A trowel and a toothbrush

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The statues in Trondheim brought to mind a museum that Christian and I found quite by accident in Naxos last year. It was a close afternoon in September, and we were making our way down from the old Venetian crusader citadel at the top of the island’s main Chora when we found an unusual, tinted glass building by the town’s main church. It was air-conditioned and we were curious, so we went in.

It turned out that after some extensive excavation work in that district back in the 80s or 90s, the archaeologists had filled in their trenches as usual, but one small part of the dig they left, and covered over with reinforced glass walkways and this museum building.

The whole area is probably only about the size of a tennis court, but it is dug to various different levels so you can see the evolution of that small rectangle of land over the course of many hundreds of years. The notebook I wrote down all the details in is sitting unhelpfully in my desk back home, so some of my facts might be a bit approximate. It was only half a year ago, and you’d have thought I’d be able to recall everything perfectly, but my memory is cluttered, and as a maxim printed on the cover of one of my current notebooks reminds me, ‘I’m not writing it down to remember it later. I’m writing it down to remember it now’.

The deepest layer was, I think, Mycenean, and consists mainly of workshops. The exposed bit reveals a pottery backing onto the city wall, with a couple of ovens, some fragments, and a half-finished urn. Interesting, but not outstandingly so.

Go up a level, and you move forward a couple of hundred years. By this stage, pirate raids have moved the settlement to a more defensible position further up the hill. No-one now remembers that this was a craftsmen’s quarter, but they do know that this is where their forebears used to live. They have begun to bury their dead here so as to be closer to their ancestors, and the area has become a graveyard.

Move up a few feet and a few generations, and the graves have become more elaborate, incorporating little shrines and tables for libations. Such revered grounds are only for the richest, and the enclosures are more like places of worship, where they hold feasts and ceremonies to honour the dead. We are in the heartland of the Greek hero cult, and ancestor veneration is widespread.

Hundreds of years on, the burial ground has been covered over with debris as the town expands out towards it, and has become one large mound. The people have forgotten that it was where once they buried their dead, or that before that it was just a stretch of the city wall with a pottery workshop. But they know that it is a religious place where you can commune with your gods, so they build temples here.

The Romans duly arrive, and make a mess of things, as is their custom. It becomes something utilitarian – I forget what – and a large, red ring that reaches deep into the layers is one of their old pipes. Yet to this day, the Orthodox Church and at least one other religious building which I think might have been a convent, are located in this small corner of town, presumably unaware until recently of the fact that they sit on the site of pagan burial grounds reaching back long before the birth of Christ. But the path that brought them there is still beneath their feet.

I like metaphors, because they provide pleasing if meaningless ways of describing things I can’t understand, and I couldn’t help but think at the time that all of this goes to prove that there is no such thing as a fresh start. For people, as with places, history stretches deep underneath. Human characters are such complicated and intricate things that whether you remember it all or not, your past is what you are built on. Even if bits of it are destroyed, either deliberately or by outside forces, your foundations are full of its debris.

You can’t return to a time of perfection and start cleanly, because if this mythical block of marble ever did exist, then it is already sought into. But then that is just the way, and not altogether a bad thing. You build on what you have, and you adapt according to the world of the current age. You reuse some old stones, and maybe keep a few rooms below ground if you like it there. Or maybe you keep the cellar door locked. Each to their own.

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