Trains to the future… and past – history and archaeology in underground transport systems

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The construction of metros around the world brings the opportunity of digging into the roots of our cities, learning about our history, and keeping writing the future.

New York, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Moscow… Underground systems are part of our cities’ history. Even the newest ones are writing the contemporary history of our changing world. Architecture, design, art can make these public spaces—transited by thousands of people each day—authentic city museums, as in Tashkent or London.

The world’s first underground railway system was opened in London in 1863. It is, therefore, one more piece of the large history of the city—founded as Londinium by the Romans around 43 AD. Today, the famous Tube and its “ mind the gap” message are also part of the British capital’s identity. Furthermore, its expansion also brings the opportunity of exploring the city’s past: the construction of the new Elizabeth line has provided tens of thousands of items from London’s history and pre-history.
These infrastructures provide the opportunity to go under the skin of our cities, and some urban centers have thousands of years of historic urbanism waiting to be discovered and studied. In July 2018, the expansion of Rome's Subway found important artifacts and architectural structures dated in the 2 nd century AD. However, this kind of findings also presents a big challenge, since they usually slow down works and delay new constructions.

Challenge or opportunity?

In Rome, as expressed by state archaeologist Simona Morretta: “ …you never get the chance in a regular excavation to dig so deep. That's how we've found architectural complexes as important as this.” In other situations, historic areas that would not easily get regular archaeological investigations can take advantage and benefit from a metro construction to increase the knowledge about their history.

This is the case of Ecuador´s capital. The construction of the Quito Metro Line One brought the opportunity to explore the underground of the important historic center. The City of Quito is celebrating in 2018 the 40th anniversary of its inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage list; therefore, any work carried out must ensure the preservation and integrity of its universal value. The Quito Metro project also benefited from the World Bank Cultural Heritage safeguards, which provide a framework to ensure the protection of the heritage. In order to do so, the scientific research at the historic center started with a prospection using geophysical radars to identify the areas of potential findings, preceding the archaeological excavation.

Like a delicate surgery, the historic cobblestones of Plaza San Francisco were carefully removed – and reinserted at the same original location once the work in the surface was finalized, keeping the integrity of the square. During the excavation, the archaeologists team could only access the area to be occupied by the future station. However, they documented and preserved interesting discoveries to complement the knowledge regarding the evolution of the whole Plaza San Francisco.
 BMG, December 2016)
View of Plaza San Francisco during the archaeological excavation (Source: BMG, December 2016)
For instance, the archaeologists found some structures carved in the local volcanic soil of cangahua, including caves and stairs. The content was what in archaeology is known as midden, or  archaeological garbage dump. It included ceramics from different styles, metallic objects, glass, and bones. Due to the mixture of materials, establishing the foundation date is complicated, although it seems to belong to the colonial times, when the square was used as a market.

During the excavation, Metro de Quito opened the site for visits to explain the current work to the neighbors and interested citizens. The archeological reports and other studies are available at the Metro de Quito website, and the retrieved historic materials are currently under the custody of the Metropolitan Institute of Heritage. These discoveries, added to previous investigations, written sources, and historical documents, are increasing the knowledge about the history of Quito. Once ready, the future station in Plaza San Francisco will be the best space to display all this information, including some of the archaeological findings, ancient photos, and explanation of the methodologies and research tools.

The metro will also enhance the value of the plaza, by bringing people to the historic center and making them walk through its own history.

Moving forward… by metro

Today we are creating better, faster, more comfortable, and secure transport systems for our smarter, resilient, more inclusive, and competitive cities. At the same time, we need to ensure the preservation of the cultural values and the heritage, which form the unique identity of every city. This will only be possible if we establish a balance between the past, the present, and the future – by allowing new developments, allowing time for research and study, and allowing space to share the knowledge.


Barbara Minguez Garcia

Disaster Risk Management and Cultural Heritage Consultant

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