Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair

by Thomas O’Dwyer

The Parthenon Marbles. From 1801 to 1812 the 7th Earl of Elgin removed half of the surviving sculptures on the Parthenon in Athens and moved them to England.
The Parthenon Marbles. From 1801 to 1812 the 7th Earl of Elgin removed half of the surviving sculptures on the Parthenon in Athens and moved them to England.

A British government decision to build a road tunnel near the prehistoric site of Stonehenge in the south of England has stirred up a hornets’ nest of protest, certain to grow louder and noisier when construction work begins. Archaeologists and environmentalists are among those leading the growing resistance to the 3-km Stonehenge road tunnel. Public sentiment against any attempt by governments or commercial interests to threaten heritage sites can be visceral and powerful. Some people claimed in online posts to have felt physically ill when they heard reports that the Islamic State (ISIS) intended to destroy the magnificent ruins of Palmyra in Syria.  Each year before the pandemic, over one million tourists visited Stonehenge to see the huge rock formations erected by Neolithic builders around 5000 years ago. The ring of standing stones, each 4 metres high, 2 metres wide, and weighing 25 tonnes, is the centrepiece of the unique historic site but it also stands in a complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments that include several hundred burial mounds.

That is why Druids, environmentalists and archaeologists have greeted the decision with anger and dismay. They predict that protesters will arrive from around the world to denounce the project. Remarkably, a minor local story about a road project in an obscure English county is making its way into headlines around the globe. This demonstrates that the British government is not the only one that must tread warily when it attempts to lay a grubby commercial hand on treasured items of national heritage. Public opinion may be fickle on many topics yet it seems universally united on the need to protect global cultural heritage – and this passion attracts curious attention from experts as diverse as psychoanalysts, sociologists, philosophers, and authors.

Prof David Jack from the University of Buckingham told Sky News that the road project would “clearly compromise the archaeology” in the area around the standing stones. “Stonehenge is precious for the whole of humanity,” he said. “It is important for our understanding of how we have adapted and developed as a species since the ice age.” Archaeologists opposed to the scheme do not fear damage to the site itself, but they say when the bulldozers move in, they will destroy thousands of artefacts and unknown quantities of scientific information. In June, archaeologists discovered a large ring of shafts within the world-heritage site only a short distance from the stones, and experts say this proves there remains much to be discovered about the life and times of those who built Stonehenge.

Palmyra was a different level of vandalism. In the two years before the Syrian army recaptured it from ISIS in March 2017, the Islamists had ravaged up to 30 percent of the site, including the famous Lion of Al-Lat and other statues, and the temple of Baalshamin. World outrage over the assault on the antiquities was almost as loud as anger over the Islamic State’s murderous atrocities against people it conquered. This powerful, almost maternal, concern for crumbling ruins and mouldy old rocks is not only mysterious, but relatively modern, and many analysts have tried to unravel the complex emotions that underpin the universal appeal of ancient human wreckage.

Sigmund Freud was an amateur archaeologist when the science and his own practice of psychoanalysis were both in their infancy and rising in popularity. Both Freud and those who wrote about him made allusions to archaeology as a metaphor for psychoanalysis. This saw the analyst attempting to understand a human personality by reconstructing and rearranging fragments of memory. Freud’s collecting of antiquities was spontaneous and unclassified, not seriously systematic. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote that “it is invariably oneself that one collects.” For Freud the habit did not aim to authenticate the past but, like psychoanalysis, it enabled him to understand how personality changes in the present. In a letter to a friend he wrote: “I have made many sacrifices for my collection of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities, and have read more archaeology than psychology.”

In his most explicit mention of an archaeological approach to analysis, Freud wrote: “The procedure is one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer, and we like to compare it with the technique of excavating a buried city.” In an essay, Psychoanalysis of Ruins, by Dylan Trigg, the author explores Freud’s constant references to archaeology as a metaphor. “Why the image of the ruin? What can you tell us about psychoanalysis?… If Freud’s concern is with the ruins of classical Rome and Athens, then how can psychoanalysis contend with the contemporary ruins of Detroit and Chernobyl?”

