Task: Discuss the various threats facing British battlefields. How successful have conservation measures been?
There are countless historic battle sites at almost every location around the world, reaching back to the beginning of human history. Wherever these battles took place, they changed the course of history, albeit more or less significantly; military conflicts in general speed up the rate at which history is changed and made. They are relatively short windows in history in which developments, processes, and events that transpire in their aftermath culminate in the direct and indirect causes of respective military conflict. Once their outcomes are realised, those affected often face completely new facts and a changed reality. To a certain extent, this reality has a strong identity-forming effect on the people who experience it. It also shapes the reality of future generations in a historiographic sense, because the knowledge of the events has been recorded and passed on, whether orally, in writing, or in another way. Of course, not all information that we have access to today is accurate or complete, as time and the initial accuracy of primary sources affects the nature of the information that has survived.
If one takes these considerations for granted and explores the issue more deeply, one comes to the conclusion that wars are, to a great extent, historically relevant as well as being fundamentally decisive in the formation of a national consciousness. The actions and warfare of their own people often heroized and sometimes heroized beyond recognition, hence the adage; “history is written by the winners”. Wars played an invaluable role in the development of peoples, precisely because they greatly influenced people's lives, behaviour, and perceptions; the war had a proverbially existential significance for them.
In this way, it becomes clear why the very places where battles took place can be so important to people. They are places of homage, remembrance, and knowledge transfer as well as reflection and admonition. They can create heroic pictures, tell myths and stories, be places wrought in grief, but also serve as warnings to future generations. They are part of the national and cultural heritage.1
It is this insight that is necessary to conclude and the realize that it is necessary not only to remember wars and battles in the places and to commemorate those who died there, but also the actual place; to preserve it both from harm and to preserve it in such a way as to make it accessible to scientific research and the public.2 Even archaeologists and historians can know only a fraction of the exact places where these battles took place long ago. This is one of the main problems, not only of conflict archaeology as a research institution, but also in their desire to preserve battlefields, one cannot preserve something if one is unsure of its exact location.
One of the biggest and most challenging threats to preserving historic battlefields is the ever-increasing urbanization and gentrification process. For one thing, urbanisation has been an increasing trend in the modern world, and on the other hand, there are other diverging interests. Many battles were fought near villages and towns and on the outskirts of cities, and so many historic battlefields have become under threat from urban expansion as populations have grown and urban areas have swelled past the boundaries contemporary to the battles.3
Considering the fact that apart from relatively small skirmishes, since 1746 – the Battle of Culloden – no further major military conflict on the mainland of the British Isles has taken place and the explosive expansion of population since the turn of the century around 1800 until the second half of In the 20th century, it is clear that the protection of battlefields is often a structural and inherent problem and a major challenge; a growing population also requires more space for housing. This issue is compacted by the fact that the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in the 18th Century, drawing large numbers from the countryside into increasingly expanding urban centres. The fact that cities often experienced the phenomena of slum living shows the impact of cities not being able to expand fast enough for their population, and so it can often be hard to justify limiting expansion in order to preserve historical sites against the backdrop of a potential social wellbeing issue.4
Furthermore, there is often a conflict of interest between the research interest of archaeologists, historians and the people who are genuinely interested in preserving the respective battlefield (they can be summarized by the term history buffs) as well as representatives of the tourist industry for the inland and abroad. On the other hand, the interests of the private and public construction industry. The problem, however, goes beyond housing alone. The general infrastructure development itself can be a concern for the preservation (or loss) of a battlefield, specifically, the building of underground water, gas or power lines. Roads are also one of the most threatening factors in battlefield preservation.5
The question and the problem of preserving battlefields today is therefore always a political and a legal issue. Politics plays a role because a consensus must be found about whose interests outweigh to whom on a national and local scale; is it the expansion of living space and infrastructure or is the research interest and the preservation of an important historical site which is of greater importance. Since battlefields are relatively large tracts of land, it is important that these issues are weighed against one another so the best outcome can be achieved for the majority. Obviously, the size of battlefields attracts many interested parties aside from those whose intensions are research-based.
Where is the battlefield exactly? Which parts of the ground host the battlefield itself, and which can be excluded? These questions are crucial when faced with the problem of conservation. It is therefore necessary to negotiate to come to a mutually beneficial agreement, if at all possible, because this process can be long and arduous. In decision-making, time is often not a luxury afforded to either public (local) administration or private interests.
Another problem and thus the most dangerous is the phenomenon of the so-called amateur archaeologist. Drawn to proven and rumoured historic battlefields alike, and inspired by popular shows such as Time Team, they have been known to search the ground with commercially available metal detectors6 and take out what they can find. While this is exciting for hobbyists, these actions can wreak havoc for conflict archaeologists; not only are these artefacts no longer accessible for scientific research but exhuming them from the ground removes them from their historical context. Also, artefacts are often fragile and may sustain damage, thus rendering them less helpful to historians who rely on them for research. While many hobby archaeologists do not intend to be detrimental (in fact, many act out of a misplaced sense that they are helping the historical effort). Some are simply adventurous and exploratory, with ignorance of the historical and archaeological importance of the sites playing a major role in their actions. The manpower of such individuals could be utilised by the historical community; with some instruction, their passion may be directed towards successful conservation. On the other hand, it would be beneficial to criminalise the act of unauthorised digging on historically significant sites in order to prevent damage of this kind continuing. This is because the motives of others can be very different, and a high level of criminal energy can be assumed. What drives them is often the pursuit of financial gain. They search specifically for artefacts and objects, which can then be sold on to achieve a high profit margin. Militaria especially – which is obviously a large draw to battlefields for those looking to exploit the demand for such objects – has been increasing enormously in price during the last few years, as the demand for such items has massively increased.
