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The Living Dead: Perception and Use of Ruins through Time and Space

by Julia Schönicke, ANAMED PhD Fellow (2020–2021)

Since I was a child, I loved exploring abandoned places. Next to my sister’s home, there was a ruined garden house that was accessible through a hole in the fence. Inside, time seemed to have stopped: coffee cups on a dusty hearth, phone books with torn pages, and mysterious things scattered all over. Immediately, seven-year-old me started thinking about why all the stuff is still there, why no one took it with them and where the people have gone, but also if this place might be haunted now by the ghosts of the former inhabitants that maybe didn’t have the opportunity to leave the place properly.

Now, almost 30 years later, I am still pretty attached to both ruins and exploring, which is one of the reasons why I became an archaeologist currently working at Göbekli Tepe—one of the world’s oldest abandoned settlements. [1] I have realized that the questions I was asking as a child are in fact relevant for the reconstruction of detachment practices since many archaeological sites were abandoned or waiting to be revisited. [2] But even if a place—a building, a settlement, or even a landscape—appears abandoned, this is rarely actually the case. Rather, places continue to exist in the memory of their former inhabitants and are still lively agents that create and contribute to cultural landscapes. [3] Also, post-abandonment interactions and phases of re-use are active creators of the biographies of places. Despite the immobility of their built environment, humans are a highly mobile species. [4] Most people have detached from a place at least once, for instance, leaving the place where they grew up to find a new place for living elsewhere. As a result, abandoned places are ubiquitous. They range from an out-of-use activity area (such as the old oven in the cellar that no one uses anymore) or an abandoned house in the neighborhood to whole cities or even landscapes. Place-leaving can occur episodically, seasonally, or permanently in more planned or unplanned ways. [5] As versatile as the scales are the reasons why people leave, be it climate change or natural catastrophes, war and conflict, or changing economy and subsistence; all of which are deeply intertwined with individual and communal decisions. And sometimes people just feel like change! 

Because this fellowship year at ANAMED happened to be entirely remote, which made it impossible for me to explore Istanbul’s cityscape, I would like to invite you to discover some abandoned premises in and around Berlin. The perception of ruins and whether they are tolerated within built environments is culturally specific but also depends on the economic value of the land or building ground. In crowded metropolises where housing space is generally rare, you might see ruins less frequently than in small towns or in the sparsely populated countryside. Likewise, a ruin is more noticeable in an otherwise renovated environment than in areas where many buildings are dilapidated anyway.  

Quite often we can observe an ambivalent attitude towards ruins. On the one hand, European Romanticism idealized ruins in a memento mori sense. As a result of early expeditions and warfare in the eighteenth century CE, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian ruins became exceedingly popular. They found their way into poetry and paintings; artificial ruins were even established as their own architectural style and were integrated into royal parks and gardens. Many examples can be discovered in Berlin and its surroundings. Sanssouci Castle with its spacious park area in Potsdam close to Berlin was built under the reign of Prussian king Frederick II (1712–1786) and inspired by the Palace of Versailles in France. The park is among other features equipped with plenty of antique statue replicas, vineyards, a tea house in Chinese style, a grand orangery, and the Ruinenberg—a hill with artificial ruins on top that line a water reservoir. These “ruins” display a mixture of historic styles: the “remains” of an amphitheater with a viewpoint are located next to a triplet of Ionian-style columns and a circular temple with “Corinthian” column capitals (Fig. 1).[6] An ice house in the shape of an Egyptian pyramid is also to be found in the park. Paradoxically, the artificial ruins contrast the actual use of the otherwise modern facilities. Still today, these artificial ruins are a popular destination and the main attraction of the royal garden (Fig. 2). 


Fig. 2: The Ruinenberg is a prominent destination for people from Berlin and Brandenburg. Here, they enjoy the first snow of 2021, with the hill being used as sled run. Photo: Julia Schönicke.

