On an Archaeologist's View of the Doorway
Alice: I simply must get through!
Doorknob: Sorry, you're much too big. Simply impassible.
Alice: You mean impossible?
Doorknob: No, impassible. Nothing's impossible.
Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland
It is, after all, merely a doorway. But doorways are potent things. They lead to the unknown and make us wonder what lies beyond. If we use them, we are inevitably given an answer, if not always one we expect.
Doors to public or private places can have great significance, and it matters not how they appear physically, or whether they are real or imagined. Consider the significance of the door into the University of Mississippi for the American civil rights activist, James Meredith. Think of the emotions experienced by any newly elected prime-minister entering for the first time the iconic but rather ordinary Georgian door of Number 10 Downing Street, or the significance that the south portal in the Church of Saint Pierre, Moissac with its dramatic Romanesque tympanum must have had for any unlettered pilgrim standing before it in the Middle Ages. Doors in literature are often vital to the plot, and frequently mark the opening of an adventure. On a more intimate level, consider our humble, personal door, the door to our own house. We reach it at the end of the day with an awareness that by passing through we are entering into our own private world, one that is familiar and for most of us a place of security. When we leave it in the mornings, we emerge into a less certain space.
We generally pass through doors without any thought at all, but there are doors we stand on the threshold of in trepidation. There are doors in my life that I have dreaded passing through. Frozen in my memory is the fear of entering a doorway into a large and crowded white room, my hand in my mother’s gentle but firm grasp, a row of mothers and crying children ahead, all about to be inoculated against polio. At the cemetery when my mother died, I feared to enter the open door into the dismal room where her body was waiting, wrapped, damp and cold, abandoned by her presence. I held back but only for a moment. It had to be done. I recall being seated outside the school principal's door, fearing the moment I would be called to pass through. And I have always felt a slight misgiving on taking the step across that tiny gap between the airport sleeve and the door of an airplane. But doors must be passed through. We can neither enter life, nor go anywhere in it if we remain outside, and our knowledge that passing through might bring disaster cannot deter us.
A doorway in a ruin presents two realities of time - that of the present and that of the past. We recognise this duality even before we enter, for if we have some imagination, and most people do, we not only observe what we actually see, but we imagine it as it once was, before it was a ruin, a door leading into a hall, a stairway, a passage, out into a courtyard. And we can imagine who might have used it, what events might have taken place beyond it, and we can imagine what has happened to it from the moment it was made to this very moment in time. But it also leaves us in the present, to observe what is actually there to be seen now - a doorway of stone, or wood or iron, standing, or in a state of ruin, open or blocked.
Take a look at the grey, tenebrous image above. It is well-constructed, but knocked about, the finely cut and well-joined stones are battered, and those loose on the ground speak of things that have happened here - violent things, battles perhaps, or earthquakes. We have to step over them and the space beyond is dark, foreboding. What might be lurking in the shadows? And there are other questions - Who built it and why? Who passed through it and what were they thinking? Was it abandoned in battle or did its occupants flee in advance of an attack? And how did the damaged we see before us happen, at what time and by whom or by what cause? And what happened here after it was abandoned? Often enough these questions remain as unfathomable as the space we see beyond this doleful arch.
If I think of all the significant doors I have known through my career as an archaeologist, I would consider perhaps that the eastern gateway to the Templar castle of Vadum Iacob (Jacob's Ford) was perhaps the one that has the most ignited my imagination. For, as we excavated it, we saw unfold before us the drama of what took place in those few days at the end of August 1179. Saladin had the fortress, still under construction at the time, surrounded and attacked from the south and east before eventually undermining the northern wall. The first effort was to burn down the doors, and as we excavated to the threshold stones of the gate we uncovered a layer of ash and charcoal, and dozens of rusty iron nails, remains of the wooden doors that had probably only just been set up in the walls of this unfinished fortification. Behind us, through the thickness of the wall and just beyond the gate passage, the defenders had responded to the burning of the doors by hastily constructing a curved barricade of unworked stones. Sheltering behind it they fired through the now open doorway against the approaching enemy, though they could probably not see him as the slope is quite steep on this side down to the river below. As we worked, in the heat and dust of this mid-summer day eight centuries later, it was not difficulty to imagine the scene - the hiss of a constant shower of arrows, the shouting of the men, the smell of smoke and perspiration, and palpable fear and indecision that must have been in their minds as to whether to hold their ground of seek shelter further back in the heart of the castle.