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Archaeological remains

II.1 2.1. What role for archaeology?

In the early 1990s, preventive archaeology gradually branched out into rural areas courtesy of large-scale civil engineering projects (motorways, high-speed train liens). In northern and eastern France, archaeologists were thus faced with the ‘rediscovery’ of First World War artefacts in those areas previously occupied by the front lines.

In landscapes where the scars of war were carefully erased by a return to agricultural use immediately after the war, and by the galloping pace of industrialisation, these unexpected encounters with the remnants of a period which was far removed from their usual field of study, and with which they were not particularly well acquainted, posed certain problems for the archaeologists. Indeed they were not well equipped to appreciate the importance and historical interest of the artefacts they uncovered in such great numbers, considering them more as inconvenient obstructions masking potential earlier settlements on the same site. Another recurring and demotivating problem was the presence of unexploded munitions from the war, representing a considerable hindrance to archaeological excavations. Last but not least the discovery of the remains of soldiers previously thought missing in combat, unfortunately far from a rare occurrence, was a source of further concern, often on a personal level.

At first sight, this new category of artefacts thus appeared more “troublesome” than interesting. Furthermore, did the study of a period so chronologically close to the modern day and already covered by such extensive documentation really require input from archaeologists?

Picture Double Bronze Age burial site and French... - Cl. Thomas Sagory. Inrap
Picture Grave containing the remains of six German... - Michel Signolli. CNRS
© Mission du Centenaire
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Archaeological remains

II.2 What should we excavate?

Archaeology is a profession which demands a tireless, irrepressible curiosity, regardless of the origin or date of the artefacts unearthed. And so in the early 1990s a handful of archaeologists, faced with the repeated discovery of First World War artefacts and convinced that the debate regarding the archaeological interest of the Great War merited further attention and more extensive research, began to take an interest in these findings which had initially been dismissed as mere inconveniences.

 

These first investigations allowed them to structure their approach, laying the groundwork for an entirely new and highly specific discipline of archaeological research. Nonetheless, it took a decade of occasional and often lucky finds on sites generally focusing on more distant periods of history to identify the two major themes which would shape this new discipline. Drawing inspiration from the practices commonly adopted for more ancient eras and peoples, studying the day-to-day life – but also the day-to-day death – of soldiers is now afforded maximum priority, as this approach has been proven to yield precious new information serving to expand our understanding of the conflict. Of course new research priorities are sure to emerge as new investigations continue to flourish, with the number of archaeological studies focusing on this period increasing dramatically since the turn of the twenty-first century.

Picture Excavations in the Argonne forest. - Cl. Yves Desfossés. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
Picture The Kilianstollen was located near the village... - PAIR
Picture Excavation of a British trench near Arras. ... - Cl. Yves Desfossés. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
Picture - Cl. Gilles Prilaux. Inrap
© Mission du Centenaire
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Archaeological remains

II.3 The question of commemoration

Beginning with an initial realisation during major infrastructure work in the 1990s, leading to the emergence of a new set of scientific questions and challenges, the discipline of Great War archaeology gradually came to acquire a certain legitimacy and respect. Over the past decade research in the field has intensified in all regions through which the front line passed. The commemoration of the Centenary of the outbreak of war has given the profile of this young discipline a welcome boost. Many archaeologists have felt compelled to devote their attention to the fleeting, hidden traces of the living hell endured by those who fought in the First World War, not least out of respect for the sacrifices they made.

Archaeologists are very clear about this commemorative aspect of their work. However their direct engagement with the hard facts of our collective and individual memories can often raise delicate issues, particularly when the remains of soldiers are uncovered. More accustomed to academic debates among specialists regarding much more distant periods of history, in such cases archaeologists find themselves operating in a field of research where they must deal with an abundance of archival sources. They also need to be attuned to the analyses of this conflict emanating from other disciplines of the humanities, and sensitive to the great majority of our contemporaries who still experience the Great War as a defining element in their social and family history.

Picture Contemporary art installation amid the ruins... - Yves Desfossés. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
Picture Cenotaph in honour of the soldiers from Fonds... - Yves Billaud. DRASSM
Picture The Ossuary at Douaumont (Lorraine) contains... - Cl. Yves Desfossés. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
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Archaeological remains

II.4 Protecting a fragile heritage

As soon as the fighting ended, the physical remnants of the conflict gradually began to be covered up by the return of agriculture and the reconstruction of damaged villages. A small number of battlefields which were too badly scarred to be returned to their previous state were left as testament to the carnage, with Verdun a prominent example. Within less than twenty years, areas which had been profoundly disfigured by the fighting had patched up their wounds, with the memory of the Great War kept alive predominantly through the testimony of veterans and public war memorials. But these forms of expression of the memory of the conflict, suited to a public who had experienced the events directly or else known those who took part in them, are no longer sufficient for our contemporary society.

As the Centenary commemorations get into full swing, we are beginning to realise just how rare traces of the war have become. Nevertheless a few local societies, increasingly with the support of local authorities, have been working for many years to protect this fragile heritage, with prominent examples in Vauquois (Meuse) and Massiges (Marne). Their exemplary efforts have helped to halt the creeping erosion of this relatively recent historical heritage. But what can be done for the immense majority of front-line zones which have not received this level of attention? Archaeologists have a prominent role to play in studying and protecting this heritage, traces of which survive in those rare areas spared by the frenetic pace of urban development (subterranean structures and wooded zones).

Picture Camp in the Moreau valley: reconstruction of a... - Cl. Yves Desfossés. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
Picture The fort at Mutzig (Bas-Rhin)‚ ‘Feste Kaiser... - Cl. Yves Desfossés. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
Picture The fort at Mutzig (Bas-Rhin)‚ ‘Feste Kaiser... - Cl. Yves Desfossés. Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication
© Mission du Centenaire
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Archaeological remains

II.5 Archaeologists in the trenches

A number of archaeologists served as soldiers during the Great War. As members of the educated class they generally served as officers or sub-officers, with many of their number paying the ultimate sacrifice.

 

An emblematic figure in French archaeology in this period, Joseph Déchelette signed up voluntarily when war broke out, despite being exempt from military service on account of his age. Commissioned as a captain in the reserves, he was called up to the front near the River Aisne along with the 298 th Roanne infantry regiment in late September 1914. On 4th October 1914, at the age of 52, he was killed in action during fighting for the high ground at Vingré. He left behind a monumental work in 6 volumes: the Manuel d’archéologie préhistorique, celtique et gallo-romaine (Manual of Prehistoric, Celtic and Gallo-Roman Archaeology), long considered a key reference work in the field.

 

The digging of the trench network led to the unexpected discovery of numerous archaeological sites. On the Allied side, a few minor discoveries received coverage in a handful of academic journals. The Germans, on the other hand, were keen to use archaeology to legitimise their expansionist ambitions and lend weight to their research into ancient Germanic culture. Numerous excavations were undertaken, chronicled in extensive publications. One excellent example is the Gaulish cemetery (early La Tène) at Bucy-le-Long , where Hans Niggemann uncovered 32 Celtic-era tombs between 8 th February and 9 th April 1915.

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Picture - © Roanne - Musée Joseph Déchelette - Bibliothèque
Picture - © Roanne - Musée Joseph Déchelette - Bibliothèque