Jump to content


Remembered Today:

Photo

Archaeology of The Great War


54 replies to this topic

#1 Tim Fox-Godden

Tim Fox-Godden

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweat
  • 708 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:North Essex, England
  • Interests:Architects and architecture of the CWGC
    War memorials and their architects
    Officer Corps throughout the war
    The cultural impact of the war
    2/3rd City of London Field Ambulance
    13/Royal Scots
    15th (Civil Service Rifles) London Regiment
    21st (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
    28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment
    Honourable Artillery Company

Posted 27 June 2011 - 08:59 AM

Fellow GWF members,

A friend and I (who is an archaeologist) were discussing the purpose of archaeology in the context of The Great War. It has become a subject very much in vogue with television documentary makers and is referred to as an educational exercise in the field of Great War history. To this end, I thought it may be interesting to open out the discussion to the forum to capture some more thoughts.

We settled on an agreement that the fundamental purpose of archaeological research is to improve society's understanding of a period of history and details that could not be discovered any other way. In addition, archaeology, by its very nature, is a destructive process that provides a single opportunity to gather information before that evidence is lost in its original form (by which the information is not lost but the form in which it was discovered is).

With these points in mind we considered The Great War and the current trend for battlefield archaeology. With a conflict that is so well documented in several media and in great detail, what more can archaeology bring to this, in terms of our understanding of the conflict? If it cannot add to our understanding is it not destroying more of the history than it is gathering?

Between the two of us we could not establish what added understanding of the conflict archaeology could add. So, coming at it from a slightly different angle, is the purpose of Great War archaeology to uncover the fallen and attempt to identify them? If so, how does one go about choosing where to dig without making it unfair to those who are not reovered and without undermining the work of the CWGC?

We did not settle on final position, as it were, mostly owing to a lack of understanding around the details of the subject. However, there was that nagging feeling that we could not really settle on whether it was a worthwhile process.

It would be interesting to see if any Great War archaeologists on the foum could add to the discussion to enable us to understand the purpose and in general to see how forum members feel about this topic in general.

With kindest regards,

Tim

#2 WilliamRev

WilliamRev

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweats
  • 863 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:East Preston, West Sussex, UK
  • Interests:5th Scottish Rifles 1914-15 and 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers 1916-18: currently writing a book on my grandfather, Captain S. Revels (avatar shows him in 1916, a 2/Lieut., aged 22).

Posted 27 June 2011 - 09:28 AM

A TV documentary a year or two ago followed a dig on the site of a trench (these details may be wrong but the principal is the thing) in Belgium which was about to be completely and permanently destroyed when a new industrial estate was built. The trench was recorded and artifacts found - I can't remember whether any human remains turned up.

I'm sure that we can all start by agreeing that this kind of archeology is worthwhile, to learn what we can before a site is destroyed for ever.

William

#3 Tim Fox-Godden

Tim Fox-Godden

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweat
  • 708 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:North Essex, England
  • Interests:Architects and architecture of the CWGC
    War memorials and their architects
    Officer Corps throughout the war
    The cultural impact of the war
    2/3rd City of London Field Ambulance
    13/Royal Scots
    15th (Civil Service Rifles) London Regiment
    21st (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
    28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment
    Honourable Artillery Company

Posted 27 June 2011 - 09:59 AM

A TV documentary a year or two ago followed a dig on the site of a trench (these details may be wrong but the principal is the thing) in Belgium which was about to be completely and permanently destroyed when a new industrial estate was built. The trench was recorded and artifacts found - I can't remember whether any human remains turned up.

I'm sure that we can all start by agreeing that this kind of archeology is worthwhile, to learn what we can before a site is destroyed for ever.

William


Hi William,

This is interesting and raises questions in its own right.

Yes; we are in agreement that this form of archaeology is worthwhile (and I should imagine the bread and butter for most archaeologists), it helps to collate artefacts that would otherwise have been lost. But, would it have been done irrespective of The Great War angle? Would it not form part of the planning consent process? Was it actually just archaeology that happened to take place on the site of a Great War battlefield?

