Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Emotion and Archaeology

At times this blog has delved into the issues surrounding our work, including issues of emotional engagement. Anyone interested in this aspect of our work might like to seek out Martin's latest paper on this subject, which appears in Archaeological Review from Cambridge.

Brown, M. 2007 "The Fallen, the Front and the Finding: Archaeology, Human Remains and the Great War", Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 22.2, 53-68

This edition of the journal is subtiteld The Disturbing Past: Does Your Research Give You Nightmares? Martin's paper is concerned with the emotional stresses engendered during the discovery and excavation of human remains. Although he does not cover the work at Plugstreet there were emotional issues enough raised in our work there. However he does consider personal responses to bodies found on other NML projects at Serre and Loos, where bodies recovered were identified and in two cases members of the families of the dead were contacted.

The human remains we uncover are likely to have died chaotic, traumatic deaths, sometimes in prolonged agony. If one takes this fact and considers it alongside the possibility that we could use forensic techniques and careful research to identify them then the reader may begin to understand why this is an issue and why it is significantly different to dealing with bodies on a more conventional archaeological site.

Readers wanting to know more about the process of researching a casualty should seek out the paper written by Martin and another team member Alastair Fraser in Journal of Conflict Archaeology:

Fraser, A.H. & Brown, M. 2007 "Mud, Blood and The Missing: Excavations at Serre, Somme, France, JCA, 4, 147-171

As the abstract says:
The article gives a description of archaeological excavations at Serre and a brief historical overview of the German position south of Serre known in the Great War as the Heidenkopf or Quadrilateral. The remains of one British and two German soldiers were discovered during an excavation there in 2003. The process of identification is discussed and biographies of the two German soldiers are provided.

While some might seek to see archaeology as emotionally detached and pretending it is scientific we believe that dealing with humanity in such an intimate frame and considering such traumatic issues makes such extreme detachment impossible and pretence to it an abdication of responsibility to not only present results but also to explore the processes and engagements inherent in the study of humaity, especially in time of conflict.


The British Museum in London was the venue for the first British Archaeology conference over the weekend just gone. It was organised by magazine Current Archaeology as a "festival" of, as they put it "The best of British Archaeology, at home and abroad". In truth, the speaker list was impressive enough to substatiate this strap line with some of the big names and big themes under discussion.

On Sunday there was a session on Conflict Archaeology in which two of our project members spoke: anthropologist Nick Saunders gave an overview of the rise of "Conflict Archaeology" and made clear its difference to "Battlefield Archaeology". It was nice to see that Nick's second image was of the team at work on Jon's trench beside the Factory Farm crater.

One of our intrepid leaders, Martin, presented on "Mud, Blood & Archaeology" and sought to look at No Man's Land projects on the Western Front (by which he meant France, Belgium and the training areas of UK). Inevitably the Plugstreet Project featured heavily in the presentation due to its innovative use of such a wide range of techniques and its belief in looking beyond the battlefield to the wider world affected by the war.

There was some interesting discussion and comment we have subsequently received also showed that the full lecture theatre had thoroughly enjoyed it and continued to think about it afterwards.

We have nothing but thanks for the organisers for this opportunity to present in such a remarkable venue and at such a prestigious and well organised event and wish them all success in trying to make this conference an annual event.