Ground-penetrating radar and other new, non-invasive technologies are important new tools in research on Jewish (and other) burial places, including cemeteries as well as death camps and other Holocaust sites.
These technologies can help pinpoint grave sites and buried tombstones, establish cemetery boundaries, reveal destroyed walls and buildings; and also bring to light artifacts and other material.
One of the key figures in the field is the forensic archaeologist Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls, an associate professor at Staffordshire University, who presented on her research at Holocaust sites such as Treblinka and other cemetery sites during the cross-disciplinary conference on Jewish cemeteries, held in Vilnius in October.
As she told the conference, “Should excavation be required in the future, knowledge of locations can help prevent unnecessary disturbance of graves.”
Crucially, she added, the new, non-invasive technologies offer the opportunity to do so “in a way that respects religious law concerning burials (e.g. without disturbing the ground if required); despite the dilapidated and hidden nature of sites; regardless of the size of the area being examined; and in a way that creates a sustainable, thorough record of Jewish cemeteries which provides new opportunities for education and commemoration worldwide.”
This past week, the magazine Scientific American ran a lengthy article by Elizabeth Svoboda — reprinted from the anthropology news web site sapiens.org — on Dr. Sturdy Colls and her work at Treblinka, including some of the controversy raised by it. (It also focuses on the work of Israeli and Polish archaeologists at the Sobibor camp.)
With assistance from noninvasive technologies like low-altitude weather-balloon photography, ground-penetrating radar, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and a remote-sensing method called lidar, archaeologists at places like Treblinka and Sobibór are unearthing a trove of new physical evidence. “The key thing is that we have these methods available to us,” Sturdy Colls says. “If you were a police officer, you would never just go and interview witnesses. You would always go to the crime scene.” At both camps, the teams have found a startling array of everyday items and personal keepsakes, as well as the rubble of the gas chambers where unsuspecting victims met their end. But in their quest to use science to illuminate a dark past, archaeologists have clashed with a diverse set of detractors—Holocaust deniers, as might be expected, but also Jewish religious authorities, memorial planning committees, and scholars concerned about the sites’ integrity and the importance of respecting human remains.
The controversy that surrounds the investigations raises vital questions: How necessary is it to turn an exacting new lens on long-buried atrocities? And how can researchers strike an ideal balance between honoring the dead and gathering knowledge for future generations?.
The article is worth a read — and close consideration, both of the innovative new methods described that are now being put to use, and also to the questions some people raise.
In the article, for example, Sturdy Colls described collaboration with Jewish religious authorities during her research at Treblinka.
Mindful of the problems her predecessors had run into, Sturdy Colls was determined to take a more sensitive approach to her work, soliciting input from Jewish authorities along the way. She struck up a friendship with Schudrich so the two of them could work through whatever concerns might arise. During the initial phase of her investigation, she also stuck to noninvasive mapping methods, which allowed her to locate a number of major camp landmarks without lifting a shovel.
“We found the foundations of the gas chambers, and we went to the religious authorities and told them that. We knew where the mass graves were and we weren’t going there,” Sturdy Colls says. These initial assurances, she adds, helped the rabbis feel comfortable letting the team excavate around the gas chambers, as they were not located on top of a mass-grave site. “Because of the way these technologies respected the religious law, they actually facilitated the investigation.” When the team did come across unexpected human remains during their searches, they followed an agreed-upon procedure for re-interring the remains.