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Crowdfunded archaeology: 'Dig Hill 80' explores the WWI Ypres Salient battlefield


Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
Come and 'Dig Hill 80' with us

Belgian archaeologist Simon Verdegem was convinced, after preliminary excavations a few years ago, that the valuable hill and largely German-held stronghold of Wijtschate would prove a "Pompeii of the first World War." But there was no appetite to pay for a dig when the land was set for property development. Knowing it was now or never, he asked for more time to secure public support — and got it.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
Bountiful site, holding thousands of artifacts

The Dig Hill 80 team — crowdfunded in large part, with an unpaid volunteer workforce who received help with their expenses — uncovered the rich site they had hoped for. Here's a selection of some of the more typical effects to be discovered: a water bottle (plus bullet hole), the remainder of a British rifle clip, decaying leather almost certainly from a boot, and the remnants of two shells.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
Where soldiers first dug in, in 1914

Wijtschate is near Ypres, a medieval fort city in Flanders, just inland from Belgium's northern coast. Claiming Ypres was crucial to Britain — both to halt Germany's charge towards Paris, and to secure the northern Channel ports that would allow it to safely ship soldiers to the continent. This is where the advancing German troops were halted and had to dig in, using trenching tools like this.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
Germans claimed Hill 80, at a heavy cost

As Britain focused on Ypres, Germany sought access to the surrounding high ground. Hill 80 (or "Höhe 80" to the Germans) was so called because of its altitude, some 78.5 meters above sea level. That may not sound like much, but remember we're in Flanders' flat fields. From Hill 80, observers and artillery directors had a clear view of Ypres, some 8 kilometers (5 miles) away.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
Munitions abound, some still live

Within months of conflict, the village of Wijtschate was all but flattened by artillery fire. But the subterranean trenches had a better chance of surviving the blast. Inventive Bavarian soldiers had also incorporated their trench network to criss-cross the cellars of the existing buildings. They'd keep using the cellars long after the upper levels had collapsed.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
Personal effects, and more than 100 bodies

You can still see the remains of the leather strap of this soldier's helmet. One specific reason the Dig Hill 80 team wanted to explore was a dark suspicion they held. In the first weeks of trench warfare, soldiers and officers had not grasped the extent of WWI's carnage. There were not yet mechanisms in place to return bodies to the back of the lines. As feared, they found more than 100 corpses.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
'People don't always enjoy staying too long in this tent'

Out of respect for the dead, and any living relatives, DW was asked not to take any photos of soldiers' remains. The anthropologists and archaeologists erected a tent to shield themselves from the sun at this site. They had uncovered two German mass graves in close proximity. Nathan Howarth, a volunteer and British soldier, noted how not all visitors felt comfortable at this part of the site.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
'Oh, I see you've found the mine stick!'

Squaddie archaeologist Nathan had quite a way with words, exclaiming that DW had "found the mine stick" when wandering the site unsupervised. But what's a mine stick? Do you notice the walkie-talkie attached? This is where the archaeologists go to alert their munitions expert, in case they've uncovered a live one in the dirt. For easy access, it's located right in the center of the dig.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
Sandbags of time

An extremely rare find at an archaeology dig: a sandbag that probably had not seen the light of day for a century. Sand doesn't usually fare well underground amid soil and water, even if wrapped in a bag. Professor Peter Doyle, a military historian and project patron, speculated that it may have survived because it was covered by that timber you can see. The timber fortified a trench wall.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
Fewer toothbrushes, more excavators

The Dig Hill 80 mission wrapped up this Friday. DW visited with just a week left to run. By that point, by the team's own admission, the time had come to cut some corners. This small excavator is scraping away a layer of the soft soil, as a volunteer monitors its process, ready to signal the operator to stop if any treasure emerges underneath.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
'We've found something'

The multinational crew hailed from all over: Belgium, Britain, Berlin and beyond. Shortly before the Belgians' quarterfinal, the crew were filling out their World Cup predictions game during the down time on site. One member of the crew was hoping for a Belgium England final, he'll have to settle for a third-place playoff on Saturday. But there were artifacts on hand to console, too.

