July 10, 2005

Archaeology In Public

London will have this neat archaological display from the Middle Ages on permanent display in a new office building in the city. Rather than raze the ruins or stop the development, the remnants of a medieval charnel house will be on permanent display to the public.

A rare, medieval charnel house will go on public display for the first time in 300 years this month in a visually striking reminder of the past beneath our feet.

The 14th century bone store has been preserved and incorporated in the heart of a multi-million-pound office and retail development.
Dan Cruickshank in the Spitalfields charnel house

Visitors and office workers will be presented with the stark contrast of a vaulted crypt dating back almost 700 years set immediately beneath the glass front of the new headquarters of the law firm Allen & Overy.

Now how, exactly, is this to be accomplished? How do you have a modern office building and a historical site dating back several centuries coexisting together?

The Spitalfields charnel house in central London will be visible from above through ground-level glass panels and from the side via a Norman Foster-designed sunken courtyard containing a small yew tree.

It provides a remarkable window into the history of a site that was the burial place of wealthy inhabitants of Roman Londinium, one of the country's largest hospitals dating back to the late 12th century, a cemetery that has yielded the remains of more than 10,000 medieval Londoners and the market founded in the 17th century.

The 700-year-old building has been removed from English Heritage's buildings at risk register, a list of the nation's most vulnerable grade I and II* buildings and monuments published annually.

Steven Brindle, an English Heritage ancient monument inspector, said: "This is a remarkable design achievement. I really like the metaphorical way it allows an appreciation of the juxtaposition between the past down below and the modern up above."

Yeah, I'll say it is one heck of a juxtaposition. I especially like, though, the observation of the senior architect for the project.

John Drew, a partner at Foster and Partners, and senior architect on the project, said: "I often wonder what it would be like if the ground in London was transparent and we could see the remains of the city's 2,500 years of history beneath our feet.

"I find it rather exciting that someone can be just walking across the square and suddenly find themselves on the glass panels, looking down at 700 years of history."

We Americans do not really appreciate what often lies beneath our feet, because our country is so young. The earliest of the English settlements is only 400 years old, and much of the country is much younger. Little is left of the pre-Columbian period, becaause most of the indigenous people were nomadic or did not build long-lived structures. That means we don't think much of what came before us. the British (and most Europeans), on the other hand, are acutely aware of their history -- and it resonates with them. That is why preserving this charnel house was so important to them.

The medieval bone store was rediscovered in 1999 during excavations by the Museum of London archaeology service for the new development planned at the site.

Working on advice from English Heritage, the Spitalfields Development Group instructed the architects Foster and Partners to incorporate the structure into their scheme.

Dan Cruickshank, a historian and local resident, said: "To ponder the charnel house, below which bodies remain interred, is to confront the beliefs of medieval Londoners. This is a beautiful house of the medieval dead, where bones were preserved against the Day of Judgment when the righteous would enjoy paradise while the damned were consigned to hell."

And so the living and the dead will coexist together in one space. If I ever get to London, this is someplace I would like to see.

» The Education Wonks links with: The Carnival Of Education: Week 23

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» The Education Wonks links with: The Carnival Of Education: Week 23, on July 13, 2005, 02:06 AM
Excerpt: Welcome to the twenty-third edition of The Carnival Of Education. Here we have assembled a variety of interesting and informative posts from around the EduSphere that have been submitted by various authors and readers. As with other editions, those

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