Trigg hints that in Freud’s view, the emotion that underpins our affair with the remnants of human history is not love or nostalgia but anxiety. In the 1930s, when Freud visited Greece for the first time, he penned a remarkable description of his reaction on arriving at the Acropolis. “So this all really does exist, just as we learned in school!” His unexpected disbelief that such a place as the Acropolis really existed denied him any pleasure or joy in the visit. He described his feelings as dejection, a feeling of estrangement, melancholic anxiety.

Could it be that we allow ruins to remind us that anything we build is temporary, inducing anxiety over our own mortality? In Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias “a traveller from an antique land” ponders trunkless stone legs and a pedestal lying in the desert sand – a ruined statue of the great Pharoah Rameses II (Ozymandias in Greek). The sight sparks the same sad anxiety that engulfed Freud on the Acropolis.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The Parthenon at least outlasted the faith that built it, but the “half sunk, shattered visage,” of Rameses II did not. “At the house of the coward we stand to point at the ruins of where the hero’s house used to be,” says an African tribal proverb. In America, a land singularly devoid of ancient ruins, the photographer and sociologist Camilo José Vergara suggested in the 1990s that Detroit should preserve its mostly empty urban centre as a “ruins park.” In American Ruins, he wrote: “The vacant buildings would become a habitat for peregrine falcons and intrepid plants. The prairie would reseed the city streets. People would gather to witness a memorial to a disappearing urban civilisation.” In building anything, we dare nature to resume her rights, as she has done in spectacular fashion at Chernobyl. The abandoned city has become overgrown and many types of animals live there – experts estimate that more mammals live there now than before the 1986 nuclear disaster.

When there is a sudden outcry over ISIS’ vandalism in Palmyra or the Taliban’s destruction of ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan, it reminds us that besides these fixed artefacts there are also mobile antiquities which find themselves at the centre of intermittent storms. The most famous of these are the Elgin Marbles, the Greek sculptures and architectural fragments that were originally part of the Parthenon in Athens. When the Ottomans occupied Greece, British Ambassador Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin, had the marbles removed and taken back to England. The theft was so blatant it outraged not only the people of Greece but many in Britain too. Among them was the vocal poet and politician Lord Byron who publicly accused Elgin of vandalism and looting. Parliament exonerated Elgin, who then conveniently and profitably sold the marbles to the government, for the British Museum. Byron died in Greece, a tragic hero who joined its fight for independence.

When Greece became free, Britain did not return the marbles and the row over ownership still continues, occasionally erupting into a minor diplomatic war. The Elgin marbles remain on display at the British Museum in London. Other Western museums are increasingly being theft-shamed because of their long collusion in colonialist looting. Besides the Elgin marbles, the British Museum displays thousands of stolen items from the former British Empire. Among them is the Rosetta Stone, removed from Egypt and used to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the giant Easter Island statue, Hoa Hakananai’a. The museum has rejected all official requests to repatriate them.

France and Germany also hold vast treasures taken from their former colonies in Africa. America may not have had an empire, but it has also done its share of shameless looting. In the 1960s thieves smuggled over 50 pieces of Byzantine silver artefacts out of Turkey and into the United States. Despite repeated requests for the return of the now scattered collection, known as the Kumluca Treasure, those museums holding the pieces – the Getty Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Harvard University Library – have not even bothered to respond to the claims. The New York Met has suffered many blows to its reputation since the end of the last century. A series of allegations and lawsuits have accused it of being an institutional buyer of stolen antiquities. The governments of Italy and Turkey won lawsuits for the repatriation of artefacts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Luigi Palma de Cesnola was the U.S. consul in Cyprus in the late 19th-century and used his consular office to strip the country of a staggering 35,000 items of antiquity. This serial looter sold his collection to the then-new Metropolitan of New York. The museum appointed him its director, a post he held until his death in 1904. Cyprus is one of the oldest Greek civilisations in the eastern Mediterranean. It had links to every empire that passed through it – from Phoenician to Venetian, Turkish and British. But it is a small island and Cesnola’s marauding robbed it of an astonishing heritage of national treasures. The Cyprus government insists Cesnola looted the island for personal gain, but it has shown no inclination to agitate for repatriation. As for the Met, its own documentation, titled The Cesnola Collection, casts a rosy glow over the true story of Cesnola’s predations in Cyprus – an odd attitude for an institution dedicated to disseminating historical facts.