Further to the questions around whether it was Great War archaeology in the 'Finding the Fallen' sense or part of the building and safety process (an archaeological survey could also uncover dangerous artefacts or subterrainean cavities), was anything taken from the dig that gave us greater understanding of the war?

Kind regards,

Tim

#4 seadog

seadog

    Major-General

  • Old Sweats
  • 4,881 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Bristol UK

Posted 27 June 2011 - 10:00 AM

Yes human remains did turn up (Post 2); in fact over 200 sets of remains or partial remains were found on and around the site. It is a matter of record that 66 sets of British remains are buried in Cement House War Cemetery, Flanders, all unnamed. This was a rescue dig undertaken by the group called "The Diggers" and thank goodness they did for if not who knows what would have happened to all of those human remains. On the subject of battlefield archeology I think that it is important to make a distinction between that mentioned above and a dig to possibly add to our knowledge of the conflict, bearing in mind the most important aspect of any such dig, that being the distinct possibility that human remains will be found having lain undisturbed for decades.

The Diggers in Flanders


Norman

#5 Tim Fox-Godden

Tim Fox-Godden

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweat
  • 708 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:North Essex, England
  • Interests:Architects and architecture of the CWGC
    War memorials and their architects
    Officer Corps throughout the war
    The cultural impact of the war
    2/3rd City of London Field Ambulance
    13/Royal Scots
    15th (Civil Service Rifles) London Regiment
    21st (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
    28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment
    Honourable Artillery Company

Posted 27 June 2011 - 11:22 AM

Yes human remains did turn up (Post 2); in fact over 200 sets of remains or partial remains were found on and around the site. It is a matter of record that 66 sets of British remains are buried in Cement House War Cemetery, Flanders, all unnamed [...]

Norman


Hi Norman,

Thanks for your input.

At the risk of being slightly controversial and with a leaning towards playing devil's advocate, would the bodies have remained buried in unknown graves without this dig? If no formal identification was undertaken, why disturb them?

If, as I believe to be the case in the example given, the bodies were discovered as part of a ground clearing exercise then yes, I can see the worth in reburying them as unknowns within the confines of a CWGC cemetery. However, if the sole purpose of Great War archaeology is to find bodies, I do not see either the point or the egality in the process. Of course, if a soldier is unearthed in accidental circumstances I agree entirely with the current system of reburial. It is very different to be specifically looking for bodies.

For me, what you have described is not archaeology but searching for bodies, or remanants thereof. It does not consitute learning but recovery.

I think, Norman, this very succinctly draws the line that caused my friend and I that nagging doubt; is it archaeology or a body search?

Kind regards,

Tim

#6 Keith Roberts

Keith Roberts

    Lieut-General

  • Admin
  • 5,822 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Portsmouth Hants
  • Interests:Researching the war of Greengates, those who served, and the community behind them. Yorkshire regiments, Belgian and other beers.

Posted 27 June 2011 - 12:09 PM

Tim

It is I think a far more complex issue and you will find many other threads.

The exercise referred to involving the Diggers was clearly "Rescue Archaeology" and prevented many remains from just being worked over by heavy building equipment as part of a site clearance. Some useful information was added, and the "Yorkshire trench" location has been preserved as a result of that work.

Occasionally some archaeology is definitely intended to recover bodies. The recent major work at Pheasant Wood is an example, which has resulted in the creation of a major new war cemetery. See the CWGC website and various threads here.

Thirdly much archaeology is intended primarily to research the history, in our case of the Great War. This is normally geared to confirming some locations, to exploring the exact events that took place at a location,, possibly to recover major artefacts such as the excavation near Mametz last year which recovered parts of the giant Livens flamethrower, or to exploring for example mine workings, such as those performed by the Durand group at Vimy.

So I offer you a minimum of three categories, which will of course overlap.

1 Rescue (including any work where remains are accidentally discovered - see other threads on this).

2 targeted recovery of bodies (Bullecourt Pheasant Wood is close to being unique).

3 Research

I think you have to address these areas differently, with all the responsibilities that each entails. You will see many existing threads on some of these topics, and I am not really clear where you want to take the discussion.


