It is nearly 40 years since I struggled along the twisting national road alongside Spain’s Atlantic coast. My green and white Austin A40 cantankerously resisted acceleration on three-star leaded petrol, so I recall vividly the interminable haul out of Bilbao, stuck behind battered trucks belching fumes. I was on the trail of Early Medieval ceramics. This labour of love was mitigated by the prospect of reaching Santiago de Compostela in early spring, and returning to France by way of Pamplona (in time to witness the running of the bulls). As for the ceramics, these proved elusive: I found strong negative evidence of connections with southern England (i.e. absolutely nothing), while enjoying baccalà with heavy local wines.
Flying into Bilbao today, arriving at its bijou airport (designed by Santiago Calatrava) then descending into the city, all has changed. The airport is my first introduction to the Basque boom of the 1990s, monumentalised in numerous public buildings. The highway is orderly and the trucks are few. Only the sweeping curves down to the crossing over the river Nervión remain vaguely the same. I am here to visit Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, and to lecture at the Department of Medieval Archaeology in the Universidad del País Vasco. The university is at Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque region, an easy hour to the south on a high plateau. Juan Antonio spent a decade establishing his credentials in Tuscany. Lucca was his base for much of that time, giving that Lombard capital a modern archaeological veneer. More recently, he has introduced modern Medieval archaeology to northern Spain. His projects have drawn on his British and Italian experiences to bring much needed detail to the otherwise obscure era between the collapse of Roman power in the region and the rise in the 11th century of Navarre power. One thing quickly became clear: my search long ago for negative evidence was surprisingly well judged! After a decade of major digs, Juan Antonio has shown that village life after the Romans flourished, but remained unaffected by the great sweep of regionally varied changes now known from France, Germany, Italy, and, of course, England.
Vitoria-Gasteiz, as it happens, is one of many such villages founded in the later 7th century that enjoyed a bucolic existence after the eclipse of Visigothic power. A video introduction to the extraordinary conservation project at the imposing 13th-century Cathedral of St Maria makes the point for curious visitors. Situated on the top edge of the hilltop here, excavations to make a solid new foundation for the cathedral unearthed unexceptional remains of a small 8th-century farming village with hand-made pottery, metal-working, and little else. Once the competition for power became compelling in northern Spain, this well-placed village was ambitiously transformed into a fortified small town around the turn of the millennium. Well-preserved tracts of the town’s first defences, reinforced by high, flanking rectangular towers, have been conserved as part of the modern town’s bold attempt to lend status to its precious antiquity. Somewhat imaginatively, one section has been reconstructed using Canadian cedar that, with time, will turn from a mellow blushing red to a grey, imitating stone.
The archaeology, in truth, is modest by any standards, yet fascinating proof of a prosperous agrarian world that existed beyond the bounds of the heartlands of Latin Christendom. Vitoria’s fashionably new town museum makes a lot of little (all described in Spanish and Basque, with an obvious reluctance to use English), yet it is clear that there is still much to understand about how these Dark Age communities rose to possess such peerless wealth from the 11th century onwards.
At Bilbao, the archaeology museum is, like that in Vitoria, an elegant tribute to the past of the region. Its Palaeolithic finds are outstanding. Is the subtext, I ponder provocatively, that the Basque language dates back to the age of the glorious cave paintings and mobile hunter-gatherers who roamed into France? Otherwise the small matter of Basque nationalism is not clearly mentioned anywhere in the museum exhibition, although the understated Roman section rather speaks to an unwillingness to accept their colonial presence – even though Irun, near San Sebastiàn, was a major Atlantic seaport from the 1st to 6th centuries AD. A Late Medieval boat, possibly for coastal trading, is the centrepiece of the Medieval section. But perhaps the most striking fact is the sense that this rich region, with its proud ethnic identity, famed in modern times for its industry, seems to have been very provincial in Roman and Medieval times. Was this why I omitted to pause at Bilbao when I was following the pilgrimage route in my trusty Austin A40 decades ago? Not now.
Bilbao has been transformed. Strolling along the streets at the height of Spain’s devastating euro-crisis, with six million unemployed, there is little evidence of any unease. Quite the contrary, a fashionable architectural elegance abounds. The city’s industrial base has been banished from the urban psyche. The change-agent in this most velvet revolution at Bilbao is, of course, the Guggenheim Museum. I approached this extraordinary monument very much as a contemporary archaeologist. After all, conceived in the 1980s and completed by 1997, it belongs to a Spain that was uneasily laid to rest with the crisis of 2008, and yet it most assuredly remains a global icon.
The Guggenheim sits beside the river, partially tucked beneath a bridge. I was initially puzzled by its location, squeezed into the cityscape. Soon all becomes clear. Like magic, as you pass alongside the river to peer into the confection of shining titanium plates that clad the steel ribs like armour, it suddenly makes sense. Nothing is structured as you might expect. Frank Gehry, the architect, imposes his vision of a disorganised world on you, and with the sunshine illuminating views in a dozen different directions, you cannot help but be seduced. The monument boasts a confidence and ambition worthy of an Emperor Augustus, even if its inchoate architectural language urges caution.
The ticket counter and the section for checking bags, like the café, belong to an American – as opposed to a Basque – museology. The signs are now in Basque, Spanish, and English, as many of its ten million visitors have come from across the globe. Inside are ample spaces, magnificently lit by the towering glass windows wedged within the cacophony of luminous plates. The temporary galleries house Spanish exhibitions, the most important being a retrospective of the Catalan dissident artist, Antoni Tàpies, entitled From Object to Sculpture (1964-2009). In its bare simplicity, these works fetishising everyday objects force the archaeologist to think hard about the deeper meanings of material culture.
The single permanent gallery, occupying the ribbed hall in the windowless snout of the building, is in some respects very archaeological. Called A Matter of Time, Richard Serra’s undecorated sheets of steel at first sight are puzzlingly drab. Don’t be put off. Viewed from the balcony above, this gigantic installation comprises a variety of forms including a double eclipse and a spiral. Walk through them, though, and, towering overhead, these featureless slabs create a dizzying feeling of space and motion, brought about by the unexpected proportions of the steel walls. Serra, speaking to a videographer long ago, claims that it represents a progression of time – the time it takes to traverse the gallery by way of the channels and passages he has created. Then there is the time during which the viewer experiences the fragments of visual and physical memory of the piece. Aren’t archaeological remains encountered in the same way, though we tend to be less analytical about their chronological meaning? Exploring this ageless American installation made me think about the unstated aging of the museum as a whole, of its pristine glory and of its conception for an euphorically post-Fascist Spain.
This is the point of the Guggenheim Bilbao. It is an extraordinary monument (to Spain’s lost boom years) that continues to speak across generational divisions to a contemporary world in a way so many great sanctuaries, temples, and theatres in ancient cities once did. As archaeologists, we long to turn these ancient treasures not into works of architectural genius so much as places that hold an enduring appeal for modern visitors. At Bilbao, the Guggenheim has transformed the city I once avoided into a destination. As archaeologists, if we are to weather the crisis in the academic world, our destiny lies in emulating this act of place-making. The ancients understood this concept well, investing to promote their homes by building and maintaining the biggest temple (think of egesta) or a work of art of extraordinary quality (viz Praxideles’s Aphrodite of Knidos). Today, with so many people on the move, with tourism being so significant for the global economy, the moral of the Guggenheim story – in a region that otherwise has struggled to justify the antiquity of its language – begs us also to reflect on the actions of bold city-states long ago.