Excavating Memories: Archaeology and the Great War, 1914-2001

By Saunders, Nicholas J. | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview
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Excavating Memories: Archaeology and the Great War, 1914-2001


Saunders, Nicholas J., Antiquity


Archaeology, materiality and war

Archaeology and war have an enduring and ambiguous relationship -- both create in the very act of destroying. While all wars produce dramatic shifts in human behaviour which can leave vivid archaeological traces, it is the material and psychological immensity of industrialized conflict which embodies the extremes of our behaviours -- from a nation's production and mobilization of material force, to an individual's struggle with injury, loss, and despair.

Conflicts may live on as histories and propaganda -- shaping attitudes, behaviour and material culture towards war even in times of peace. Some conflicts are reconfigured as national myths, linking past and present wars, as illustrated by the Serbs conjuring images of their defeat by the Ottoman Turks at the `Battle of Kosovo' in AD 1389 while enduring a repeat performance at the hands of NATO in 1999. The intensity and interplay of emotions and actions that modern war engages makes its archaeology a vital yet hitherto largely unacknowledged and un-theorized area of investigation.

Arguably, no event has been more significant in crystallizing these issues for the 20th century than the Great War of 1914-18, the first global industrialized conflict. Subjected to numerous historical and literary audits for some 80 years, a focused archaeological and anthropological assessment is only now emerging (Saunders in preparation). The multi-disciplinary potential for such an endeavour is as rich as it is complex (Schnapp 1999), not least because investigations to date have mirrored recent trends in public war remembrance by concentrating on the Western Front.

The speed of post-war reconstruction in the west left whole war landscapes intact -- systems of trenches, dugouts, tunnels, craters, materiel, souvenirs, personal belongings, and human remains lie (often perfectly) preserved just centimetres beneath the modern surface. These layers are superimposed over, and can intrude into, an area's pre-war archaeological record. It is a deadly feature of this archaeological palimpsest that the materialities of all periods can be mixed with volatile unexploded ordnance, making excavation a potentially lethal undertaking (Webster 1998).

Scientific archaeology in Great War locations is in its infancy, and other issues of concern to modern archaeology have hardly been recognized. For example, what might be the implications for assessing the `social life' of personalized memory-objects displayed in the home for 80 years, identical items exhibited or stored in museums, and similarly identical materials excavated from Great War archaeological sites -- some of which feed the international trade in military memorabilia (Saunders 2001a), and consequently stimulate further illegal digging?

More poignant is the complex set of issues concerning the cultural, religious, forensic and ethical dimensions surrounding the recovery, re-burial and commemoration of the multi-ethnic and multi-faith dead, from Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, China and the Americas, who fought in the Allied armies. These intersect broader themes such as memorialization of battlefield cemeteries, war memorials and war museums -- places themselves now the focus of cultural heritage activities and a burgeoning tourism industry.

Despite this, in the construction and shaping of our cultural memory of 20th-century war, the well-published integrated perspectives of modern archaeology hardly feature in recent assessments of war and memory (e.g. Ashplant et al. 2000). Yet, while scholarly discourse on Great War archaeology is hardly in print, constantly updated discussion and analysis is available on the internet (BAR 2001; URW 2001; and see Fabiansson in preparation). It is the rich potential of archaeology which I wish to explore here, albeit in introductory fashion (see Chippindale 1997; Schofield et al. in press), and with a focus on the Western Front.

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