Like a good detective story: why places are layered with history

Places, History & Memory

Layers of time, layers of history: we’re mostly familiar with the idea that we can peel back a place’s present to reveal its past. But what kinds of layers do places have, and what kinds of histories do we uncover?

The physical traces of the past are all around us. All of our interactions with places change their topologies and mark their surfaces. The inscriptions of previous activities and uses are written in the fading paint of wharf numbers or the small husks of old farmhouses in a landscape, the closed door of a former nightclub or the overgrown trail of an abandoned road. We also leave behind erratic constellations of objects, from peeling flybills from last year’s concerts to shards of metal from the factory that stood here half a century ago; from fridge mountains to ancient archaeological artefacts. Literally embedded in place, these physical inscriptions and objects are a compelling way of drawing out narratives of the past. As archaeologist Lisa Hachi Randisi notes, it takes very little to conjure up people of the past and their lives: a toothbrush from 100 years ago, left behind by a family who couldn’t pay the rent, or horseshoes buried in the foundations of a house, perhaps for luck.

Places also have intangible traces of history. Personal memories and recollections reveal nuanced accounts of human relationships to place: how we live in and use places, how we love them and loathe them, how they occupy various positions in our symbolic worlds. From the hope and optimism that accompanied the installation of a new monument in medieval times, to the hundreds of factory workers who staged a protest there in the 50s, to that spot where you were standing two years ago when you got that life-changing phone call: every place has a fine tissue of human memory where new layers are continually being laid down.

In both cases, the process of uncovering history is itself part of the narrative. As Lisa says, “digging adds an extra dimension to your storytelling, because now you also have that layer of rediscovering.” Revealing this process complicates the story, but can also enable transparency about where histories are coming from and how they’ve been assembled. Like a good detective story, it’s also a magnet for curiosity.

History may be an attractive concept in placemaking, but it’s important too not to romanticise it. Academic Tricia Austin reminds us that not all histories are great; some stories are difficult, bleak, objectionable or tedious, some memories are painful, and some traditions are best left forgotten.

Our way of thinking about the past typically assumes that it’s people remembering places — but could it be the other way around? In Anne Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces, the Greek geologist and poet Athos Roussos advises his young protege to “try to be buried in ground that will remember you”. In many other cultures, places are living things. Perhaps places have their own kind of memory or agency; could it be a two-way relationship?

Read the full interview with Lisa Randisi on, or send us your own memories of place.