In addition to the ongoing and frequent threats to battlefields, such as urban expansion and treasure-hunting, commercial forestry also poses a threat to the preservation of battlefields. Not only are tree roots penetrating and potentially destructive, but planting trees such as conifers (a popular choice in the commercial forestry industry) can, over time, acidify soil7, posing a threat to the preservation of artefacts still in the ground. Furthermore, the heavy logging machinery churns up soil and this can also affect the integrity of the artefacts beneath the surface. This means that even as public interest surrounding preservation grows, the aftermath of commercial forestry may do prolonged damage to these sites.
Aside from the opportunities battlefield sites offer to the historical community, it can be said that they can have a positive impact on the regional economy in terms of the tourist industry. The potential private and public interests can be contrasted with an equivalent counter-argument, a less historical one, as motivation for conservation. As the most prominent examples of this – at least in Scotland – the battlefields of Bannockburn and Culloden can be cited, which is no surprise given their contemporary reception as an almost mythical, epic part of the national consciousness.8 Visitors to all regions of the kingdom and the world visit these places by the thousands every year, and accordingly need food and lodging and general consumption,9 thus fuelling the local economy.
In order to establish a connection with the question posed at the beginning of the essay, specifically the issue of how successful the measures taken for the preservation of British battlefields have been so far, it should be noted that tourism is a large factor on the desire to conserve battlefields, and the lucrative draw of battlefields in this regard has been a help to those involved in the conservation effort. The installation of information centres and exhibitions has also aided conservation processes. Educating both tourists and locals on the importance of both the battle and its site ensures that the site remains of interest to posterity, furthering its chances of ongoing preservation. Furthermore, education is a state and public concern, and the conservation of battlefields is becoming increasingly important in politics, so we may see more concerted efforts to preserve sites in the future. Of course, not all conservation efforts are equal; the significance of a historical battlefield will determine the extent to which measures, if any, are taken to preserve the historic site.10
The fact that in Scotland (or the United Kingdom), there are no legal provisions that explicitly protect and preserve battlefields from damage, alteration or arbitrary interference with soil matter, makes preservation more challenging. For example in France, where such alterations are generally criminalized, or in the United States of America, where the responsibility for the land corresponding to a particular battle is delegated to state authorities and private interests are deprived access, specific provisions are put in place which aid, if not act as, conservation.11
While there are legal restrictions on the protection of archaeological sites and historical monuments, battlefields are not specifically included in them. While the historical community may hope that particular regulations are developed and enforced in the future, as it currently stands, a battlefield´s best chance at preservation is to be under private, rather than public, ownership. One example of this is the site of the Battle of Culloden, where a considerable portion of the battlefield is owned by the National Trust of Scotland (NTS). Of course, the ongoing preservation of battlefields in private ownership relies in part on public demand; it is unlikely for a site to survive if it is not garnering the attention and footfall it needs to in order to be a viable National Trust property. Secondly, a site may be protected by its proximity to another culturally significant landmark; for example, the Prestonpans battlefield is in the grounds of a listed building.
1 Marie Louise Stig Sørensen and Dacia Viejo-Rose, ‘Introduction: The Impact od Conflict on Cultural Heritage: A Biographical Lense’ in War and Cultural Heritage. Biographies of Place ed. by Marie Louise Stig Sørensen and Dacia Viejo-Rose (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 1-18.
2 Nicholas Stanley-Price, ‘The Reconstruction of Ruins: Principles and Practice’ in Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths ed. by Alison Richmond and Alison Braker (London: Elsevier, 2009) p. 34.
3 Iain Banks and Tony Pollard, ‘Protecting a Bloodstained History: Battlefield Conservation in Scotland’, Journal of Conflict Archaeology, 6 (2011), p. 128.
4 Iain Banks and Tony Pollard, ‘Now the Wars are Over. The Past, Present and Future of Scottish Battlefields’ in International Journal of Historical Archaeology (2010) p. 438.
5 Banks, Pollard, ‘Protecting a Bloodstained History’, p. 129.
6 Ibid. p. 138.
7 Ken Thompson, ‘Do conifers make soil more acid?’ <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/plants/trees/10633984/Do-conifers-make-soil-more-acid.html> [accessed 8 March 2019].
8 Stephen Bull, ‘Battles of the ‘45’ in 1745, Charles Edward Stuart and the Jacobites, ed. by Robert C. Woosnam-Savage (Glasgow: Glasgow Museums, 1995), pp. 57-71 and Jeremy Black, Culloden and the `45 (London: Grange Books, 1990).
9 Banks, Pollard, ‘Protecting a Bloodstained History’, p. 130 and Stanley-Price, ‘The Reconstruction of Ruins’ p. 36 and Marie Louise Stig Sørensen and Inge Adriansen, ‘Dybbøl: The Construction and Reconstruction of a Memorial Landscape’ in War and Cultural Heritage. Biographies of Place ed. by Marie Louise Stig Sørensen and Dacia Viejo Rose (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 18-45.
10 Nicholas Stanley-Price, ‘The Reconstruction of Ruins’, p. 35.
11 Banks and Pollard, ‘Now the Wars are Over’, pp. 438-440.
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- Robert Samuel Langner (Autor), 2019, The Various Threats Facing British Battlefields. How successful have conservation measures been?, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/949553