Remembrance of Things Past

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Remembrance of Things Past

A glint of gold caught my eye while walking along the busy streets of Freiburg, Germany. Two small bricks situated in the sidewalk, just in front of a store, displayed names, dates, and place of death. These are known as the Stolperstein or ‘stumbling stones.’ Each stone commemorates the victims of the Nazi regime by placing their names in front of their former homes.   It is a form of keeping the memory of these people alive even though every physical trace of that individual is lost.

As archaeologists, we attempt to learn about the past by what is left behind. But what if those traces of life were systematically destroyed? How then can we learn about and from our past? When there is little to see above ground, reminders such as the stumbling stones are needed so that such atrocities are not repeated. Archaeologists can be called upon to find and provide evidence for terrible atrocities that happened in the past—no matter how hard a regime tried to erase the people and claim nothing was done, there is usually something to find below ground.

Archaeological excavations and lidar surveys at Nazi concentration camps, such as Treblinka, have revealed mass graves and gas chambers. As they uncovered the brick foundations of the gas chambers, the archaeologists noticed that the bricks had been stamped with the star of david. The Nazis had tried to disguise the gas chambers as Jewish bath houses, which is truly chilling subterfuge. The Nazis razed the camp to the ground, trying to erase the fact they murdered 900,000 Jews. But the excavations proved, without a doubt, what happened.

According to one of the archaeologists who excavated at Treblinka, uncovering the gas chambers was like ‘a window into the hell of what happened there.’ During the study of the Sobibor death camp in Poland, archaeologists used a combination of techniques, using low-altitude photography with a weather balloon to find the borders of mass graves and other features. And they found the gas chambers and personal items, showing how archaeology can provide an important part of history.

Archaeological techniques have been employed to excavate contemporary mass graves for the United Nationals International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and International Criminal Tribunal for Rawanda, to provide documentation—proof—of the acts of genocide that took place at each location. Work has also been conducted to assess human rights abuses throughout South America, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Archaeology can be a tool for the victims and a means to prosecute the leaders.

No matter how hard a group may claim that they did not commit any crime or how hard another group may say it was all a hoax, as archaeologists, we can find the evidence. Hopefully it is a way to provide closure to the families who lost loved ones. And, It is a small way of saying to the victims, ‘I see you. You matter. And I won’t forget.’

*Listen to the ARCH365 Podcast of this blog post.

*For more information:

http://www.npr.org/2012/05/31/153943491/stumbling-upon-miniature-memorials-to-nazi-victims

http://www.livescience.com/44443-treblinka-archaeological-excavation.html

Gnats Galore

Gnats

Tales of archaeological adventures tend to focus on the amazing artifacts observed or death-defying situations with bears or gun-toting individuals. Rarely do they wax poetically about bugs. But all kinds of creepy crawlies can be found on a survey or excavation, from ticks to biting gnats. It’s not the heat or a fear of rattlesnakes that make me nervous before a field season—it’s bugs. You can’t escape them! And, already, my ears are itchy. No, that isn’t some euphemism for eavesdropping. My ears are literally itchy. It’s that time again: bug time.

I thought I’d have time before I’m eaten alive by gnats, but they’re a bit early this year and that makes me worry for this upcoming season, since they’ll likely get worse. It may be a pessimistic view, but I’d rather be prepared than not. There’s nothing quite like the gnats in the southwest; not only are they tiny, they bite and they love biting ears. Not even a mosquito net can keep them at bay. Imagine if you will, trying to record an archaeological site—which can take hours—and trying to focus on writing up summaries while hundreds of tiny gnats swarm about your head, wriggle their way through the head net, and then bite every inch of exposed skin. It’s so bad that you can’t even stand still long enough to eat lunch—you just have to keep moving, occasionally shoving food under your head net. And, the bugs are already out.

Time to prepare . . .

*Note: there really isn’t much you can do to combat biting gnats, other than completely covering up and using a gnat net (which works ~60% of the time).  Bug spray doesn’t really deter those little jerks, either.  Just walk as fast as you can and hope for a super windy day!