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Lines in the sand (Nonesuch autumn 2014)

Ottoman Station Building

Ruins of an Ottoman-era Turkish fort in Southern Jordan near the route of the old Hejaz Railway Ivor Pickett, Panos Pictures

5 November 2014

The dust has barely settled on the major conflicts of the last one hundred years – in some cases, it’s still swirling fiercely. In the first of two features on the legacy of the world wars, we focus on a Bristol researcher contributing to a more complete picture of the First World War with a ten-year archaeological study of a region on one of its less familiar fronts: the Middle East.

In November 2012, Professor Nicholas Saunders and his archaeological team were working on the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. They were talking to the area’s Sheikh – a crucial thing to do in order to negotiate the security situation there – who was showing them around.

'He told us that half of his family were in Saudi but he couldn’t visit them because of the boundaries,’ says Saunders. ‘Then he turned to us and said, half-joking, “You know, it’s all your fault”. We asked him what he meant, and he said, “Sykes-Picot”.’ 

Two years later, the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement – in which Great Britain and France secretly arranged to divide parts of the Middle East into spheres of influence after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – has emerged from the history books into the light of media scrutiny and debate, as the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS continue to destabilise the region.

The details of Sykes-Picot and its ramifications are far too involved to explain here – and that’s precisely the point. The legacy of a conflict can be complex and farreaching, and modern conflict is especially likely to leave behind a troublesome aftermath.

Saunders is one of the pioneers of an interdisciplinary approach to the archaeology of modern conflict zones, an approach that brings new perspectives – anthropological, geographical, environmental, and heritage– to the battlefield, and traces the long-term effects of warfare.

According to GARP

When Saunders and his team first arrived in Jordan in 2006, it was to conduct a study of abandoned station buildings on the Hejaz Railway, a line built in the 1900s to facilitate the Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage) from Damascus to Mecca, although the railway stopped in Medina. But within an hour of beginning, everything changed.

'We found an Ottoman army camp that nobody knew about except the local Bedouin,’ says Saunders, ‘and a whole militarised landscape flanking the railway, right down to the Saudi border.’

It quickly became evident that their project had to develop into something much more complex and novel: the archaeology of guerrilla warfare, as waged against the Ottoman Empire by the legendary TE Lawrence and his Bedouin comrades-in-arms. It was christened the Great Arab Revolt Project (GARP), a ten-year study with direct relevance to the situation in the
region today.

‘The Ottoman army transformed the landscape to counteract these unpredictable attacks on the railway,’ says Saunders. ‘Lawrence and the Arab irregulars would strike all over the place, then disappear back into the desert. It was the beginning of modern guerrilla warfare.’

Fittingly for a study of unconventional warfare, GARP’s funding was organised outside the ‘normal’ channels, by using a volunteer model: people with relevant skills and experience paid a fee to take part every year, a portion of which funded the hiring of professionals to the team. ‘That paid huge dividends,’ says Saunders: ‘we got to know local people, and they would show and tellus things, whereas if you come in with a big grant for a short time, they look at you as a cash cow.’

Their discoveries included Ottoman army camps and Arab rebel campsites, landing strips used by the British Royal Flying Corps, and trenchworks at various points along the route of the railway. Every year they found more, and each new discovery helped to fill in the picture of the Great Arab Revolt, and of the region’s wider history, including the origins of the state of Jordan.

Digging deeper

The team’s successes in Jordan illustrate the benefits of taking a multidisciplinary approach to modern conflict. ‘You could arguably go to Waterloo, dig it all up, and say “Now we know all about what happened at Waterloo”,’ says Saunders. ‘But in most First World War battle zones, there are years of accumulated debris to make sense of.’ Thanks to the advent of industrialised warfare, some of that debris is as deadly as it was a century ago. ‘There are still roughly 400 million unexploded First World War artillery shells on what was the Western Front, and millions of unexploded hand grenades and volatile gas canisters, still going off now and then, sometimes killing people,’ he says. ‘To get some intellectual purchase on that, you have to understand the de-mining policy after the war, and the arguments in France and Belgium between the government and the farmers who wanted their land back. That’s why we try to capture as many pieces of information, nuances and legacies as possible.’

Saunders cites a particularly resonant example of this kind of legacy in his study of trees in Great War landscapes. In the town of Verdun, where a particularly nasty war of attrition between the Germans and the French involved heavy deployment of mustard gas, the resulting chemicals leached into the soil. ‘Over the decades, this poison seeped into tree roots,’ says Saunders. ‘The trees were cut down and made into wine casks, then the wine became tainted and people who drank the wine become ill. Tracing that trajectory as a modern, unexpected legacy of the First
World War requires much more than digging up a battlefield.’

On the horizon

GARP’s ten-year span ends in 2016, but Saunders and his team will follow Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice about whether a return to Jordan is prudent. Meanwhile, he is planning a new project in the Isonzo Valley, an area of former Austria-Hungary that was the setting for at least a dozen battles in the First World War. ‘It’s a well-preserved landscape,’ he explains, ‘and a microcosm of the way that Europe transformed after 1918, with the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the  eventual rise of the European Union. There’s a lot to discover there.’

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