Excavations give insight into underground life of First World War soldiers on Western Front

By Kevin Dowling

Last Updated: 9:57AM GMT 09 Nov 2008


Built 50ft beneath the killing fields of the Western Front, First World War "tunnel towns" not only gave British troops shelter from the slaughter above but provided the closest the men had to comfort.


Now, for the first time since the soldiers moved out, archaeologists have excavated an extensive network of the tunnels, near the Belgian town of Ypres.


The survey of the dugout, named Vampire, has shed fascinating new light on the experiences of the tens of thousands of soldiers who lived in similar subterranean workings, from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, with dozens of poignant items of everyday life recovered.


After unearthing the entrance to the original shaft, used 90 years ago to create the structure, the group, led by academics from the University of Glasgow, followed it down 50ft below ground, after pumping out hundreds of tonnes of mud and water.


At the bottom, they discovered a 30ft long section, with a concrete floor, accessed by two staircases back to the surface, and with recesses for bunk beds to provide accommodation for around 60 men.


The section is connected to other subterranean chambers, but because of collapsed workings and the discovery of unexploded shells, these cannot currently be safely excavated.


Among the items recovered was a moustache comb created by a soldier by whittling away two thirds of the teeth from an ordinary comb.


A bottle of original HP sauce, made by FG Garton's in Nottingham, a Baird's pickle jar, from Glasgow, and a bottle of Cambridge Anchovy Paste, showed how the men, faced with the daily grind of frontline rations, tried to spice up their dreary diet.


The archaeologists also recovered an empty wine bottle, a petrol can used for storing water for tea, and a makeshift stove made from a German jerry can.


Scorch marks found on the walls of the tunnels indicate where candles were stuck with mud, to help illuminate the cramped conditions.


At one point in the excavation fumes from ninety-year-old oilcans filled the tunnel and forced the team to halt their work.


Vampire is a small but important example of the work of the Royal Engineers because, although many other underground chambers could accommodate up to 3,000 men, it is the first section to be uncovered and examined in a rigorous scientific study.


Battlefield archaeologist Dr Tony Pollard, from Glasgow University, was particularly excited to find a functioning water pump, needed to keep the tunnels - built deep below the water table - dry.


"A gruelling job was the constant 24 hours a day manual pumping which the men had to carry out," said Dr Pollard.


The area around Ypres saw some of the war's heaviest fighting, as well as some of the most extensive tunnelling.


Around 500,000 soldiers and civilians died in the nine square miles around the market town, and almost every tree and building was flattened.


In the Flanders landscape devoid of natural cover, tunnelling was the only way to provide a life protected from incessant shelling, which could penetrate up to 30ft below ground.


According to the original trench maps, drawn up by British engineers, hospitals, mess rooms, chapels, kitchens, workshops and blacksmiths were all constructed below ground.


Dozens of "fighting tunnels", offshoots which were burrowed under German trenches before being exploded, were also built.


Remarkably, during 1917 and 1918, more people lived underground in the Ypres area than reside above ground in the town today.


Vampire was built close to the village of Zonnebeke in the closing stages of the war and offers a window into the remarkable expertise of the Royal Engineers who constructed it.


The tunnel was briefly captured and occupied by the Germans in their last-ditch Spring Offensive in 1918, before being retaken.


"What we have uncovered is unique," said military historian Dr Peter Barton. "The most impressive artefact is the structure itself. It offers the opportunity to understand the endeavour and meticulousness that went into what was the only viable place where the men could live in the forward zone."


The men, who were often former miners or sewer workers, used railway irons interspersed with wooden beams and the pressure of thousands of tonnes of soil to carve a living space which would withstand the stress of German shells.


Thousands of such tunnels litter the landscape of Europe but very little is known about them or the men who built them and Dr Barton wants to remedy that.


"You have this ribbon of destruction that runs from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier. You've got these thousands of kilometres potentially of these dugouts, chambers, galleries and corridors and all to different depths and all with a limited lifespan."



Returning to the devastated landscape after the war, the last thing on the minds of civilians faced with rebuilding their homes, towns and lives, was what lay beneath their feet and the tunnels were lost in the mists of time.


"They would have noticed these entrances pock marking the land but would have had no idea what was down there in the water and mud," said Dr Barton.


With maps and design plans of the Allied tunnelling scattered among museums across the globe and the chaos of war casting doubt on their accuracy, it is unlikely a true picture of the work of the Royal Engineers will ever be fully uncovered but collapsing tunnels adds urgency for the people who live there now.


"The one thing you can guarantee about these tunnels is that one day they will all collapse and all you need on the surface is a six inch shift to wreck a house," added Dr Barton.


The uncovering of Vampire is the subject of a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary, The Lost WW1 Bunker: A Time Team Special. The team are in discussions with the Belgian authorities to the have the site opened to the public.



