Nearly 70 bodies found at First World War archaeological site


A crowdfunded archaeological project in the Westhoek is bringing up much more than expected as excavators race against the clock to finish

‘German mass grave’

The Hill 80 archaeological project in Wijtschate, a district of Heuvelland in Flanders’ Westhoek, has delivered much more than ever expected, according to the head archaeologist on the site, Simon Verdegem.

Excavations of the ridge known as Hill 80 started last month. A mill was originally on the site but was occupied by Germans and turned into a fortification in 1914. It proved to be an effective defence; it was not breached until 1917 in the Battle of Messines.

The site, which has remained virtually untouched since the First World War, is being turned into a new residential project, with construction due to start this summer. But Verdegem, who works for the archaeological department of Bruges restauration firm Ruben Willaert could not bear to see it developed before being excavated.

He launched a crowdfunding campaign, which brought in nearly €179,000, enough to fund a 60-day dig. And it’s paying off in spades.

‘Finds just keep coming’

Not yet halfway through the length of the Hill 80 project, the archaeologists – many of them volunteer amateurs – have found 67 bodies of soldiers and more than 1,500 objects. There are also fully intact cellars that were part of the original mill.

“We have discovered several trenches,” Verdegem told Het Laatste Nieuws. “It’s a German mass grave.”

Once the dig is finished, an inventory will be made, he said. “We don’t have a clear overview of everything we’ve found yet, and the finds just keep coming. We’ve found things associated with the mill from before the war and also a lot of French objects that date from the beginning of the war. There are some really nice pieces, like bayonets and helmets. We even found an intact wine glass in one of the cellars, which is nearly unheard of.”

Photo courtesy Hill 80