The abuse of ruins and antiquities seems to agitate even those whom one might think were uninterested in such things. Few of those who wrote that the Islamist destruction of Palmyra made them feel sick would have ever contemplated going to Syria to visit the site. Perhaps, like Freud in Athens, that Palmyra really existed might even surprise them. Many (myself included) who have raged in print against the British holding hostage part of Greece’s ancient heritage have never bothered to visit the British Museum to see the Elgin marbles. “Yet we are so often drawn to the sight of what is broken, damaged and decayed,” writes Susan Stewart in her splendid book published earlier this year, The Ruins Lesson.

Her book is a wide cultural history that uncovers a growing Western awareness of the allegorical power of classical ruins – mainly since the Renaissance, through an 18th-century reimagining of the past, to the 19th-century Romantics reinventing it. But for all the history, metaphor and allusions, an inescapable fact remains – if you build it, it will fall. It is our fate to live among the ruins of our past, even as we create the ruins of our children’s futures. Humanity fell and scattered from the ruins of the Tower of Babel; our descendants will muse over the ruins of Trump Tower. Susan Stewart quotes the Roman poet Lucan – “a legend clings to every stone” – and retells his account in Pharsalia of Julius Caesar’s own melancholy visit to the fallen walls of Troy:

Envious of its ancient glory, Caesar visited the sands of Sigeum and the stream of Simois, Rhoeteum famous for the Greek Ajax’s grave, and the dead who owe so much to Homer’s verse. He walked the burnt city of Troy, now only a famous name, and searched for the mighty remains of the wall that Apollo raised. Now barren woods and rotting tree-trunks grow over the palace of Assaracus, and their worn-out roots clutch the temples of the gods, and Pergama is covered over with thorn-brakes: the very ruins themselves have been destroyed.

Caesar, whose own mighty Rome is now a ruined tourist trap and stray-cats home, cannot avoid desecrating the legendary sites of Troy out of ignorance. Like some modern backpacker, he walks through a scruffy grass patch and a local resident asks him “not to walk over the body of Hector.” He kicks through some scattered stones only to be told they are sanctified and were part of the altar of Zeus Herceos, where King Priam himself worshipped.  Lucan, a boy-genius who died aged 25 in 65 AD, assures the long-dead Caesar that he need not envy those famed ancient heroes of Troy because his own fame would live on in Lucan’s poetry. “Posterity shall read my verse and your deeds; my Pharsalia shall live on, and no age will ever doom us to oblivion.”

It is a recurring irony of ruins that they silently remind us of our brief time in a sliver of light between the two infinite voids – before birth and after death. Yet the names of many humans outlive the oldest ruins. We still read Gilgamesh and Homer, and we are familiar with tens of thousands of legendary names from Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Israel, Greece, India, China, Rome. Stewart writes that no artists held to this promise of permanence, and even immortality, more tenaciously than poets, like Lucan. They believed (and were right) that their works could outlast the marble monuments on which they sometimes were inscribed. In 23 BC, the Roman poet Horace also famously claimed such powers in his Odes Book III:

I have built a monument that outlasts bronze,
And the pyramids of ancient royal kings.
The north wind raging cannot scatter it
Nor can the rain obliterate this work,
Nor can the years, nor can the ages passing.
Some part of me will live.

William Shakespeare was another poet who followed Lucan and Horace in promising humans an immortality unknown to ruins, not just for himself, but for those he wrote about:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Archaeologists believe the ring of standing stones was constructed from 3000-2000 BC.
Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Archaeologists believe the ring of standing stones was constructed from 3000-2000 BC.