Modern or industrial ruins, however, are on the other hand much less appreciated in the urban landscape and experience a rather negative connotation of failure and poverty. In public, they are often perceived as ugly and disrupt the appearance of a modern city full of progress and prosperity. In capitalist societies, economically inefficiently used spaces—among them abandoned premises—are quickly demolished to provide space for new buildings. Yet, the ephemeral time span in between initial abandonment and demolition is opening up for new spatial and sensual experiences.

This becomes particularly clear when we look at urban exploration which is a global subcultural movement that rapidly developed over the past 15 to 20 years and is engaged with discovering, exploring, and documenting abandoned structures. [7] Urban exploration goes back to psychogeographical approaches of the Situationist International whose members established the dérive (=to drift) to create alternative ways of moving through cityscapes by not following official routes.[8] They aimed to break through the structural violence of the built environment to form a realm of resistance against the spatial dimensions of commercialized urbanity. The economic construction of space often creates social inequality that is reflected by, for example, expensive residential areas contrasted by slums, regulated accessibility of certain districts or buildings, or public surveillance which is nowadays the subject of research through Critical and Radical Geography. [9] Urban explorers reclaim and infiltrate urban spaces by means of individual, non-commercial appropriation of various abandoned premises, including industrial ruins such as factories and warehouses but also abandoned hospitals, asylums, amusement parks, and even underground drainage systems. They often use photography to prove and document their discoveries, but destroying or extracting things is against their ethics.[10] Since urban explorers are often the last people that enter abandoned buildings before they get demolished, their work is to some extent archaeological documentation. This is especially true for ruins that do not incorporate enough historic “value” to be protected by heritage conservation. The photographs taken during exploration are frequently shared in social media without location to prevent vandalism and tourism, which led to a fast-growing community. But this did not protect the places from ruin tourism  and commercialization. As a result, many abandoned places have been transformed into tidy tourist sites with entrance fees, guided tours, and souvenir shops and are now even listed in tourist guides. In Berlin and around, there are many famous examples to be found such as the Spreepark (an abandoned amusement park in Berlin—Plänterwald), the Beelitzer Heilstätten (a sanatorium with several impressive historic buildings), or the Teufelsberg listening station to which I now turn.

After World War II, Berlin was partitioned among the British, French, Soviet, and US forces and became a divided city and espionage capital during the Cold War. In 1963, the US National Security Agency (NSA) constructed a listening station on top of the Teufelsberg (=devil’s hill; 120 m asl) to spy on the Soviet-occupied eastern part of Berlin. The hill itself, located­ in the forest of Grunewald district­, is an artificial mound heaped up from war debris covering the building shell of the unfinished NS-military academy “Wehrtechnische Fakultät.” The listening station was in use until 1992.[11] After the military abandoned the place at the end of the Cold War it was bought by private investors, but their plans to build luxury apartments failed thanks to protests from residents and nature protectionists. Since then, the decaying listening station became one of the favorite destinations of urban explorers and street artists (Fig. 3) Due to its location at the western edge of Berlin, the place provides an enigmatic atmosphere with vast views towards both the city and the forest, while creating unique soundscapes within the radomes (Figs. 4 and 5). With increasing popularity, the site was given to a leaseholder, and entrance fees and guided tours were established. When the entire hill was declared a historical monument in 2018, the leaseholder’s plans to build a museum, café, and apartment into the listening station became uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the living history of this abandoned place will go on.


Fig. 3: Former NSA listening station on top of the Teufelsberg in Berlin–Grunewald. Note the abundance of street art and the decaying outer shell of the radomes. Photo: Julia Schönicke


Figs. 4 and 5: Sunset seen from the main radome with view over Grunewald with Havel river in the back. Photo: Julia Schönicke.

