09 October 2009

Adventures in colonial archaeology: a Senegalese regiment excavates at Gallipoli

Senegalese troupes de marine on the Western Front (WWI Color Photos)

World War I saw archaeologists on both sides drafted into war as interpreters and sometimes spies. As George Chase notes in the Classical Journal of 1916, this did not stop their careers:
Several members and former members of the French and British schools [of archaeology at Athens] have been assigned to service as interpreters with the expeditionary forces of the Entente Allies in the Eastern Mediterranean and have there found opportunities for investigation in the midst of military activities.
The same article reports a major excavation by French imperial troops during the Gallipoli Campaign/Çanakkale Savaşı). An almost unbelievable story of excavation under fire, it also shows how deeply archaeology was intertwined with the colonial globalization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Among the discoveries directly attributable to the war, the most interesting of which I have seen reports are those made on the peninsula of Gallipoli in the course of the unsuccessful attempt of the British and French troops to force the passage of the Dardanelles. In May, 1915, soldiers of the French expeditionary force, in digging trenches on the plateau of Eski-Hissarlik, a few miles from the extreme western end of the peninsula, came upon several tombs constructed of stone slabs. These were destroyed, but some of the contents, including vases and terra-cotta figurines, were preserved by the officers in command. Later, in June, a communication trench hit upon several sarcophagi near the same spot, and it was decided to attempt more careful exploration. The work had to be conducted very slowly, with not more than four men digging at any time, owing to the proximity of the Turks, whose suspicions would have been aroused by any considerable concentration of men.

From July 8 to August 22, the excavations were superintended by Sergeant Dhorme, a priest who, at the outbreak of the war, was a professor in the College of St. Joseph at Beyrut. He was afterward cited in the order of the day for having "dans une position avancée, soumise au bombardement ennemi, accompli sa tâche avec une ardeur inlassable et un mépris constant du danger" ["accomplished his task in a forward position, under enemy bombardment, with tireless zeal and constant contempt for danger"] — probably the first time this honor has ever been conferred for such services. From August 23 to September 26, the interprète stagiaire, J. Chamonard, a former member of the French School in Athens, took charge and prepared a general report for the Bulletin de correspondence hellénique; and a careful catalogue of the contents of the tombs was drawn up by Sergeant Courby, another former member of the school.

In spite of the unfavorable conditions, no less than 37 sarcophagi and 17 clay jars which had been used for burials were recovered. The objects collected included vases, ranging all the way from an Attic black-figured cylix to Hellenistic forms; some terra-cotta figurines of archaic style, especially figures of Demeter, others of Tanagra types, and many of the third and the second centuries B.C., with Aphrodite and Eros as the favorite subjects, similar to the figures found by Pottier and Reinach at Myrina in Aeolis; and jewelry of a rather cheap sort, mostly in bronze, glass paste, and shell. The necropolis dates from the sixth to the second century B.C. Still later, on October 7, the work was resumed, under the direction of Lieutenant Leune, and only abandoned with the withdrawal of the troops on December 12. Much of this later digging was carried on by Senegalese soldiers. More tombs were opened, and among the vases were found some Corinthian wares of the sixth century.
I’m not even sure how to describe my feelings on reading this passage. Senegalese soldiers, serving the French empire, excavate Classical tombs on the shores of the Hellespont while under artillery fire from Ottoman troops (led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in the campaign that made his reputation). It's a mashup of people, places, and institutions that says everything about the world created during the "long 19th century", in the midst of its collapse.

Senegalese troops unload ammunition at Gallipoli (Imperial War Museum Q61091)

It is presented as so normal, so logical, that an army in the midst of a vicious battle should spare time to conduct excavations. In one sense, the work was admirable: without the efforts of Chammonard, Dhorme, and Courby this necropolis would surely have been destroyed without a trace. Their monograph in the Bulletin de correspondance hellénique (1915, Vol. 39, pp.135-240) is meticulous in its description of tomb construction, burial practice, artifacts, and methodology. Yet in the whole 105 pages, there is barely more mention of the unusual circumstances of the excavation than Chase gives in the paragraphs above. The authors blandly note that the excavation often did not work a full day, since the Turkish bombardment got especially bad around 4pm each afternoon. Men must have been killed while excavating, but no mention is made of casualties.

This instance illustrates the smooth integration of archaeology into European imperial policy, the insane gung-ho attitude of World War I, and the extreme sense of entitlement that Europeans had in the last century. They could excavate whenever, wherever, in the most bizarre conditions, and report it as an ordinary event. (Actually, in historical context, it was: the intimate relationship between military conquest and archaeological exploration was especially pronounced in the case of France, which attached archaeologists to its military expeditions in Egypt (1798), Greece (1828-1833), and Algeria (1830-1850s).

My thoughts turn most to the Senegalese soldiers, and what they thought of their strange assignment. Mostly conscripts, they were ironically pawns in the struggle for African self-determination. Blaise Diagne, Senegal’s deputy in France’s national parliament, made a deal with the Empire: he would help conscript soldiers to defend Paris from the Hun, and in return Paris would grant full French citizenship to all residents of the Four Communes of Senegal. Unlike the British, the French allowed black troops to serve on the front line, and over 70,000 west Africans left their bones in the muddy trenches of Flanders. (For more, see here and here.)

In antiquity, Cape Helles had a shrine to the hero Protesilaos, whom Chase invokes (echoing Philostratos' Heroikos), to capture the strangeness of it all:
The town with which this graveyard was associated was very surely the Athenian colony of Elaeus, famous in antiquity for a mound which was believed to be the tomb of Protesilaus, the first Greek to fall in the expedition against Troy. One cannot but wonder what were the feelings of the shade of the hero, if he still haunts the region of his tumulus, as he watched these strange beings from Western Europe and Africa destroying the resting-places of those who, to him, must have been very modern inhabitants of the shores of the Hellespont.

Tetradrachm with head of Protesilaos from Skione, Macedonia (British Museum).


  1. Two things.
    a. Some of the material is in the Louvre. It is possible to understand the tomb-groups.
    b. Many members of the British School at Athens served in military intelligence during the First World War. At least 2 former BSA students served in this capacity at Gallipoli. And 2 died there. This is discussed in part in:
    Gill, D. W. J. 2006. "Harry Pirie-Gordon: historical research, journalism and intelligence gathering in the eastern Mediterranean (1908-18)." Intelligence and National Security 21: 1045-59.

  2. Thanks for the comment, David. From the _BCH_ article it does seem to have been a well-done excavation, and it's good to know the material is still available. And I look forward to checking out your article!

  3. Thanks for the great post, I really enjoyed reading this!