Approachment of Archeaologists to the Physical Remains of 20th Century Conflicts. Is it Possible to Identify Research Agendas?

A short Essay

Essay, 2019

8 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Robert Samuel Langner (Author)


Task: How have archaeologists approached the physical remains of 20th century conflict? Is it possible to identify research agendas within this work? In your consideration of this question you might wish to provide suggestions for future avenues of research.

Firstly, this essay will examine the question of how (conflict) archaeologists pursued the physical remains of military conflicts of the 20th century. The remainder of this work will further discuss whether it is possible to identify research agendas in the work of archaeologists and archaeological research projects. Finally, reference should be made to further desiderata of archaeological research and a summary conclusion will be drawn.

Archaeology is a science that explores the cultural evolution of humanity through scientific and humanistic methods. It has developed worldwide into a combination of different theoretical and practical disciplines. The field of interest of archaeology lies exclusively with humans and their material legacies, such as buildings, tools and works of art. It covers a period from the first stone tools about 2.5 million years ago to the present. The so-called contemporary historical archaeology, which deals with the anthropogenic remnants of human civilization during the previous century, is controversial within the discipline. A section of recent archaeology, conflict archaeology, refers to remnants that have survived in the context of military or other violent conflicts. Most of these are found on former battlefields.

A "battlefield" is generally understood to be the scene of a major military operation involving larger formations. The conflict archaeology continues to grasp the concept of the "battlefield" in several respects, as not only battlefields in the narrower sense are counted; in general, the arenas of major clashes between military or paramilitary organized groups should be included under this umbrella. Although the conflict archaeology focuses on the actual battleground, it also deals with traces of side effects such as fortifications, storage areas, supply lines, field hospitals, tombs, prison camps, bunkers and the like, and the causes of violent conflicts.

Due to the limited scope of this work, the question of how archaeologists have addressed conflicts in the 20th century, which agendas are identifiable in their work, and which perspectives on further research work should be answered, with a very concrete example of an archaeological excavation, the project “Hill 80”. The sheer number of World War I excavation projects is the reason why this essay focusses on this stand-alone project, whose scientific processing has not yet been cohesively published in print format, which is why almost all sources referred to in this essay are Internet sources.

During the First World War, Hill 80 was a fortified German military position in today's Wijschate, in Belgium. For most of the war on the Western Front it was held by German troops but came under the control of the Allies during the war. Last year, the excavations began at the assumed location of Hill 80, which makes the excavation project very interesting in the context of the development of the discipline by allowing daily updates on the perspective of the topic of conflict archaeology. Another peculiarity concerning the preparation and planning of the excavation is the fact that it is managed by a crowdfunding financed company. Involved was an international team, consisting of archaeologists, historians, and volunteer diggers who help in the practical work.

In terms of actual archaeology, the research undertaken by the team has given historians a more precise idea of the geographical position of Hill 80. By analysing records from the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht to the First World War, the following emerges: The position of "Hill 80", as recorded in the maps of the German military, was about in the middle of roughly 15 kilometres long front salient near Whitesheet, which joined to the south of the salient at Ypres at this same.

Hill 80 was located on the ridge between Messines and Whitesheet on a slight elevation of 80 metres above sea level, hence the name. The area of the former position is located about 200 metres north of the village centre from the church, which stands at the highest point of the village at about 84 metres above sea level.

The Whitesheet salient was in Whitesheet, a multi-unit position system. The foremost front line used on military maps, known as "I. Position", was located about a kilometre west of the village in the lowlands. The position at "Hill 80" were part of the fortifications of "II. (Hills) position ". About two kilometres east in the hinterland of the village was the "chord position". Farther to the east lay the “III. Position", the "Tenbrielen bar" and the "Flanders position", as a potential starting point for an Allied breakthrough. As part of the “II. (Hills) position”, the Sachsengraben ran behind and beyond “Hill 80”, until these trenches ran into those manned by the Schweinle Steig, whose trenches continued to the front line (“I. position”).

