“Conflict archaeology in a galaxy far far away.” In 2013 I wrote a short article exploring the archaeology of Star Wars, discussing the extant remains of ‘Tatooine’ in Tunisia as being archaeologically valid – ‘culturally significant imaginings’, an extension of the more traditional archaeology of ‘culturally significant happenings’- other realities as much as other times. At the time, the movie saga was finished…
2015 saw Star Wars return to the big screen with the record breaking Star Wars: The Force Awakens (SWTFA). This installment brought us the story of Rey, a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku and her ‘first steps into a larger world’ with a loyal BB droid, the legendary Han Solo, his friend Chewie and of course Fin the storm trooper with a conscience. There are scarcely words enough to convey my excitement, joy and delight at the tone, pace and quality of the latest Star Wars movie. But that is not why I am here… I am here today as an archaeologist.
Arguably, one of the most iconic locations featured in SWTFA is the desert planet Jakku, where our heroine Rey has spent most of her life waiting for her family to return.
The sweeping sand dunes, broad vistas and shimmering sun sets are evocative of classic cinema such as Lawrence of Arabia and ofcourse the original Star Wars movie. Though unlike Tattooine, this is not merely an inhospitable landscape sparsely populated by hovels and moisture farms, this was the site of a battle!
It is in the context of this aftermath that Rey finds herself eking out a living, scavenging recyclables and parts from the gargantuan wreckage of star destroyers, Walkers X-Wings and TIE fighters.
Rey seeks out useful salvage, gathers it together and takes it to Nima outpost to clean it up and attempt to trade with the junk boss Unkar Plutt for ‘portions’ of food. Everyday Rey repeats this routine, returning to her home, a downed AT-AT walker in the evening.
At this point in the movie, I was extremely excited. Not only because Rey is an intriguing and charismatic presence but because what were seeing was conflict archaeology (or at least an archaeological landscape)… In a Star Wars movie! But (putting the force, space battles and the empire to one side) is any of this lifestyle realistic? Are we being presented with a believable scenario in the wake of a huge battle or is this merely a contrived plot point for Rey’s origin?
According to the Star Wars wiki, the Battle of Jakku occurred between the forces of the New Republic and the Galactic Empire, one year and four days after the Battle of Endor (the climactic battle of the original trilogy).
In the years following the battle, the sands of Jakku may have encroached somewhat but the desert is still littered with the wreckage of the battle in an area which came to be known as the Graveyard of Giants. The ‘Graveyard’ is littered with debris and dangerous substances such as fuel and coolant. In one section of the ‘Graveyard’, the Crackle, the sandy terrain has been turned in to glass following the heat of a tremendous crash. Now, it is tempting to go into a long-winded (and extremely geeky) archaeological exploration of the site and what the ‘Graveyard’ tells us about how the battle unfolded. However, these events are explored in the young adult novel ‘Lost Stars’, written by Claudia Gray.
I would hate to clumsily retread those steps. Rather, this story reminds me very much of the aftermath of massive battles during the First World War. For many, it may be desirable to think that the battlefields of France, Gallipoli and so many other places were left untouched by scavengers and every day life, set aside as sacred scars upon the landscape where so many lost their lives and life would never return but this is not necessarily the case.
In some instances, as with Star Wars, machinery, dugouts and other large remains do persist seemingly untouched – although in what sort of quantity and state of preservation it is hard to say. The best preservation is in deep dugouts and tunnels which were sealed and are now oxygen free.
However even as the First World War raged on, preparation for post-war restitution and restoration was underway. Some efforts were organized by the army, some by government and other efforts happened ad hoc, organized by communities and local individuals.
Military Units collected salvage and reusable kit all the time. Under the allied blockade in 1917-1918, for example, the Germans had a particular driver to recycle war material. One expert on the Northumberland Fusiliers reports that the 34th Divisional Salvage Company was active on the Somme during July 1916:
34th Divisional Salvage Company formed 10th May 1916
The duties of the Company were:
1 – Care and custody of packs of troops engaged in offensive operations.
2 – Care of tents and canvas of the Division.
3 – The salvage of Government property, and also enemy property, wherever found.
4 – The sorting of the stuff salved, and dispatch thereof to base.
During the month of July the 34th D.S.C. recovered;-
Rifles – 12,998
Bayonets – 6,050
Revolvers – 8
Very Pistols – 28
Machine Guns – 51
Trench Mortars – 12
Small Arms Ammunition – 1,580,000 rounds
S.A.A. fired cases – 145,000
Bombs – 40,000
Sets of equipment complete – 5,500
Ground sheets – 700
Steel Helmets – 9,869
Gas Masks – 13,280
Picks & shovels – 2,000
Wire Cutters – 950
Bully Beef Tins – 16,000
Bag pipes – 6 sets
Total value of one months salvage = £1,500,000.
