The Archaeology of Modern Conflict – By Andy Brockman
In the summer off 2010 my family was on a camping holiday in Sweden. On our first night we pitched at a site at Falsterbo, just south of Malmö and as we backed the car onto the grass I sensed one of those, “Oh no dad’s going to be insufferably boring,” feelings radiating from the children. They had spotted before I had that, by complete coincidence, the manager of the site had placed us on one of the three pitches which sat at the foot of a large earth covered bunker with a shuttered concrete entrance and heavy locked steel blast door.
It is a moment which shows in microcosm two of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of this new archaeological discipline, the Archaeology of Modern Conflict. The visible artefacts are all around us in the landscape and it is truly international. Sweden has long tradition of neutrality, not having participated any aggressive foreign war since 1814, yet Swedish military history is as complex as any more militarily active or contested state and the effects of trying to maintain sovereignty, national integrity and the safety of the armed forces and citizens are written in concrete and earthworks into the archaeological, as well as the political, record.
At Falsterbo we had pitched on the inner line of the Skånelinjen the Skåne Line, also known as the Per Albin Line, constructed during the government of Prime Minister Per Albin Hanssen to defend 500km of potential landing beaches from invasion by Germany, or Soviet Union, during World War Two. The inner line which we had seen on the camp site, contained Bunkers and Command and Control facilities supporting the outer line which protected the potential landing beaches themselves.
The Skånelinjen was decomissioned in the 1990’s and can be said at that point it became a potential ”Heritage Asset” and subject for research. In common with many other societies with similar legacies it has become necessary for the Swedish Government, the local Kommuns, and not to mention the individuals who came across the sites as we did, to renegotiate the response to their existance and their rationalise their meaning and value as historical artefacts and archaeology.
When they were active such sites possessed a utilitarian function within a Military or Civil Defence infrastructure. As such they were meant to remain camouflaged, invisible, and secret, the subject of rumour and speculation. That is unless they were destined to appear in Government Propaganda, aimed at intimidating potential enemies or to re-assuring a civilian population. However once the guardianship of ”No Go” areas and official secrecy laws are removed and the sites are decomissioned, the questions can proliferate.
Do these monumental structures represent an ugly reminder of dangerous times most people are happy to forget and a nuisance blocking redevelopment and regeneration? Alternatively, are they important artefacts, survivors of the contested political and military past with an archaeological story to tell? Of course in the way people have of adopting and adapting a landcape, do they also represent a handy platform for picnics and sunbathing, or perhaps, their dark interiors might make them perfect venues for more private and sometimes less socially positive behaviour? As with many aspects of the archaeology of industry, the archaeoloogy of the modern, the archaeology of living memory, it is a debate which archaeologists have only joined when the recognition came that much of the primary evidence was disappearing rapidly or had already been lost.
This is not merely an academic argument about standing buildings, archaeology and artefacts. This archaeology is unique in that it can and I would argue must, interrogate eye witnesses to populate sites and moderate our interpretations of functions and artefacts. This is because Conflict Archaeology is not just about what the Red Forces and the Blue Forces did on the battlefield. We do study that; but we also look beyond to the wider cultural contexts, legacies and seek multiple layers of view point and meaning. However, there is an additional, practical reason for actively seeking out such witnesses.
Given official secrecy and the difficulty in locating documents and indeed the difficulty of locating some sites themselves, witnesses can even assist in locating a site in the first place. The Great War Anti Aircraft Gun site at Eaglesfield Park in Shooters Hill south east London, excavated over two seasons in 2009 and 2010 by the Digging Dad’s Army Project, was located in documents to somewhere within a circle with a diameter of around 250m. We located several Geophysics Targets within that area with the potential to be the gun site, yet we were able to put our trench down on the centre of it on the morning of day one because two witnesses, John Peters and Peter Jeans, recalled its location independantly from childhood experiences in the 1930’s and 1940’s. However, such testimonies are precious and like our archaeology, represent a diminishing resource. John Peters sadly passed away while I was writing this article.
