The Archaeology of the Royal Flying Corps, part of the Modern Conflict Archaeology series edited by Nicholas J. Saunders, is an absorbing discussion of the material culture of WW1 aviation, viewed through the lens of “the things they carried”, to borrow a phrase from author Tim O’Brien. Author Melanie Winterton’s goes beyond the notion of battlefield archaeology, a discipline that augments conventional military history using artifact locations to corroborate troop concentrations, maneuver, and engagement locations, with an anthropological approach that provides a wider interpretation of the air war.
Winterton’s broad focus seeks to categorize the physical and mental sensations undergone by World War 1 pilots, with a focus on the men serving with the air arm of the British Expeditionary Force. The purpose of doing so is to gain an understanding of what it meant to serve as a member of the Royal Flying Corps, and how that experience is preserved and passed along to subsequent generation through the artifacts of material culture. She makes a strong case that objects retrieved from the front are imbued with a sense of time and place that is conveyed to subsequent generations, acting both as a form of commemoration and living memory.
Winterton calls her area of specialization “an archaeology of the senses”, and she takes pains to explain to readers that the world of a Royal Flying Corps aviator was an assault on all senses. A pilot’s vision had to encompass his machine, the relative positions of his comrades, his altitude and location in relation to the landscape below, all while remaining wary for any sign of enemy aircraft. He additionally experienced the vibrations of his airplane, exposure to the biting cold of altitude, the smells of petrol and lubricants, motor and gunfire noise, and the peculiar metallic taste of fear in one’s mouth to name but a few sensations. Winterton contends that a sustained assault on pilots’ senses genuinely reconfigured their bodies to better perform in combat, and this transformation came at an emotional cost. To deal with the emotional strain, airmen adopted a variety of talismans which form the basis of the material record of the Royal Flying Corps.
Winterton considerable space to examining the categories of lucky charms and objects carried by fliers, with emphasis on the meanings imbued in them through ritual and habit. While a small piece of jewelry or other knick-knack is not inherently special, the context of an airman’s experience and the value they assigned to rituals associated with the object imbue lucky charms with an importance in the material culture of the Royal Flying Corps that cannot be overstated. Such items become part of a veteran pilot’s story and in doing so, carry their own stories and personalities as well. These stories form a large part of the memories of the Great War as interpreted through the objects left behind when their owners perish, either on active service or long after the Armistice.
The Archaeology of the Royal Flying Corps has much to say about the importance of material culture and artifacts in understanding the experience of World War One aviators, and the act of remembrance of their service and sacrifice. The book is beautifully illustrated 23 black and white photos and 22 full color plates showing a variety of artifacts belonging to veterans and their families. Students of World War One, combat aviation, and conflict archaeology will find much to consider in this well written volume. Highly recommended.
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