But what happens to less popular ruins that are (not yet) torn down? They have the possibility to decay clandestinely and develop unique biotopes which become a refuge for plants and animals in abundance. In Brandenburg, the rural district that encloses Berlin, there are  numerous former Soviet and GDR military areas. As financial means are often lacking to have the sites professionally demolished, decontaminated, and cleared of unexploded munitions, they get sealed and fall into oblivion. In the barracks and hangars there are numerous undocumented traces of everyday army life to be discovered (Figs. 6 and 7). Moreover, it is impressive to observe how nature reclaims places left behind by humans (Fig. 8). Brandenburg is mainly dominated by agriculture and forestry, which leaves little space for free growth of nature. The combination of both ruins and wilderness creates unexpected and inspiring narratives or what artist and urban explorer Julia Solis calls a “third landscape” or “landscapes of decay” which are impossible to build artificially.  [12]


Fig. 6: Decaying theater or community space in an abandoned military barracks area in Brandenburg. Photo: Julia Schönicke.

It is technically and economically impractical to conserve all archaeological sites, and maybe it isn’t even necessary, as cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey points out.[13] Ruins not only tell us archaeologists a lot about the development of anthropogenic and taphonomic processes; they offer open artistic spaces for otherwise sidelined subcultures and also stimulate biodiversity. By questioning the conservation or demolition of at least a few abandoned premises, new perspectives in dealing with ruins are opened up in which they are not seen as static dead things but rather as living places with dynamic biographies. The life of a building does not end with its initial abandonment. Speaking for excavations, this means that the supposedly less “spectacular” should not be overlooked in the archaeological context. Instead, detachment practices, phases of re-use, and post-abandonment interactions have to be documented as equal narrators of a site’s history.


Fig 7: The official newspaper “Pravda” of the Communist party of the Soviet Union (today Russian broadsheet newspaper) from November 14, 1984 was used for wallpaper. Photo: Julia Schönicke.


Fig. 8: A pioneer forest of birch trees is emerging in an abandoned hangar of the military compound. The decaying wooden roof allows sunlight to float into the interior. Photo: Julia Schönicke.


[1] This text contains research from my ongoing dissertation “All places are temporary places—detachment practices and abandonment routines at the Neolithic settlement Göbekli Tepe” (working title) which is part of the Göbekli Tepe research project of the Istanbul Department of German Archaeological Institute (DAI), General Directorate of Cultural Assets and Museums, Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey, Şanlıurfa Museum, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Freie UniversitätBerlin, Universität zu Köln, DAI Zentrale/ Naturwissenschaftliches Referat, and Doğuş Group. Clare 2020; Kinzel and Clare 2020; Kinzel, Duru, and Barański 2020.

[2] Lamoureux-St-Hilaire and Macrae 2020, 4; Cameron 1993, 3.

[3] Glowacki 2020, 44.

[4] Cameron 2020, 178. 

[5] Brooks 1993, 178. 

[6] Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg 2002.

[7] Pétursdóttir 2016; Pétursdóttir and Olsen 2014; Christopher 2014; Fassi 2010; Pinder 2005.

[8] Debord 2006.

[9] Theodore et al. 2019; Belina and Michel 2007; Bunge 1962.

[10] Ninjalicious 2005.

[11] Cocroft and Schofield 2019.

[12] Solis 2014; for landscapes of decay by Julia Solis see date of access: March 19, 2021.

[13] DeSilvey 2017.

Works Cited

Belina, Bernd, and Boris Michel, eds. 2007. Raumproduktionen: Beiträge der Radical Geography. Eine Zwischenbilanz. 1. Aufl. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot.

Brooks, Robert L. 1993. “Household Abandonment among Sedentary Plains Societies: Behavioral Sequences and Consequences in the Interpretation of the Archaeological Record.” In Abandonment of Settlements and Regions. Ethnoarchaeological and Archaeological Approaches, edited by Catherine M. Cameron and Steve A. Tomka, 178–90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bunge, William. 1962. Theoretical Geography. Lund: Gleerup.