Keith

#7 Tim Fox-Godden

Tim Fox-Godden

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweat
  • 708 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:North Essex, England
  • Interests:Architects and architecture of the CWGC
    War memorials and their architects
    Officer Corps throughout the war
    The cultural impact of the war
    2/3rd City of London Field Ambulance
    13/Royal Scots
    15th (Civil Service Rifles) London Regiment
    21st (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
    28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment
    Honourable Artillery Company

Posted 27 June 2011 - 01:45 PM

Tim

It is I think a far more complex issue[...]


Keith,

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.

Kindest regards,

Tim

#8 TRAJAN

TRAJAN

    Brigadier-General

  • Old Sweats
  • 2,351 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Ankara, Turkey
  • Interests:Jobwise goes with interests in my case, so Roman archaeology, but in my rare spare time then it's bayonets, WWI in general, and English cheese and beer (which I can't get here!).

Posted 27 June 2011 - 03:48 PM

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.

Kindest regards,

Tim


There are others qualified in battlefield archaeology who can best answer this one. But as a practicing archaeologist I would like to make the point that archaeology does reveal a lot that conventional history will not tell us. The thing is that archaeology is about people and how they actually lived and performed in the past - we study what actual physical evidence has been left behind for how people lived in the past. We do this by studying what is generically called their rubbish, the actual physical evidence of their day-to-day life. And this is what reveals true 'history'!

An example: the (in)famous controlled experiment done by archaeologists in Tuscon in the 1970's or the 80's. People were interviewed in the guise of a sociology experiment regarding their eating and drinking habits. Unknown to them archaeologists were examining their 'garbage' cans every qweek. Guess what? the rubbish cans of the 50% or so of people who 'Never or hardly ever ate fast food or drank beer' revealed a VERY different picture!

So, archaeology will reveal the hard facts better than what some REMF officer or even an actual combatant might choose to record in official sources or memoirs. So, what might archaeology reveal about an isolated section of trench that a war diary, personal diary, etc. will not? As a start, let us consider variations in trench design - presence or absence of a fire step, for example: absence might explain higher casualties in a particular trench length. Then actual faunal remains - were rats as common in the trenches as the sources imply? Also, density of incoming and outgoing fire - from spent bullets to cartridge cases. And the micro-fauna - preserved fly-cases can indicate the real level of sanitation in these places. I could go on, but these are just some of the areas where archaeology will help us better understand the actual conditions of warfare in the trenches.

Trajan

#9 bill24chev

bill24chev

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweats
  • 903 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Bolton Lancashire
  • Interests:MILITARY HISTORY,
    RAILWAYS, MALT WHISKY, REAL ALE AND WORLD BEERS, RUM

Posted 27 June 2011 - 04:18 PM

[quote name='TRAJAN' timestamp='1309189713' post='1609869']
We do this by studying what is generically called their rubbish,[/b]
_
Modern definition of archeology
[b][/(Pte)Baldrick running around a field getting exited but Not actualy finding old rubbish!

On a serious point I beleive that although there is not a lot for the Historian/archeologist to learn from WW1 digs the TV Documentaries that use finds to recreate and act out the past are useful in giving a broader understanding to the general TV viewer.

#10 Terry_Reeves

Terry_Reeves

    Lieut-General

  • Old Sweats
  • 6,009 posts
  • Gender:Male

Posted 27 June 2011 - 05:23 PM

Trajan

Thanks for your post which I found interesting and informative. I do not believe that non-destructive methods are the way forward as has been suggested. Linesman only finds a particular spot and geophysical methods really only indicate something is there, but not exactly what or the context. The only way to find out that is to dig.

I also think that there is too much preoccupation with human remains. More often than not, remains are found incidental to the original purpose of the investigation, witness the excellent investigations carried out by the Diggers in Belgium. The Pheasant Wood investigation was a very different kettle of fish which was based on some very specific research and was the subject of much ill-informed opinion on this forum, particularly in the context of the archeological team that that carried out the investigation, who were proved to have carried out an impeccable job.