Skeleton of 12,000 year old shaman discovered buried with leopard, 50 tortoises and human foot

05 November 2008


The skeleton of a 12,000 year-old Natufian Shaman has been discovered in northern Israel by archaeologists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The burial is described as being accompanied by "exceptional" grave offerings - including 50 complete tortoise shells, the pelvis of a leopard and a human foot. The shaman burial is thought to be one of the earliest known from the archaeological record and the only shaman grave in the whole region.


Dr. Leore Grosman of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, who is heading the excavation at the Natufian site of Hilazon Tachtit in the western Galilee, says that the elaborate and invested interment rituals and method used to construct and seal the grave suggest that this woman had a very high standing within the community. Details of the discovery were published in the PNAS journal on November 3, 2008.


The grave contained body parts of several animals that rarely occur in Natufian assemblages. These include fifty tortoises, the near-compete pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, tail of a cow, two marten skulls and the forearm of a wild boar which was directly aligned with the woman's left humerus.


A human foot belonging to an adult individual who was substantially larger than the interred woman was also found in the grave.


Dr. Grosman believes this burial is consistent with expectations for a shaman's grave. Burials of shamans often reflect their role in life (i.e., remains of particular animals and contents of healing kits). It seems that the woman was perceived as being in close relationship with these animal spirits.


The body was buried in an unusual position. It was laid on its side with the spinal column, pelvis and right femur resting against the curved southern wall of the oval-shaped grave. The legs were spread apart and folded inward at the knees.


According to Dr. Grosman, ten large stones were placed directly on the head, pelvis and arms of the buried individual at the time of burial. Following decomposition of the body, the weight of the stones caused disarticulation of some parts of the skeleton, including the separation of the pelvis from the vertebral column.


Speculating why the body was held in place in such a way and covered with rocks, Dr. Grosman suggests it could have been to protect the body from being eaten by wild animals or because the community was trying to keep the shaman and her spirit inside the grave.


Analysis of the bones show that the shaman was 45 years old, petite and had an unnatural, asymmetrical appearance due to a spinal disability that would have affected the woman's gait, causing her to limp or drag her foot.


Most remarkably, the woman was buried with 50 complete tortoise shells. The inside of the tortoises were likely eaten as part of a feast surrounding the interment of the deceased. High representation of limb bones indicates that most tortoise remains were thrown into the grave along with the shells after consumption.


The recovery of the limb bones also indicates that entire tortoises, not only their shells, were transported to the cave for the burial. The collection of 50 living tortoises at the time of burial would have required a significant investment, as these are solitary animals. Alternatively, these animals could have been collected and confined by humans for a period preceding the event.


According to Dr. Grosman, the burial of the woman is unlike any burial found in the Natufian or the preceding Paleolithic periods. "Clearly a great amount of time and energy was invested in the preparation, arrangement, and sealing of the grave." This was coupled with the special treatment of the buried body.


Shamans are universally recorded cross-culturally in hunter-gatherer groups and small-scale agricultural societies. Nevertheless, they have rarely been documented in the archaeological record and none have been reported from the Paleolithic of Southwest Asia.


The Natufians existed in the Mediterranean region of the Levant 15,000 to 11,500 years ago. Dr. Grosman suggests this grave could point to ideological shifts that took place due to the transition to agriculture in the region at that time.


Hilazon Tachtit is a small cave site next to Carmiel that functioned first and foremost as a Natufian burial ground for at least 28 individuals representing an array of ages.


The collective graves found at the site likely served as primary burial areas that were later re-opened to remove skulls and long bones for secondary burial – a practice common to the Natufian and the following Neolithic cultures.


Only three partially complete primary burials were recovered at Hilazon Tachtit. One was a skeleton of a young adult (sex unknown) reposed in a flexed position on its right side with both hands under his face. The scattered bones of a newborn were found in the area of the missing pelvis and it appears that the newborn and the young adult, possibly the mother, were buried together.



Climate change ‘doomed ancient Argyll site'

From The Times

November 7, 2008


An ancient Scots religious site predating the Pyramids and Stonehenge may have been abandoned because of climate change, according to archaeologists. Kilmartin Glen, in Argyll, has one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Europe.


The glen - a place of sacred rites from 3700BC or earlier - contains at least 350 ancient monuments, including burial cairns, rock carvings and standing stones. The most spectacular of the remains is the fortress of the Scots at Dunadd, capital of the kingdom of Dalriada.


But archaeologists have identified a period of almost 1,000 years in which no monuments were erected and the population virtually disappeared. Alison Sheridan, head of early prehistory at the National Museum of Scotland, said: “Kilmartin Glen is one of the richest archaeological areas in Scotland, with a very high concentration of ritual sites.” She added that the earliest activity dated back to hunter-gatherers about 4500BC, who left behind nothing more than a few pits, charcoal and some flint. It was a sacred landscape from at least as early as 3700BC until as late as 1100BC.