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
'It's definitely metal, and blue...'

These few square meters were a particularly rich source of items, with an array of effects scattered around the (now removed) remains thought to have belonged to a French soldier. Can you guess what it is yet?

Dig Hill 80: A day at crowdfunded World War I archaeology dig
'Don't drink the water!'

That's right, it's a military-issue water flask! Incredibly, on shaking it, you could hear sploshing noises. Yet more surprisingly, the archaeologist immediately emptied its contents onto the soil. Asking why prompted a knowing grin: "The soldiers didn't always keep water in these, we've found others filled with fuel." This flask was one of several, plus two toothbrushes, found in close proximity.

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Raising over €200,000 from the public, volunteer archaeologists have explored a German World War I trench fortress that was about to be bulldozed for a housing development. They found more than 100 fallen soldiers.

After promising preliminary investigations three years ago, Belgian archaeologist Simon Verdegem was determined to comprehensively excavate a still-intact segment of a renowned set of German World War I trenches. They were located on the valuable high ground of Hill 80 in the village of Wijtschate ("Whitesheet" to the British soldiers) near Ypres (or "Wipers") — a strategically crucial city in western Flanders that was contested for almost the entirety of the war. 

Verdegem was convinced the site would prove unusually bountiful, but he also had a darker suspicion. Wijtschate was where Germany's first attempt at "Blitzkrieg" — charging through Belgium towards Paris via the northern Channel ports — ground to a halt. 

As soldiers first dug in and trench warfare set in, the various armies had no idea what a brutal, static conflict was about to develop. Systems for removing fallen soldiers' remains to the back of the lines had not been established. The first soldiers who arrived in Wijtschate had been advancing several kilometers every day in the preceding weeks; they were not expecting to stay put for the next four years.

As a result, Verdegem strongly suspected that the site would hold an unusually large number of bodily remains. In the end, he and the Dig Hill 80 team uncovered the remains of more than 130 soldiers, of various nationalities — including a pair of mass graves thought to contain Bavarian troops likely buried in haste in 1914 by their comrades after what became known in German as the "massacre of the innocents at Ypres."

Fighting on the Ypres Salient was fierce for the entirety of World War I

General public dug deep

But the land's developer, planning to build new homes on the site, could not cover the costs of a full excavation, despite being willing to spend some money on the effort. Afraid this potentially precious site would go the way of a recently developed sports center a few meters away, Verdegem dug in his heels.

"I asked him to give me more time, to see if I could find solutions," Verdegem told DW at the dig earlier in July. There followed a crowdfunding campaign that raised over €200,000 (more than $240,000), covering around two-thirds of the total costs. "We've even had really big donors, who then later gave more."

The project concluded its work on Friday. It attracted prominent patrons, including British comedian and history buff Al Murray, and the British and German historians Robin Schaefer and Peter Doyle, who have written a collaborative book about ordinary soldiers' World War I experiences called Fritz and Tommy. 

University College London was on site on the day DW visited, while at the end of every day, a drone would fly over the site. It was sending data back to Virginia Tech in the United States, which is working on a 3-D model of the trench fortress. Such academic institutes are paying their own way to get a look at the site.

Meanwhile, every chance to subsidize the project was utilized — not just crowdfunding. Visitors were welcome for VIP tours. Contribute a little more, and enthusiastic amateurs could come and be an archaeologist for a day, or longer. There's even a box of souvenir t-shirts and other merchandise available at the dig site, and the website, of course.

"You see those diggers over there, the small ones, they're here on discount," Verdegem told DW. "We got a reduced rate, so long as it didn't come with a driver. But that's OK, we have guys here who can use it."

By the last week of the dig, large excavators were used more liberally to hurry the process along

'It feels like archaeology to me' 

Academic specialists in need or desire of field experience were also invited to volunteer their services, with the promise of help to cover their expenses if there was enough money left over.