TR

#11 31543 Ogilwy

31543 Ogilwy

    Lieutenant

  • Old Sweats
  • 189 posts

Posted 27 June 2011 - 05:55 PM

Trajan,

As always, well said.

For my two penny worth, being someone who has conducted a reasonable amount of excavations on WWI conflict sites I cannot agree more with you, especially, what is discovered on each and every dig. We have been able to re-write maps and war diarys, discovered complete trenches not listed or events that the evidence just could not corroborate or are not listed at all. In addition the detail that archaeology can go into to describe and show in a sceintific and highly detailed way the day to day life and the endurance and perseverence that was displayed by the troops. In addition it makes it possible, on occasion, to reveal a personal instant in time. These can range from the mundane to the most violent and tragic possible, but when conducted archaeologically these instances can be recorded for posterity to remain as a snap shot of history of an individual and their life. The points about non-intrusive methods are as you know a usual assignment question during study! The results of such a survey need to be confirmed by some level of excavation. They can however dictate where to excavate, thus allowing a smaller area to be disturbed.

As you know the permissions to excavate are not easy to obtain, and the level of expertise is very high. It is normally the case that when a project is loading the 'team' the applications far out weigh the places. I know that the choices are often hard to make but the abilities of all the participents at the end is staggeringly high. The people chosen in many cases are the experts in their fields and you can be assured that they would never be associated with any excavation that was taking place for any but the very best reasons.

This discipline is the new 'Industrial Archaeology' and with equally good reasons for coming into existance. Rescue and Research are the primary reasons. No one can stop progress, no matter how much they try and how loud they protest, what can and has to happen is evaluation and where necessary preservation by record or modification of that progress. Two years ago I conducted part of an evaluation dig in Pilkem where a factory complex was due to spread across a large section of the battlefield. The end result of which was that the expansion was only to be granted permission providing a full excavation took place ahead of development. This did not stop the build as it moved location to another area away from the battlefield, but it did enable the archaeology to be preserved by making it not financially viable there.

The new dimension within Conflict archaeology is media. This has become popular because it is a cheap way to make several hours of television, the public currently like the subject and it is emotive (as this site often demonstrates). By many of us media is seen as a way to generate revenue to fund research projects that although justifiable would not get off the ground for lack of funds otherwise. Media is a two edged sword that is definately selling your soul to the devil and as a result is only embarked upon with great care. It has to be remembered that the most important thing on a site is the archaeology, but to the media it is the production of a deliverable! This often leads to conflict, of a much more modern type, but I have witnessed it taking place with equal ferocity! When the director suggests that the archaeological ethics be set aside for the sake of 'good television', Battle Royal ensues.

I'm sure you are the same, but the slightest suggestion that anything improper, (within our normal professional codes of conduct) be done then it would result in a total ceasation of work and the person overstepping the bounds would become persona non grata very rapidly.

It is right that the question 'Why dig?' should be asked, but the answer is on a case by case basis only. A good indicator however is to simply look at the individual(s) instigating an excavation and ask what their gain from it is. If it is television time or monetary reasons without a solid research or rescue reason behind it then the chances are it is not going to meet with what we would consider appropriate justification.

Rod

P.S. Yes, I'm still on tour and bored!

#12 Tim Fox-Godden

Tim Fox-Godden

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweat
  • 708 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:North Essex, England
  • Interests:Architects and architecture of the CWGC
    War memorials and their architects
    Officer Corps throughout the war
    The cultural impact of the war
    2/3rd City of London Field Ambulance
    13/Royal Scots
    15th (Civil Service Rifles) London Regiment
    21st (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
    28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment
    Honourable Artillery Company

Posted 27 June 2011 - 06:14 PM

So, archaeology will reveal the hard facts better ...


