New search for the Anzac story

By Gary Tippet

Major survey reveals reality of life in the trenches

On certain mornings at Gallipoli in 1915, the Turks inflicted an added, unintentional, pain on the Anzacs dug into the ridges below. If the conditions were right, a breeze would waft down upon them carrying the unmistakeable, tantalising smell of warm, freshly baked bread.

That, notes Professor Antonio Sagona AM, must have been a special sort of torture for the Australians and New Zealanders surviving on meagre rations of bully beef and hard biscuits.

Sagona, of the University of Melbourne’s Classics and Archaeology Program, heads the Joint Historical and Archaeological Survey that has uncovered the evidence for this small but evocative aspect of daily life during one of Australia’s – and Turkey’s – defining periods.

The distance between the Anzac and Turkish trenches near Quinn’s Post, where the fighting was often fiercest, gets down to 27 metres – “little more than a cricket pitch”, says Sagona. And not far to the rear on the Turkish side, at a location known as Merkez Tepe, the survey team has found remains of a battlefield oven. There are locally handmade bricks, some with their makers’ thumbprints, and large flat stones, which would have been heated in the ovens before thin dough was poured on them to bake flatbread.

“What such finds are helping us unfold is a very interesting story of life in the trenches,” Sagona says.

“This shows one area where the two sides differed … a colleague sent me the (Turkish) menu. They had lentil soup for breakfast and went forward with pouches of dried fruit and nuts. So they would have had fresh food.” The Anzac diet, on the other hand, was “pretty awful” – tinned, salty meat and hard, stale bread.

Sagona is an expert on the archaeology of the Greater Middle East and has worked in Turkey for more than 30 years, but until the survey had never visited Gallipoli. The experience has been moving. “When you’re there you tend to focus on the job; you photograph and record and you’re pretty tired by the end of the day, but you can’t help but feel, when you have a quiet moment, that it is an extremely tragic place.

“When you look at the trenches and dugouts and realise the shocking conditions both sides were in, it must have been horrific. What we can’t recreate is the incessant noise, the shells going off.” The remnants of shrapnel lying around – which would have been flying everywhere in 1915 – add to the horror, he says.

To a lesser extent, the challenges for the team are also taxing. Since the Peninsula became a national park it has become overgrown with trees and scrub, some three times as tall as the archaeologists. Combined with the steepness of the landscape and the effects of erosion on the trenches, tunnels and dugouts, it is what Sagona describes as “probably the most difficult terrain I’ve ever had to survey”.

Though Gallipoli is of critical, near mythical, importance to three of the nations – Turkey, Australia and New Zealand – that battled there, it has never been investigated using modern archaeological methods and techniques. “It is not really understood,” says Sagona.

The Joint Historical and Archaeological Survey began in 2005 after the Australian Government launched an inquiry into the management of the site. Following high-level diplomatic negotiations between the three governments, a proposal was approved for the first detailed survey and when the University of Melbourne won a tender, Sagona became field director, with project permits held by nearby Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University.

The team made its first reconnaissance trip in 2009 and its discoveries form the basis of an exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance and a book, to be published later this year with Cambridge University Press.

A journalist visited in 2012 and later wrote of Sagona as “one of those infectious archaeologists in the mould of Indiana Jones from Hollywood’s Raiders of The Lost Ark … (who) loves nothing more than getting into the scrub”.

He laughs at the comparison: “I do get excited about artefacts and about archaeology and I think my students would vouch for that – but not in the Indiana Jones style. I hope that’s what the journalist meant, that it was about passion, rather than illicit digging or whip-cracking.”

That passion has been life-long. Antonio Sagona was born in Tripoli, Libya, and came to Melbourne with his parents when he was four. “I was always fascinated by the ancient past. I remember seeing a documentary about Egypt as a primary school kid and I started to take out books and read and I never looked back.”

He came to the University in 1974, finished his BA in 1977 and soon after “opportunity knocked” – a position opened up and he has been here ever since, now with an office in the attic level of the Old Quadrangle. “My association with this place is a long one: 40 years as a student, 30 years as a lecturer. It’s a bit like Hotel California – you can’t get out of here. Every time I think I’m going away somewhere it drags me back.”

A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, London, (and, since 2013, a Member of the Order of Australia) he specialises in the archaeology of the ancient Near East, in particular the regions of Anatolia and the Caucasus. From 1988-2003 he carried out extensive fieldwork in north-eastern Turkey, notably at the sites of Buyuktepe Hoyuk and Sos Hoyuk, and since then has shifted his focus to the Republic of Georgia.

“The period doesn’t bother me,” he says. “I started as a Bronze Age specialist and I’ve looked at Iron Age and Roman.

“But geographically I like the area we call north of Mesopotamia. It goes back to my student days when I was interested in a particular culture and just kept pulling on the chain, which drew me up to Anatolia and the Caucasus.

“I like the idea of working on frontiers. The Caucasus is that area between Eurasia and the Near East and that interaction of frontier society fascinates me.”

And though his work at Gallipoli is his first dig into the 20th century, the Peninsula has links stretching back into antiquity. Few know it, but Lone Pine was above an important Roman farmstead settlement and Troy is nearby. “A lot of the officers went to Gallipoli with translations of Homer, and many had the idea that they were going to a new Trojan war.

“A lot of archaeologists are, how can I put it, a bit apprehensive about crossing historical boundaries, in the sense that you become a specialist – in fact, like so much research these days, it’s becoming reductionist. But I like crossing boundaries – I’ve worked in Turkey, I’ve worked in the Caucasus, I’ve worked classic, late historic and prehistoric sites and now this.”

The Anzac battlefield: Landscape of war and memory is showing at the Shrine of Remembrance from 14 April - 31 August 2015.

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