The position at "Hill 80" afforded a wide view onto the plane that lay 50 metres below the Allied positions. Of strategic importance was the unobstructed view of Ypres, approximately eight kilometres away, and the front line of the Ypres Salient. From there, artillery observers were able to direct the fire of German artillery, which were stationed to the east of the ridge. Three kilometres west of Whitesheet was the strategically important area held by Allied troops, then designated as the “Eye of Flanders Kemmelberg” (159 metres above sea level). From there, Whitesheet and the "Hill 80" were clearly visible, in such a way that any movement at “Hill 80” resulted in immediate artillery fire from the Kemmelberg.1

After heavy fighting with French units during the so-called First Battle of Ypres in early November 1914, the village Whitesheet could be occupied by German troops. Subsequently, the German units dug on the operationally significant mountainside between Messines and Whitesheet. Later, the Germans fortified the town and used it as a military base, building accommodation for the front-line soldiers. An extensive and complex network of bunkers, ditches, and tunnels arose, protected by barriers made of barbed wire. These defences included "Hill 80". In addition, this included trenches and trenches, buildings, a command post in the underground cellars, observation posts and tunnel systems, which led to the frontline battle line, which was located about one kilometre away.2

The excavation project became known as "Dig Hill 80 Whitesheet”.3 Among the initiators of the project were the Belgian conflict archaeologist Simon Verdegen, the British military historian Peter Doyle and the German historian Robin Schäfer.4 As the Belgian authorities were unwilling to support the excavation project with sufficient financial resources, they decided to provide the necessary funds through a different method of financing. The means of choice for the realization of the project was crowdfunding. The financial supporters also included some celebrities, but the actual excavation work could only be done with the help of 204 volunteer diggers. The excavation took a total of 60 days.5 In total, about 178.00 euros were collected by the end of 2017. Around 2,700 donors took part in the campaign.6 This is an excellent example of how the method of publicity can work to advance archaeological work, but only if there is a public interest in the specific project, which is certainly the case in many recent excavations. Most of the donations came from the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany. Other types of financing were added, such as the sale of merchandise articles. Fees were also charged for tours on the excavation area, which financed the project. All in all, a total of 220,000 euros was collected for this purpose. More than 3000 sponsors were among the donors who provided the necessary funds.7 The costs calculated in advance amounted to 250,000 euros. The work of the archaeologists was the biggest cost, for which 100,000 euros had to be spent. On top of this, as expected, many ordnance and explosives in the form of shells and bombs lurked below the surface, the defusing and neutralising of which accounted for another 45,000. Another 30.00 euros were required for the dredging. A sum of about 40,000 euros was estimated for the post-processing and restoration as well as further fund-recovery measures. Furthermore, the cost of necessary forensic investigations on the uncovered human remains of the fallen soldiers of both sides amounted to an estimated 20,000 euros. On the other hand, the costs for the accommodation, meals, and equipment with the necessary equipment on site were relatively cheap. These amounted to 15,000 euros.8

The excavation area was about 10,500 square metres. 476-metre-long military trenches were examined; most had been created by German troops. Among the findings were 430 shell funnels, six basements, and a bunker-like cellar, which, as mentioned above, in all likelihood, is the said command post.9 The other buildings were a former windmill, with an attached steam mill and a storage shed, and the home of the miller, who did his job there more than 100 years ago.10 An important indication of the distinction between the original civil infrastructure and the later added military extensions could be distinguished by the different materials used. The civilian walls were traditionally made of red brick. The military additions were made of light concrete. Concrete was more resistant to explosives and offered the soldiers not only better protection against (machine) gunfire, but especially from artillery and mortar shells and bombs.11 In addition to these, other provisionally fortified facilities were discovered, including the excavation two underground passages and a wooden staircase.12 As the bombardment of the town increased over the course of the war, two underground barracks, containing 200 beds and 35 beds respectively, were built to protect the soldiers. In 1915, the bunkers´ residents were mainly Bavarian units, such as the 5th and 17th Infantry Regiment, as they were deployed to the area.13 It is proven that these were the original trenches from the First World War, as they corresponded exactly to the course drawn on the German maps.

During the Third Battle of Ypres, Allied troops overran the city at the Battle of Wytschaete Bow after a devastating artillery bombardment in July 1917, and subsequently took "Hill 80". The terrain gained in the advance was only a few kilometres. Thus, various pieces of British soldiers were salvaged in the former German trenches. This is evidence of battles that must have taken place on the front.