This fragile evidence has wider cultural resonances. In July 2009, within the space of one week, the last two people who were able to remember the Western Front of World War One from a British perspective, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, passed away. In that moment, from a British point of view at least, a seminal human and cultural experience ceased to be moderated by living voices. The voices of other equally resonant conflicts are also growing silent. The eye witnesses to the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War and the Republican struggle against General Franco’s rebels have been severely depleated by the recent deaths of Jack Jones, Sam Lesser and Penny Feiwel in Britain and Milton Wolff in the USA and it is salutory to note that at the time of writing the youngest surviving aircrew from either side in the 1940 Battle of Britain are 88 years old.
Anniversaries such as the current spate of 70th anniversaries related to World War Two and the forthcoming centenary of the outbreak of World War One in 2014, often drive community and media interest in these stories and in the remains of conflict. The media even fund some conflict archaeology. Yet within twenty years the only voices with a direct memory of World War Two; the great crisis of the mid twentieth century whose political and cultural effects are still being worked out; will belong to those who were children at the time and, in an echo of Shakespeare’s seven ages, even those memories of childhood will disolve into the mists of earliest childhood recollection sans all detail except that of immediate personal experience.
Of course at this point it might be argued- so what? We have a whole community of voices, in forms ranging from family folklore and annecdote to formal oral history, not to mention the documents, war diaries, maps, air photographs by the million, official histories and memoires. Indeed, the Eaglesfield site was known and dated from documents; we even know how much ammunition it used during particular air raids. Nor was its weapons fit unique; the site mounted a 3” High Angle Anti Aircraft Gun, the standard British weapon of this type from early1916 onwards, examples of which still survive. Indeed one is on public display at Firepower- the Royal Artillery Museum, just 2km down the hill from Eaglesfield. Given that mass of information who needs the archaeology?
In fact there is as much justification for excavating such sites as there is for excavating a medieval castle or a fort on a Roman Limes. The defence of London against air attack in World War One was the first attempt to design an integrated air defence system in the world. Partly because of this real time experiment with new military technologies there is no ”book” to look to in the British National Archives, the British authorities were writing the book as they went along. Indeed, all of the, very few, World War One anti-aircraft sites which have been excavated to date are unique in terms of layout and construction. In addition the Eagflesfield site contains a second gun ring which shows the site was adapted in the course of its life, an archaeological fact and a complexity which does not appear in the known documentary record.
There is also the fact that, as has been widely recognised and discussed, particularly by workers such as Dr Gabriel Moshenska of University College London, this branch of archaeology is uniquely interesting to the wider public on account of close community, family and cultural connections with the material and experience of conflict. This wide base of experience means the archaeology of conflict is also uniquely accessible to a similarly wide range of researchers, to the extent that organisations of committed enthusiasts, such as the ”Pill Box Study Group,” in Britain, have often been ahead of the professional archaeological community in recording researching and valuing such heritage and archaeology.
However, this very special and often personal relationship with the archaeology of a recent past points up the fact that, while the new discipline offers some very special rewards it also has particular challenges. Above all anyone involved in active research in this sector must address the issues of viewpoint, ethics, safety and legality.
Some of these issues are easily addressed. For example, as we have seen, any study of conflict in the recent past may be dealing with the testimony of living witnesses. Indeed, some university history departments now treat oral history interviews as akin to an experiment on a human subject and programmes are subject to approval by the appropriate ethics committee. It is not necessary to go quite that far to suggest that anyone undertaking such research has an ethical duty to treat their subject with consideration, respect and courtesy [even if some of the views encountered might be difficult to accept at times], acknowledging copyright and obtaining releases for publication.
Equally it is common sense, as well as ethically necessary, to ensure that work is conducted safely and in compliance with any national legislation. The British ”Protection of Military Remains Act”  controlling access to crashed aircraft and military wrecks was created as a direct response to the plundering of air crash sites by self styled ”Aviation Archaeologists,” acting in a style akin to 18th century Antiquarians opening Prehistoric Barrows in search of artefacts and often operating with a complete disregard for the possible presence of ammunition, ordnance and human remains.
Best practice also demands intrusive archaeological research on former military sites includes robust risk assessments and codes of practice alongside adequate adequate safety cover, in case ammunition and unexploded ordance are encountered or the work entails the study of potentially hazardous confined spaces and decayed or underground structures. More complex is the ethical and practical relationship with wider cultural and political issues.