Trajan,

Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

I understand a little more of the purpose of an archaeological excavation, but, am confused as to how much 'real' evidence can be drawn from a single spot which may have been occupied for the whole duration or a large part thereof. Take, for example, the density of incoming and outgoing fire, this is cumulative and, as such, does not show any more about the history of a trench than a concerted study of battalion war diaries in an area would show. If a Lewis Gun is posted at a certain point it will expel more .303 cases than a rifle, thus give the evidence of a heavy fire fight when it may have been a couple of bursts of a Lewis to scare off a patrol. I accept the theory but I do not see in practice what this type of study can categorically prove beyond, there was a trench here and bullets were fired from and into it. The same can be said of the example with the firestep, this could have been altered several times, without the spoil can this be identified? I am no archaeologist so there may be ways in which this could be identified through a change in the strata, but it seems to me that either way it would be inconclusive as to how much impact that had on casualties.

Terry made mention that he did not feel that the non-destructive methods are the way forward, but in simply identifying the position of a trench they must be. A geophysical survey would pick up on variations in trench shape, if not entirely design. But then, there are contemporary manuals and photographs that show this development. A dig to confirm it when there is photographic evidence to show the progression seems an exercise in futility.

I realise as I am typing this that I sound very negative and that is truly not my intention. I understand perfectly the role of archaeology in terms of other time periods that are not so well documented from all aspects of society. I understand that it fills that gaps that other forms of history cannot. I am not sure how the archaeological study of The Great War can do this.

I agree with bill24chev that it can be used as a stimulus for further discussion and that it is a more live version of simply walking around a museum and looking at things. Is this the limit of what Great War archaeology can do or is it possible to use it properly in the manner that Trajan mentioned? The idea of hygiene does seem to be more feasible, though, this could be affected by post-war agriculture, drainage &c.and may not give an accurate picture of life in the fighting trenches.

Trajan, I really enjoyed your post as it has got me thinking and trying to understand some of the wider uses of Great War archaeology.

Terry, I am in agreement about the preoccupation with human remains. The interesting point you raise is that they are often incidental and secondary to the original intent. With this point in mind, what are the primary purposes of these investigations?

Kind regards,

Tim

#13 Terry_Reeves

Terry_Reeves

    Lieut-General

  • Old Sweats
  • 6,009 posts
  • Gender:Male

Posted 27 June 2011 - 06:47 PM

Tim

I have two views about this, although I am sure there will be many others.

The first is the accidental or casual find. It may be from the find of an artefact that promotes further research, or a passing reference in a book or article. Another source may be from a relative who has a memory passed down through the family.

The second is something that is well known about, with the basic details having been published a number of times, but has never been physically investigated. Peter Barton's recent excavation of WH Livens's Gallery Projector is a good example of this.

TR

#14 Tim Fox-Godden

Tim Fox-Godden

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweat
  • 708 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:North Essex, England
  • Interests:Architects and architecture of the CWGC
    War memorials and their architects
    Officer Corps throughout the war
    The cultural impact of the war
    2/3rd City of London Field Ambulance
    13/Royal Scots
    15th (Civil Service Rifles) London Regiment
    21st (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
    28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment
    Honourable Artillery Company

Posted 27 June 2011 - 07:00 PM

For my two penny worth, being someone who has conducted a reasonable amount of excavations on WWI conflict sites I cannot agree more with you, especially, what is discovered on each and every dig. We have been able to re-write maps and war diarys, discovered complete trenches not listed or events that the evidence just could not corroborate or are not listed at all. In addition the detail that archaeology can go into to describe and show in a sceintific and highly detailed way the day to day life and the endurance and perseverence that was displayed by the troops. In addition it makes it possible, on occasion, to reveal a personal instant in time. These can range from the mundane to the most violent and tragic possible, but when conducted archaeologically these instances can be recorded for posterity to remain as a snap shot of history of an individual and their life. The points about non-intrusive methods are as you know a usual assignment question during study! The results of such a survey need to be confirmed by some level of excavation. They can however dictate where to excavate, thus allowing a smaller area to be disturbed.


Hi Rod,

Thank you for a superb post. Really very interesting.

It is a very interesting expansion on the post by Trajan and both supports the view that archaeology can expand our understanding and raises some other interesting points.