In April 1918 during the Fourth Flanders Battle German troops recaptured Wytschaete and penetrated beyond to Kemmelberg. After that, the Allies finally took Wytschaete in September 1918 during the hundred-day offensive, and thus retook "Hill 80". The place was almost completely destroyed during the war by artillery fire; the surroundings resembled the numerous craters of a lunar landscape thanks to the peppering of shell holes. After the war, shell holes and military trenches were filled with soil, including around the position at "Hill 80". Since then, the terrain of the position remained largely unused. Since equipment was allegedly hastily abandoned, this indicates an unforeseen German counterattack that must have surprised the British. The remains of 130 soldiers of different nationalities were found on the site.14 Although researchers were able to identify the nationalities of these soldiers (Germans, British, French and South Africans), it has thus far proved impossible to find the individual identities of any remains uncovered. However, Cranfield University's forensic institute continues to work to identify the dead. In total, more than 4,000 individual artefacts were excavated.15 Among them were items of equipment that were standard equipment for a front-line soldier or infantry soldier, such as rifles, bayonets, helmets, water bottles, remnants of clothing and cookware. Through this, it is comparatively easy to draw clear conclusions about the nationalities of the objects´ owners. The soldiers appear to have been buried in a mass grave, as was customary and therefore not a surprising conclusion to reach. The German soldiers were killed by rifle fire and shrapnel,16 which comes as little surprise as the vast majority of the soldiers that did not survive their deployment to the Western Front were killed by wounds inflicted by these types of weapons.


1 Kriegsgeschichtliche Forschungsanstalt des Heeres (ed.), Der Weltkrieg 1914-1918, Die militärischen Operationen zu Lande, Die Kriegsführung im Frühjahr 1917, Der Verlust des Wytschaete-Bogens, vol 12, (Berlin: Oberkommando des Heeres, 1939). p. 675.

2 Fabian Schweyher: „Wenn du menschliche Knochen findest, ist das ernüchternd“ <> [accessed 13 February 2019].

3 Simon Verdegem: Höhe 80 Project Whitesheet 2018, p. 1.

4 Peter Doyle: Dig Hill 80, About Us <> [accessed 13 February 2019] and Simon Verdegem: Dig Hill 80 Project Whitesheet, 2018 <> [accessed 13 February 2019].

5 Höhe 80": Dringend Geld für Ausgrabung gesucht… <> [accessed 15 February 2019].

6 Simon Verdegem: Dig Hill 80: Excavating an Endangered WW1 Battlefield. <> [accessed 15 February 2019].

7 Thijs Pattyn: Opgraving valt veel groter uit dan gepland: 130 lichamen en 4.000 attributen gevonden <> [accessed 15 February 2019].

8 Charlie Moore: Finally a send-off for the heroes: Remains of British soldiers stuck in Belgian trenches will be given a proper burial as archaeologists win race to excavate German WWI position before it's demolished <> [accessed 13 February 2019].

9 Ausgrabungen: Die "Höhe 80" ist eine Fundgrube <> [accessed 13 February 2019].

10 Tijs Mauroo: Al 67 dode soldaten en 1.500 vondsten in Wijtschate bij opgraving Hill 80 <> [accessed 13 February 2019].

11 Christophe Maertens: Op de valreep mysterieuze trap ontdekt <> [accessed 13 February 2019].

12 Ibid.

13 Whitesheet on War, Verlauf des Krieges im Jahr 1915 <> [accessed 13 February 2019].

14 Mark Hallam: Crowdfunding-Projekt Höhe 80: Archäologie im Schützengraben des Ersten Weltkriegs <> [accessed 13 February 2019].

15 Christophe Maertens: Op de valreep mysterieuze trap ontdekt <> [accessed 13 February 2019].

16 British First World War heroes found among HP sauce and coffee pots in trench excavation <> [last accessed 13 February].

Excerpt out of 8 pages


Approachment of Archeaologists to the Physical Remains of 20th Century Conflicts. Is it Possible to Identify Research Agendas?
A short Essay
University of Glasgow  (Department of History)
Modern Warfare
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
World War I, Archaeology, Battlefield, Conflict, World War, Germany, ANZAC, Australian, New Zealand, Combat, Trench Warfare, Belgium, Height 80
Quote paper
Robert Samuel Langner (Author), 2019, Approachment of Archeaologists to the Physical Remains of 20th Century Conflicts. Is it Possible to Identify Research Agendas?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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