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'The Roman Road', a poem by Thomas Hardy, speaks of site-specific heritage, obvious within the landscape, so much so that its origin has the potential to be lost. Its existence as a historical object lies in its location, immovable and ironically subtle.


The Roman Road runs straight and bare

As the pale parting-line in hair

Across the heath. And thoughtful men

Contrast its days of Now and Then,

And delve, and measure, and compare;


Visioning on the vacant air

Helmed legionaries, who proudly rear

The Eagle, as they pace again

The Roman Road.


But no tall brass-helmed legionnair

Haunts it for me. Uprises there

A mother's form upon my ken,

Guiding my infant steps, as when

We walked that ancient thoroughfare,

The Roman Road.


The Roman Road (Hardy, 1969).

A Roman road, Great Ridge near Chicklade.

Photo by Andy Gryce (2007), via

When we think about a piece of heritage – monument, building or otherwise – we most likely perceive it in a physical sense. Our first assessments are likely to be made per its appearance, the materials used to make it (and their intrinsic value, for instance that of precious metals), its aesthetic qualities, the setting that it occupies, or even its viability to be curated and used as a source of income. This surface level judgement of rather subjectively conferred qualities is of course valid, though it can be troublesome when levels of heritage status are awarded based solely on these thoughts alone. We and our predecessors will almost certainly look back on previous choices with regrets and resolutions, to see what is, effectively, a portrait of ourselves, illustrated through our actions.


It may be wiser to place our emphasis on criteria that focus on understanding, rather than gauging value and worthiness of what deserves a ‘heritage’ gold star. Of course, we need to be able to triage what to preserve, leave to decay, or deconstruct, but to limit this to a rigid heritage construct might not be the answer to how we decipher our past and conserve things for our future.


After all, the identity of a heritage object seems to extend far past a purely material existence. Multiple variables play into this. One is perhaps the reason for why the object came to be perceived as ‘heritage’ in the first place - whether it is recognised for its role in the present or the past - for instance a church actively maintained as a place of worship, or an excavated Roman settlement. Both certainly seem to fit nicely inside the label, but vary in their levels of material presence, mythologies, and relevancy to the present day. What would change If these variables shifted in a more extreme way? We might use the example of a site or artefact with far less material presence – perhaps the remains of a Neolithic settlement, only visible to an astute archaeologist analysing the colour of the soil around it. The physical evidence of the site’s existence has certainly decreased, but even in its shadowy state, it is as much a part of our past as any bolder and more obvious landmark. Arguably, it is perhaps more worthy of the ‘heritage’ label, having survived through the ages and giving us a deeper realisation into our ancestors than any Victorian house ever could.

There is a tension that arises, between objects as things that hold material value to us, versus those that are of worth because of the information that they hold. A dilemma within archaeology, an ever-occurring example of this, is whether to preserve objects by removing them from an excavated site, or to make them stable in situ. In removing the object from the site, we automatically disrupt the elements of historical evidence it possesses. For example, the soil surrounding it, mixed with mineral and organic deposits, is inevitably lost when the object is removed and put in a museum. The original data and context of its location and environment is gone; it is displaced. Museums are not so much displays of historical documents – the accuracy required for this has dissipated – but more presentations of aesthetic objects, veiled in a reconstruction of the historical.



Excavation work on Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic proto-city settlement (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in southern Anatolia, Turkey. 

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak (2019) on Unsplash.

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