Posts Tagged ‘archaeology’

This is Treblinka. I was at the scene of the crime in the summer of 2013, only 70 years later.

I was only there for at the most a couple of hours. But, as my friend Alan, who was there with me and 23 other fellow educators, says,“Treblinka manifests the Absence of Presence, the Presence of Absence. What’s there is not there, what’s not there is there.”

And with a little quiet, you can feel it.

But nature is giving up her secrets. You can’t murder 900,000 plus human beings and expect to be able to hide it completely. Walk these authentic sites. With a trained eye you can see it. I recognized it immediately on the grounds of Auschwitz. I was confronted with it brutally at Majdanek.

Major discovery 20 yrs ago.

Major discovery 20 yrs ago.

I have excavated sites of battles and military occupation that nature has hidden, before. Professionally, scientifically, and systematically. And sometimes that is the only way to corroborate information.  But you don’t just walk around with a spade. It takes years. And you have to know what you are doing, with love and dignity and respect.

That is why I would love to be able to help out here. My students and I have have worked to rescue the evidence of the greatest crime in the history of the world in our collecting of oral histories and filling out gaps in the narrative. But sometimes you have to dig- literally.

First-Ever Excavation of Nazi Death Camp Treblinka Reveals Horrors
By Stephanie Pappas, Senior Writer | March 27, 2014 06:49pm ET

Archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls excavates at Treblinka. A documentary about the work airs on Saturday (March 29) on the Smithsonian Channel. Credit:  Smithsonian Channel

Archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls excavates at Treblinka. A documentary about the work airs on Saturday (March 29) on the Smithsonian Channel.
Credit: Smithsonian Channel

The first-ever archaeological excavations at the Nazi death camp Treblinka have revealed new mass graves, as well as the first physical evidence that this camp held gas chambers, where thousands of Jews died.
Presented in a new documentary, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” which will air Saturday (March 29) on the Smithsonian Channel, the excavations reveal that the Nazis weren’t as adept at covering up their crimes as they believed when they razed the death camp in 1943. Brick walls and foundations from the gas chambers remain, as do massive amounts of human bone, including fragments now eroding out on the forested ground surface.

“For me, that was quite shocking,” said project leader Caroline Sturdy Colls, a forensic archaeologist who normally works with police to find modern murder victims. “These artifacts are there, and these human remains are on the surface, and they’re not being recorded or recovered.” [Italics mine. This is what I saw.]
Treblinka’s horror
Of all the atrocities of Hitler’s Third Reich, Treblinka is one of the most mind-boggling. Historians estimate that about 900,000 Jews were murdered at this concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland over a mere 16 months.
The Nazis began deporting Jews, mostly from the ghettos of Warsaw and Radom, to Treblinka in July 1942. There were two camps. Treblinka I was a forced-labor camp where prisoners were made to manufacture gravel for the Nazi war effort. A little more than a mile (2 kilometers) away was Treblinka II, a horrendously efficient death camp.
Jews were sent to Treblinka II on trains, told they were simply going to a transit camp before being sent on to a new life in eastern Europe. The deception was elaborate: Nazis erected a fake train station in the remote spot, complete with false ticket-counter and clock.
“There was an orchestra set up near the reception area of the camp to play,” Colls told Live Science. “It was run by a famous composer at the time, Artur Gold.”Gold, a Jewish violinist from Warsaw, was kept alive at Treblinka both to entertain the Nazi guards and to run the orchestra. He died at the camp in 1943.
The Jewish deportees were split into two groups, one of men and the other of women and children, and ordered to undress for “delousing.” After handing over their valuables and documents, the victims were sent to the gas chambers, which were pumped full of exhaust from tank engines. Within about 20 minutes, some 5,000 people inside would be killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. Corpses were initially buried in mass graves, but later in 1942 and 1943, Jewish slave laborers were forced to reopen the graves and cremate the bodies on enormous pyres.
Hidden atrocities
But because the Nazis razed Treblinka’s death camp in 1943, little physical evidence of this genocide remained. What was known about Treblinka came from Nazi confessions and the eyewitness descriptions of very few survivors, most of whom were never allowed near the gas chambers.
But as an archaeologist, Colls knew that “the landscape could never be sanitized in that way,” she said. She began assessing Treblinka as an archaeological site in 2007. Her emphasis was on using “non-invasive” archaeological methods, including geophysical surveys of the site and visual inspection.
“What we wanted to do at that stage was to assess what, if anything, survived below ground,” Colls said.
Since that time, Colls has also led a lidar survey of the wooded site. Lidar is a method that uses lasers to measure the distance between the ground and the airplane-borne instrument. By scanning the ground with lidar, archaeologists can detect depressions and mounds that might indicate manmade structures. Lidar allows researchers to virtually strip away the vegetation that might obscure these features on the ground.
“What that revealed was the presence of previously unknown mass graves,” Colls said.
The suspected mass grave sites were in Treblinka I, the labor camp. The story of the labor camp is less well-known than the story of the death camp, which is now marked by a memorial. But the labor camp was no less brutal, Colls said: Eyewitnesses report seeing men hacked to death alive, and beatings and murder were commonplace. The largest of the mass graves as revealed on lidar was 63 feet by 58 feet in size (19.2 by 17.6 meters).
Indeed, when the archaeology team began digging to confirm the lidar results, they uncovered shoes, ammunition, and bones — including bones with cut marks indicating that the victims had been stabbed or otherwise assaulted.
After digging three small test trenches to confirm each mass grave, Colls and her team reburied the remains. Jewish rabbinical law prohibits the disruption of a gravesite, so the aim was never to disinter the bodies. But placing the bones back in the grave was emotionally difficult, Colls said.
“I think it never actually crossed my mind that it would actually be me who would re-inter the remains,” she said. “I think sometimes the hardest thing to do was to actually re-inter the remains, and to backfill the trenches over the gas chamber, for example, because it felt like you were almost putting a lid on it.”
Finding the gas chamber
The gas chamber was the subject of the teams’ second dig. There were two sets of gas chambers built at Treblinka, the first with a capacity of about 600 people, the second able to hold about 5,000.
Colls and her team conducted four excavations at Treblinka II. The first two revealed a strange find — a fossilized shark tooth, and sand. Evidently, the Nazis dumped sand from a nearby quarry over the remains of the death camp to disguise them.
The second two trenches, however, revealed a brick wall and foundation. The gas chambers were the only brick buildings in the camp, Colls said. The excavations also revealed orange tiles that matched eyewitness descriptions of the floor of the killing chambers. Chillingly, each tile was stamped with a Star of David, likely part of the Nazi subterfuge that the building was a Jewish-style bathhouse.
“Treblinka had never been looked at since the period after the war,” Colls said. “And everybody had assumed that because the history books said it was destroyed, it was.”
The excavations prove otherwise, she said. Colls is now working on an exhibition of the findings to go on display at Treblinka, as well as a book about the work. There are plans to go back and dig at an execution site near the labor camp to confirm the presence of a mass grave, she said, and there may be more work near the gas chambers.
The hope, Colls said, is to bring the atrocities to light, understand them, and hopefully prevent future genocides. To that end, she says, she channels the emotion of uncovering victims’ remains to finding more answers.
“For me, it feels like the Holocaust happened yesterday,” she said.
“Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine” premiers Saturday, March 29 at 8pm ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel.

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Matthew Rozell rediscovers and rekindles interest in sutler site, 1996.

Matthew Rozell rediscovers and rekindles interest in sutler site, 1996.

Today I am going to get a special phone call from an archaeologist whom I have known and worked for for thirty years. David wants me to be present for the removal of three intact 18th century olive green glass spirits bottles from a French and Indian War sutling house, or trading post, just outside of the British fort on the banks of the Hudson River near Rogers Island. Two intact bayonets were discovered here earlier in the week, but more exciting for us is the fact that we now think that we have found the elusive 4th wall of this building, which burned to the ground a few years into its existence. We have been searching for it for twelve summers.

Excavations began here in 2001, with me and digger Johnny Kosek and Mark Van Valkenburg. I had stumbled upon it during a pensive walk in the woods near our fort excavations in the summer of 1996. I had found a looters’ hole in the ground, spadefuls of earth littered with fragments of the very same bottle glass fragments from the period. On the ground I spied what looked like a shiny silver dime partially covered by the sand. A heavy rain had uncovered what the looters had wanted- a Spanish silver coin from 1748. Remember Hawkeye of the Last of the Mohicans? He would have drawn a dram or two here.

