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No Man’s Land excavations at Loos

In 2005 an odd collection of artefacts arrived in the conservation laboratory at UCL Institute of Archaeology.  The objects had been found in a mass grave on the site of a First World War battlefield, and the No Man’s Land group of battlefield archaeologists hoped that the information from the artefacts, together with the examination of the bones, would allow them to identify the bodies.  Amongst the collection were several waterlogged paper objects that had been found on the bodies.  While the water had preserved the papers from decay, it had also made separating, recording and conserving the pages a particular challenge (Peters, n.d.).

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Paper object prior to conservation

Two of the paper objects were found with a single body – number 13 in the mass grave – and ultimately led to its identification.  The first was a Soldbuch, a German soldier’s paybook and general identification and record document.  This revealed the soldier’s date of birth, the twentieth of October 1892, and a few other scraps of information.  The other object was a German military song book.  While the songbook did not contain any identifying information, it did contain a postcard the soldier had received, and together with archival information they enabled the remains to be identified as Gefreiter (Lance Corporal) Leopold Rothärmel. Rothärmel was a concert master who had been awarded the Iron Cross a few months before his death.  Traces of the medal ribbon were found with his body (Peters and Sully 2006).

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Some of the paper objects after conservation

Historical records from Rothärmel’s unit showed that he was reported killed on 3 October 1915, shot in the abdomen, and his place of burial was listed as unknown.  Thanks to the efforts of the archaeologists and the painstaking investigative work by the conservators, Leopold Rothärmel has a marked grave in a German military cemetery (Peters and Sully 2006).  To date, no surviving relatives have been traced.

References

Peters, R. n.d. Finding the Fallen: Conservation and the First World War.

Peters, R. and Sully, D. 2006. Finding the Fallen: Conservation and the First World War. In D. Saunders, J. Townsend and S. Woodcock (eds) IIC 2006 Munich Conference: The Object in Context – Crossing Conservation Boundaries, 12-16.