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Life in the trenches

Posted on 19 September 2014

Archaeology students uncover Dales story of wartime bravery

19-09-2014 Breary Banks

As World War I commemoration events take place around the country, first-year Archaeology students are working in a remote corner of the Yorkshire Dales to uncover a story linking wartime bravery with the region’s industrial heritage and German POWs. 

Little remains of the hundreds of huts and buildings that once stood on the grassy slopes in this isolated corner of the Dales. But with the help of archive maps, aerial photographs and archaeological excavation, University of York Archaeology students, led by Dr Jonathan Finch, are uncovering a story that links one of the most harrowing chapters of Yorkshire’s wartime history with the region’s industrial heritage. In its complex 30-year history, as well as providing a training ground for the Pals, Breary Banks also housed construction workers and German prisoners of war. “Our work at Breary Banks provides a focus within Yorkshire for an alternative story about the young men who went to war, as well as those who arrived from the front as prisoners of war,” said Dr Finch. “It connects the area to the First World War, whilst also giving an insight into the growth of Leeds as a major industrial centre.”

The team’s excavations have so far uncovered hundreds of artefacts relating to the bustling navvy camp community including sauce bottles, Theakstons beer bottles, medicine bottles, broken crockery, the remains of a fob watch and fragments of children’s toys, giving insights into the lives – and diets – of the busy workforce, including the women and their families.

“For archaeologists, this is relatively recent history. But over a period of only 30 years or so we have a story about ordinary people caught up in global events, which makes it a site our students can really connect to,” said Dr Finch. 

“There’s a lot of local interest – we’ve had primary school visits and I have talked to local groups, who have also come on site to get archaeological training. It’s an important piece of our regional and international history which highlights the impact of the First World War and industrial expansion on our rural landscape.”

Read more about this project in the most recent edition of the university magazine: