Abandonment Again

I keep thinking about abandonment in both modern and ancient contexts and wondering why (and to a lesser extent whether) there seems to be a recent upswing in public interest in abandonment. I’ve written elsewhere about the work of such photographers as Yves Marchand and Romain Meffree, Camio Jose Vergara (via Kostis Kourelis) and James D. Griffioen (we can now add (thanks to Ryan Stander, Jeff Brouws, and thanks to Aaron Barth, Brian Herbel), and from closer to home the folks at Ghosts of North Dakota and the haunting 2008 Nation Geographic article “The Emptied Prairie“). I’ve contributed my own fuel to the fire by co-chairing a panel at the 2007 Archaeological Institute of America which focused on abandonment in the archaeological record.

In a forthcoming article (yes, I know…) in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, I argue, among other things, that abandonment, in its many guises, served as a chronological marker for the end of something. Typically, the something was the abandoned building or object or space, and since archaeology tends to plot the rise and fall of civilizations (in its crudest forms) according to the life history of objects, buildings, and spaces, the abandonment of such things typically serve to mark out the end of a particular culture or period of time. Thus, abandonments are central to the way in which we create historical and chronological periods from the events of the past. Abandonment helps us organize time.

There is an inevitability to abandonment which evokes tragedy. Despite the best intentions of humanity, time (as an active agent) inevitably takes its toll on human constructions and brings them down. In these formulations, abandonment brings to the fore both the power of nature and the folly of human ambition. What I am more interested in, however, is whether our current focus on abandonment is meant to bring about and mark out the end of some era. For as long as history has existed, people have declared history to be at an end. Since the Enlightenment, this call has most frequently been triumphant (see, for example, Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man), but in our current fixation on abandonment, it seems to be tragic. The focus of abandonment — monumental hotels, bustling factories, middle class suburbs, rural towns — cut across American and Western society and suggests a kind of all encompassing futility.

Of course, the celebration of the futility of human works could point to an interpretation that is not simply apocalyptic. The end of one era of achievement whether inevitable or calculated (was the Roman Republic assassinated?) typically ushers in the dawn of a new age. If we see abandonment as a critique of past folly, and it seems that some works that celebrate the return of nature to abandoned places see abandonment as the first step toward a return to a more environmentally conscious and humane world. A post-American landscape sees the collapse of the densely packed urban world and the sprawling suburbs as marking the beginning of a new time.

In fact, it may be necessary to mark or even promote the end of an era in order to take credit for building something new. It was common for ancient rulers to celebrate renewal or return to past glories. They took particular pride in the Early and Middle Byzantine periods for the reconstruction, rebuilding, or refounding of institutions or buildings long abandoned. In these narratives, abandonment continued to mark the folly of the past, but also placed hope in new beginnings.  

  1. Rangar Cline
    March 10, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Great topic! I sometimes think that my childhood encounters with abandonment were what got me interested in archaeology many years ago. One of my favorite dramatic narratives of an encounter with abandonment comes from This American Life. I apologize if you have liked to this already.

  2. Richard Rothaus
    March 10, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Indeed a good topic. I listened to house on Loon Lake and wasn’t so impressed. Houses and property are abandoned all the time, and the Loon Lake story is so very, very typical. I rolled my eyes that the adult narrator was so astonished by the mundane nature of the answer. Most of time when you find a house such as he found, the cause is just what he found. He could have just asked an old person. But listen for yourself—that I remember the story and my thoughts is an indicator it has strong merits.
    Of course, my reaction to the story and the abandonment theme are framed by my own stage of life. My parents are gone, their stuff is dispersed, and the places of my youth have been transformed.
    Perhaps the upswing in the interest in abandonment is not a societal reflection, but rather a generation of scholars reaching a stage of life. As young folks we just assumed what was normal for us was normal and permanent for everyone. When our childhood haunts disappear, our hometowns become unrecognizable, and our relatives and friends die, the impermanence of existence becomes something much more real and interesting.
    Because we write articles, and blog, and post photos, we are visible. But I also have found that some of the old-timers in those small town cafes have already had many of the same thoughts and feelings about the issues that I have.
    Someone (not me!) should do a spreadsheet of scholars writing on abandonment as societal theme and see if you can find commonalities in age, parents deceased/living, homeownership, tenure, visits to childhood haunts and the like. Then go backwards in time. Maybe the historical pattern is not just about societal views, but also comes from bulges of overly-literate folks committing their musing to posterity.
    But lest I come across as a total curmudgeon, I also am still fascinated by the abandoned. One of these days I’ll post some photos of the reuse of the Terlingua cemetery by the new-agers who are trying to make a go of the old town (but who will also abandon it in a few years).
    Just an idea I have been thinking about–which may mean I have embraced some societal focus. . . .

  3. Rangar Cline
    March 11, 2010 at 9:30 am

    I found the ending of the Loon Lake story very unsatisfying the fist time I heard it — sort of like “what, that’s it?” But, that’s part of the reason I think it is a good case study for archaeologists. The narrator interprets the material left in the house (clothes, wallet, etc.) as signs of a sudden abandonment that could only be caused by some sort of catastrophe — the listener then wonders: “what happened? murder, kidnapping!” — without considering more mundane causes. When the narrator (and the listener) learns that the abandonment was not caused by a catastrophe, the result is anticlimactic. However, the dramatic realization that abandonment can occur outside of sudden violence, death, or tragedy — that its causes can be banal — is somehow more unsettling, at least for me.
    But, that is where I think the story is useful for archaeologists thinking about abandonment. Many — myself included — have a tendency to search for sudden and catastrophic causes in cases of abandonment. Perhaps this is because the idea of someone just walking off and leaving something is just hard to imagine. However, as you suggest, and some of Bill’s and K. Kourelis’ recent posts illustrate, it happens all the time. For me, the story is a reminder to talk to the neighbors.

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