Aerial archaeology

Lanc artefact.JPG

My blog (19 May) on my great-uncle’s experience as an RAF Lancaster bomber pilot during the Second World War has prompted several fascinating responses, not least from a brother of mine who had spent several seasons in the early 1990s working on archaeological sites in the Canadian High Arctic. What I hadn’t realised was that the sites he encountered were not just of prehistoric date. A few days after we spoke an envelope arrived containing the battered aluminium label picture here.  He hadn’t let on what it was, but I knew it must be from an aircraft and was thrilled to discover that it was from a Lancaster bomber – from one of two wrecked only six weeks apart in 1950 at Resolute airfield on Cornwallis Island, BX FM-216 and BX FM-221. The label was from a company which supplied hydraulic pump components for Canadian-built Lancasters during the war. I then realised to my amazement that I’d been within a stone’s throw of the wrecks myself, flying a few years ago into Resolute to join a research ship in the aptly-named Lancaster Sound – though by then the wreckage had been reduced to fragments, a far cry from the photo below of FM-216 taken shortly after the crash.

Lancaster Resolute.jpg

My brothers and I grew up fascinated by the history of aviation, leading another of us to become a pilot and to work for De Havilland, manufacturer of the Mosquito fighter-bomber during the war. We lived not far from the home of Lancaster BX FM-213, an aircraft that incorporates parts salvaged from both of the Resolute wrecks and is one of only two remaining airworthy Lancasters out of more than 7,000 made. An artefact such as this one therefore has particular resonance for me. In one sense, of course, ‘aerial archaeology’ is unlikely to tell us much that’s new about these aircraft, other perhaps than the cause and circumstances of their loss. But there’s another kind of archaeological value in artefacts such as this - for me, at any rate - and that’s about how they crystallise and expand our engagement with the past, even for periods that we think we know well enough from books and films and living memory.

In this case, holding that aluminium label gives a shocking sense of reality to the thousands of airmen who died in bomber aircraft during the war and the dreadful job it was their lot to carry out.  But I’m also struck by how lightweight it is, how it feels as if it could almost float in the air. The Lancaster was a monster of war, but it was also only a few steps removed from the gossamer-light creations of the Wright Brothers, fragile and ephemeral, a thing of beauty. Feeling that sliver of metal, as light as a bird, it’s possible to imagine how those men could have felt that it was they themselves who were flying, and how some of them came to feel as one with the aircraft in which so many flew to their deaths.

The meaning of artefacts, like art, is not just an intellectual matter, but changes with one’s mood and emotional state; it’s one of the reasons why well-known artefacts are endlessly worth revisiting. Whatever this particular artefact may say to me in the future, at the moment it holds pride of place in my collection.