Cutting remarks from the killing fields
When it comes to carving out a career in the competitive world of archaeology these days, it's all about finding your own niche – but few young archaeologists are carving out a future in their field quite as literally as Bristol University student Chantel Summerfield.
The 23-year-old has become the world's only expert on arborglyphs – that is, tree graffiti; the inscriptions carved into tree trunks by soldiers with bayonets.
From bored squaddies on Salisbury Plain, near Bath, to terrified GIs trekking through Normandy in the wake of the D-Day invasions – each carving Chantel uncovers tells its own story of a soldier's life.
"I've followed many of the First World War soldiers' carvings from trees that once stood a few miles behind the front line on the Western Front, through to finding their graves in Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries," Chantel says.
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"But with the Second World War carvings – most of which were done by American GIs as they made their way through Normandy – I've sometimes been able to trace the soldiers' surviving relatives.
"There was one, for example, that I found on Salisbury Plain that had been inscribed by an American GI as he waited for the D-Day invasion – it simply said: 'Frank Fearing – Hudson, Massachusetts, 1945' followed by a love heart and the name Helen.
"I was able to track down a Barbara Fearing in Hudson, Massachusetts, whose parents were Frank and Helen. She was thrilled when I sent her pictures of the tree.
"Her father had survived the war, and had lived until 2001. He had always told her about how he would carve his initials into a tree everywhere he went with the army – but she thought he'd made it up.
"It turned out he had married his wife Helen secretly just a few hours before leaving for Europe for the D-Day invasion, so that really gave a fascinating human story behind this seemingly unexceptional carving.
"Although she has sadly passed away recently, Frank's wife, Helen, was also still alive when I got in touch, and so she was able to see a photograph of the tree her husband engraved for her on the other side of the world all those years ago."
Chantel first became interested in arborglyphs as an archaeology undergraduate.
"I was lucky enough to meet Richard Osgood, the archaeologist for Salisbury Plain, and he mentioned in passing how many of the trees on the plain were carved by different soldiers going back more than a century.
"I thought this was fascinating, so for my degree dissertation I got permission from the MoD to go up on to the plain and record all the tree carvings in two particularly heavily wooded areas.
"It really sparked an interest in the stories behind the names and initials on the trees, so when I came to study for my masters degree, I decided to spend time in France looking at the tree carvings made by soldiers during the two world wars – so I could concentrate my thesis on the difference between the messages being left by the men in a training scenario on Salisbury Plain and in a real life-and-death battlefield scenario in France.
"The inscriptions become much more personal in France, where they were facing the very real prospect of being killed at any moment. Out there it's not just a matter of carving your initials and putting the date beneath them – the French carvings are all about saying they were there; saying this is my name, I existed; I was alive here at this moment.
"Many of them are expressions of love for their wife or girlfriend back home. They're personal sentiments very often. But none are negative about the situation they find themselves in – amazingly none are critical of the army they're fighting with or the army they're fighting against. In fact, of the 2,000 arborglyphs I've studied, only three contained swear words."
On a number of occasions, Chantel has even become the custodian of a section of tree containing an inscription.
"You can't list a tree as a scheduled historic monument – it's a growing, living thing. But when it comes to them being cut down, I have a contact at the Forestry Commission who looks out for inscriptions for me, especially on Salisbury Plain, so I can take the inscribed section away – I have half a dozen tree trunks being stored in my parents' home up in Malvern now."
Chantel is now studying for a PhD, with her research fully funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
"I'm amazingly lucky in this economic climate to get a full bursary for my PhD," she admits. "But I think it is because it is such an under-examined field. As far as I know, I am the only academic in the world to be working on military arborglyphs.
"As the world wars are slipping away from living memory for most people, it strikes me as being more important than ever that these things are properly recorded for future generations.
"A few weeks ago I displayed some of my tree sections at the Discovery community engagement event, organised by the university at the Galleries in Broadmead. I was stunned when I spoke to the younger schoolchildren by how few of them knew anything about the two world wars – most of the under tens didn't know we had fought two world wars in the past century.
"That's when I really realised just how important it is that the human stories behind the conflicts are recorded for posterity – and there are few relics more personal than the inscriptions carved into trees by the soldiers themselves."