Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Belgium's new department of First World War archaeology

a unique event in world archaeology took place in the Belgian town of Ypres. Minister Paul van Grembergen announced the official opening of the Department of First World War Archaeology, part of the Institute for the Archaeological Heritage of the Flemish Community (IAP). The new department is supported by the province of Western Flanders, the combined Flemish universities, the Belgian Army's Service for the Disposal and Demolition of Explosives (DOVO), associations of amateur archaeologists, and a wide range of international collaborators.

The aims and objectives of the department are clearly defined, and can be expanded as required. The first goal is undertaking archaeological research, making inventories, and site management - all integrated aspects of the region's First World War heritage. It is hoped that one result of this initiative will be to produce databases that will unlock Western Flanders' war-related archaeological heritage, and support many kinds of associated cultural and tourism initiatives.

Equally important will be the new department's responsibility for directing, monitoring, and co-ordinating the abundant and diverse private activities and initiatives undertaken by museums, amateur excavators, historians, and other interested parties. A unique feature of the First World War is that, in addition to military historians, it attracts a large and wide-ranging number of specialist groups. Together, they form a rich repository of specialised knowledge on such varied topics as trench and dugout construction, military maps, uniforms and equipment, armaments, munitions, and memorabilia. The department's formation provides a legally constituted scientific forum for this vast amount of currently fragmented expert knowledge. This forum will be a critical resource for the IAP's professionals, who in turn will provide a modern archaeological context and guidance for amateur groups that will result in greater understanding and co-operation.

First World War archaeology is a distinctively new kind of archaeology (Saunders 2002:107), and part of a larger enterprise, the archaeology of twentieth-century conflict. First World War battlefields are multi-layered and deeply ambiguous landscapes. They can be considered, variously, as

Industrialized slaughterhouses, vast tombs for 'the missing', places for returning refugees and contested reconstruction, popular tourist destinations, locations of memorials and pilgrimage, sites for archaeological research and cultural heritage development, and as still deadly places full of unexploded bombs and shells. (Saunders 2001:37).

This complexity demands a multidisciplinary archaeological response, informed by anthropology, and drawing on the expertise of military history, cultural geography, museology, and those who specialize in forensics, cultural heritage, and tourism to mention only the most obvious.

The initial stimulus for the department's creation was the IAP's excavation at Pilckem Ridge in the middle of the infamous Ypres Salient battlefield. Pilckem Ridge saw fierce fighting and terrible losses on both sides during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) in July and August 1917, and lay on the route of an extension to the A19 motorway. The IAP has been conducting archaeological reconnaissance in the area since 2002.

The investigations quickly demonstrated the need for professional archaeological engagement with the First World War. Site damage by construction activities, illicit digging by collectors of military equipment, and natural erosion represented serious losses of archaeological information. The IAP decided to act, and gave the highest priority to creating the first ever department dedicated to First World War Archaeology. This was a bold step for a new and as yet un-theorised kind of archaeology confronted with formidable methodological challenges.

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