The Edge of Europe – Heritage, Landscape, and Conflict Archaeology

The passage of time reveals two things – the forgetfulness of human memory, and the clarity of hindsight – neither of which of course is a law. For the archaeology of modern conflict, in this case the First World War, such is the dominance of the Western Front of France and Belgium that the Eastern Front is too often hardly acknowledged let alone explored or understood.

Roxana-Talida Roman’s The Edge of Europe is thus a standout book that not only fills a notable gap in our knowledge – the material record of Romania’s 1914-1918 conflict landscapes – but is also framed by current transnational issues of remembrance and cultural heritage.

Romania’s status throughout the First World War fluctuated wildly – from being neutral, to becoming a combatant with the Allies, to being at armistice with the Central Powers, to rejoining the Allies for a day between 10-11 November 1918. As if this was not complexity enough, the historic sites investigated here are problematic, built by the Austro-Hungarian and German military on Romanian territory against their Romanian enemy in 1916-1917.

Their investigation as Romanian heritage was thus a particularly challenging endeavour focused by ambiguity and alterity, and the fact that many Romanians were in the Austro-Hungarian Army at the start of hostilities and so were often personally conflicted.

The book is based on original and extensive fieldwork undertaken for the author’s PhD. It includes the first ever survey and description of Romania’s First World War sites and an assessment of their heritage needs set against the conflict background. By hitting so many important ‘targets’ of research, from archives to folklore, survey to excavation, and analysis of material culture and landscapes to heritage status, the book is a crucial step forward in stimulating future public and academic interest in the topic, nationally and internationally.

The heart of the book is chapter five’s comprehensive descriptive gazetteer of military sites in the Prislop Pass in Maramures county, northern Romania, the geographical focus of fieldwork. The area contains barracks, roads, cableways, a railway, bunkers, trench systems, huge mountaintop earthworks, war graves, live and inert ordnance, and wartime and post-war memorials.

An array of 1916 and 1917 monochrome photographs of the front here is interleaved with many insightful colour images and technical drawings from the author’s investigations. Many of these photographs are fascinating and stunning, and give a powerful visual sense of an area and campaign little known in the West.

The reader can be overwhelmed by the density and variety of war features deserving of future investigation, and of the author’s achievement in bringing these landscapes to international attention with nuanced analysis and commentary.

This contribution to knowledge is enriched by analysing the sites from a heritage perspective, allowing Romanian material to enter the sphere of European and international cultural-heritage studies especially concerning modern conflict and the First World War. This makes the author’s work a valuable new case study, contributing to theoretical and analytical advances that are globally relevant to military history, anthropology, archaeology, landscape studies, and heritage and tourism studies (to mention just a few).

As very little of this archaeological (and historical) information was known outside Romania until now, this book’s influence should be widespread in the anglophone world. While traces of its origins as a doctoral dissertation linger in its structure, its ground-breaking importance is not in doubt.

The interdisciplinary study of modern conflict in Eastern Europe has been firmly established in recent years by innovative archaeological investigations in Slovenia and Poland, to which can now be added this important and timely publication.

Review by Nicholas J Saunders.
The Edge of Europe – Heritage, Landscape, and Conflict Archaeology, Roxana-Talida Roman, BAR Publishing, £56 (hbk), ISBN 978-1407356853.