GARDEN ARCHAELOGY


Wooden recreation of an ancient Egyptian garden.

Pavillion at Qianglong gardens. Photo by Etti bonn-Muller.

Gardens are ephemeral. Few are handed down from generation t generation. In my own block, a three-generation garden had pretty vanished in less than ten years. A block away, the garden of a historical building has also disappeared. Lilacs, peonies, Rx, Doctor Huey, Dr, Van Fleet, Dorothy Perkins, and May Queen roses endure in cemeteries, at abandoned farmhouses and in a few gardens of West Virginia’s Tri-County–, Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan–where I live. That is a good thing. Gardening might have been one of the strongest links shared by the British, Irish, Italian and German, German-Jewish and African immigrants who first built homes in my community once the indigenous had been displaced. These long lived plants tell something of the people who founded Tri-County communities. They tell us that they did more than raise crops, build mills–there were once seventeen of them in my town–and make weapons.
Sure, it is not ancient Egypt or even the more recent mid-eighteenth century Qianlong. Yet, a knowledge of the gardens local folks created we might help us understand our past better. Kathryn Gleason, professor of landscape architecture at Cornell University and founder of http://www.gardenarchaeology.com put it more eloquently in Archaeology Magazine,
Gardens in most times and cultures are the most complex type of “artifact” that we can study. They are both “things” and environments that have been carefully designed to establish the owner’s–or in the case of public gardens, the patron’s–position in political, religious, and social life. Gardens were important to an illiterate audience in telling a visual story, often on many levels, and so were closely connected to ideas of theater. And, of course, gardens tell us a variety of things about people’s relationship to an idea about nature–from a king proving that he can control nature’s forces (often with the help of a specific god) to an individual creating gardens to interact with the natural forces in terms of religious ritual and daily life–the “spirit of a place” as we still say today.”
None of the old roses seen around the Tri-County are old enough to have been around in the colonial era. The Wichuraianas May Queen and Dorothy Perkins, Dr, Huey and Large the Flowering Climber Dr. Van Fleet all date date back to the early Twenthieth Century.
What of the ancient roses such as the Apothecary’s rose? How could they have vanished so utterly? Should they not have hybridized in the wild as they did in Europe and Asia? Old roses are not particularly tender. They are usually vulnerable to viruses. Why have they disappeared where the earlier varieties of lilac and peonies remained?
There seems to be little interest in garden archaeology in the Tri-County. That is understandable. Archaeology itself is hardly the hottest discipline around these parts. Tom Hulce, professor of Archaeology at Shepherdstown’s Shepherd University once said that digging local gardens indiscriminately was the equivalent of burning old books. I plead guilt to the charge. My garden yields clay marbles, fragments of Flow Blue china and rose he headed nails. I would it would yield clues to its horticultural history just as readily.

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