The excavation of the grave of a soldier belonging to the 15th battalion of the Royal Scots Regiment in the area which was to become the Actiparc industrial park near Arras provides an excellent illustration of the strong personal involvement experienced by Great War archaeologists when faced with such poignant personal stories. This soldier, buried in a shell crater in April 1917, was identified thanks to his metal identity tag, bearing the name Archibald MacMillan. The British military authorities issued each soldier with two identity tags, made of a material resembling boiled leather which did not survive well when buried. A large number of soldiers thus obtained their own non-regulation tags, pressed from rust-resistant metal and often imitating the model used by the French army.
Once the tomb had been excavated the body of MacMillan was handed over to the British authorities, for reburial in the nearest military cemetery. When the body had been identified the Commonwealth War Graves Commission began conducting enquiries to see if any descendants could be located, and came across… Archibald’s son. The 87-year-old was thus present in 2002 for the long-delayed funeral of a father he had barely known.
This is a fine example of the impact which archaeological work can have, and we can well imagine the questions the archaeologists had to ask of themselves regarding the ‘legitimacy’ of their intervention in a domain of such importance to our collective memory.