de Meyer M. & Pype P.
The A19 Project. Archaeological Research at Cross Roads.
AWA, Zarren, 2004.
BY Nicholas J. Saunders
Modern archaeology a relatively new arrival on the battlefields of the First World War. Digging, however, is not. Since 1919, along the Western Front, Eastern Front, and in the Middle East, the Great War's heritage of battle-zone landscapes and material culture has often been ignored, looted, built over, or lost.
Yet, over the past thirty years, public interest in the war has grown, tourism has accelerated, serious-minded amateur groups have conducted excavations, local museums have revitalized and reoriented their exhibitions, valuable local publications have appeared, and ever more international specialists of the war's military and cultural history have become involved. Archaeology, it seems, has arrived just in time - to investigate (and perhaps save) some battlefield landscapes, and to provide professional and legal frameworks for incorporating the wealth of specialist but scattered knowledge concerning the war.
A professional archaeology of the Great War in Belgian Flanders arrived officially on 10 November, 2003, with the creation of the Department of First World War Archaeology, part of Belgium's Institute for Archaeological Heritage (IAP). From this event emerged the 'Association for World War Archaeology' (A.W.A.), whose main priority is outreach, and the exchange of information about the Great War with the public, schools, universities, international institutions, and numerous specialist groups, whose expertise ranges from trench construction to uniforms, equipment, munitions and memorabilia.
A landmark of this new approach has been the A19 project. This was essentially a 'rescue dig' to investigate the projected path of the A19 motorway extension which would run from Wieltje near Ypres, to Steenstraete at Langemark-Poelkapelle. In other words, the new motorway would run across seven kilometres of the northern section of the old Ypres Salient. The small booklet reviewed here is the A.W.A.'s first publication, and provides a fascinating account of and insight into these excavations which represent, significantly, the first scientific archaeological investigations of the First World War in Belgium.
Marc Dewilde sets the scene in his introduction, explaining the historical significance of the Ypres Salient, and the range and scope of its archaeology. The authors, Mathieu de Meyer and Pedro Pype, then guide us through the rich and complex military history of the area - especially its role as a battlefield during the Battle of Second Ypres (April-May 1915), and during the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele), which began on 31 July 1917.
The focus of the investigation, however, is the Cross Roads site, which lies virtually in the shadow of the incomplete section of A19 motorway. For the first time in Belgium, a Great War location is treated like any other archaeological site. There are aerial photographs, trench maps, specialist maps showing surveyed areas, contemporary photographs and sketches, modern photographs showing excavations in progress - from ground level, and from above. The effect is to treat the area with the seriousness and respect it deserves, i.e. as an important archaeological landscape deserving of multi-disciplinary investigations.
Photographs reveal the rich potential of this new kind of archaeology: human remains of soldiers, their often remarkably preserved equipment - from uniforms and insignia to primitive mica-faced gasmasks - trench-lines (with duckboards often piled one on top of the other), dugouts, and mortar emplacements. The remains reveal stories of the real life and death experiences in the trenches over several years, and are as poignant as they are informative.
This small booklet is the beginning of a huge endeavour that will stretch into the future, and influence mainstream archaeology itself. When its methodologies are in place, First World War archaeology will attract international attention, sponsorship, and participation from universities and the public alike. In fact this is already beginning. On battlefields such as the Ypres Salient, Europe was created in industrialized war; its multifaceted legacy - from tourism to education, museum exhibitions to the heritage industry - have been a reality for decades. Now, at last, archaeology has arrived.
Nicholas J. Saunders is Reader in Material Culture in the Department of Anthropology, University College London.