Archaeology in Poetry, Poetry in Archaeology

Posted on December 11, 2019


Time, and particularly the problem of the recoverability of the past in the present, has been a major theme in poetry, at least since the emergence of romanticism. In Four Quartets, T.S Eliot explores the possibility of seeing ‘time past’ through the experience of particular places. George Seferis’s The King of Asine focuses more concretely on the present-day remains of the least famous of Homer’s cities, Asine in the Argolid. Anne Carson’s work is replete with fragments from different times which are brought together and reordered, without fusing into a timeless whole.

Often it is poetry, whether that of Holderlin or of Pindar, that provides the lens through which the remains of the past (in Heidegger’s case the sanctuary of Olympia) can be re-experienced. In some cases, the gap between time past and time present is emphasised – the past is irrecoverable and can only be experienced poetically. A radically different approach has been taken by J.H. Prynne, perhaps the most ‘difficult’ of contemporary poets writing in English, who has explored the concepts that archaeologists (ranging from Gordon Childe, to James B. Griffin and Richard Bradley) use in their interpretations of the past.

This session seeks to explore the potential of these links. What are the resources and limitations of the attempt to re-experience the past ‘poetically’? What does it mean for archaeological practices and concepts to be explored in poetry and criticism? How might archaeology best learn from and draw on the resources of poetry? What can be learned from comparative reflection on the processes and procedures of the poet, the archaeologist, and the literary critic? How do poetry and archaeology represent conflicting or complementary responses to the phenomenon of the fragment? This session will explore the ways in which poetry and archaeology can, perhaps together, explore the relationship between time present and time past.

Organisers: James Whitley (Cardiff University) and Josh Robinson (Cardiff University)

In Cimmerian Darkness: An archaeological reading of J.H. Prynne

J.H. Prynne is well known for his sometimes oblique references to general issues in archaeology. ‘A Note on Metal’ contains some very specific references to both Childe and J.B. Griffin, and can be interpreted as a standalone example of archaeological theory as well as being a poem. This paper, however, explores one of his earlier poems where there is no apparent reference to anything archaeological: ‘In Cimmerian Darkness’. If the poem is ‘about’ anything (a general difficulty with any poem by Prynne) it is about astronomy. This paper argues that it also references, through its title, a variety of archaeological issues. The reference here is to something specific to be found in the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge (the Brough stone from Westmoreland). In this way, this poem too is saying something about the relationship between ‘time present and time past’. It is perhaps an illustration that, in poetry, time is not linear (like a string) but somehow crumpled up – points in time, in different periods, intersect. This paper will try to explore the implications of this for archaeological interpretation in general.

James Whitley (Cardiff University)

Burial and Poetry: Exploring the limits of a metaphor

Both burials and poems are sites of careful crafting which remain richly expressive and emotive long after their compositional moment has passed. Archaeologists often speak of ‘reading’ burials and Martin Carver, in his contribution to Treasure in the Medieval West (2000), has argued that burials are poetry. Nevertheless, the ‘language’ in which they are ‘written’ is remote and ambiguous. This paper explores the uses and limits of thinking of burials as poetry, and of the act of interpreting them as a kind of literary analysis, and asks how the metaphor might be deployed to offer insights into the distant past and archaeology’s methodological present.

We draw on the literary critical concept of ‘close reading’ to investigate the poetry of burials at different levels. The excavation report, a document normally shrouded in scientific language, forms a departure point as we move from attempts to read modern burial descriptions as poetry to discussions of how far we can ‘translate’ the burial into poetry that is readable on literary terms. A case study from the Early Bronze Age of Scotland provides the background to our argument that apparently inarticulate graves offer fertile ground for different sorts of ‘reading’.

Mark Haughton (Cambridge University) and Susie Hill (Cambridge University)

At the Traverse of the Wall: Archaeological transformations in Thomas Percy and David Jones

By comparing the uses of archaeology in [1] Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and [2] David Jones’s Anathemata (1952), this paper will offer examples of the particular modes in which archaeology is permitted to enter and transform poetic texts under different cultural conditions and generic expectations. The hybrid genre of philological poetry, which is applicable to both texts, enables an account of negotiations between poetry, philology, and archaeology across time periods and institutional contexts.

