The discoveries within were neither proper time capsules nor fortunate enough to have tombstones, like this one in Sacramento, California, marking their resting place. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Humans quite literally build upon our own history and forget it.
In the more understandable cases, natural disasters wash away chunks of our past. As a representative example, after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, the city of Pompeii was covered in layers of volcanic material and lost to the world for over a millennium. There is nothing we could have done about it; Pompeii and its people were physically under layers upon layers of ash and abandoned.
In most situations, however, we simply move on technologically, socially, and historically much too quickly to clean up and make note of our messes. We lose track of what we’ve created, built, or seen. And as a group, we only inefficiently rewrite them into our history years later, when by chance we find random bits of ourselves in these inadvertent, accidental time capsules.
This happens anytime a place thick with historical significance, which is almost everywhere, needs updating. But in places where modernization happens the quickest, generally in cities, the unearthing of these physical memories is surprisingly common.
Take London, a place notoriously steeped in its own history. Two weeks ago, findings from a 2003 excavation in the city were released. Preceding construction on the expanded St. Pancras railway station, archaeologists uncovered something as grim as it was slightly strange. From the old burial ground at St. Pancras Church came 1500 bodies, the vestiges of several epidemics that haunted the city almost two centuries ago. Among the human remains? A series of walrus bones in a coffin.
Image via Flickr / CC.
It wasn’t a whole walrus, if that makes it easier to believe. The excavators found only nine bone fragments. Further examination would reveal that it was a Pacific Walrus.
We have no records telling us how or why these bones got mixed in among those of humans. The hypothesis, supported by bone markings, is that the walrus may have been a dissection project for medical students from centuries past. Seems like a reasonable explanation, no?
But why just one walrus? Why weren’t there other non-human bones stowed in this cemetery? Why were the bones mixed in with human bones in a coffin, anyway? There are greater mysteries in the world, however, and we will probably never know how or why the walrus got there.
Another city steeped in its historical milieu is Edinburgh. In the 1980s, in a plot that sounds straight out of a spy movie, a rugby player named Norrie Rowan was attempting to help another rugby player escape the Romanian secret police. While searching for an escape route, Rowan found a tunnel that led to what are now known as the Edinburgh Vaults, an abandoned series of labyrinthine chambers rotting away under South Bridge.
Construction on the vaults began in 1785. In order to make the most of the space, “floors and ceilings were built beneath blocked-in arches constructing dark, airless, vaulted chambers.” The original intended use was as storage for the businesses that had planted themselves aboveground on South Bridge. But problems--poor ventilation, flooding, lack of sanitation--very quickly arose, and other general bleakness led to a widespread commercial abandonment of these spaces by 1795.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The vaults took on a brief second life, however, as tenement housing for the poorest of Edinburgh’s population. But these people, who dwelled in other slums before arriving in the vaults, couldn’t take the dark and unhygienic environment either. The vaults were completely abandoned sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, clogged with rubble, and blotted out of memory.
Since their rediscovery in the 1980s, the vaults have become a major tourist attraction, though the two different halves of the chamber series serve different purposes. On one side, a cavernous and disorientingly beautiful space called The Caves has opened, operating as a venue for special events. On the other, tourists are dragged into ghost tours, which from personal experience are a bit lackluster, though they seem to have great SEO because it’s difficult to find non-haunting related material regarding the vaults online.
The United Kingdom is an unsurprising source for these sorts of findings. But San Francisco, a city marked by its brisk pace of innovation, also holds some subterranean secrets. In the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, many people arrived via boat in search of new lives. What is now known as the Financial District was then “a shallow landing area for small ships intersected by a dozen wharves used to offload cargo from larger vessels moored in the deeper waters off shore.”
As the city briskly developed, it was too inconvenient to get rid of the ships. Some were used as jails, as in the case of the Euphemia, and other establishments while still others were simply built over. As a result, finding boats underground in San Francisco is not unusual.
Photo via Flickr / CC.
Most recently, in late July, construction crews exhumed a 23-foot wooden boat under Folsom Street in the SoMa neighborhood. According to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, the boat is a lighter, which shuttled supplies from larger boats to land.
The lighter is one of the smaller ships to be exhumed from modern streets. In 2005, a 100-foot long specimen, the Candace, was also found under Folsom Street. In 2001, the General Harrison, which was around 126 feet in length, was discovered at the intersection between Battery Street and Clay Street in preparation for hotel construction. This ship was built over anew, but to be sure she wouldn't disappear into the annals of history again a sculpture depicting the underlying structure of the ship was added to the side of the new building. SFGeneology has more information on these and other boats.
The list could go on and on, but you get the idea. Walrus bones, underground tenements, big boats--in no way do these constitute an exhaustive run down. Rather, the three oddities serve a different purpose. While it’s incredible that we would’ve forgotten places like Pompeii or the Roman catacombs, it’s also strange how we could’ve forgotten things as straight up weird as those walrus parts buried in cemeteries, those underground tenements, and those seafaring vessels dug up from the belly of modern cities. What's more is that these examples are comparatively recent. It is easier to understand how buried items get forgotten over millenia, but all of this memory loss occured within the past two and a half centuries.
Our collective memories are nevertheless mottled with huge gaps, something made all the more apparent through accidental discoveries. The upside? Years down the road, we'll likely stumble upon something odd during excavation work. We'll be simultaneously perplexed and amused at how the hell we forgot that in the first place, which is sort of magical and instructive in and of itself.