Could you elaborate on what you mean by re-writing maps and war diaries please? It is a fascinating idea that the text written at the time or in memoir form afterwards can be improved/developed with the aid of archaeology in a conflict that is so well documented. How does a dig go about ascertaining that the evidence found relates specifically to one war diary and not another? Could you give any examples from your experiences where this has happened?

Your points in re the media are as valid as with any other form of documentary.

The point around affecting change in the planning process and protecting sites of interest whilst not impeding progress was excellent and one that I had not considered. By ensuring that a site is properly excavated and by using the archaeological approach the development of a site can be deterred and saved for posterity. Thus the 'destructive' form of investigation becomes, ultimately, the conserving approach.

Many thanks for a really fascinating post.

Kind regards,

Tim

#15 Ken Lees

Ken Lees

    Major-General

  • Old Sweat
  • 4,271 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Here

Posted 27 June 2011 - 09:40 PM

I don't understand Tim's argument (unless it is purely that of playing devil's advocate) that suggests that there is no point in Great War archaeology because the very action of excavation destroys the physical, historical evidence. If it is pointless and nothing can be learned from it, what does it matter if it is destroyed, either by development or digging?

Also, I don't agree with the basic premise of Tim's approach to this question that the Great War is so well documented. Perhaps in comparison to earlier periods, it is, but probably not with an acceptable degree of accuracy in comparison with current and future conflicts and periods.

#16 Chris_Baker

Chris_Baker

    General

  • Old Sweat
  • 13,768 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Warwickshire UK

Posted 28 June 2011 - 07:07 AM

... We have been able to re-write ... war diarys ...


Could you please quote a specific example and explain how anyone other than whoever did the digging and "re-write" would find out about it? There's little point in this activity unless the information gained is disseminated.

#17 Drummy

Drummy

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweats
  • 506 posts

Posted 28 June 2011 - 07:22 AM

I am sure tv coverage and documentaries of events such as Fromelles, Boesinghe, Ploegsteert and Mametz will have captured the interest of many people who knew little of World War One and perhaps now have a deeper interest and have since studied the conflict / learnt about ancestors that served / visited the battlefields therefore perpetuating remembrance. The above examples were undertaken in the public eye and the methods, recording and preservation techniques subject to scrutiny, at least the remains and partial remains of over 400 servicemen now have a grave in a military cemetery. The recreated Yorkshire trench is also an example of where a sliver of WW1 history can be saved and available for public inspection, far better to see and visualise in conjuction with looking at a trench map / linesman and say so and so trench stood under this big industrial estate. As long as Great War Archaeology is carried out with intergrity, respect, legally and by those with a deep knowledge and relevant skill to undertake such and with safety paramount then I have no issue with it, I look forward to reading of the work of the La Boiselle Glory Hole project.

#18 seadog

seadog

    Major-General

  • Old Sweats
  • 4,881 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Bristol UK

Posted 28 June 2011 - 07:52 AM

There is an important distinction between the excavations undertaken at Boezinge and the Plugstreet and Mametz ones mentioned. The Flanders excavations were motivated by the need to both find and record this unique section of the battlefield which eventually would be covered by industrial developments. The fact that large numbers of human remains were found and given a decent burial was a commendable by-product of the investigations. This was however a rescue dig where if it were not undertaken the evidence of conflict would be lost forever. This type of excavation is totally different to a planned dig on unthreatened areas of the battlefield the benefits of which would seem to be dubious to say the least.

The fact is that such excavations will be by their very nature destructive and will have a very large probability of disturbing the human remains from a conflict which is still etched in the family memories of many people, it is this aspect of deliberate excavations which concern me the most and I would contend that there should be very good reasons why such excavations are permitted to be undertaken. I understand that the law regarding such excavations has been tightened up in Belgium though I am not aware of the present situation in France. I pose again one question with regard to France, do you think that permission would be given for excavations of a similar nature to the ones at Mametz and the Glory Hole to be undertaken on the battlefield of Verdun?, if anyone knows of such an excavation within the recent past perhaps they will post details.

Norman

#19 Aurel Sercu

Aurel Sercu

    Major-General

  • Old Sweats
  • 3,444 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Boezinge-Ieper (Ypres), Flanders

Posted 28 June 2011 - 08:46 AM

When Himalayan climber George Mallory (1886-1924) was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, his answer was : "Because it's there."