The historical study of philological poetry is intrinsically multi-temporal and alert to the archaeological layering of textual objects. Between the periods of the two texts in question here, the concept of archaeology moves from a general sense roughly correspondent to ‘all history’ towards the specialist recovery and study of ancient monuments and artefacts. This paper is less interested in interpreting the content of particular archaeological moments in the two works than it is in how their different conditions enable and inflect those moments formally, paratextually, and in terms of the selection of specific material for inclusion, and how these processes are affected by changing notions of archaeological knowledge.

Luke McMullan (New York University)

Canalchemy: A collaborative walking performance series along the Glamorganshire Canal

‘Canalchemy’ is a participatory performance poetry project taking place over the course of 2017 through various collaborative multimedia site-specific performances at different locations along the route of the deleted Glamorganshire canal, beginning at the ruined blast furnace of Cyfarthfa ironworks near Merthyr Tydfil on spring equinox and ending on winter solstice at Sea Lock in Cardiff Bay where the canal entered the sea. The project alloys the temporal constraints of the astrological year to the invisible outline of the lost waterway as a structural spine, to provide a mobile space in which to trace the scars of communities in the sacrifice zones of the South Wales coalfield, where metallurgical and mineral alchemy was exploited on an industrial scale. In this paper, I will present a selection of video documentation of the performances and discuss the project’s stochastic and plurivocal approaches in its use of collage poetics, participatory performance and multimedia documentation. Examples can be found at:…

Steven Hitchins

Scribe and Scripture: Poets’ experience of a sacred Medieval landscape

The Cistercian Abbey of Strata Florida occupied a remote and topographically distinctive landscape on the west edge of the Cambrian Mountains in mid Wales. Interpreting the design of the monastic precinct and its environs has required an appreciation of the physical, spiritual, and practical geography of the space, within which water is both resource and symbol.

Many 20th century Welsh writers have documented visits to the remaining ruins of the abbey through poetry, including Hedd Wyn, John Ormond, Harri Webb, Gillian Clarke, R.S. Thomas, Moelwyn Merchant, Ruth Bidgood, and Gwyneth Lewis. Some have a deep understanding of the historical and theological significance of the site, its association with the Medieval court poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, and the archaeology of the monastery; others responded instinctively to the sensation of being in, and moving through, a natural and cultural space.

This paper explores whether such accounts can provide surrogates for the experience of previous actor, and whether archaeologists may benefit from incorporating awareness of their own sensory responses in their attempts to interpret the past. I will reflect on my own practice as a poet and archaeologist with specific reference to the writing of my Strata Florida poem ‘Scribe and Scripture’.

Martin Locock (University of Wales Trinity St. David)

Iconography, Hybrid Art and Self-Portrait in H.D.’s Helen in Egypt

H.D.’s Helen in Egypt emerges as a combination of ‘picture writing’ and text (Simpson 67). Through the figure of the mythological Helen of Sparta as her ‘alter ego’ and by breaking any spatiotemporal boundaries, H.D. mentally re-visits the temple of Amen in Egypt as well as that of Thetis in Greece, and re-visualises Helen’s story via the poem’s fragmented, visual mythopoeia, a pictography which imitates the hieroglyphs as well as the images deriving from both temples respectively (Gelpi cited in Hokanson 2016, 332). Furthermore, H.D.’s utilization of the (visual) palimpsest enables her to re-experience Helen’s past by interpreting the ‘hieroglyphlike images’ as well as the images of human figures, objects, and deities depicted in the aforementioned temples through multiple perspectives so as to capture ‘some timeless reality’ that ‘lays beneath the changing visible world’ to invoke Kant’s comment on Cubism (Simpson 67; Kant cited in Cooper 9). By rendering Helen the poet in her poetic text, H.D. offers an alternative way of recovering the past, whereas her use of the palimpsest ‘flattens’ time ‘so that the past is not then but now’, according to Alicia Ostriker, exemplifying how the past can reflect the present and vice versa (28).

Areti Katsigianni (National and Kapodistrian University of Athens)

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