“What survives from the real Middle Ages is a range of, in practice, quite arbitrary objects based on luck and the durability of their materials. Ivories of great age, generally showing scenes from the Bible, have endured because they have always been valued but also because they could not decay and could not be reused. Very little decorative gold survives because centuries of embarrassing royal emergencies or changes in taste have taken advantage of its plasticity to remodel it or put it back into ingots or coins. Clothing, even precious clothing, has rotted, tapestries have faded, paint has worn away. Much of the texture and visual meaning of the Middle Ages is therefore lost- quite aside from the irreparable problem of our mental and spiritual equipment being so drastically altered by the intervening centuries that we can hardly engage with what we are looking at.”
From ‘Germania: A personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern’ by Simon Winder (2010: 45).
To slake my thirst for reading I have recently borrowed this delightful book on Germany from my brother. The book is an often funny but always passionate and informative guide to the central European country, and although my aim was to read it before journeying to Magdeburg last year I never quite got around to it. The quote instantly reminded me of what I had seen myself in Amiens in the summer, of the cathedral lit as it once was with its vibrant, even gaudy colours transplanted onto the bare and ashen stonework, and of the true sights and sounds that are now largely lost to the ages. Archaeology is in the business of salvaging and conserving finds and sites from the past, and an integral part of this is the study of human remains as this blog has tried to highlight. Whilst we can investigate many different aspects of past cultures, not just from the relics and the ruins that remain, but of the actual people who had once lived, it is still important that we realise we can only form an impression of what they had once seen and lived through themselves. I often catch myself whilst handling a person from the past, imagining who they had loved, what they had seen and what they had done in their lifetimes. Although the answers to some of our questions as researchers may now be lost, archaeology and its related disciplines can still help to shed a little light. That light is improving as archaeology widens its scope via science breakthroughs and multidisciplinary projects.