Posts Tagged With: battlefield archaeology

Conflict Archaeology

Next in our student series, Jasmine Lane travels to Statesboro on February 14 to attend a lecture on Conflict Archaeology at Georgia Southern’s Anthropology Week.

Georgia Southern Anthropology Week: Conflict Archaeology

Part of the five-day schedule for Georgia Southern’s Anthropology Week was a lecture entitled “Conflicted Pasts: An Introduction to Conflict Archaeology” by GSU professor Dr. Ryan McNutt, who discussed the origins of the discipline as well as the challenges it faces. As a separate field of study, conflict archaeology has only been around since the last half of the 20th century. Conflict archaeology seeks to use the material remains at battlegrounds and sites of conflict to understand why conflict happened, who was involved, and what were its effects. This is particularly challenging for prehistory, which has no written record and few remaining artifacts or skeletal remains. Not only that, within anthropology, there is persistent debate on whether there was conflict between prehistoric groups before the formation of nations and states that we typically associate with organized war campaigns. Whether the prehistoric artifacts were involved in conflict depends on those in the present interpreting them today, and while some use a Hobbesian lens of a violent past, in the competition for resources, others use the egalitarian view that Rousseau has for prehistory. What one person sees as ritual violence, another can see as the execution of captives after a battle, what someone sees as an axe for clearing trees, can easily be interpreted as a weapon as well. With very little physical evidence to contextualize the artifacts of prehistory, scholars create context within their world view, that is, they impose on to the past what they want to believe based on their preconceived notions that they held before ever encountering what they are currently studying. By analyzing conflict from a more literal position as opposed to symbolic, the lessons learned become more applicable to conflict archaeology and victim recovery from more recent wars.

Not all conflict archaeology is done for prehistoric sites, much of it is being used to understand or clarify our knowledge about battles in the more recent past. One such case is the Battle of Little Big Horn, previously known as Custer’s Last Stand, in which archaeology helped historians uncover the truth about what happened. One of the reasons previously cited for the American loss in this battle is that the Americans’ weapons jammed frequently, allowing the Native Americans to overcome what were thought to be insurmountable odds. Through archaeology, the real story is different; the American weapons weren’t malfunctioning, as evidenced by the lack of American cartridges that have evidence of being forcibly removed. Instead of a “last stand” the battle played out more like a chaotic massacre, with little evidence of the regimented firing lines that western militaries used during this time. In addition to correcting the historical record, battlefield archaeology can be used to find evidence of missing structures for which documentation has been lost or find and identify soldiers and civilian casualties. In the latter case, one of the biggest challenges facing archaeology is looting of artifacts for sale in the black market. Not only do items such as dog tags and helmets make their way on to the black market, weapons do too, streaming unnoticed from one conflict to another leaving an almost untraceable trail. Beyond the stealing, the bodies left behind from these recent conflicts represent the close ancestors or relatives of people still living, and in the case of American soldiers, the descendants are entitled to benefits.

In summation, this lecture was very informative and shed a lot of light on a field in archaeology that is newer and thus underrepresented in archaeological course work. Anthropology Week at Georgia Southern is organized by the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. For Anthropology Week 2017, all the events were held at the main Georgia Southern campus in Statesboro. For information regarding next year’s events keep an eye out on the news page of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences in mid-February, which is also when anthropologists worldwide celebrate Anthropology Day on February 16.

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Artifacts Impacting Archaeology

I am pleased to present our third student series of blog posts. We have a very big class this semester, so we’ll be traveling a little farther afield for some of our topics, but I think many will tie back to Savannah in small and big ways. Up first is Alexander Vandegrift, writing about battlefield archaeology and its effects.

Artifacts Impacting Archaeology

When many think of archaeology, they think of those who still preside around Egyptian tombs, or those who dig upon hundreds to thousands of years of history. But, many neglect those who dig in the strata of the recent past, such as battlefields. If it was not for archaeology, we would not have The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, where archaeologists and patriotic volunteers have dug battlefields to find missing in action military personnel. Just recently in 2015, 36 Marines that were presumed killed in action were found on a Pacific Island near where the Battle of Tarawa occurred, and were returned home to receive an honorable burial. But, for those who dig in the remnants of the Vietnam war, still face battlefield dangers.

I have always respected those who still approach historical battlefields to find artifacts, historical anomalies from what we have theorized, and still missing-in-action personnel. But, with the number of battlefields created in the recent past, specifically Civil War era to Vietnam era, one would have never of thought of the dangers that could still be present to archaeologists.

With the production of artillery rounds, and other ordnance during war time, not all weapons and ammo are stamped as “safe and ready to use”. This leads to unexploded ordnance lying dormant for years within the strata of the Earth until disturbed accidentally by someone or something putting weight upon the area, or moving soil to recover an artifact. Many of these “duds” still cause damage today because of the eroding black powder or materials within the bombs become unstable. Some have lead to deaths, while others lead to serious injury.

One of the many reasons this happens is because logs, counts, and mapping of minefields can be rare or records are lost during war time. With the rise of insurgency and guerilla warfare tactics, many mines or IEDs during the past were merely placed and forgotten about, only with the hope that it would hit its mark. In fact, there are still regions within the world, predominantly Cambodia and Vietnam (excluding the Middle East since it is a still active war zone), where certain areas are secured off from the public because of the dangers of unexploded or still active mines.

Now, this does not mean that you can always find unexploded ordnance in battlefields, but it is possible anywhere within the world that has had contact with the making, transporting, or history of having explosives for any reason. Per example, in November of 2016 an unexploded cannonball was found near Broughton and Barr streets by a group who was doing an excavation in the area. Luckily, Fort Stewart Army EOD and Savannah Chatham Police Bomb Squad conducted a controlled explosion within the site, while being viewed from an aerial position by Helicopter Eagle 1, to ensure citizens were not within the vicinity. The bomb site and controlled explosion resulted in zero casualties.

This speaks volumes. When a military unit or insurgency operates within an area, they need to keep maps and counts of all mines that are placed, as well as retrieve with full counts after war time. When dealing with instances such as Savannah’s, one must be careful and have keener senses when one notices something unusual within the site you are digging. When situations are carried out correctly and carefully, life can be preserved and chance of injury can be nonexistent. Those who were digging within the area that found the cannonball made the right decisions by backing away and calling the right units to handle such a situation.


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