I could (humbly) give a similar reply to the question why we (the Diggers)were at work on the Boezinge canal bank site (now industrial estate).

Aurel

#20 Tim Fox-Godden

Tim Fox-Godden

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweat
  • 708 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:North Essex, England
  • Interests:Architects and architecture of the CWGC
    War memorials and their architects
    Officer Corps throughout the war
    The cultural impact of the war
    2/3rd City of London Field Ambulance
    13/Royal Scots
    15th (Civil Service Rifles) London Regiment
    21st (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
    28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment
    Honourable Artillery Company

Posted 28 June 2011 - 08:57 AM

I don't understand Tim's argument (unless it is purely that of playing devil's advocate) that suggests that there is no point in Great War archaeology because the very action of excavation destroys the physical, historical evidence. If it is pointless and nothing can be learned from it, what does it matter if it is destroyed, either by development or digging?

Also, I don't agree with the basic premise of Tim's approach to this question that the Great War is so well documented. Perhaps in comparison to earlier periods, it is, but probably not with an acceptable degree of accuracy in comparison with current and future conflicts and periods.


Ken,

I am not saying there is no point in Great War archaeology, I am trying to understand how it furthers our understanding of the conflict and the life of the soldiers beyond what we already know. I do think it would be better to leave the earth untouched if non-destructive methods can be used to obtain the same information.

In regards to the types of information that a dig could unearth (excuse the pun) I think the Great War is well documented. I am not sure of your train of thought in regards to accuracy. I am not only refering to the memoirs written a number of years after where memories may have become hazy nor some of the less reliable divisional histories, but the war diaries are accurate, as are the appendices held within. There are also the multiple lessons learnt documents written, the official and unofficial manuals, photographic evidence, both official and unofficial, which provide a great deal of knowledge and insight. In addition to this there has been a greater awareness in capturing the history of the war through the experiences of those who fought on a scale much wider than had previously been undertaken. The Great War was the first war that most of the combatants were literate and, as a result, there is a plethora of evidence to establish the facts around an event. Yes, modern conflicts may have greater technology to capture more/different elements of a war, but it will not be documented at the same length as The Great War as there simply are not the numbers of combatants. In relation to this discussion, I am not sure how archaeology can add to or expand what is contained in all the above and more. Where are the gaps that archaeology could fill?

Kind regards,

Tim

#21 Tim Fox-Godden

Tim Fox-Godden

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweat
  • 708 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:North Essex, England
  • Interests:Architects and architecture of the CWGC
    War memorials and their architects
    Officer Corps throughout the war
    The cultural impact of the war
    2/3rd City of London Field Ambulance
    13/Royal Scots
    15th (Civil Service Rifles) London Regiment
    21st (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
    28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment
    Honourable Artillery Company

Posted 28 June 2011 - 09:00 AM

Could you please quote a specific example and explain how anyone other than whoever did the digging and "re-write" would find out about it? There's little point in this activity unless the information gained is disseminated.


A very good point. Are the records of all Great War digs deposited anywhere? What analysis is made on the meaning of these records? Do they provide information on an event that changes our current understanding of it?

Kind regards,

Tim

#22 Tim Fox-Godden

Tim Fox-Godden

    Lieut-Colonel

  • Old Sweat
  • 708 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:North Essex, England
  • Interests:Architects and architecture of the CWGC
    War memorials and their architects
    Officer Corps throughout the war
    The cultural impact of the war
    2/3rd City of London Field Ambulance
    13/Royal Scots
    15th (Civil Service Rifles) London Regiment
    21st (First Surrey Rifles) London Regiment
    28th (Artists Rifles) London Regiment
    Honourable Artillery Company

Posted 28 June 2011 - 09:25 AM

There is an important distinction between the excavations undertaken at Boezinge and the Plugstreet and Mametz ones mentioned. The Flanders excavations were motivated by the need to both find and record this unique section of the battlefield which eventually would be covered by industrial developments. The fact that large numbers of human remains were found and given a decent burial was a commendable by-product of the investigations. This was however a rescue dig where if it were not undertaken the evidence of conflict would be lost forever. This type of excavation is totally different to a planned dig on unthreatened areas of the battlefield the benefits of which would seem to be dubious to say the least.

