Keith Roberts, on 27 June 2011 - 12:09 PM, said:
It is I think a far more complex issue[...]
If I may, I will attempt to address your last point first. I began the discussion in the hope that it would generate answers to some of the questions raised in an off-forum conversation. It has, thus far, added further insight to the topic but not really provided a clear response as to why Great War archaeology is undertaken. I would like the discussion/exchange of ideas may give me (and may be some other GWF members) clearer understanding of an emerging (relatively speaking) form of historical analysis of the subject.
In regards to the remainder of your post; I agree, it is a complex topic and one that has many strands. However, I would make the following observations:
1. Rescue archaeology is not only confined to sites on the battlefields and, as such, it is not as relevant in this discussion. This rapid-response form of archaeology is about making sure nothing is lost rather than trying to learn anything. In this respect, what was likely to be found were bodies. No artefact that could be found would give us greater understanding of the battle in that area and the dig was not intended to do that. It may well have literally located Yorkshire Trench but I will expand on my thoughts around this topic in another point.
2. The targeted recovery of bodies has its own sub-headings, namely; firstly, when a mass burial ground has been lost (a la Pheasant Wood) or, secondly, when it is considered that there must be bodies in a location owing to the volume of fighting over a certain piece of ground (dig a 10m by 10m square on most sections of 1st July Front and one would expect to turn something/someone up). The first is purely about identifying burial plots and commemorating them accordingly. This gives a grave stone to a number of bodies identified and unidentified, this is a noble and worthy cause. However, it is not archaeology. It does not add to our understanding of the conflict or society's approach to burial. The second is again seems to be based on identifying bodies a recovering artefacts around them. It will not add to the wider understanding or even the localised understanding of the war.
I should add, at this point, that the two points above are worthwhile and valid in their approach, but, fundamentally they are about identifying and reburying bodies and are not archaeology. This may seem like semantics, but on this basis I am regarding Great War archaeology as the third point you raised, a bi-product of which may be the identifying of bodies.
3. The notion of Great War archaeology as research is the one that was stumping me and my friend. Why is the destructive process of archaeology preferable to any other form of research that would provide the same evidence? To refer back to point 1. with the identification of Yorkshire Trench, were a building not being placed on top would an archaeological survey be required to establish this? Surely with the use of such programmes as linesman and a geophysical survey the location could be pinpointed without the requirement to dig it up and thus removing it? What items, if any, are placed on the archaeological register from these digs? It is this point that I am trying to understand. I do not see how these archaeological processes help us to understand the conduct or experience of the war any better than can be understood from film, war diaries, letters, memoirs, sound recordings &c.
To return to your last point again; I am trying to understand why actual archaeology, archaeology as a form of research that betters our understanding, is used when it would seem that not destructive, conventional methods could yield the same results.