A couple of weeks ago, Current Archaeology magazine once again held their annual conference, Current Archaeology Live!, at Senate House in London. And once again, we were fortunate enough to be present to live tweet the event, bringing you all the news as it happened. Many of the talks could merit an article here in their own right, so this brief review is being be posted in several parts.

The second day started out with a session sponsored by Current Archaeology’s sister magazine, Military History Monthly looking at ‘The Archaeology of World War One‘. The first talk in this session was a harrowing tale of a hidden war, as Matt Leonard told us about ‘Digging in the dark: modern conflict archaeology beneath the Western Front‘.

Although most people know of the trench warfare, not so well known is the hidden aspect of the battlefield, and Matt brought this to life be describing the ‘sense-scape’ that the troops would have encountered in the tunnels and caves below the ground – “Ordinary soldiers saw very little of the war, but tasted, smelled and felt all of it.”

Matt described three key areas of the battlefield: trenches, subways and fighting tunnels. Each had a different sensory environment. He graphically described breaking through into enemy tunnels and having to fight in the pitch black, by touch – German uniforms had epaulettes, Allied uniforms didn’t. So if you felt an epaulette, you stabbed! Within this hidden world, some tunnels were as much as 100m below ground, or as close as 1m to the surface. Troops could hear the enemy through the tunnel walls. This was all very powerful, emotional stuff!

Dr Stephen Miles then brought us to the present day, talking about ‘Seeing the Western Front: archaeology, history and battlefield tourism‘. With over 6 milllion dead, along 416 miles of the Western Front, ‘grief tourism’ is now big business. There are over 1000 military, and 200 civilian cemeteries spread along the Front. In the Westhoek area of Belgium some 326,000 people a year visit, 52% are British. People want to see where the big battles happened, and also to visit family members. This tourism started as soon as the war finished. In contrast to the previous talk, the point was made that most visitors are ‘sight-seers’, other senses are very secondary to the experience. The way that the military cemeteries are laid out is in stark contrast to the confusion of the trenches. There are many reconstructed trenches – an important aspect of Western Front heritage – very little of the original trench systems are extant today. There are many unexploded shells still in/on the ground, but fieldwalking tours damage context and provenance. This makes it difficult to interpret the landscape. This is important because this interpretation allows the memories to live on. The conclusion? Tourism is a cultural vehicle for reinscribing memory.

To wrap up the session before coffee, Dr Nick Saunders told us about the history of ‘The scarlet flower: the remembrance poppy from Flanders Fields to Afghanistan‘. He explained that the remembrance poppy (a hybrid of the opium and corn poppy) began in 1915, but associations of this flower with memory, death, and pain go back thousands of years, based upon use of the opium poppy to dull the senses. There are references in the Trojan Wars, Classical Greece, and after the American Civil War veterans homes were full of opium dependents. John McCrae’s poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’ was one of the first literary images to really connect the poppy to WWI – the poppy no longer being associated with forgetting/dulling pain & grief, but rememberance. Moina Michael in New York was the first person to start handing out poppies for donations to help war veterans. Anna Guerin in France set up a factory to make silk poppies, extending the idea internationally. By 1922, the British set up their own factories, staffed by disabled veterans. The point was made that the poppy as material culture is now political and full of power and meaning. “The lightest of petals carries the heaviest of burdens.”

A welcome coffee break, and a chance to look once more at the stalls comprising the Archaeology Fair. Burdened with purchases, we took our seats for the next session, sponsored by another title from the Current Publishing stable – World Archaeology magazine, and introduced by Editor Caitlin McCall. The session was entitled ‘Back to the Beginning‘.

Prof Thomas Higham first told us about ‘Modern Humans, Neanderthals and Denisovians‘, looking at some of our earliest human ancestors. After talking through some of the anatomical differences between Neanderthals and modern humans, the science of radio carbon dating was discussed. With very old samples (30,000 years for neanderthals?) Decay and contamination is a problem. The best material for dating is bone collagen, but this only comprises 20% of the bone, and is relatively quick to decay. As reliable dates are important for understanding how and when humans and Neanderthals interacted, some cutting edge techniques are beng used – such as Ultrafiltration are being used to help remove contaminants and provide more accurate dates from samples. Using these techniques and revisiting previous samples suggests that Neanderthals died out around 40,000 years ago, nevertheless there was an overlap between the them and us of around 2000 years. DNA analysis suggests that interbreeding did occur – modern human DNA overlaps anywhere between 1-3% with Neanderthal’s. A relatively newly discovered hominid, Denisovans has been identified via DNA from a molar and fingerbone of a 9 year old girl, in Russia. Although remains from this time are very small and scarce, preservation has allowed up to 70% survival of their DNA, and the genome has been sequenced. An exhibition about these species is currently on at the Natural History Museum.

Next, Prof Klaus Schmidt explained about ‘Göbekli Tepe: the first human holy site?‘. At 11,000 years old, this is considered to be one of the world’s oldest temples, situated in modern day Turkey. The project has been running for 20 years, but literally has only just ‘scratched the surface’ so far. A fascinating slideshow of the excavations was displayed, with wonderful carvings, depictions of figures and animals througout the complex, which is divided into a series of rooms or courtyards.

Gobleki

One of the carved pillars at Göbekli Tepe – Wikimedia Commons

The site rises to a height of 15m, across an aree 300x300m, and dates to the pre-pottery era Neolithic – so almost Hunter-Gatherer stage. The layout and extent of the statuary and carvings shows this is not a settlement – some of the pillars are anthropomorphic – the first deity figures? Quarries for the pillars have been identified less than 200 m from the main site. The number of animal depictions suggest a story is being told, but sadly there was no time for questions, but just time for one more talk in the session before we broke for lunch.

Prof Brian Fagan from California spoke eloquently and entertainingly about ‘The Intimate Bond: Animals and Humans over 15000 years‘, concentrating on the Donkey! Described as the ‘pickup truck of the world for 5000 years’, donkeys as we know them today were first domesticated in NE Africa some 5000 years ago. Donkey burials were found at Abydos, dating from 3000 BC. They were respected, working animals, noted for their ability to dehydrate slowly but rehydrate quickly, and to travel 15-20 miles a day, easily. Although respected, bone analysis shows that they were worked hard and often overloaded. We were told how they were used extensively in caravans across the Eastern Sahara. Some of these trade routes have been documented on cunieform tablets. Donkeys also appear on many murals in Pompeii, showing their ongoing use as beasts of burden. Fun fact: there are 40 million donkeys in the world today!

But all too soon it was time for lunch and a chance to grab some fresh air. Come back tomorrow to read about the final sessions of the conference…

Part 1
Part 2