The fact is that such excavations will be by their very nature destructive and will have a very large probability of disturbing the human remains from a conflict which is still etched in the family memories of many people, it is this aspect of deliberate excavations which concern me the most and I would contend that there should be very good reasons why such excavations are permitted to be undertaken. I understand that the law regarding such excavations has been tightened up in Belgium though I am not aware of the present situation in France. I pose again one question with regard to France, do you think that permission would be given for excavations of a similar nature to the ones at Mametz and the Glory Hole to be undertaken on the battlefield of Verdun?, if anyone knows of such an excavation within the recent past perhaps they will post details.

Norman


Some very valid points, Norman.

I think this distinction is paramount to this discussion. I can clearly understand the purpose of rescue archaeology, it has a defined objective. I also understand the role of archaeology as a deterrent to development. It is the second area of archeaology on these unthreatened areas that I am trying to understand the objectives.

I am not fully versed on the work of the La Boiselle Study Group and their project at the Glory Hole. It would be interesting to know what the objectives are for the project. The website mentions preservation and a detailed examination of a Great War battlefield. It is the second point regarding the examination which is the part of Great War archaeology that I do not fully understand. How will this add to the historiography of the war in a fresh way that gives new insight and betters our understanding? This is not a criticism, but a genuine question?

Kind regards,

Tim

#23 seadog

seadog

    Major-General

  • Old Sweats
  • 4,881 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:Bristol UK

Posted 28 June 2011 - 11:52 AM

Tim, it is right that the type of questions that are detailed here should be asked and that the whole subject of WW1 battlefield archeology should be subject to scrutiny even more so as we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of the war. This forum provides an excellent medium for such debate as its members are passionately interested in the subject of WW1 and have done and are doing much to educate and inform those with a similar interest. On the subject of the dissemination of the results of recent archeological events I for one have not seen any sign of a report which is available to the general public recording the digs in detail. I have got as no doubt others have the excellent if short published description of the exploratory excavations undertaken near the area called “Crossroads” on the Pilckhem Ridge in Flanders through which the intended A19 Motorway was to pass and apart from this, nothing. I stand to be corrected but certainly in the cases of the excavation of the Vampire dugout in Belgium and the Livens Projector in France it would be easy to come to the conclusion that the media in this case the TV programmes have taken precedence over published material which is available to the public.

Norman

#24 ph0ebus

ph0ebus

    Major-General

  • Old Sweats
  • 3,894 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:New York, NY

Posted 28 June 2011 - 12:11 PM

A lot of dig results get published in the related professional journals. Not all results get published, but many do. What happens to the rest? I would suspect that they remain in the files of the organization that conducted the research. Someone may know better than I and might be able to clarify where all this data ends up.

I know that on the dig I took part in, the results were indeed published and was available to researchers to consult as well. Where all the bits and bobs we collected ended up, I honestly don't know, but then again, I never asked.

Daniel

#25 David Faulder

David Faulder

    Brigadier-General

  • Old Sweats
  • 1,980 posts
  • Gender:Male
  • Location:UK
  • Interests:3rd, 1/4th, 14th Battalions York and Lancaster Regiment

Posted 28 June 2011 - 12:16 PM

>><<I stand to be corrected but certainly in the cases of the excavation of the Vampire dugout in Belgium and the Livens Projector in France it would be easy to come to the conclusion that the media in this case the TV programmes have taken precedence over published material which is available to the public.

Norman

Vampire was quite a while ago so by now something could have been published. The Livens Projector project is still sufficiently recent that any publication could still be tied down in peer review.

Peer reviewed journals should be the minimum publication - but they tend not to be widely available (which may be why some think nothing has been published). "Published material available to the public" ideally would be online (and free!) which means extra time and possibly cost which many academics are reluctant to commit for little perceived return.

David