By definition the archaeology of modern conflict deals with contested pasts and contested views of the past. In Great Britain, any of us working on the conflict archaeology of World War Two are dealing with what in many ways is the ”Foundation Myth” of the modern sense of Britishness- at least as advanced by certain tabloid newspapers, while in other regions of the world archaeologist might be dealing with a conflict which is current, raw controversial and dangerous in ways that no other branch of archaeology can match.
The great Prussian military theorist Von Clausewitze argued that war was a social activity and in particular was an extension of politics by other means. If politics is a subject for the historian in the archive, the effect of that politics on the ground is a subject for archaeologists. On the eve of the battle of Messine in June 1917 General Herbert Plumer acknowledged the way that high explosive can literally remodel a landscape in moments, when he observed to his Staff Officers, ”Gentlemen, we may not make History tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.” Such human driven changes in geography are the food and drink of archaeology and a recent edition of the BBC current affairs series ”Panorama” The Battle for Bomb Alley,” [first broadcast in England in February 2011] showed this process in action with remarkable and sometimes shocking, candour, but incidently also showed a theme for the Conflict Archaeology of the future in the context of a contested past.
Reporter Ben Anderson, embeded with the Lima Company of the United States Marine Corps in Sangin Province, Afghanistan, followed the Marines as they attempted to take control of the area around a Patrol Base formerly occupied by British soldiers including Queens Company Grenadier Guards and 3 Rifles. The viewer saw an infantryman’s eye view of the geography of the local area being changed, not least through the explosion of IED’s [Improvised Explosive Devices] set by Afghan fighters usually identified as ”Taliban” and the destruction of Afghan compounds during the resulting anti ”Taliban” sweeps by ISAF and the Afghan Army. However the programme also highlighted historical irony and an archaeological stratification.
Anderson showed the memorial constructed by the previous British occupants of the Patrol Base to some of the 106 soldiers who lost their lives in the area and poiniently observed of the British garrison that ”… their murals are everywhere although some are fading in the sun.” Perhaps less poetic than a line from Kipling, but haunting nonetheless given the context. The conflict archaeology of the British Army in Afghanistan stretches back to 1839 and the patrol bases of Sangin and Helmand are simply the latest layer. .
Meanwhile the civilians, men women and children looked on without a voice apart from during the awkward, if probably well meaning, attempts at appology and offers of a chit to be exchanged for compensation. The civilian may often be portrayed as victim, and may indeed perceive themselves as such, but in an insurgancy some at least of those apparently neutral victims might turn into an active participant on one side or the other and again change the geography through the planting of an IED or by leading the soldiers to an insurgant safe house which will then be destroyed. That too is a strand of Conflict Archaeology to come.
One day it is to be hoped that the sites of Afghanistan will be at peace and can be safely recorded, visited and studied in the same way as we visit record and study , the Western Front, the Normandy Beaches and the Berlin Wall. However, it must also be hoped that when it is, it is a true ”Conflict Archaeology” which looks to the other side of the hill and where the experience and related material culture of the Afghan community is researched and valued on equal terms with that of a Marine from Lima Company or a Rifleman from 3 Rifles. Conflict Archaeology can be technically and morally complex. It is also, I would argue, necessary.
Just as I was finishing this article the news came through that the last American veteran of World War One had died. Frank Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia was 110 and had lied about his age to join up before serving in England and France in 1917 and 1918. Another personal and national experience can now only be discussed and moderated by the historian, increasingly and rightly, in partnership with the archaeologist.
Andy Brockman a community archaeologist based in south east London. He is a specialist in the Archaeology of Modern Conflict and is Research Director of the multi-disciplinary Digging Dad’s Army Project.
In addition to research and community based archaeology, Andy has acted as consultant in Conflict Archaeology to television programmes including “The Real Dad’s Army” and “Time Team” on Britain’s Channel 4 and “Mud Men” ITN Productions for The History Channel. He is a founder member of ARCH (the Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage) coordinated by English Heritage working with the UK Police and Crown Prosecution Service.
©Heritage Daily and ANDY BROCKMAN 2011
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