“The ruin is a thing of wonder and romantic grandeur; it inspires poetry, whereas the derelict seems to cry out for burial or demolition. It is the difference between a majestic crumbling beauty and an eyesore, a hazard, or a nuisance… For some of us, a lofty ruin does nothing; we are for the ramshackle and the derelict every time.” – Brian Thill, Waste (Bloomsbury, 2015)
Many archaeologists become interested in the field after childhood seeing images of the famous ruins of ancient civilizations: the temples of Greece or Rome, the pyramids of Egypt or Mexico. But the work of a real‐life archaeologist, especially in southern California, is much different. There are no pyramids or Parthenons in the Mojave, no castles in the Cuyamaca Mountains.
Instead, we’re more likely to find derelicts: the graffitied tanks of an abandoned service station in the Arizona high desert; a dilapidated house and trailer on the shore of the Salton Sea; a deserted ranch in the Palo Verde Valley; a barely‐upright shack in Rainbow. In the West, many of these types of ruins reside away from the cities, where sprawl has yet to reach or redevelopment has yet to reconquer.
But archaeologists can learn much from these structures, things too pedestrian to have been written down or important only to the occupants. The construction methods and materials used can inform us of settlement patterns and trade networks. We’re able to directly see the results of environmental challenges, and often the consequent responses and failures. We may even learn from the graffiti added later, by others who saw a unique canvas on which to leave their mark.
While most archaeologists will still be awed by the grandeur of classical ruins, most of us have an outsized appreciation for “the ramshackle and the derelict” as well.
“Brian Thill’s book Waste is part of the Object Lessons series by Bloomsbury Press, a series about the hidden lives of ordinary things. Other entries include Drone, Glass, and Phone Booth, among others. For more information, click here.
Mr. Mengers is a Registered Professional Archaeologist (RPA) and Historian (DPPH) with experience focused in Southern California. As PanGIS’ senior historian, he is well versed in historical resources and built environment and is on the San Diego County’s CEQA list for approved Cultural Resource Professionals. He is an expert in the identification, recording, and evaluation of historic structures/objects, historic artifact identification, and conducting archival research on historic properties and neighborhoods.