Identity in the ordinary: Manhole covers

Manhole covers might not be the most riveting subject for a blog, but they can tell us a lot about the identity of cities.  Most are ordinary covers stamped with the name of the manufacturer and perhaps the name of the city or waterworks company that commissioned them. However, in my wandering across Europe I was struck by how many cities use the “canvas” of a manhole cover to paint a picture of their identity.  Usually it is the seal of the city that symbolizes some past connection they want to highlight.  Below are a few interesting examples of cities that highlight their identity in the paths below our feet.


I featured this cover from Ljubljana, Slovenia already but it merits a repeat in this collection.  The dragon goes back to a myth about Jason and the Argonauts who apparently traveled to Slovenia and slew a dragon.  The castle is representative of the iconic building that towers over the city.  The hills below it are representative of the mountainous landscape that surrounds the city.


This cover from Trondheim, Norway stresses the importance of this city’s role as a tie between church and state.  In the Cathedral in Trondheim, the kings of Norway were crowned thus bestowing the favor of God (represented by the blessing bishop and cross on the church) on the king (represented with crown and scales of justice).  All of this takes place over three faces representing past kings as a blessing of the ancestors and of tradition itself.


Elsewhere in the city of Trondheim there are manhole covers of simpler design and more recent vintage celebrating the 1000 anniversary of continued settlement in the city.  Happy 1021 birthday, Trondheim.  A humbling thought that this place has been an organized city four times longer than the my own country has been an organized state!  It reminds you just how much history surrounds you when you stroll through the streets of this place.


Further down the coast of Norway in Bergen this cover celebrates many eras of this city’s history in transportation and commerce.  Bergen is perhaps most famous for its role in the Hanseatic League, a medieval trade network with other cities across Northern Europe that is the precursor to our modern trade alliances such as the EU, NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  It is symbolized by the sailing ship and trading houses in this cover.  The tall building in the background is the Rosenkrantz Tower that is the remains of a time that the kings of Norway lived a thousand years ago here in this city that was the capital of Norway at one point.  In the background, a cable car runs up the steep slopes of the mountains that surround the fjord on whose shores the city of Bergen has emerged.  It symbolizes the growing importance of tourism and outdoor recreation to the economy of Bergen.  The symbols of the natural landscape such as the trees,  the water below and the mountains show how important these settings are to the identity of many of these cities.  To the side of the image appears a sun with raindrops(?) coming down from it.  I am not sure, but this could symbolize the fact that even on sunny days it rains here…it always rains here!  They measure several meters of rainfall every year.


This manhole cover from Cologne, (Koln in German) Germany has fewer images of landscape, but several important symbols of identity.  The two headed eagle holding sword and scepter represents the German state with crown and cross over the top.  This was the symbol of German nationalism in the 19thC as the modern german nation-state emerged from a collection of independent principalities and regions.  In an earlier post I explore the symbolic role of completing the Cologne Cathedral in building that nation-state. The crest on the breast of the eagle is coat of arms for the city of Cologne.  There are three crowns on the coat of arms representing the three kings from biblical fame whose mortal remains (relics) have been housed in the Cathedral of Cologne for almost a thousand years.  They have made Cologne a pilgrimage site for peasants and kings alike and are an important part of the identity of the city throughout its history.


Finally, a simple water-main cover from Dublin, Ireland.  They are found all over Ireland.  The word on the bottom “uisce” (pronounced “ish-ka”) is Irish for water. Language is an important part of Irish identity because English, which is spoken all over Ireland, is the language of the colonial force that dominated the history of Ireland for so long.  The Irish language was actively suppressed for most of that time and only remains the dominant language in the far western parts of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht.  Once Ireland became independent in 1921 the Irish language, long a symbol of rebellion, became mandatory as a subject in school and on every road sign throughout the country.  Cities such as Cobh (formerly Queenstown) were renamed in Irish to erase the stamp of imperialism that covered much of the landscape.  The Celtic symbols and knotwork in the center of the cover and around the outside harken back to a time long past before Ireland had been conquered by the English.  A time before famine and revolution, a time of mythic heroes and legends.  Even something so simple as a water-main cover in this landscape is indelibly stamped with the symbolic history of the people.

You might note in all of the pictures above the variety of cobblestone paving surrounding each cover.  We have been so impressed with the myriad of different paving materials across Europe.  It is rare, except in the more modern parts of the cities, to find asphalt (tarmac as they call it here) or concrete as a pavement.  Even the diverse patterns of stone in the streets and sidewalks adds to the landscape, a sense of a time gone by and a timelessness.  There is regular maintenance done to the cobblestones, but rarely ever a decision to replace them with something more modern.  The manhole covers and the stones that surround them are an important, if often subtle and unnoticed, part of the landscape of these great cities and clues to the identity they create.

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I am a professor of Political Science at Colorado Mesa University on sabbatical in the fall semester 2018. I study public land policy and a wide variety of other subjects. Currently I am studying about European Landscape Policies while on sabbatical. That is the focus of this blog.

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