Ben Goodburn bought into the project not once, but twice. 

"I started off as a [financial] supporter," he tells DW, all while delicately brushing debris from a skeleton with largely undamaged legs and a devastated torso. "But then, given my background in archaeology, I decided to come myself." 

Excavating 20th-century history is not that common in archaeology, given the extensive written and photographic evidence from the period. 

"Some archaeologists don't really like the two World Wars," Goodburn said. "They're the destructive, recent, well-known conflicts that destroyed the Roman treasures and mysteries beneath. But it feels like archaeology to me." 

'That's going to take a while' 

It feels like archaeology to an amateur observer, too. But a pall hangs over the site that one imagines is not so present somewhere like Pompeii, or a Mayan ruin. The history is modern, tangible, and steeped in death and destruction at every turn.

A selection of fairly common bounty: part of a boot, a water bottle plus bullet hole, some ammo, and parts of shells

Signs of the conflict abound. Our tour guide Nathan Howarth found a bullet beneath his shoe at random within seconds of starting our tour, joking that we could take that one home, as they had plenty of ammo already. Howarth is a British soldier who took unpaid leave to take part in the project — though the military will pay him for documenting the experience for the regiments that served in Wijtschate.

A white tent offering shade on a hot summer day becomes less inviting after Howarth pointed out it was shielding workers digging their way through a pair of German mass graves. "People don't always enjoy staying too long in this tent," he said.

Another Italian member of the team displays some signs of battle-weariness on a blistering July day after three months on site. Just before lunch break, a colleague entered the break room and kitchen, gently telling her: "I'm sorry! I've got a British soldier and his rifle, lots of effects, and some buttons." 

Her face sinks: "That's going to take a while." 

'I've got to go and look at that sandbag' 

The site is remarkably advanced, with thorough German fortifications. The team even found remnants of an electric cable in the trenches, theorizing that it powered a signal lamp pointing across the valley and beyond Ypres.

Doyle bounds around the dig with his camera, studying the trench network. Ledges are cut either side of the trenches, a few inches off the ground. Below them is a base level of timber and bricks. But these are not for walking on: they're a desperate bid to improve drainage. The ledges would have served as the troops' dry footholds. The low-lying Flanders region's irrigation system was built up over centuries and then obliterated within weeks by artillery barrages, leading to the muck and the mire that became synonymous with the Western Front. Doyle unpacks this at length and in real time for his followers online. 

Doyle told DW that the team came to the Wijtschate site with an excellent idea of what they were looking for and where, mainly thanks to period photos. "After all, the reason the Red Baron is in the skies at this point is to shoot down all those reconnaissance planes."

When a largely undamaged sandbag (not a kind of material that tends to fare well underground amid mud and water) is discovered, Doyle politely begs his leave, saying "I'm just going to go and look at those sandbags, because they are fascinating."

The very sandbag in question...

'It's a rescue'

The excavators have to take care with the human remains. They asked us not to take any photos for sensitivity's sake; and even when they think they've identified a soldier — perhaps by the buttons from his uniform, or the language of his Bible, or the type of ammunition or weapons on his person — it's usually up to national governments or the military to decide whether to accept the remains as "one of theirs." 

Howarth turns somber when taking visitors to a back room for a closer look at the unblemished skull (and perfect teeth) of a deceased soldier believed to have been French. "I'm a soldier. People should see these things, I think. It's why we're here." He's a relatively old casualty by the site's standards, thought to be in his early 20s.

Doyle and head archaeologist Simon Verdegem both alluded to some public resistance as the Dig Hill 80 team sought to foster support. "Some people did say 'Why don't you let them rest?'" Verdegem said. 

But for Doyle and the rest of the team, the more than 130 fallen soldiers would have found little rest as part of the foundations of a new housing estate. Instead, the remains found at the Wijtschate during the Dig Hill 80 operation will receive proper burials.

"This isn't vanity, it's a rescue," Doyle said.