German POWs along with Chinese labour was employed in 1918-19 to further this process and the French Government divided battlefields into areas where paid contractors could undertake surface clearance. It is still possible to find British corrugated iron and screw pickets used in farms and dwellings across France and Belgium!
Once the official Grave Concentration Units had finished researching and consolidating what are now the official Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries in 1921 there were bounties for recovering further human remains; 38,000 were reported between 1922 and 1925. Between 1932 and 1935 4,079 bodies were reported to the then Imperial War Graves Commission as having been found in France and Belgium, 52% found by scrap searchers; 30% by farmers/others. Today of course there are legal restrictions and any human remains uncovered in France and Belgium are a Police matter.
Most allied efforts had ended by the mid 1920’s but of course the process has never really ended and continues today every time a site is impacted by development or found by accident, or archaeology!
Local people moved back as soon as possible, even during the war, to rebuild their farms and communities. It is also worth remembering that the swathes of land we so often picture as WW1 battlefields, pock marked with shell holes were sometimes only a few hundred meters wide. The entire landscape was not obliterated.
So, just as in Star Wars, concerted efforts to clean up battlefields and sanctioned scavenging did indeed occur during the Great War and just as on Jakku, it was not everywhere, rather relatively small areas which were scarred by war. What of the middle men though, the characters such as Unkar Plutt?
There was much money to be made following the Great War, this could be achieved in a number of ways (both official and unofficial). Post war Soldiers could earn 2/6d (£3.23) per day extra pay if they volunteered for burial parties.
A major source of revenue was the sale of salvage and scrap, officially as surplus or privately ‘off the back of a lorry’. Bounties were offered for the recovery of human remains. Land owners offered scrap and scavenged goods as payment-in-kind for farm laborers and contractors and of course the sale of ‘trench art’ made from scrap (some created during the war, some made following the conflict) fetched a good return. There were also (and still are) plenty of dealers and middle men. Some acted as contractors with areas assigned to them by the government and others were simply dealers selling on the artifacts found by farmers and metal detectorists for a large profit.
It is worthwhile remembering that all of this opportunity came with an element of danger. Some estimates for the failure rate of shells (ie potentially viable shells still in the ground) is between 10 and 20%. There are also persistent chemical agents like Mustard Gas, still capable of causing serious injury a hundred years on.
Elements of this sort of behaviour can be seen in SWTFA. At one end of the spectrum we have Unkar paying scavengers a pittance in food rations for their hard labour and at the other end we have Rey repurposing and using the materials around her to create art (including a doll of an X Wingpilot) in her home.
As outlined above, the Jakku battlefield is littered with hazardous materials and presumably the caliber of workers, traders and as Obi Wan would say ‘scum and villainy’ found at Nima outpost reflects the perceived risk/ reward inherent in scavenging a battlefield.
Back on earth, there were also other opportunities which aren’t immediately apparent in SWTFA. For example wages earned working on and supplying materials to the memorials and cemeteries paid for by the various Governments involved in the conflict.
There was also soon a booming battlefield tourist trade. Many locals started small museums, opened B&Bs and cafes to support a range of tourists ranging from those who were curious to those who had lost family during the war. Battlefield tourism continues to this day with thousands of families, school and college groups, memorial organizations and even bespoke travel companies making the journey to see, witness and remember battlefields across the globe every year.
So it seems that far from being merely a far fetched set up for Rey’s character, the aftermath of a decades-old battle as portrayed in Star Wars The Force Awakens is actually rather believable and all too familiar to conflict archaeologists.
It may be tempting to dismiss such behaviour as vulture-like, even disrespectful and while there were and are unsavoury elements in the salvage and recovery from a battlefield, it is worth remembering that it was a necessary process. As with all archaeology and life, nothing is static and it would have been bizarre were plans not made for recovery and restitution following conflict!
As I bring my thoughts to a close, my excitement returns and with boyish glee, I am happy to be able to combine two of my passions – Archaeology and Star Wars and praise the JJ Abrams and his team for showing us the aftermath of battle, conflict archaeology, in a galaxy far far away.
Special thanks to Andy Brockman for his help in researching this article.
Written by Marc Barkman-Astles
Contributing Author : Archaeosoup.com