University of Melbourne Magazine

New search for the Anzac story

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    Professor Antonio Sagona and his team found revealing artefacts during the Gallipoli survey.


    On certain mornings at Gallipoli in 1915, the Turks inflicted an added, unintentional, pain on the Anzacs dug into the ridges below. If the conditions were right, a breeze would waft down upon them carrying the unmistakeable, tantalising smell of warm, freshly baked bread.

    That, notes Professor Antonio Sagona AM, must have been a special sort of torture for the Australians and New Zealanders surviving on meagre rations of bully beef and hard biscuits.

    Sagona, of the University of Melbourne’s Classics and Archaeology Program, heads the Joint Historical and Archaeological Survey that has uncovered the evidence for this small but evocative aspect of daily life during one of Australia’s – and Turkey’s – defining periods.

    The distance between the Anzac and Turkish trenches near Quinn’s Post, where the fighting was often fiercest, gets down to 27 metres – “little more than a cricket pitch”, says Sagona. And not far to the rear on the Turkish side, at a location known as Merkez Tepe, the survey team has found remains of a battlefield oven. There are locally handmade bricks, some with their makers’ thumbprints, and large flat stones, which would have been heated in the ovens before thin dough was poured on them to bake flatbread.

    “What such finds are helping us unfold is a very interesting story of life in the trenches,” Sagona says.

    “This shows one area where the two sides differed … a colleague sent me the (Turkish) menu. They had lentil soup for breakfast and went forward with pouches of dried fruit and nuts. So they would have had fresh food.” The Anzac diet, on the other hand, was “pretty awful” – tinned, salty meat and hard, stale bread.

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    Sagona (BA(Hons) 1977, GDipEd 1983, PhD 1984) is an expert on the archaeology of the Greater Middle East and has worked in Turkey for more than 30 years, but until the survey had never visited Gallipoli. The experience has been moving. “When you’re there you tend to focus on the job; you photograph and record and you’re pretty tired by the end of the day, but you can’t help but feel, when you have a quiet moment, that it is an extremely tragic place.

    “When you look at the trenches and dugouts and realise the shocking conditions both sides were in, it must have been horrific. What we can’t recreate is the incessant noise, the shells going off.” The remnants of shrapnel lying around – which would have been flying everywhere in 1915 – add to the horror, he says.

    To a lesser extent, the challenges for the team are also taxing. Since the Peninsula became a national park it has become overgrown with trees and scrub, some three times as tall as the archaeologists. Combined with the steepness of the landscape and the effects of erosion on the trenches, tunnels and dugouts, it is what Sagona describes as “probably the most difficult terrain I’ve ever had to survey”.

    Though Gallipoli is of critical, near mythical, importance to three of the nations – Turkey, Australia and New Zealand – that battled there, it has never been investigated using modern archaeological methods and techniques. “It is not really understood,” says Sagona.

    The Joint Historical and Archaeological Survey began in 2005 after the Australian Government launched an inquiry into the management of the site. Following high-level diplomatic negotiations between the three governments, a proposal was approved for the first detailed survey and when the University of Melbourne won a tender, Sagona became field director, with project permits held by nearby Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University.

    The team made its first reconnaissance trip in 2009 and its goal is to pull together historical data, landscape archaeology and artefact analysis into a new assessment of the site and provide the three governments with what Sagona calls “some kind of defining document”, a report in book form, for the centennial next year.

    A journalist visited in 2012 and later wrote of Sagona as “one of those infectious archaeologists in the mould of Indiana Jones from Hollywood’s Raiders of The Lost Ark … (who) loves nothing more than getting into the scrub”.

    He laughs at the comparison: “I do get excited about artefacts and about archaeology and I think my students would vouch for that – but not in the Indiana Jones style. I hope that’s what the journalist meant, that it was about passion, rather than illicit digging or whip-cracking.”