Layers of history

The geography of human history comes in layers. We are often drawn to the same spots over time for the same reasons, building on what came before – often literally “on”, as in “on top of”. Or we come to the same spot because that’s where the people already are.

laying Ethernet cable, York Minster, September 2012

But the historical layering of my own country, the United States, is thinner than here in Great Britain, especially the layering in the US southwest. It’s reasonable to think I could dig down in my backyard at home and find that my house, built in the 1950s, was the first human habitation built on that spot. You can find places in the Rio Grande Valley that have more layers, especially Pueblo communities. But they’re relatively fewer. So I’ve been fascinated by the historical layering here.

In the east end of York Minster, the great cathedral in northern England, you can go down into a crypt below the church’s eastern end. The church is medieval, built in the 1200s and 1300s (building cathedrals was a long game). The crypt still has the rounded Norman arch work predating the great Gothic minster, and in a hole in the floor you can see down to the footing of a Roman column below. Historic preservation, a relatively recent cultural adaptation in the communities I’ve lived in, has been going on here since the late 1700s.

Upstairs, as our tour guide John (a devotee of history’s layers) explained the 13th century wood case used to hold the clerics’ cloaks, two workmen in bright safety vests crawled the floor on either side. They were feeding Ethernet cable through a channel in the floor that went beneath the cloak case. One of the characteristics of this sort of historical layering is that one does the thing one does today atop the old. So York Minster is still a working church, with the tourists kicked out of the quire for evensong and tours halted for prayer. And Ethernet.


  1. William – We’d planned to see a lot more of York, but were distracted by the minster and spent a good deal of our time there. As a person both unchurched, and from a culture with far less history, it was mesmerizing.

    I assume that’s you in the middle of the old photo?

  2. It’s a bit late now, but maybe worth filing away for future reference, but I’d recommend a visit to Lincoln and Salisbury if you ever get the chance – both for the cathedrals and the layers of history – Salisbury moved though, so some earlier layers are more easily seen.

    Also, if you’re in/near Manchester the MOSI (Museaum of Science and Industry) has quite a good toilet and sewage section. And yes, I’ve recommended it to others as well, not just you because of your interests 😉

    Great post by the way. It’s always interesting to read what knowledgeable visitors say and notice.

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