Recovery of Fromelles remains ‘a nightmare’

Archaeologists excavate the site by hand. Picture: Tim LovelessA Belgian World War I expert has described as a “nightmare” and “wickedness” the methods used by an English archaeological firm to exhume the bodies of 300 Australian and British soldiers left forgotten for 90 years in a mass grave in northern France.Two Illawarra men are believed to be buried in the grave at Pheasant Wood after the Battle of Fromelles on July 19, 1916. They are Sergeant Harold Richardson, and Private Robert Gladstone Fenwick of Helensburgh.The battlefield specialist, Johan Vandewalle, played a key role in the successful excavation and recovery of the remains of five Australian soldiers found in Zonnebeke in northern Belgium in 2006.The Sydney Morning Herald has revealed that Mr Vandewalle was seconded secretly to Fromelles in June when bad weather highlighted that the firm chosen to complete the excavation, Oxford Archaeology, was inadequately prepared to cope with rising groundwater and rainstorms.The company, which is not affiliated with Oxford University, won the job with a bid almost half the price of its competitors from Glasgow and Birmingham universities.Mr Vandewalle is the only independent witness to the exhumation, regarded by European historians as the most important World War I find in 80 years. Media have been banned from the site since May. He is seen briefly in a video on the project website but is not named or credited.The Belgian expert has expressed concern privately that delays, the tight schedule and cost-cutting has turned what was specified as an archaeological excavation project into a “body recovery exercise” and is even fearful that the men’s remains may be mixed up.The Herald contacted Mr Vandewalle but he would not comment, citing a confidentiality clause in his contract with Oxford Archaeology.But the eminent British historian, Peter Barton, has confirmed that Mr Vandewalle’s concerns have been reported formally to British and Australian authorities.”Johan Vandewalle has been advising me of his concerns since he was first called to the site in early June to organise drainage and weatherproofing,” he said. ”I am aware of his observations and also that, at their request for his impressions, he notified the Australian authorities. In this knowledge, I brought the matter before the [British] parliamentary group at the mid-July meeting.”Mr Barton was the official project historian and has produced two reports on the battle. He is also co-secretary of the British All Party Parliamentary War Graves and Battlefields Heritage Group chaired by Lord Roper.Yesterday he warned that a shift from an archaeological dig to a swift, cut-price recovery of human remains might have a serious impact on historical and archaeological practice in Europe.”This is the highest profile and most important World War I excavation since battlefield searches ceased in 1921. Everyone who played a key role in bringing the British Government on board was under the impression that those who tendered for the work were tendering for archaeology of the highest standard, not for a recovery exercise.”The parliamentary group saw this as a standard bearer for World World I archaeology. It seems bizarre that so much time, effort, care and money could be invested in the project to date only to downgrade requirements at the final, critical stage.”I am sure that archaeology was the public expectation in Australia and Europe. I know it was the expectation of the Parliamentary Group.”Mr Vandewalle’s chief anxiety is that the methods used to excavate – going deep into the centre of graves instead of working meticulously layer by layer, means there is no guarantee that every set of remains can be attributed to one individual.”I cannot believe they did not follow this archaeological procedure … this is not correct,” he reported. ”I had the feeling they asked for my advice and my experience but they did not respect this. They can show all sorts of sketches, prove all sorts of pictures but I still ask why did they go straight to the bottom before finishing up the top?”It was an honour when they asked me to bring my expertise. But they did not listen. I was disappointed to see on their website just last week that they were digging in grave four and went straight to the bottom. This work was not just about fixing the drainage or finding the marquee to protect from the water … it is about how you work and co-operation between experts is important … if you miss something, it is not respectful … this is the shame for me.”I do not want to create a problem. But these are young men, lying, all together, alone. They have to be taken out slowly; you need time and you need feeling – without feeling you can’t see it; you miss things.”We now know it is 300 men, not 400. So why do they have to save money if the job is smaller?”The Herald reported on July 6 that entry of water threatened to derail the dig, and compromise the men’s remains and surrounding artefacts. The tender requires exhuming all the men by next month ready for individual reinterment in a new cemetery next year.The Department of Defence denied the report. But remedial and emergency work led by Mr Vandewalle included rerouting groundwater and creating adequate drainage, new buttressing of grave walls to protect from water, and constructing wooden scaffolds to aid the excavation and erection of a specialised marquee, long term, to prevent further water entry and damage.All these works were explicitly stated as prerequisites in the tender document, a copy of which has been obtained by the Herald. The document says that “UK legislation, regulations and professional archaeological standards must be adhered to and met in all aspects of the contract”.The Herald reported last month that the losing tenders estimated the project cost at more than £2.4 million ($4.8 million). Oxford Archaeology promised to complete the project for about £1 million less at £1.4 million. smh南京夜网.au
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