Digging Deep to Reveal the Human Cost of War Novelist and Pioneering Archaeologist Tony Pollard Reveals the Secrets of the Battlefields to Rebecca McQuillan THE PAST IN FOCUS
By Rebecca McQuillan
IT WOULD be easy, from piecing together the circumstantial evidence, to get the wrong impression of Dr Tony Pollard. In his office at Glasgow University’s archaeology department, a deep interest in all things war-related is obvious. Spreading from floor to ceiling across two walls is a massed army of hardback books on military history, labelled “Zulu”, “colonial”, “Culloden” – and on the windowsill there is a glass-framed poster of an African warrior commemorating the 120th anniversary of the Anglo-Zulu war. There are also the hallmarks of his trade – a pair of rubber boots heavily caked in mud and a reflective jacket he used recently when excavating the Vampir dugout near Ypres, built by the British in 1918. Even the teddy bear on his filing cabinet is in uniform (Australian Army) – a gift to say thank you for his work recently uncovering a First World War mass grave in Fromelles, northern France, containing the bodies of Australian soldiers.
But Pollard, director of the university’s Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, which he co-founded in 2006, has always kicked against the stereotype of the military historian as the schoolboy who never grew up. He is concerned about what he regards as archaeology’s failure to give due attention to war and conflict, particularly the human experience of it. “When I was at university, it would have been very unfashionable to profess an interest in military history, ” he says. “You had to vote for Maggie Thatcher and play war games, which is plainly not the point. I think in archaeology there has been a tendency to look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles and ignore the fact there’s always been conflict in human society.”
That conviction has made him a world authority in the new discipline of battlefield archaeology. For him, establishing which army was positioned where is not the attraction. “There are those who are content to sit down and measure musket balls, but I’m more interested in the human experience of warfare, ” he says. “At times, archaeology is the closest thing you get to a time machine. When you’re handling stuff for the first time in 250 years and you think ‘this bullet may have marked someone’s last moments on this earth’, it’s a very visceral experience.”
He has excavated sites in Culloden (the first proper archaeology to be done on a battlefield site in Scotland, he says), Zululand and, recently and emotively, Fromelles, as well as bringing battlefield archaeology to a much wider audience as co-presenter of the BBC series Two Men in a Trench with his friend Neil Oliver in 2004. More TV appearances and high-profile excavations are in the pipeline.
So it’s not exactly the obvious moment for him to squeeze in his first novel, but somehow he has. The Minutes of the Lazarus Club, which he describes as a gothic thriller, comes out on August 7. Built around the character of the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel , it tells the tale of a twisted conspiracy centring on a secret Victorian brotherhood of brilliant men.
Words and ideas spill out of Pollard like water from a fountain But thrilled as he clearly is by his novel’s publication, he has no intention of giving up the day job – and who can blame him? Public enthusiasm for archaeology has never been higher. Partly this is because of TV series – both the serious, such as Time Team, and the decidedly not, such as the BBC’s action adventure Bonekickers. But it is also because of the increasingly important use of archaeologists in criminal cases and humanitarian investigations. The arrest of Radovan Karadzic was a reminder of the fact that, 13 years on from the Srebrenica massacre of 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, the mass grave sites are still being painstakingly excavated by forensic archaeologists.
Pollard has worked as a forensic archaeologist assisting in murder investigations, starting when he was at the field unit of University College London after completing his PhD. He was attracted by what he calls the “very obvious spiritual payback”: having been researching prehistoric hunter-gatherers on coastal Scotland for many years and feeling, he admits, a little jaundiced by traditional archaeology, he was keen to use his skills to provide a good service.
His first case involved finding and exhuming a murder victim who had been buried in a back garden. He and a colleague found the body beneath a newly planted flowerbed Pollard later set up the forensic archaeology capability at Glasgow University, along with a colleague.
But he has taken a step back from criminal investigations. He still does forensic archaeology, but on the battlefield rather than at the scene of crime, most recently at Fromelles. His team was contracted by the Australian government to find the burial site of 400 men, including 170 Australian servicemen, who were buried by the Germans after the battle of Fromelles, in July 1916. The German archives contained orders for pits to be dug for the burial, but although the Allies knew about them, they were apparently overlooked, possibly because incorrect grid references were given to the reburial teams. So the team used metal detectors, geophysics surveys and radar to pinpoint the likely site.
THE next task was to confirm that the bodies were there, and discover their condition, nationality and, if possible, army numbers. This was done by excavating a 10-metre trench. They found the remains of 50 men, skeletal but well preserved. As they were buried in wet clay, there was a smell of decay even though they were more than 90 years old. “Their clothing survived, ” says Pollard. “There were men lying in their full kit. You could see their socks and trousers, the webbing with the bullets in them and the pouches and gas masks. We even found a matchbox made in Gloucester, with John Bull on it. ” The discovery of general service buttons featuring a lion and unicorn confirmed that at least some of the men were British.
Pollard’s sense of achievement at a job well done was tempered by the circumstances. He and his colleagues took some time to adjust after returning from the investigation. “We were three weeks literally face to face with what were in some cases very young dead men. When we came back, for two weeks we all experienced very strange dreams in which we were excavating dead men. It just has an effect on you. It can’t not.”
It’s not clear what will happen next at Fromelles. Pollard has received a lot of e-mails from grateful relatives of missing soldiers, but no decision has been taken as to whether the bodies should be recovered, or whether DNA testing should be attempted.
He has mixed feelings about DNA testing and fears that many people have misconceptions about it, fuelled by high-profile cases and television shows. “It’s not the magic bullet that programmes like CSI tend to suggest, ” he says, adding that, while it is sometimes possible to extract DNA from prehistoric remains, it doesn’t mean that all remains from the First World War will yield DNA. It all depends on the conditions involved.
Whatever happens in France, he has plenty to occupy him. He is “locking himself away in a cottage” for two days next month to come up with a second book idea. Then there is the day job, which is opening up more opportunities all the time. He is delighted that Historic Scotland is undertaking a consultation on the protection of Scotland’s battlefields, which he has been involved with. “My argument has always been that you can’t preserve them in aspic – but, that said, they are incredibly sensitive places. People died in their masses there, the Americans have the idea of hallowed ground, and I think it’s very fitting and should apply to British battlefields.”
In November, a Time Team special on Vampir airs, and Pollard is “very excited” about a forth coming excavation at Prestonpans. Will it yield new perspectives on a key moment in Scottish history? He smiles. “You can’t expect to rewrite history every day of the week, despite what TV programmes will tell you. Sometimes archaeology tests the history, sometimes it validates it.
“It’s as rewarding in some cases to validate it as it is to give it a punch in the face.”
Horror and history uncovered The Romanovs: The myth that a child of Russian Czar Nicholas II survived the massacre of the family in 1918 was laid to rest when archaeologists unearthed related bones last year at a separate site from the family grave.
Srebrenica: Some 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by Serb forces in July 1995. The mass grave sites are still being excavated but, because the bodies were buried, excavated and reburied in different pits, fragments of bone belonging to the same person have been found at more than one grave site.
Fromelles: Dr Pollard’s team found the largest mass grave in Europe not connected to genocide.
Culloden: The team, working on the left flank of the government line, came across exploded fragments from a mortar round. There was no other record of mortars being used in that part of the battle, at such close quarters, against the Jacobites.
Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.
(c) 2008 Herald, The; Glasgow (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.