Cameron, Catherine M. 1993. “Abandonment and Archaeological Interpretation.” In Abandonment of Settlements and Regions. Ethnoarchaeological and Archaeological Approaches, edited by Catherine M. Cameron and Steve A. Tomka, 3–10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2020. “New Approaches to Detaching from Place.” In Detachment from Place: Beyond an Archaeology of Settlement Abandonment, edited by Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire and Scott Macrae, 178–93. Louisville: University Press of Colorado.

Christopher, Matthew. 2014. Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences. Paris: JonGlez Publishing.

Clare, Lee. 2020. “Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. A Brief Summary of Research at a New World Heritage Site (2015-2019).” E-Forschungsberichte Des DAI 2: 1–13.

Cocroft, Wayne D., and John Schofield. 2019. Archaeology of the Teufelsberg: Exploring Western Electronic Intelligence Gathering in Cold War Berlin. London; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Debord, Guy. 2006. “Theory of the Dérive.” In Situationist International Anthology. Revised and Expanded Edition, edited by Ken Knabb, 62–66. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets.

DeSilvey, Caitlin. 2017. Curated Decay: Heritage beyond Saving. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press.

Fassi, Anthony J. 2010. “Industrial Ruins, Urban Exploring, and the Postindustrial Picturesque.” CR: The New Centennial Review 10 (1): 141–52.

Glowacki, Donna M. 2020. “The Leaving’s the Thing: The Contexts of Mesa Verde Emigration.” In Detachment from Place: Beyond an Archaeology of Settlement Abandonment, edited by Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire and Scott Macrae, 23–44. Louisville: University Press of Colorado.

Kinzel, Moritz, and Lee Clare. 2020. “Monumental – Compared to What? A Perspective from Göbekli Tepe.” In Monumentalizing Life in Neolithic Europe: Narratives of Continuity and Change, edited by Anne Brigitte Gebauer, Lasse Sørensen, Anne Teather, and Antonio de Valera, 31–50. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Kinzel, Moritz, Güneş Duru, and Marek Z. Barański. 2020. “Modify to Last. A Neolithic Perspective on Rebuilding and Continuation.” In Umgebaut. Umbau-, Umnutzungs- Und Umwertungsprozesse in Der Antiken Architektur, DiskAB13, edited by Ulrike Wulf-Rheidt, Katja Piesker, and S. Zink, 1–13. Regensburg: Schnell + Steiner.

Lamoureux-St-Hilaire, Maxime, and Scott Macrae. 2020. “Introduction.” In Detachment from Place: Beyond an Archaeology of Settlement Abandonment, edited by Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire and Scott Macrae, 3–10. Louisville: University Press of Colorado.

Ninjalicious. 2005. Access All Areals. A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration. Toronto: Infiltration.

Pétursdóttir, Þóra. 2016. “For Love of Ruins.” In Elements of Architecture: Assembling Archaeology, Atmosphere and the Performance of Building Spaces, edited by Mikkel Bille and Tim Flohr Sørensen, 365–86. London: Routledge.

Pétursdóttir, Þóra, and Bjørnar Olsen. 2014. “Imaging Modern Decay: The Aesthetics of Ruin Photography.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1 (1): 7–23.

Pinder, David. 2005. “Arts of Urban Exploration.” Cultural Geographies 12 (4): 383–411.

Solis, Julia. 2014. “No Title.” Talk presented at the The Influencers. Non conventional art, communication guerrilla, radical entertainment, Detroit.

Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg, ed. 2002. Bauten Und Bildwerke Im Park Sanssouci. Amtlicher Führer. Berlin: Rudof Otto mbH.

Theodore, Nik, Tariq Jazeel, Andy Kent, and Katherine McKittrick. 2019. “Keywords in Radical Geography: An Introduction.” In Keywords in Radical Geography: Antipode at 50, edited by Antipode Editorial Collective, Tariq Jazeel, Andy Kent, Katherine McKittrick, Nik Theodore, Sharad Chari, Paul Chatterton, et al., 1–13. Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.