Thursday, February 6, 2014

Lives of the First World War

Centenary commemorations are rolling out all over the world in 2014, and the incredible volume of information, the sheer number of projects underway, and the massive quantity of time, emotion and research being contributed is just overwhelming.

I'd love to list off all the many things that are going on, but I can hardly keep up with them. If you're not already on Twitter, I'd strongly recommend joining up there and jumping into the conversation, because it's all happening. Here are just a few of the things I've been involved in recently, big and small.

Postcards from the past

On the smallest level of commemoration, I'm sharing some of my own family's most striking First World War mementoes on Twitter over the next few weeks, using the hashtag #GreatWarPostcard, with more than fifty beautiful examples like these held in scrapbooks that my great-great aunts kept during the war.

Several family members went away to fight in the Great War, and the death of my great-great aunt Vena's fiance Tom has inspired everything I do. These postcards are a poignant reminder of the turmoil felt by those who were left at home to wait for news of their loved ones at the Front.

Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War project

On the other end of the spectrum, one of the largest and most exciting projects coming up this year is the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War.

Much like Australia's own Mapping Our Anzacs website (soon to be reinvented as Discovering Anzacs), the Lives of the First World War is essentially a crowd-sourced information gathering project, in which individuals across the globe will contribute data about soldiers who fought for Britain and the Commonwealth.

Anyone can get involved, and the project will be launched later this month. So, go check out the FAQ to learn more about the project, and sign up to the mailing list to receive updates.

There's been a bit of noise in the media this year about a lack of adequate recognition for Anzac contributions to the British war effort, but this is one way for Australians to ensure their stories are heard in the wider context of the Great War, and the organisers have been hugely enthusiastic and engaging about that inclusion. Check them out on Twitter here.

Uncovering the everyday- excavations at Blackboy Hill

Closer to home, I had the amazing opportunity to take part in further archaeological excavations at the Blackboy Hill campsite. For a bit of background, you can read about the history of Blackboy Hill here, and check out my interview with the University of Notre Dame's Senior Lecturer in archaeology, Dr. Shane Burke.

I am an archaeologist myself, and it was my great privilege to attend and assist in the excavation in recent weeks. I'm hugely grateful to Dr. Burke and the university for giving me that chance, and for letting me share some pictures of the work with you.

As someone who lives and breathes the fact and fiction of war in Western Australia, I've visited Blackboy Hill before, and I've mentally walked that ground in the shoes of real historical figures and fictional characters alike. Though the place has changed, the significance of it has never faded.

Despite that, I can safely say that I have never been closer to the Great War than in being able to place my hand on the soil horizon of 1914, and uncover artefacts that were used and discarded by some of the 32,000 men who went through the camp on their way to war.

The volunteer crew hard at work
There's something almost indescribable about knowing that the button, fastener or buckle you just pulled from the soil was worn by a man who lived and died, whose name may have passed before you in historical research. On a more general level, you can see all the photographs you like, and hear many jokes about the quality of the stew, but when you hold a fork in your hand that was used to eat that stew, it's very real and you are suddenly very present in that other time and place.

As the article linked above describes, the site is incredibly rich in material, as you'd expect from an area that was part of the camp's rubbish dump. Excavating in an area like this gives the ability to see a very broad cross-section of what life at the camp was like on a day-to-day basis. Rubbish dumps are not fussy- they take whatever comes their way, valuable or ordinary, average or extraordinary, and they do so in great volume.

Here are some photographs from the excavation, showing the work and some of the material we uncovered. Students from the University of Notre Dame will continue to study this material and interpret it, and I look forward to seeing those results in the future.

On the left, a collection of artefacts representing some of the types found during the dig, including (clockwise from bottom left) ceramics, bone, charcoal, metal scraps, wire, screws and nails, eyelets, buttons, and miscellaneous small items (a wooden checker piece in the centre).

Sieves set up, ready to sift through the dirt removed by excavators, in search of small artefacts.

Excavation in action- reaching the end of the first level in the large 2m x 2m square. An excavation is undertaken with great care, as soil builds up in layers over time. Carefully peeled back with trowels in layers (or spits) of a few centimetres at a time, the soil itself can reveal much about the phases of use of a site, and can be very useful in deciding how old a particular artefact is. If you have a distinctive item that you know comes from 1914, and all the other items around it are found in the same layer of soil, then you can reasonably hypothesise that there is a similar age for those artefacts (or at least, that they were deposited no earlier than the time that artefact was made).

In this case, there was not much definition within the soil, and artefacts from the relevant time period were found in great volume close to the surface. Not too surprising given that there has been limited use of this particular part of the site since the original camp was disbanded.

Here, volunteers screen excavated dirt through the sieves. Artefacts were found in such volume that it took a considerable amount of time, three sieves, and most of the people at the site to sift through it all.

Some of the artefacts in-situ- as I excavated, I found this many pieces with each scrape of the trowel. I've never seen such a high-density site before. Pieces visible here include a button, ceramic, glass, and part of an old fuse.

One of the most exciting finds- a leather boot! In addition to parts of the upper, we also found many eyelets and nails from the sole in the same area.

Sorting and bagging the artefacts- dividing the objects by type (glass, ceramic, bone, metal, etc) allows the researchers to consider different kinds of analysis when they return the material to the lab. Research questions might focus on a particular category of artefact, or consider the whole assemblage. Keeping it all separated also ensures that more fragile items, such as charcoal or lead, are not damaged by denser items, like brick or bulk metal.

Another exciting find- a complete fork. Somehow this came out of a square that two of us were excavating, without either of us noticing it until it appeared in the sieves. One of the most striking items to give a personal angle to the place- somebody held that fork and ate with it. These rubbish areas were close to the kitchens, so unsurprisingly there was a lot of material related to cooking and food, including glass, ceramic and bone.

And lastly, a button. There were several small objects found during the excavation, including parts from a watch (a cog, a dial, a chain), part of a harmonica, and a wooden game piece (like a checker). These and articles of clothing (also found were many other buttons, belt buckles and fasteners) are further reminders that it was individual men making their way through this very large camp. The smallest details of their lives show us all over again that they were ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary time.

Every time I wrote '14 on an artefact bag, I was struck all over again by the fact that this year is exactly one hundred years from the time when life began to change for so many. It is a momentous year, and there is much more commemoration to come.