Dr Sheridan said: “It was a place for ceremony, for burying people, and observing the movements of the Sun and the Moon. We are not too certain what happened between 1100BC and 200BC. A hoard of swords has been found and a few artefacts buried as gifts to the gods in the late Bronze Age between 1000 and 750BC. But there are few structures and no settlements. When you start getting settlements again around 200BC they are in little fortified settlements ... It was no longer a happy valley, and people raided each other.”

Related Links


Walking Through History, part of the Scotland's History project, is on BBC Radio Scotland, Monday at 11.30am



Roman past 'neglected'

07 November 2008 | 06:40


COLCHESTER councillors should “hang their heads in shame” at the neglect of the town's Roman heritage, it has been claimed.


The accusation comes from Dennis Willetts, himself a borough councillor, who is furious about what he says is the continued lack of funds being spent on the “exceptional” historic sites.


He has now demanded to know why Colchester Borough Council does not have a financial plan for preserving its Roman heritage which includes the only chariot racing track in Britain.


Mr Willetts told the EADT his criticism was motivated by a letter from the Association of Roman Archaeology which criticised the stewardship of the town's heritage.


Among the town's historical gems are its walls, the Temple of Claudius, Balkerne Gate and Gosbecks Archaeological Park, believed to be the location of the surrender of the leaders of the British tribes to Emperor Claudius in AD43.


The council is now considering re-establishing a heritage reserve so it can be more proactive in its approach.


Mr Willetts said other towns and councils would think themselves lucky to have just one of Colchester's historical attractions.


He said: “We have to put our money where our mouth is - if we want the Roman Heritage to be a permanent tourist attraction we have to plan properly and work out how much we want to spend on it each year - there needs to be a strategy.


“This seems to get relegated to the bottom of the pile on every occasion other than once in a while and the funding it very much hand-to-mouth.


“The members of the council should be ashamed, they should hang their heads in shame at their neglect of our Roman heritage.


“Certainly, funds have been found from time-to-time for emergency repairs to the walls.


“But even the funding of the proposed information centre at the Roman Circus hangs in the balance because it is dependent on lottery and other grants rather than assured funding from the council's own coffers.”


He called for each of the 10 historic sites to be assessed to help establish funding for a maintenance and preservation strategy.


Theresa Higgins, in charge of culture at the council, said she agreed the town needed to be more proactive in its approach.


“We are going to try to reinstate the heritage reserve, maybe in a slightly different way and we have to be more proactive so that we are like the Forth Road Bridge where the work is never ending and once at the end you start again.”


The council is now considering using interest from ring-fenced bank accounts towards the heritage fund.


“I think, ideally, it would be good to have a base of three to four million sitting there to gain interest on to do the work.


“People have to understand we are not Chester or York, much of our Roman heritage is under the streets,” she said.


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Temple’s treasures wiped out

T.S. Subramanian


CHENNAI: A 1,200-year-old Siva temple of the Pallava period at Tiruppulivanam village in Kanchipuram district, Tamil Nadu, has been wiped clean of its beautiful Chola-period paintings. The frescoes, about 975 years old, have been sand-blasted out of existence.


Ironically, at a seminar organised on the temple premises on August 27, 2007, archaeologists, epigraphists and artists had decided on measures to preserve the paintings and inscriptions in the temple.


Two 16-pillared mantapas are among the temple’s treasures that have been destroyed. One of the mantapas, which was commonly called ‘madapalli’ or kitchen, had Tamil inscriptions dating back to Kulotunga Chola III (1215 A.D.), the Telugu Chola Vijayakanda Gopaladeva, Rajanarayana Sambuvaraya and others. The other mantapa, called Alankara Mantapa, belonged to the 16th century Vijayanagara period.


This destruction has taken place during “renovation” that the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department officials are undertaking. As part of this exercise, they plan to pull down a 100-pillared mantapa just outside the temple and “rebuild it.”


The Vyagrapurisvara temple at Tiruppulivanam, near Uttraramerur, 95 km from Chennai, was one of the three temples in Tamil Nadu where Chola paintings existed. The others where they still exist are the Brihadeesvara temple in Thanjavur and the Vijayalaya Cholisvara temple near Pudukottai.


When this correspondent and a photographer visited the temple on November 2, an earthmover was piling up the dismembered granite slabs of the Alankara Mantapa.


In the main temple itself, sandblasting had been done on the southern, northern and western walls of the prakara, on the sculptures on pillars and on the ancient Tamil inscriptions — in violation of a State government directive against sandblasting for renovating temples. The inscriptions on the outer wall of the sanctum sanctorum and the sculptures stand disfigured.


