The photographic image, with its umbilical attachment to the moment in which it was taken, may seem an unlikely vehicle for the archaeological imagination. The startling presence of the past has surely most often been revealed to poets, writers, and artists through ancient artefacts (Seamus Heaney’s preserved bog-people, Keats’s Grecian urn) or through contemplation of ruined empires or geological vistas (Shelley’s Ozymandias, Ruskin’s Alps). Photographs of such things might inspire the same feelings, it could be argued, but only by virtue of certain kinds of subject-matter, which photography is of course uniquely well equipped to record in full detail. I do not think this is quite true, however: photography is not simply a transparent vehicle. What I have set out to demonstrate is that the medium of photography can be shown to be itself uniquely well equipped to facilitate a particular version of the archaeological imagination as manifested in a particular time and place: Britain around the 1930s and 1940s. Anxieties over the despoliation of the British landscape between the wars manifested themselves partly as fears that modernity was in danger of obliterating all traces of the past in the countryside and towns. Images of ‘Beautiful Britain’ asserted the continuing existence of a landscape in which it was increasingly hard to believe, in the face of a simultaneous proliferation of images documenting ribbon development, arterial roads, and unchecked building. But there was an alternative to these two poles of representation, one which attempted to resolve an acknowledgement of modernity with a desire for a landscape in which the past was discernible. To exercise an archaeological imagination in this context was to perceive the presence of the past despite the evident incursions of modernity. It was to believe in the immanence of history, the essential indestructibility of what has been, and to believe in this regardless, in some cases, of appearances. Not only were the remains of history perceived to be still there; they were understood— with some thrill—to have been there all along without us realizing it. Such a sensibility, I have argued, is therefore essentially a redemptive one. For in the face of the disintegration of the remains of the past, and the destruction wrought by modernity and war, the archaeological imagination refuses to acknowledge, quite, the loss of anything.
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