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Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,

And much have they faced there, first and last,

Of the transitory in Earth’s long order;

But what they record in colour and cast

Is—that we two passed.


'At Castle Boterel' (Hardy, 1989).

Photo by Svetlana Sinitsyna (2020) on Unsplash.

When we label something as a piece of heritage, we add an extra piece of context, a significant part of which is innate value that deems it worthy of preservation. In the familiar day to day, we might determine an object or place’s value by the cost of its materials or its practical merits. When we consider heritage, there are other variable which make it distinct: for instance, the notion that something will give us sought after insight into our world and the way in which it’s developed. Past insight is our reaction to history, and so historical value must derive from aging. We can see that age is certainly a key ingredient in how we value heritage.

Significantly aged objects – perhaps significant for their insight into ages about which less is known - are generally valued more highly, or at least in a different way to more recent creations. An uneventful page of a newspaper from last week doesn’t hold the same heritage status as a clipping from a century ago. The two are the same in their purpose, and perhaps even content, and yet we can’t help but see them differently. To take this further, a replica of an artefact, even if it is as close to the original as possible, created with original methods and even decayed to the same extent, can’t quite give us the same amount of authenticity as the original. Ageing embeds data into matter in a way that it is near impossible to control or simulate authentically. This view seems to be centred on attributes within the object (albeit determined by us) projecting value outwards. But what if we were to shift our view in another direction, this time towards value and perception of age as a measure of something that lies within us?

In his essay ‘The Modern Cult Of Monuments: Its Character And Its Origin’ Alois Riegl puts forward a set of theories that addresses this. In its most basic form, his premise determines that ‘age value’ is an immediate view gained from a purely visual inspection of ‘the erosion of surfaces, in their patina, in the wear and tear of buildings and objects, and so forth.’ (Riegl, 1982). Anything that fits our perception of ageing possesses the same value as things that have existed longer and hold ageing properties. Crucially, this is due to what these perceptions evoke in us emotionally. This theory is not an objective blanket over all human thought through the ages, but more so a concept that accommodates the meaning of value changing for us over time as society moves towards being ‘directed by moods and feelings, what [Riegl] called Stimmung than rational thinking.’ (Arrhenius, 2004, p.75).


There is, of course, nothing to say that age is the only thing through which we should determine value: it is only one variable that can prove useful when we consider historical objects and our relationships with them. To take an element of Riegl’s idea, emotional reaction taking president over rationality and data is arguably a more useful way in which to determine what holds value when it comes to our heritage. After all, value is a human idea and at our core, we are emotional beings. While interests and ways of addressing our past change from society to society, the fact that this starts with humans feeling remains. In centuries to come, archaeologists and historians might, instead of trying to decipher and explain a Roman vase, be more interested in a Casio wristwatch. The subject of our caring is always changeable, a portrait of us and our society in the present moment, but the decision to preserve and care for history remains a constant.


Salvaged Roman vases in Pompeii.

Photo by Andrea Woods (2021)on Unsplash.

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