Why Conflict Archaeology Matters

The response to Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith’s attacks on social science funding in the NSF continues to build. Paul Mullins, president of the SHA, put out a letter today on the subject, as have a number of bloggers. As such things are wont to do, the message discipline has suffered a little bit, changing from a focus on the NSF and social science to a more generalized defense of the necessity of the field. That’s OK, as it’s something that archaeologists should always keep foremost in their mind, particularly those of us whose livelihoods depend on public funding (which is, largely, ALL of us).

Various historical archaeologists have weighed in, but I can shed a little light on my own special research area, conflict archaeology. This includes battlefield archaeology, the archaeology of earthworks and fortifications (sometimes battlefields, sometimes not), POW camps, other military sites, and civilian sites with some kind of discernible imprint of conflict on them. As a set, these various conflict sites are some of the most emotionally-evocative in the discipline. The link to recent wars makes these sites intimately valuable to many within the regional and national communities in which they live. The fact that the American Civil War, fought 150 years ago, remains with us in many popular (and some unpopular) forms, is testament to the power that such conflicts may have.

Conflict archaeology can contribute to the process of commemorating and celebrating past conflicts through several means. First, our ability to commemorate a battle requires us to know where it actually is. A surprising number of these have been, well, not exactly lost, but our understanding of where and how extensive they are may not be as sharp as we would like. For example, I am currently working at nailing down the location of the Action at Wallace’s Ferry, in Phillips County, Arkansas. We *think* we have a good idea of where it is, but we need archaeological evidence of the battle to be sure. Knowing allows us to mark it (like, literally with iron markers saying “The Action at Wallace’s Ferry occurred here”), which lets us commemorate and celebrate the men who fought and, for an unfortunate few, died there. Ditto for better-known fields, such as Jenkin’s Ferry and Poison Spring (as mentioned and depicted in the opening of Lincoln). Arkansas alone had over 700 battles, sieges, actions, skirmishes, etc., during the Civil War. There’s a lot of work to do here.

Aiding in such commemoration serves many purposes. First, the soldiers who fought in these battles, regardless of why they fought, deserve to be remembered for their service, and we can do that and pay honor to their sacrifice and loss through maintaining in our collective conscience the places of their most trying times.

Second, ours is a history of war-making, for aims we hold as noble as well as those that we were and are less united on. Battlefields, as places to remember (Pierre Nora refers to these as les lieux de memoire), offer an opportunity for us to recall the issues and personalities that led to, and resulted from, such conflicts. People who visit Civil War sites cannot do so without confronting, on some level, the issues we perceive to be the reason such battlefields exist. Expunging these from our collective consciences helps us lose the memory of those debates. I have often wondered how our approach to modern foreign interventionism could have been different had some portion of the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898 been fought on American soil. I have been to San Juan Hill, and can tell you that the legacy of that conflict, as told through its monuments, is very fresh for its Cuban visitors. That we don’t have such a durable sign of that conflict on our own soil contributes to its loss from our common discourse.

Finally (for why commemorate battlefields), heritage tourism is a growing industry, and its patrons tend to be bigger spenders than other kinds of tourists. If you only can measure something in dollars and cents, there you go.

Archaeology can put all of these processes in motion. However, it has purposes beyond that of simply commemorating the field. It adds a personal, emotive dimension that no other kind of study can deliver. Sure, historians can offer the letter home after a battle, the diary account, or the memoir. Archaeology can offer you the finger bone found encircled with a wedding band (found at the Little Bighorn), testament to the husband who never came home. I have held in my hands bullets covered with the waffle-print impressions of a surgeon’s forceps, betokening the pain of broken bones and torn flesh and the hope that the man survived (why else would they be removing it on the battlefield?). Buttons recovered on numerous fields have been interpreted as marking the spots where soldiers’ bodies laid after the battle, their unburied corpses swelling with gasses, popping the buttons off, or men (still-living) tearing at their clothes, trying to see where they were shot. These tangible signs of the terrifying short hours of combat confront us with a view of the battle very different from the distanced general’s view of the conflict we generally get from history books.

Many conflict archaeologists have looked to drawing lessons from our work that feeds into modern military science. Several of us have developed tours, staff rides, and learning modules for the modern armed forces (some of which uses the modern KOCOA approach used widely in the U.S. Army), or completed work on fortifications and other military sites that have fed into training opportunities for today’s soldiers. Our ability to locate units on the landscape based on the detritus of conflict, and show how groups moved about and either maintained or loss cohesion offer a window onto the flow of the battle unavailable in historical documents.

Finally, conflict archaeology gives us a material means to study the growth and elaboration of the military-industrial complex, a sector of our life and economy greatly expanded since World War II. The technologies of war, our preparations for it, and the scientific and human resources put towards perpetuating and growing it in service to national, racial, and other aims, is a subject desperately needs an archaeologist’s input. Here in Arkansas, the Southwest Proving Grounds re-wrote the road network around Hope, and the Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot lives on as Southern Arkansas University Tech, host to a rocket industry that is basically a holdover of its previous military existence. Wars are the signposts on this long, firey road, and conflict sites among the most durable tangible avenues to its study.

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One thought on “Why Conflict Archaeology Matters

  1. John Carman says:

    As a Conflict Archaeologist from across the (not so) great divide that is the Atlantic Ocean, I fully endorse this. One aspect perhaps hinted at here but not fully made explicit, I think, is that the archaeological study of past conflict offers us the chance to challenhge so many of the assumptions we have about military activity in the present: that war is perhaps not as ancient a practice as we like to think, and that ‘military thinking’ has not always been the same (so using e.g. Alexander the Great as a model for modern military leadership may not be as appropriate as is imagined). We can also put a focus on the consequences of conflict — especially for non-combatants — that may be left out in other discourses. So we can contribute to wider and more significant debates about the uses of military might: our long-term perspective as archaeologists can give us a distinctive contribution, I think.

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