With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One approaching, the DigVentures ‘Op’s Room’ has been abuzz with plans to help community groups commemorate and investigate the archaeological legacy of the Great War. But what can archaeology teach us about this well-documented event that we don’t already know?
In this short dispatch from our ‘home front’ project team, we report on what archaeology can contribute to a subject traditionally studied as ‘social history’, detailing our latest project helping Doncaster’s Museum and Libraries Service develop their Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Doncaster 1914-18’ project.
‘Any one of them could have been me,’ reflected Harry Patch, resigned to his solitary status as the last surviving veteran of World War One’s trenches. ‘Millions of men came to fight in this war and I find it incredible that I am the only one left,’
Harry Patch – the last ‘Tommy’ to have served on the western front – died in July 2009 aged 111. His brother in spirit if not arms – Erich Kästner – died in Germany a little over a year earlier aged 108. Leaving only images, films, diaries and documents to bear witness to the experiences and events of that cold Edwardian Winter, with their passing goes our final link to living memory… but a persistent thought remains. If not for the fortunate accident of birth, time and place, any one of them could have been me. Any one of them could have been you.
Nearly one hundred years on from the start of the First World War, people are reuniting around the earth-shattering events that played out in the muddy fields of Europe. With nationwide community-based projects planned by the Council for British Archaeology (The Home Front and its Legacies); the Heritage Lottery Fund (First World War: then and now); and numerous other projects planned by organisations like the National Trust and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, archaeologists are being called upon to apply their skills to this collective commemorative war effort.
The Archaeology of the Great War
But what can archaeology teach us that we don’t already know about such a well-documented and relatively recent event like the Great War? Too recent to be archaeological in the traditional sense, but too far away for anyone to remember, the Great War presents archaeologists with a conceptual challenge. It is a subject that stands at the edge of our subject, falling at the boundary of our conveniently grouped time periods. With a chronological currency typically falling into 100-year blocks – constrained by the limitations of the material evidence, radiocarbon dating and +/- statistical standard deviations – archaeology seems like far too blunt an instrument to recover the rich detail of lives like Harry and Erich’s.
Yet this weakness is also, paradoxically, our greatest strength. With skills honed on the forensic and anthropological reconstruction of archaeological sites sometimes many millennia in the past, our approach, like the artefacts we study, is three-dimensional. Made, used, lost, found, sold, bequeathed, heirloomed. Like Grandfathers watch, unwound since the moment of his death, artefacts have a life history – a biography if you will – that makes for a potent connection with the past. This approach to understanding artefacts can also be applied to entire landscapes – in effect, a collection of artefacts superimposed one on top of the other. And just like the objects you hold in your hand, landscape is packed with stories about the past.
The Home Front
It is in the pursuit of these stories that we have been working with Doncaster Museum and Libraries Service, undertaking a desk-based assessment of the WW1 heritage in the borough and wider West and South Yorkshire region. As the first ever ‘total war’ – encompassing global conflict on land, air and sea – the impact of the First World War on civilian populations was all consuming. In the immediate short-term, the escalating conflict transformed rural and urban landscapes. From factories, shipyards and plants producing armaments; aerodromes, drill halls and practice trenches reflecting new forms of warfare; to tank banks and zeppelin bombsites of the ‘home front’, civilians were brought into direct contact with the war as never before. Whilst the material evidence for this impact should be equally widespread, the extent, survival and current condition of Britain’s First World War heritage is actually poorly recorded and understood.
Before we began, just six Great War sites were listed on the Historic Environment Record. We’ve found a further 63 sites in the Doncaster region alone, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Using a Geographic Information System (GIS) to coordinate the research, we’ve created a layer in Google Earth, integrated with Street View, to enable the reader to explore the physical and geographic connections between these sites and their association with the present-day landscape. These new digital approaches have the potential to revolutionise the ways that heritage sites are investigated and understood. With more crowdsourced volunteers to help pour over the archives, source photographs, films, newspaper clippings, perhaps even from their own collections, the hope for the next phase of the Heritage Lottery funded project is to unlock more of Doncaster’s Great War stories, and collect these on an easily accessible and geographically referenced website.
Want to get Involved?
The DigVentures motto – ‘archaeology in your hands’ – is what joins the dots between our projects, and you won’t be surprised to find that we’ve identified a handful of home front sites throughout the UK that will do precisely that. By digging these sites over the coming commemoration period, we hope to reconnect the ‘macro-history’ of politicians and generals with the ‘micro-history’ of human experience at the front and in the workplace, linking them wherever possible with the lives and experience of known individuals. It is this dimension that makes WW1 sites so powerful and their archaeological investigation so important. Through popular participation in their investigation, these sites can be actively memorialised through excavation, bringing us closer to the Great War experience of men like Harry and Erich than any other form of engagement. And in this anniversary year of commemoration, that’s no bad thing.
Interested in the Archaeology of the Great War? Check out our weekly blog series – World War Wednesday – or sign up to our newsletter to be notified about our forthcoming WW1 home front project opportunities.
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