The temple existed during the reign of the Pallava king Nandivarman II in the 8th century A.D. The Rashtrakuta king Krishna III, the Chola kings Parantaka I, Rajendra I and Kulotunga I, the Sambuvaraya chieftain Rajanarayana and the Vijayanagara rulers added structures to it.


What stood out were the Chola frescoes, painted perhaps during the rule of Rajendra I, on the northern prakara wall. Dr. A. Padmavathy, retired Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, said the paintings were of Siva as Tripurantaka (riding a chariot and armed with a bow and arrows to kill the demons of the three worlds) and Nataraja, and of Dakshinamurti, Narasimha, and Vishnu in “ananthasayana” posture. There were murals of Raja Raja Chola’s teacher Karuvur Thevar and of princes, princesses, dancing girls, ponds with lily and lotus flowers and wild animals. These frescoes do not exist today. The mantapas, one with ancient inscriptions, are gone.


When contacted, the temple’s executive officer, S. Senthil Kumar, of the HR & CE Department, said that “no paintings ever existed in the temple” and “no structure called Alankara Mantapa ever existed.”


He added that the ‘madapalli’ mantapa was demolished long before he took charge of the temple eight months ago. He said that “no sandblasting was ever done” and that only “water-wash and air-wash” were done.


However, informed sources asserted that the frescoes were sandblasted four months ago, the ‘madapalli’ mantapa demolished about six months ago and the Alankara Mantapa brought down a year ago.



St. Louis' last remaining Indian mound is for sale, listed at $400,000

By Matthew Hathaway




ST. LOUIS — With an outdated kitchen and living space that measures only about 900 square feet, the modest house at 4420 Ohio Street isn't your typical $400,000 listing. It's what lies beneath the home that excites lovers of St. Louis history, or, in this case, prehistory.


The house sits on Sugar Loaf Mound, the city's last remaining link with the native people who lived here centuries before 1764, when Auguste Chouteau and a band of Creoles landed at the river's edge.


There once were dozens of these earthen structures in St. Louis, but all save Sugar Loaf were cleared in the name of progress.


That's why people interested in the ancient Mississippians tend to look eastward, to the Metro East and Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, not to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood on the city's south side. But those in the know have long pointed out Sugar Loaf, which rises between Interstate 55 and the Mississippi River, about 4 miles south of the Arch.


Now, this last vestige of Mound City — the 19th century nickname for St. Louis — is for sale for the first time in nearly 50 years.


"There must be people who have been watching this house — or, this mound — for a long time," said Leigh Maibes. She is the real estate agent representing Walter and Eileen Strosnider, the property's elderly owners who have moved to California to be closer to relatives. "I got the first phone call literally four or five minutes after putting the sign in the yard," Maibes said.


The one-story house on top of Sugar Loaf mound dates to 1928. Maibes concedes that, just about anywhere else in south St. Louis, the house would sell for a fraction of its listed price. Then again, when's the last time a house atop an Indian mound came on the market?


"One of the reasons that price tag is on it is to discourage people who would want to (demolish) the mound," Maibes said, noting that the owner wants a buyer who will act as a custodian for the site. (The mound, but not the house, was listed in 1984 on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation doesn't prohibit an owner from damaging or even destroying the mound.)


Sugar Loaf was named by early settlers for its lumpish shape. Originally, it likely had a more defined and terraced shape. The property for sale doesn't include the entire mound, and there's another house on a lower tier.


John Kelly, an archaeology professor at Washington University, said scientists and historians aren't sure what to make of Sugar Loaf Mound, which has never been the site of an extensive excavation.


Kelly said he suspects that the mound is about 2,000 years old, dating to the Middle Woodland Period, which lasted from about 1000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. But, the archaeologist said, without a serious excavation there's no way to know for sure.


Kelly said it was most likely a burial mound, which were commonly situated on river bluffs. Or, the mound could have been used as a platform for a structure like a temple or a chieftain's home. Kelly disagrees with a popular theory that Sugar Loaf was a signal mound, and that Indians lit fires there to alert others of boats approaching upriver. "It could have been used for that, but that's not why people built mounds," Kelly said.


That Sugar Loaf Mound survived this long is an accident of geography, said Nini Harris, a St. Louis historian and author who sometimes points out the mound on her history tours of the city's south side.


Harris said that the mound was spared largely because it is on the northern end of Chouteau's Bluff, a steep, mile-long bank along the river. Building factories and homes there would have been difficult, so early developers largely skipped this stretch of the river.


That's not to say that the mound hasn't suffered in the name of progress. Part of it was demolished about 150 years ago by workers at a nearby quarry. The construction of Interstate 55 in the 1960s obscured much of the mound's western slope.


"There's a lot more substance to this mound than you can see today, thanks to the highway," Harris said. "Even at that time, we didn't have the sensitivity to protect our archaeological heritage."


The first open house will be from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit a website and blog created by Maibes, sugarloafmoundstl.com.