'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' reflects on the brutality of the Great War
Ypres After the First Bombardment: Christopher R. W. Nevinson, 1916

The British landscape painter presents an aerial view of the Belgian city of Ypres after it was first bombed in 1915, employing the abstract motifs used by cubists and futurists. Nevinson, a devotee of Italian futurism, initially believed the conflict was a sign of progress in the machine age. But after serving as an official war artist in France, he became ardently anti-war.

'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' reflects on the brutality of the Great War
The Rock Drill: Jacob Epstein, 1913-1914

This "machine-like robot, visored, menacing and carrying within itself its progeny" was initially a futurist symbol of progress, but Epstein decided to rework his sculpture after he became aware of the scale of death as the war unfolded. A drill was removed, and the figure was cut off at the waist, a symbol of modern man suddenly neutered and made impotent by a war that it also started.

'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' reflects on the brutality of the Great War
Wire: Paul Nash, 1918-1919

Having served on the Western Front in France, the British surrealist artist extensively documented life and death amid the trenches in his paintings. As he wrote to his wife in 1917: "Imagine a wide landscape flat and scantily wooded and what trees remain blasted and torn, naked and scarred and riddled. The ground for miles around furrowed into trenches, pitted with yawning holes."

'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' reflects on the brutality of the Great War
Arise, you dead!: Georges Rouault, 1922-1927

Part of the French artist's War series of Expressionist engravings, Arise, You Dead! appropriates the skeleton, a representation of death in medieval mythology, to reflect on the inevitable futility of battle on the front during the Great War. A Catholic who worked extensively with religious motifs, Rouault was perhaps also commenting on the essential immorality of war.

'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' reflects on the brutality of the Great War
Paths of Glory: Christopher R. W. Nevinson, 1917

This oil painting epitomized Nevinson's hardening view of the ignominy of trench warfare with its portrayal of anonymous dead soldiers laying facedown in the dirt among endless barbed wire. His unwillingness to portray the glories of war meant the work was nearly censored, but before that happened he hung the painting in London and affixed a piece of paper over the bodies that read "Censored."

'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' reflects on the brutality of the Great War
Dada Rundschau: Hannah Höch, 1919

Hannah Höch was a pioneer of the photomontage technique that became synonymous with dada, a highly political art that mocked the elites who had plunged the world into war. The kaleidoscope of images and newspaper headlines refers to "gigantic world folly" as epitomized by German leader Friedrich Ebert in bathers, while American President Woodrow Wilson hovers as a "peace angel" above.

'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' reflects on the brutality of the Great War
The Petit Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild Electro Mechanical Tatlin: George Grosz and John Heartfield, 1920

After the war, German artists like Heartfield and Grosz commonly depicted broken bodies with prosthetic limbs, a feature of war survivors who brought home the physical and psychological scars of the "war to end all wars." As a dada sculptural montage, the work also parodies the arrogance of technology and militarism, the lost head simply replaced with a light bulb, a mark of bright ideas.

'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' reflects on the brutality of the Great War
War: Skull: Otto Dix, 1924

This etching was part of Otto Dix's war cycle created in the 1920s that imitated Francisco Goya's famous The Disasters of War prints from a century earlier. Like Goya, Dix, who also served on the front line on the losing side in World War I, darkly evoked the gruesome horror of war with a rotting skull infested with vermin and maggots. His series aimed to "exorcise the experience of war."

'Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One' reflects on the brutality of the Great War
To the Unknown British Soldier in France: William Orpen, 1921-1928

This controversial painting by the Irish war artist shows a soldier's coffin in a mausoleum draped in a British flag, an army helmet atop. It was modified in 1927 after initially showing two semi-nude soldiers guarding a tomb. One of three commissions to commemorate the Paris Peace Conference, Orpen portrayed "the ragged unemployed soldier and the dead" instead of politicians and diplomats.

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Steeped in history

Wijtschate's full, four-year wartime story, alas, is far too long to be told here. But here are just a few of the noteworthy points: