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Remembered Today:

Tomb Robbing by the British?


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There was an interesting little feature on the Today programme this morning about the controversy generated by the suggestion that the British Museum is holding artefacts plundered by the British military during the Salonika campaign including objects from the Alexandrian tomb at Amphipolis.

The feature suggested that the British Army deployed some 3,000 archaeologists in its ranks which strikes me as being a little far fetched.


has done its best to make as much political capital out of Amphipolis as possible by using the age old ruse of bread and circuses. Apart from that, the British do not appear to have an untainted record given their antics wth the Lion of Amphipolis:



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Just to provide some background on this one. Firstly, at the end of the First World War the Greek government gifted to Britain and France much of the archaeological material discovered by the troops of those nations during the war. This was by way of a thank you for aiding Greece in the conflict. Much of the material was found during the construction of the 'Birdcage' defence line in the hills around the city during the early part of 1916. Some excavations were undertaken 'up country' laterin the campaign when items were found during the construction of camps etc. Unlike the French Army the British did not have any dedicated archaeological survey teams. Instead, a number of former members of the British School at Athens, then serving as intelligence officers with the British Salonika Force, were co-opted on a part-time basis to manage the collection. A museum was established first in the White Tower and then at GHQ in Salonika. The collection was open to military personnel. Both the British and French worked in conjunction with the Greek archaeologists appointed to cover Macedonia. Both the BSF and the French were very keen to avoid any incident with the Greek government, which until 1917 kept the country neutral, whilst leaning toward the Central Powers. Standing orders regarding archaeological finds were quickly issued telling all ranks to report archaeological finds to their CO who in turn reported to GHQ. Material then made its way to the BSF museum along with any documentation relating to the site. This situation persisted throughout the war and at its end the Allied military authorities were keen to ensure that none of the material left Greek soil until formal permission was obtained from the Greek government.

Last year I gave a paper at a BM conference relating to archaeology around Salonika during the years 1912-1922. Speakers came from England, France, Greece and Scotland. The papers will be published next year by the British School in Athens. In addition, much of the BSF collection has now been catalogued and photographed and is now viewable via the BM's online catalogue.


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During the Gallipoli campaign while digging a trench some French soldiers found some accient artifacts and the French high command sent some archaelogists to dig them up ecct.

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The papers will be published next year by the British School in Athens. In addition, much of the BSF collection has now been catalogued and photographed and is now viewable via the BM's online catalogue.


Thanks for that very interesting contribution - I look forward to seeing the published paper. Until it was stolen / lost in an office move in the 1980's I had a small cuneiform tablet that came to me via my mum from my grandfather, who was in Egypt/Palestine in WW1. Up to the time it was lost I never really had much of an interest in NE archaeology, but I do wish now that I had had it translated, although to be quiet honest I do have doubts about the Egypt/Palestine provenance!

Incidentally, as an associated topic, there are hundreds of Roman but especially 'Byzantine' coins that made their way back to the UK with men who had served in the ME and NEast... Stray finds of these used to be thought as proof of trade contacts between GB and the east Med, well into the post-Roman period.

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re archaeology by members of the EEF whilst in Palestine, see THE DIARY OF A YEOMANRY M.O., EGYPT, GALLIPOLI, PALESTINE AND ITALY - by CAPTAIN O. TEICHMAN, D.S.O., M.C.

Our Second-in-Command, having ridden over the hill known as Abu Shushar (Biblical Gezer)
during the advance last autumn, had noted the large number of tombs and excavations on it.
Now that we were encamped in the vicinity we decided to investigate these tombs in our
spare time and carry out some excavations. After interviewing the Omdah of the village, we
engaged two natives, known as Ibrahim and Hassan, to assist us. The latter was able to
explain, in Arabic, that he had assisted a certain "Macleest" in his excavations some years
ago, and it eventually turned out that he referred to that eminent archaeologist, Professor
Macalister. In order to obtain all the local information we could with regard to these
excavations, we called on the abbot of the monastery at Latron, who, with a few monks, had
recently returned after their exile during the Turkish occupation. The conversation was carried
on in French, and our host told us that he formerly possessed a very fine collection of coins
which had been found in the neighbourhood. He told us that Abu Shushar (Gezer) extended
over five stages in the world's history, and that the remains of four towns had been found one
on the top of the other:
(1) The Stone Age, as shown by the caves cut into the rock, with very small openings
in order to prevent the larger wild animals from entering, and containing stone implements,
etc.; (2) a Canaanite town ; (3) the Egyptian period, during the captivity of the Jews ; (4) the
Jewish period, when the Maccabeans made the town a very strong fortress and, during a
siege, drove an enormous shaft down into the bowels of the earth in order to obtain water. It
was during this period that some king gave his daughter to Solomon, and added Abu Shushar
as a dowry. Most of the stone vaults were cut out at that time. (5) The Greco-Roman period.
For several days we rode over every afternoon in order to carry on our excavations, but
unfortunately we were very ignorant as to the type of tomb we happened to be opening. In
almost every case the entrance to the tomb was entirely obliterated, and it was only after
digging away a certain amount of earth that we were able to discover the large rock which
usually blocked the entrance. It appeared that many of them had been previously opened and
then carefully closed again, and one could not help wondering whether this had not taken
place thousands of years ago. We found a number of skeletons, which I was able to
reconstruct, and a small number of late Roman coins, lamps, broken pottery, pieces of old
glass, and occasion- ally very thin gold sequins, probably part of a dress. In every case the
vaults were full of very fine mould, and we came to the conclusion that this had silted in during
the last few thousand years, on account of the cracks in the walls of the tombs, caused
probably by seismic disturbances. One noticed that underground the limestone rock was
comparatively soft and could have been cut out with flint instruments; where, however, it had
been exposed to the air it was as hard as granite.
While exploring underground we always had our orderlies, who were looking after our
horses, watching the hole by which we had descended, as we did not quite trust some of our
local assistants. On arriving one afternoon, when our Second-in-Command was away on a
reconnaissance, I found that Ibrahim and Hassan had brought their wives and children with
them; the latter worked well and passed up the baskets of earth from one to another, while
our Sudanese syce, who was interpreting for me, assisted in the sifting of the soil for
A little French Jew made his appearance during the afternoon, and asked if he also
had permission to excavate. Naturally this was refused, and he appeared the next day with a
long rigmarole about his being the agent for some colonization society to whom the land
Eventually he became so troublesome that he had to be thrown down the hill; but this
had an unfortunate sequel. A few days later our C.O. received an order from H.Q. L. of C. to
stop any of his officers who might be carrying on excavations at Abu Shushar ; however, we
were able to find another locality and continued our work for some weeks.
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That sounds just about right!

Incidentally, one of the most staggering finds made by the army in the ME was the site of Dura Europos, where wall paintings were found during practice trench digging in about 1920 by a Captain M.C.Murphy in what later turned out to be a Roman Temple abandoned in about AD 220.

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  • 3 months later...

The notion of the British Army deploying 3000 archaeologists to Salonika in the middle of a World War is going to give me a quiet chuckle for weeks.

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