Period map showing location of sutler's complex. Island just to west of river.

Period map showing location of sutler’s complex. Island just to west of river.

My association with this important ground, so fundamental to the formation of our nation, began in 7th or 8th grade. Four of us would ride our banana seat bikes down to Rogers Island one summer in the early 1970s, sneaking smokes, getting away from our parents and siblings, and just dig holes in the ground with our moms’ gardening tools. I recall digging a hole as deep as my arm would allow, a tunnel straight down, a criminal activity in the eyes of any competent archeologist. Thankfully, we never found anything.

A dozen years later, in 1986, I would return as a volunteer crew member on an archaeological dig searching for General Gates’ American headquarters at the Saratoga National Battlefield Park. Here I would encounter David for the first time. I remember him asking me, after my first two weeks as a newbie, if I would ever consider going into anthropology/archaeology as a career. I think I was flattered, but I had just wrapped up my undergraduate work and was sending resumes out for teaching.

I followed him though, in 1991, to return to this Island. I had gotten hired at my high school alma mater 3 miles up the river and now had the opportunity to professionally learn what secrets the Island held. In 1992, David felt confident enough in my abilities to give me the reigns of the search for the elusive smallpox hospital at the southern end of the Island. We found it after three years of digging in the summer of 1994. 800 people died here. It was the only smallpox hospital from this era ever discovered in North America. I began to write.

hero discovers ft edIn 1995 and 1996 we professionally dug at the site of Fort Edward, no easy feat considering that today twelve houses are built upon it. At one point we were excavating a bastion (corner) in the basement of a house! We opened up a pit in a front lawn, properly protected and barricaded, but the paper boy still managed to stumble into it. I found the West Curtain wall with Johns F and K, Mark, Brad and Susan and Hans. And one hot summer day took a stroll down the riverbank to stumble upon the sutlers house.

From 1997 to 2000 I worked at the parade ground of Fort William Henry, the one where the final siege takes place in Coopers Last of the Mohicans. We found the charred remains of the East and West barracks, the exact footprint of the original fort.

In 2001 we returned to the sutlers’ complex just south of Fort Edward. I directed the digs here for many many summers,

Our high school kids learning how to think, placing the artifacts at hand in the context of a major world war that was partially fought in their own backyard.

Our high school kids learning how to think, placing the artifacts at hand in the context of a major world war that was partially fought in their own backyard.

and later returned with high school students to teach them how to professionally draft a research question, study primary source maps, diaries and other documents, and begin to look for clues, and only then to dig properly, mapping all  the artifacts and features as they emerge. They learned how to dig, yes, but more, they learned how to think.

Egyptian Archaeologists visit the sutlers site, 2009. My baby. They were impressed. Proud daddy.

Egyptian Archaeologists visit the sutlers site, 2009. My baby. They were impressed.

Lots of times when everyone would leave I would just sit at the sit alone  for an hour or so. Just sit in the stillness and wonderment of this place. Just something I have always felt a need to do. It’s like the place has some kind of power over me. It’s my baby. When we are digging, we are touching objects that have been lost for over two hundred sixty years. I am the first to touch this bayonet, this coin, this tobacco pipe, this bottle since it was last handled. Thus the anticipation of touching these three intact, upright bottles.

My house building activities have kept the project at arm’s length, but the excitement is still there and rekindled. If you want to learn more, there are several books out by David Starbuck. I’m in this one quite a bit. After today, I joked to him yesterday, he may have to update it.

POSTSCRIPT: I was given the honor of extracting the three bottles. We also found three additional ones behind them. The Egyptian archaeologists would have been proud- my personal King Tut’s tomb moment. The bottles were all complete, two thirds of them totally intact.

The Bottles. Unbroken. Filled? King Tut's tomb moment. "The tension mounts..."

The Bottles. Unbroken. Filled? King Tut’s tomb moment. “The tension mounts…”

My son Ned and I, 2002, the sutler's site, Fort Edward.

My son Ned and I, 2002, the sutler’s site, Fort Edward.

Son Ned and I at the sutler's site. Thursday morning, August 8, 2013

Son Ned and I at the sutler’s site. Thursday morning, August 8, 2013


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