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.’
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