Thursday, December 6, 2012

Archaeologists at War: The British Salonika Force in Macedonia, 1915-1919

A lunchtime lecture presented by Andrew Shapland, curator, Department of Greece & Rome

Thursday, 29 November 2012


The Museum holds frequent lunchtime lectures, but this was the first I’ve managed to attend.  It was an interactive members-only talk held around a large table upstairs in the cozy new Members Room.  The gathering consisted of a knowledgeable curator, a crowd of mostly retirees, and me.  And I got to enjoy it all with a small pot of Earl Grey.  What’s not to love?

The topic of the day was archaeology during wartime, which sadly had nothing to do with racing Nazis to find the Ark of the Covenant. What it was about, however, was plenty interesting in its own right. Namely that trench digging in northern Greece during WWI made accidental archaeologists of British and French soldiers, and the artifacts they uncovered continue to make significant contributions to our understanding of Macedonian history.  Our presenter, Dr. Andrew Shapland, has been working with their finds for the past few years—many of which had not even been cataloged prior to his efforts—and he was kind enough to share a little of his work with us. 

Above, a sample of sherds from the campaign that Dr. Shapland allowed us to handle. 
Below, metal cloak clasps, too delicate to touch.

Here's what we learned: 

World War I is, of course, famous for its trench warfare, and the British and French soldiers stationed in and around Thessaloniki in Macedonia found themselves digging quite a bit.  As they did, they uncovered thousands of years of history, finding objects dating as far back as about 3,000 BC.  The French army was traveling with its own archaeologists, just as it had during Napoleonic times (a charming and bizarre fact I learned while reading about the discovery of The Rosetta Stone), so it was well prepared when its trenches started yielding artifacts.  The British did not have such resources, so soldiers were ordered to hand over what they found, and their superior officers were responsible for recording the finds as best they could.  Ernest Gardner–a naval intelligence officer who, in his civilian life, was a professor of archaeology at the University of London–took charge of the finds and saw them removed to the famous White Tower of Thessaloniki 

Another British officer critical to the Force's archaeological work was Major T.G. Anderson, the twin brother of Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson of Gayer-Anderson Cat fame.  Major Anderson shared his brother’s interest in archaeology and apparently had a good deal of field experience before arriving in Macedonia.  Shapland showed us a few of the Major’s detailed illustrations cataloging British finds.  The sketches were as lovely as they were impressive, and I wish I had photos that I could share with you here.  Following his military career, Major Anderson went on to become an illustrator. 

After the war, some of the objects stayed in Thessaloniki while others found their way to the British Museum, the Louvre, and even Scotland (I believe because many members of the British Salonika Force were Scottish).   

This bronze helmet and gold leaf found by the British Salonika Force are from the tomb of a Macedonian warrior, circa 450-400BC.  They are on display in Gallery 19 of the British Museum.
So many objects were found, and under such chaotic cicrumstances, that many were never properly logged, and this is where Shapland comes in.  He has been working to record the undocumented finds of the Salonika campaign nearly 100 years after they arrived at the Museum.  Over the past few years, he has managed to compose brief descriptions for more than two thousand of these items, most of them pottery sherds, and has posted them to the Museum’s online catalog.

Some objects in the collection were preliminarily recorded in the field and still bear stickers or markings referring back to the original field logs. 

An original field log from the campaign recording an object numbered "38,"
written in very tiny Greek script.
Not all objects received even such minimal treatment, however, and trying to properly record them requires a lot more research–and sometimes a little bit of luck.  Shapland shared an anecdote about recently being able to record a large piece of pottery floating around the Museum’s archives after identifying it in the foreground of a photo taken of Ernest Gardner in the White Tower.  Unfortunately, no amount of research can ensure an entirely satisfactory identification for every item, but to Shapland, that’s just one more reason to get the collection online:

"As long as you don't mind getting emails correcting you, [documenting these objects] becomes a collaborative effort."

The audience was curious to know how much historical value any of these objects could have given that they were not found during a proper excavation.  When a modern archaeologist uncovers an artifact, she carefully records the context in which the item was found so that she can better understand its significance.  Obviously, when objects are not found during a scientific excavation but as incidental to trench digging, this level of documentation cannot occur and so the artifact’s larger meaning may remain fuzzy.  Shapland assured us, however, that the objects were still highly informative and could help us understand things like the length of time the area had been settled, how various crafting techniques developed over time, trade patterns in the region, and how cultural influences swept through the area. 

For example, he noted that one shard he brought to show us appeared at first to be Mycenaean because of its decoration.  Upon further examination, it was found to be a locally made piece that had been painted with a Mycenaean-style pattern.  As I understood it, this shows that the Macedonians were not simply trading with the Mycenaeans but had been influenced by their art and culture in more significant ways. 
Are these stripes Mycenaean or Macedonian?

Shapland spoke throughout his talk of his hope to see the collection reunited, and it seems steps are being taken in that direction.  There were plans last year to send part of the British Museum’s collection to join a Thessaloniki exhibition of artifacts unearthed during this period, but the loan had to be scrapped due to the Greek austerity measures.  Shapland is currently working with the Louvre to bring a selection of their items to the British Museum for exhibition next year, and he still hopes to take part of the Museum’s collection to Thessaloniki in 2018 as part of the celebrations surrounding the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. 

Dr. Shapland concluded his remarks by noting his enjoyment in thinking of the collection as having a “double identity”:  The objects are first interesting because of what they tell us about Macedonian history, but now they are forever part of the history of WWI as well.    

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this talk.  I thought Dr. Shapland did a great job presenting the material and I appreciated his being so welcoming of questions (much as I appreciated the willingness of my fellow attendees to ask them!).  The subject was completely new to me and very interesting, and I especially enjoyed the opportunity to handle actual artifacts unearthed by the British Salonika Force.  Also, I’m not sure how long the talk went on, but I know it ran significantly over the 30 minutes scheduled, and I’m sure everyone appreciated Shapland’s generosity in staying until all our questions were answered.  (In fact, he even stayed a few minutes beyond that so I could take some of the photos you see above.)

There were a few parts of the talk that I was not able to follow as well as I would have liked due to my lack of knowledge of Macedonian history, but I don’t feel this significantly hurt my enjoyment.  Besides, it was clear that most of the audience had the requisite background, and it hardly would have been fair to dumb down the talk just for me.  So, high marks over all, and I certainly will be looking forward to my next opportunity to attend a lunchtime lecture at the Museum.

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