Tom Mayes is the author of Why ancient places matter: how historic places affect our identity and well-being (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018).
Why are old places important to people? Why should ancient places be important to historians or to the general public that historians serve? What can we learn from the continued existence of ancient places in our communities and in our nation? Why does it matter if we save these old places or if we don’t?
There are many reasons why ancient places are important, from memory to civic identity, history, architecture, beauty, economy. While even the fourteen reasons I name in Why Old Places Matter do not fully reflect all the many meanings old places have for people, for History News Network readers I would like to highlight one main idea: old places. give us an understanding of history that no other document or evidence can.
On Civil War battlefields like Antietam, historians and visitors alike can understand how a slight increase in the lay of the land can mean victory or defeat, and how one division was lost, while another survived. In homes and studios of artists like Chesterwood, the home of Daniel Chester French, who sculpted the Seated Lincoln, one can understand how a certain quality of light, or a clear view of the mountain, or the ticking of clock, could inspire a painting, poem or sculpture – and can inspire visitors today.
At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, we can understand something deeply visceral about the narrow, dark, and overcrowded life of emigrants in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
And in often poorly constructed dirt floor slave dwellings, we can try to glean some idea of the reality of human bondage that we cannot understand from documents alone. We experience ancient places with all our senses, like a total body immersion, and because of this, we understand different aspects of history as it has been lived.
It would be enough. But I believe these old places play a bigger role. The continued existence of these ancient places can foster a deeper understanding of the story that tells a fuller and truer story.
Yes, these places can be manipulated to convey a particular point of view, such as how, for many years, the reality of slavery was not recognized in plantation homes, or Native American perspectives did not. not expressed in the border forts, or the way countless workers have been left out of history altogether. One of the reasons people were not recognized is that their place was often not recognized, valued and retained. These are the places that were easy to erase – to be paved with highways, sports stadiums and urban renewal. Many have literally been erased from our landscape and our memory.
It is easier to claim that slavery was benevolent if the reality of the poor living conditions of slave dwellings does not confront visitors. Or that social unrest did not take place if the places where it did occur were bulldozed. Erasing places can be used to hide truths that cannot be hidden if the place survives. Recognition of sites by the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund works as an act of social justice. As one descendant of the Chinese-American builders of an 1850s Taoist temple in Mendocino, California told me, the fact that the place exists – an 1850s Taoist temple – tells everyone that “we were here ”.
If the place survives, it can also become the vortex and place of understanding of our evolving civic and national identity. The places we choose to safeguard or not reflect our identity. This is why we see important places for “the enemy” being targeted in times of conflict, such as the Mostar Bridge. The destruction of the old place is equivalent to the destruction of the identity of the group. Ancient places can also be targeted precisely because they tell a deeper, older and different story, such as the Bamiyan Buddhas, which were destroyed because they represented a different religion, or the archaeological sites of Babylon or Palmyra.
I don’t mean to suggest that we can understand everything about history just by experiencing the ancient places where history happened. In fact, I would like to stress a completely different point. These old places matter not only for what they can tell us, but precisely because they raise questions. There are often things about an old building, a battlefield, or a working landscape that will surprise or intrigue us. It could be just an original door, or the carving of initials on glass, or an unexpected elevation in an otherwise flat field, or an unusual place name.
An old place continues to carry memories of other stories that we don’t necessarily understand today, such as how the bones of our ancestors continue to surface in our towns and villages where we thought there were. person buried, or the way a Hebrew letter on an ancient column reminds us that the Jews of Rome were not always forced to live in the ghetto.
These puzzles turn what we thought we knew and help us remember that we can never know everything about the past. These quirks in old places make us less arrogant and remind us to be humble and open as we try to understand the past and what it means to us today.
Ancient places are important because they give us a deeper understanding of the past – an understanding that no other document possibly can, while also reminding us to be humble about what we know.