• Adrian J. Boas

On Seeking a Balance

The rock-cut road from the village and quarry at Tarfile to Montfort Castle

The word "nature" refers to all physical existence, though when we speak of nature we are often thinking of life. One of the most haunting images in modern literature is the death of the living environment described in "The Road", a novel by the powerful American author Cormac McCarthy. Although in that novel the culprit behind the apocalypse is not identified, we assume that humanity must in some way be responsible. After all, we often are, and even when we may not be, we tend to assume that we are (consider the various conspiracy theories regarding the ongoing Covid -19 outbreak). The idea that "nature" (meaning the living world) might not be able to survive human intervention is a frightening one. The destruction wrought by man in polluting land and sea, cutting down forests and expanding settlements, is regarded as a threat to nature. But, as terrifying as that image indeed is, to be accurate, a rock is as much "nature" as a plant, a stream as are the fish that live in it. And so too is a man-made wall, and a plastic bottle is no less natural than is an anthill (I am not advocating the production of more plastic, but merely pointing out that even the destructive actions of man, however deplorable, are part of a natural process just as is the spread of cancerous cells in a human body). We talk of nature "recovering" an abandoned settlement or an ancient ruin, as if the ruin is not itself part of a natural phenomenon.

In archaeology, one of the great dilemmas facing a caring person is how to find a balance between exposing and preserving physical evidence of the man-made past while protecting and preserving the living presence, the flora and fauna. In a site like Montfort Castle, which is located in a heavily forested region, the seeking of a delicate balance between the two is a constant issue of concern.

In the past the awareness of what detrimental effects archaeological activity might have on the natural surroundings was of little concern. In the 1926 excavations the disposal of archaeological waste by simply dumping it down the northern and southern slope was regarded as a legitimate thing to do. It took decades for the forest to recover from the damage this caused.

The southern dump of excavated soil at Montfort, 1926 (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

But the forests at Montfort have returned, and no one knows better than an archaeologist working in a setting like this how resilient nature is and how quickly it re-establishes itself. It is remarkable to observe how the metre-high sage bushes and small oak and arbutus trees that we remove one season reappear the following year and within another two years are more or less back to where they had been before we intervened. But if to a degree that rejuvenation pleases us, it is a two-way street. If archaeological activity can and does threaten the natural environment, so too does nature threaten the preservation of archaeological remains. And in few places is this better observed than at Montfort.

It is a constant battle to retain what survives, and often nature proves far too formidable for our efforts. Roots push down from fully developed trees growing in the vaults, finger their way into the dermis and hypodermis of a ruin, push loose the ribs, turn the mortar to powder so that when the rains come whole sections of a wall facing will fall away. We can patch up, cut the trees down, poison them... but a year, maybe two, and they reappear, and within a decade it is as if we have never intervened.

If one is required to fight a losing battle, it should at least be against such beauty.