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excavation underway
It was recently announced that Oxford Archaeology had been awarded the contract to undertake the excavation of an Australian and British First World War group burial site at Pheasant Wood,  Fromelles,  France. We can now bring you right up to date with progress at the site, and reveal some of the fascinating and moving discoveries that have been made.



The project

DNA being recovered
The aim of the project, which is being overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and jointly funded by the Australian and British governments, is to recover human remains from eight mass graves so that they can be given individual burials in a new CWGC cemetery – the first to be built in 50 years. Each set of remains will be buried with their own commemorative headstone, so we are following an extremely detailed methodology designed to identify as many of them as possible by nationality, regiment or name. OA's task is to excavate, record and exhume all of the individuals buried at the site, along with the personal effects that they were buried with, and then analyse the anthropological and finds information very carefully. It is also our responsibility to take DNA samples as the remains are first uncovered. These samples are then delivered to LGC Forensics, who were recently awarded the contract to undertake the DNA analysis that will hopefully help establish the identity of as many individuals as possible. Re-burial of the exhumed remains will be complete by March 2010.

The project programme requires us to complete the process of exhuming all of the remains by the 30th September, with the anthropological and finds recording to be finished a month later. We remain firmly on course to complete each stage of the project within the available time.
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The battle
On the evening of 19th July 1916, near the village of Fromelles, Australian and British infantry from two divisions attacked a 4,000-yard section of the German frontline centred on a notorious strongpoint called the Sugar Loaf. Advancing over unfavourable ground, in clear view of resolute and expectant defenders, the attackers suffered terrible casualties in a matter of minutes. The action turned into a catastrophe. The remains in the graves, which lie some 2 km behind the German frontline, are those removed by the Germans from their lines in the aftermath of the battle.   

The team
We have assembled a very experienced and competent team, lead by Dr Louise Loe, Head of OA's Heritage Burial Department, and expertly advised by Richard Wright, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney, Australia, and one of the world's leading forensic archaeologists. Dr Loe was awarded a PhD in Biological Anthropology from the University of Bristol in 2003. She joined OA in April 2006, having previously worked as a lecturer in biological anthropology at Bournemouth University, and has considerable experience in all aspects of osteology from excavation to post-excavation analysis, reportage and publication.

The Team
Professor Wright has spent nearly 20 years applying archaeological methods to the discovery and excavation of mass graves, including projects in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine), for the Australian Government's Special Investigations Unit and as Chief Archaeologist for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He has given expert testimony at two trials in The Hague. Since 1990 his work has led to the discovery of more than 90 graves containing some 2,500 bodies. In addition to our in-house team of osteoarchaeologists and anthropologists, we have also secured the services of a series of highly experienced forensic specialists, including osteoarchaeologists, anthropologists, radiographers, a temporary mortuary manager, a scene of crime officer, a forensic photographer, and artefact specialists; a
Lambis Englezos, left, visits the dig area with Louise Loe and David Richardson.
Lambis Englezos, left, visits the dig area with Louise Loe and David Richardson.
number of these individuals have worked together frequently at mass grave sites around the world (including Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda and Guatemala), in some cases under the supervision of Professor Wright, and have been instrumental in devising and implementing the methodology that has become the industry standard for this particular discipline.  The team is made up of Australian, British, French, Polish and German specialists, and its diverse nature is proving to be extremely effective given the highly emotive nature of the task.  




The set-up
To support this huge scientific endeavour, a compound, covering some 790 m2, was constructed prior to the excavation of the first graves. It includes a GIS and CAD recording laboratory, mortuary reception, radiography suite, processing and drying areas, anthropology and DNA laboratories,  temporary mortuary, welfare facilities, offices and a press room.

Anthropology Lab

The anthropology laboratory is particularly impressive. Fixed overhead cameras have been set up over the four anthropology tables to take photographs of each set of remains from the same angle throughout the life of the project, ensuring consistency. The images are instantly loaded onto computers, one for each of the four full-time anthropologists, which also store photographs of the remains in situ, associated survey and finds data, the bespoke project database and digital x-rays. This 'real time' archaeological recording and analysis is an essential part of the project, and is helping ensure that we remain on schedule to complete the project on time.

Excavation underway
Project methods
This project, whilst employing many of the techniques commonly used on an archaeological site, does have some significant differences, particularly in its overall aim, which is to carefully exhume and then attempt to identify individuals through anthropological, finds and DNA analysis. The methodology for associating finds with individuals requires us to establish and maintain a 'chain of custody' for each individual, overseen by a Scene of Crime Officer (SoCO). All excavators are wearing overalls, hair-nets, gloves and masks to minimise contamination of the DNA evidence; mortuary staff wear scrubs; site access is restricted, with CCTV and 24 hour security, and there is a strict embargo on releasing images or any other potentially sensitive information.

Our findings will be used at an identification commission in March next year. The Ministry of Defence and Australian Defence have asked families to come forward to give their DNA and pass on any information (photographs, verbal descriptions) that they may have – anything that, when combined with anthropological, finds and DNA evidence, might lead to an identification. The priority at all times is to ensure that the remains are treated with the sensitivity and respect which their sacrifice so clearly merits.

We have now completed the excavation of four of the eight graves at the site. Graves Seven and Eight have now been shown to have been unused. Graves One and Two contained over 100 individuals, all of which have been successfully exhumed. Graves Three and Four are now under full excavation.

Coins and Purse
Coins and Purse

Overall, the preservation of the human remains is good. We have found large numbers of associated artefacts with all but three of the individuals exhumed; these, combined with other evidence, will help establish varying degrees of identity, such as whether the individual was serving with the British or Australian forces. The finds commonly include buttons, buckles, badges and small arms ammunition. 


X-ray of finds
Crucifix in pouch
Crucifix in pouch

Other finds – gas masks, boxes of matches, an intact glass vial of iodine, a wallet containing coins, a crucifix and even an intact and legible return train ticket - are less common but offer very poignant  reminders of the lives and sacrifices of these soldiers.

Logistical challenges have included the occasionally torrential rain common to the region. Graves One and Two have been kept dry and successfully completed using inflatable tents and drainage gullies, but for Graves Three to Six we are using a large marquee which covers all four at once. Again, a system of drainage gullies has been excavated, designed to channel the surface water run-off away from the excavation area. There is no groundwater at the levels to which the graves were originally excavated, but each contains a small amount of surface water that is trapped by the impermeable clay edges of the pits. This is being removed and stored in tanks on site while testing seeks to establish whether there is any risk that it contains biohazardous material. Measures are in placed to dispose of this water to a specialist facility as necessary.

The pilot study of the DNA that has been retrieved so far is continuing to be undertaken by LGC Forensics, of Culham, Oxfordshire. It is too early to give any indications of the results so far.

Regular updates about the project can be seen on the special Fromelles project website at: www.fromelles.org