The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Eating in the Crypt

From time to time, I enjoy playing a mental game with myself. I like to ponder my material surroundings and wonder what archaeologists of the future might make of it if all that they had was the material goods and not the written records (hey, I'm a prehistoric archaeologist by training, I like to ponder without the benefit of written records). Most of the time, it looks like the basic purpose of a given place or item would be pretty clear. However, sometimes I realize that the nature of a given item or location would probably mislead a future archaeologist in a weird direction.

But the weirdness got bumped up a level at St. Martin-of-the-Fields Church.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The current building was constructed in 1721-1726, but it is on the site of an older medieval church. Like many such churches, it has the areas for worship and other gatherings, and a crypt in which many parishioners were buried. The church itself still functions, and serves as a landmark, meeting place, and a venue for choral music. The crypt also still functions, you can see the tombstones of those buried there, and see artwork that accompanied these tombstones, and have a nice something to eat and drink at the cafe in the crypt.

Yep, there's a cafe in the crypt.

Here's a photo or me reading the tombstones, tastefully moved into prominent positions on the wall:

And here's a video made by someone else:

It's tempting to crack jokes about how the cafe in the crypt would be seen as a sign of cannibalism. Okay, it's funny to say that. But it's also not accurate. If our proposed future archaeologists are even half as sophisticated as modern archaeologists, working out what artifacts and materials belong to which points in time would be pretty damn simple. The crypt would clearly be seen as a multi-component site, with one component (including the burials) dating to the 18th though early 20th century, and another component (the restaurant equipment and eating utensils) dating to the late 20th/early 21st century. So, there would clearly be two separate uses of the site.

How would my future brethren explain this? I don't know, but based on the way that archaeologists explain some of our weirder sites today, I have a few guesses (bare in mind, these are what I would anticipate would be thought if the future archaeologists lacked the written records to know who owned, ran, and used the place):

1) Looking at land use density around the City of London/Westminster area, it may be assumed that the eatery was placed in the crypt because there was increasingly less room available for businesses and residences. This is, of course, somewhat true, but doesn't take into account that there is still open space within the broader London area. From this premise, the future archaeologist would likely try to reach conclusions as to how the operators and customers of the place viewed their relationship with dead ancestors...and would likely reach some very odd conclusions.

2) If iconography on the cafe equipment matches the iconography in the church, then it would be realized that the choice of the cafe location was intentional, whether because the church itself wanted it, or because people making use of the church site wanted to claim continuity as a show (whether right or wrong) of legitimacy. This being the case, the future archaeologist would be stuck trying to figure out why a purveyor of food would want a symbolic connection with the people buried on hallowed ground - it might be concluded that the food itself had symbolic or ritual meaning, or that the operators of the cafe had some sort of religious or political interests that were served by connection to the crypt (sort of true, as the church is the ultimate beneficiary).

3) If the future archaeologists were able to draw on information from other large cities in Europe, they might note the the late 20th and early 21st century saw a proliferation of establishments that offered novelty as well as food: the all-insect restaurant, raw-food restaurants, "fusion" cuisine, etc. all provide novelty and cater to fads. Taking this into context, the archaeologist might be able to make an argument that "eating among the dead" was just one of many novelties used to draw people in to restaurants in the late 20th and early 21st century.

4)If only the land use in the immediate vicinity was examined but was cross-referenced with individual religious iconography found within homes in the London area, then it might be concluded that, either A) church attendance was declining (true) and therefore making use of the crypt for a novel purpose was a fine way of bringing new people in, or B) the crypt was located near a major public place (also true, Trafalgar Square) and the church was hoping to use either the only free space that they had OR the novelty of their crypt to bring visitors in to the church.

Those are the four main potential explanations that come to my mind. However, depending on one's theoretical interests, a wide variety of other potential explanations could be devised involving everything from individually constructed social identities to the "vulgarization" of "sacred" traditions, to people simply forgetting the reasons for which their ancestors had built various structures. What is important to keep in mind is that most explanations would be reached based on one or more lines of evidence, and that other relevant evidence might not be available or understood. As a result, our proposed future archaeologist would probably get some things right, and some things wrong, and would probably argue with other archaeologists to bring other information in and hopefully move closer to the truth of what was happening in this crypt.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the old scifi story that was an archaeologist who had excavated on the long-defunct planet Earth, detailing his puzzlement at the peculiarly uniform and ubiquitous porcelain shrines that the population had placed in all their homes and public spaces. But it's clearer to me now that the author of that story knew as little about archaeology as I do, since there would be ample clues in the connections and surroundings as to what those shrines were used for. Once again a good story is ruined by excessive knowledge!

Anthroslug said...

I recall that story, though I don't remember if I had read it or someone else had told me about it. Similar things get brought to me ona regular basis, though, when people want to show me just how futile they think this line of work is, and they are always either dissapointed or annoyed when I explain how we would go about doing the work to figure out what the mundane objects were.