions. In his world the dead are always returning to us and as a German emigrant born in 1944 he fixated on the “archeological excavations of the slag-heaps of our collective existence” in resistance to illusory or determinist thought about the past and present. Few public figures have done more to allow Europeans, and especially Germans to confront their own past.

In his first published work The Rings of Saturn, an autobiographical character awakes in the Norwich Hospital after undertaking a walk through coastal Suffolk county. His quaint late summer walk through the English countryside becomes a kaleidoscopic viewfinder through the physical and metaphysical stratigraphy upon which his feet traverse. As he saunters on his vision leads him in and out of a chaotic mix of destruction and regeneration present in small snippets of history. A plaque, a ruin, a turn of phrase once used, all keyholes into a dream-like state, where the dream is humanity. Through this process he is overcome with a “paralyzing horror” which awaits within “the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.”

Church of St James Dunwich
Church of St James Dunwich

Through his eyes the ruins of Dunwich, a great English port from the middle ages which collapsed into the sea, is connected to the deforestation of England over millennia through fires and the production of charcoal. This leads to a rumination on Western civilization that “combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers.”

Such a view of history and humanity is not simply a melodramatic appeal as a literary device, but poetically connects our personal realities to a broader movement of time. In a civilization entranced in ideas of progress and technological determinism, these traces of destruction are often obscured or rejected entirely, as one can attempt to bury a traumatic memory. After excavating the rubble what remains is what some have seen in Sebald and Benjamin’s work as a vision of creaturely life, one of daily toil and repetition, forever swept up in the storm.

Lang Pioneer Village showed me many examples of everyday life swept away by time but for these re-creations. Photo: Nic van Beek
Lang Pioneer Village showed me many examples of everyday life swept away by time but for these re-creations. Photo: Nic van Beek

While visiting the Hope Mill in order to view a functioning saw mill I felt this vision of the angel, of creaturely life blend with why I was here learning about the process of archeology in Ontario. As we were on the side of the country road about to pack into our vehicles, James stopped everyone for a moment and got us to look at a barn or shed right next to the road. It had visibly decayed over time in contrast to the living, resuscitated, much older Hope Mill and its appearance evoked the smell of the animal excrement you could imagine filled the structure.

Old vision machines we looked into at Lang Pioneer Village. While looking into them you could imagine a world with visions new and old. Photo: Nic van Beek
Old vision machines we looked into at Lang Pioneer Village. While looking into them you could imagine a world with visions new and old. Photo: Nic van Beek

I remember James trying to get us to visualize what it was used for, the potential human toil that would go on in and around the structure and the clues and materials which could lead you there. But most importantly, in order to access this creaturely life one had to first imagine the “process of abandonment” through which the structure had travelled in layered form into our moment. What struck me is the immensity of the process of abandonment in comparison to the usage. It can be a much longer period of time than the initial usage but it is also hidden from view as abandonment runs contrary to dominant, more easily accessible ideas. In order to access it and sort through the wreckage that is
hurled at our feet I expect you have to employ a practical vision and try to recreate the unbecoming through these traces of destruction. As I was searching for the north rock wall corner of our Nassau Mills structure I was digging into this abandonment, into the work of a bull-dozer operator hastily preparing a sports field for a university soon to be built.

Since I am new to archeology as of this field course I don’t have very much to say about the intricacies of the process itself, which Kate, James and Marit have so personably laid in front of me. But what I have been struck by is the reliance and development of your own vision, of seeing in 4 dimensions, of being able assemble and disassemble, to rotate, to age. To access the mind of someone performing an action, which has lead you to a clue of their existence, and then returning, moving on, always making whole what has been smashed.

VIDEO:  “Assembling, counting, forwards, backwards” by Nic van Beek

Throughout the 6 weeks of the Field School I found myself lost in rumination as I troweled into the stratigraphy of our ‘deserted’ Nassau Mills house structure. When finding a harmonica in a clinker pile of charred debris I imagined the life of the person who may have sat there trying to master the instrument. The people they tried to impress, the sound that may have emanated from it after years of practice, the endless nights and sunny moments of song swept away into a plastic bag, labelled and boxed onto a shelf. It sounds morbid, but for me this space is somehow open and freeing, bringing on a feeling similar to what George Simmel in 1911 described as the “profound peace,” which surrounds a ruin.

Tremolo Harmonica which had been found in a charred pile of clinker. Photo: Nic van Beek
Tremolo Harmonica which had been found in a charred pile of clinker. Photo: Nic van Beek

After the usage of a structure or a space ends something else occurs. As Simmel continued in his essay The Ruin “it is as though a segment of existence must collapse before it can become unresistant to all currents and powers coming from all corners of reality.” As a structure is abandoned it is no longer used as directly in accordance with the rules outlined in ideology or in law or otherwise, and enters into a space in some respects sheltered from the storm. Avoiding a kind of ruin mysticism is important for a rational approach to archeology, but through the actual materiality of the site you can enter a world of imagination and observation in relation to the past which rivals, and in my mind supersedes, any imaginative potential of the future.

Finally, for me the meaning of physically digging deep into the past also stems from a horror show in which I was immersed while completing my undergraduate degree in History. I had the opportunity to work on the Montreal Life Stories Project where I recorded, organized and viewed the life stories of people who had come to Montreal from situations of genocide around the world. Some of the stories and details I heard in these life stories still flash up involuntarily in my mind as people would spend up to 5 hours trying to excavate their own memories and make sense, or simply convey, the things they had witnessed and the subsequent trajectories of their lives.

For me it centered history in a moral frame and divorced technological development or progress from any kind of humanist trajectory. When early in the field school we found a commemorative Nazi pin from a May 1935 seafaring rally in Hamburg this world flashed up. I could imagine Benjamin in September of 1940 travelling with his briefcase towards the border only to find his own demise. I could imagine my Oma, as she described to me, hiding with our family in the cellar of their village home as nightly air raids shook the ground. I could imagine the owner of the pin throwing it into the bushes, out of fear, out of shame, or just to be rid of it and leaving it for us to find this trace of destruction reaching far back into the past.

— Nic van Beek

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