Lessons from Love-Locks: The archaeology of a contemporary assemblage
Loss of context is a challenge, if not the bane, of the ritual archaeologist’s craft. Those who research ritual frequently encounter difficulties in the interpretation of its often tantalisingly incomplete material record. Careful analysis of material remains may afford us glimpses into past ritual activity, but our often vast chronological separation from the ritual practitioners themselves prevent us from seeing the whole picture. The archaeologist engaging with structured deposits, for instance, is often forced to study ritual assemblages post-accumulation. Many nuances of its formation, therefore, may be lost in interpretation. This paper considers what insights an archaeologist could gain into the place, people, pace, and purpose of deposition by recording an accumulation of structured deposits during its formation, rather than after. To answer this, the paper will focus on a contemporary depositional practice: the love-lock. This custom involves the inscribing of names/initials onto a padlock, its attachment to a bridge or other public structure, and the deposition of the corresponding key into the water below; a ritual often enacted by a couple as a statement of their romantic commitment. Drawing on empirical data from a three-year diachronic site-specific investigation into a love-lock bridge in Manchester, UK, the author demonstrates the value of contemporary archaeology in engaging with the often enigmatic material culture of ritual accumulations.