Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Archaeology at the Drive In Theater

If you knock around assorted Roman sites for a while you find recurring themes. The Roman Empire was in many cases literally the foundation upon which Western Civilization was built.  So seeing what was left over after the Fall - the Detritus of Empire - fascinates me.

In many instances Roman structures were repurposed to a latter and lesser age.  Theaters and amphitheaters were reinforced and became fortresses. Streets and public buildings became out door markets where rustics bartered their wares.

Oddly in the modern age this sort of thing still happens.

Drive in theaters were a distinctive feature of American life in the post WWII era.  They combined automobile culture, suburban expansion and a classic era in cinema.  You loaded up the car, perhaps with a few extra kids hiding in the trunk, and settled in at dusk for a long night of watching movies and the opposite sex.

Almost all the drive in theaters are gone now.  The land they were on got too valuable.  The seasonal nature of the business in many climes was difficult.  (Probably) movies got worse.  Certainly they became more available elsewhere....first in mall multiplexes then on your VCR and now on Netflix.

One recent morning I went to a flea market in Florida.  It was on the site of a classic drive in.  The Northside was built in 1949, enjoyed the boom then limped along for decades.  Here it is today...

The asphalt roadways snake back and forth.  These were the parking stalls in its earlier life, now it is where the flea market vendors park their pickup trucks and set up their tables.  There are various levels of fading paint from the row and stall markers from both eras.  And of course beyond we have the screen.

But first lets check out the snack bar.  This looks to be 1970s to me but perhaps turquoise was a popular color on the Florida Gulf before and after that ill styled decade.  Nice round curves to the building and of course up top we have the projection booths.  The apertures for the projectors are still in place in those narrow vertical windows.

The big screen.  It has certainly seen better days.  That fringe of stuff on the top and on the right side is foliage growing right out of it.  Curious of course, I had to have a peek behind.

It was more substantial than I had predicted.  That is a cinderblock support building behind it, and on the sides you can see some big steel pipes.  In my part of the world drive in screens were simple affairs made from wood.  This puzzled me for a moment but then I remembered, oh yes, hurricanes.

It had such a familiar look to it, one that recalled Roman theaters I had seen in southern France.  Of course there are only so many ways to build a theater but note the similarities between the Northside screen and the equivalent structure (called a Scaenae by the way) at Orange in France.

And as to reuse of a place for a low end market it brought to mind one of my first years excavating at the Vindolanda site in northern England.  The granaries were the most substantial buildings in the place and the main fort road went right in front of them.  During the time when the fort was in Roman operation the buildings and road would have been swept clean and been a place for orderly and official business.  But in the Dark Ages things went to pot. The granary became a feasting hall for some local chieftain.  And the street out front became a market where low value coins of a vanished Empire seem to have remained in use a while, until at last they had such minimal value that nobody would bother to pick them up when they fell onto the mud and filth covered roadway.

My better half advised me that taking pictures of the flea market wares was bad manners unless I was buying.  But when I look at the peculiar array of items present - and you know some of them drop to the ground every market day - archaeologists of the far future are going to be very, very confused about this site!

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