Jonathan Glancey column

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The Independent Culture
The discovery of Aristotle's Lyceum underneath a car park near the War Museum in central Athens has been greeted with a yawn by those for whom archaeology has become tarred with the Heritage brush. One commentator poo-poohing the fragments of building uncovered, called them "cultural dung". We have Aristotle's works (well, a fragment of them) and we live in his philosophical shadow, and that should be enough. Who cares what the Lyceum looked like? Let a thousand car parks bloom.

I understand this feeling. After all, we've been swamped in recent years by heritage culture and racked by what appears to be a virulent and incurable dose of nostalgia. Everything old is better than everything new and ancient is even better than merely old.

In British cities, an archaeological dig can hold up the construction of even the most desirable new building for many months. The wait, however, is often well worth it. The Lyceum dig in Athens may yet prove to be revelatory and rather more than a repository of broken columns and shattered urns.

As a note of caution, I offer the story of Henry VIII's "privy gallery" at Hampton Court Palace. Excavated in 1939, the gallery was shown to house a rather stylish sunken bathtub in a room decorated with glazed tiles, many depicting royal heraldry. Henry VIII's cultural dung was interesting, but not especially so.

Recently, David Gaimster of the British Museum noted that the "privy chamber" lacked windows, and thus conventional ventilation, and that the colourful tiles appeared to have come from a large stove that would have kept the king's bath water very hot indeed. Big boiler, no windows. Gaimster put two and two together and came to the conclusion that Henry's was a Turkish steam bath. "What's unusual," he said, "was finding these bath features together in the king's private apartment. Their presence destroys the myth of the Tudors being of questionable personal habits."

In other words, a fresh look at the sunken and splintered architecture of a Tudor palace had turned at least one small historical commonplace or cliche - the Tudor court stunk - on its head. The observer who looks at an archaeological site and sees only dung and tedium is missing a trick. As each year passes we learn more about the way architecture framed the lives of those before us and the meaning of ancient buildings. Simply to have the books of a famous author is not enough.

I find the discovery of Aristotle's Lyceum exciting, yet cannot abide heritage culture. Heritage culture makes the past too precious. It leads to theme parks and to new buildings designed in unconvincing and often embarrassing historical garb. Archaeology offers us the chance of exploring and understanding our past without the onus to copy it. I enjoy visiting buildings that, confident in the architecture of their own age, reveal layer on layer of historical depth. The catacombs below Roman churches spring to mind. So, too, does St Peter's tomb (or what purports to be the apostle's last resting place), secreted many yards below the choir of the great Renaissance basilica that bears his name. Closer to home are the Roman ruins underneath Wren's St Bride's, the Fleet Street church with the wedding-cake spire. The list is long.

Latter-day Athenians are mad keen on cars (as long as they spew thick black smoke), and I wouldn't be surprised if Aristotle's school is swept beneath a less than philosophical, and decidedly unclassical temple to accommodate clapped-out Mercedes-Benzes rather than the finest flowering of Grecian youth.

With luck, a beautiful new school will be built over the long-sought- after site with a stair leading down to the "discovery" below. This would allow us to live in the modern world while educating our successors and learning from the past. If the British Heritage lobby was posted in charge of the Athenian dig, it would turn the place into a mawkish museum, complete with coach park, interpretation centre, cafe, souvenir shop and "toilet facilities". Now, this really would be cultural dungn

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