A Deadly Find

What’s the most dangerous find an archaeologist can make? Some fear anthrax spores in sealed burial caskets. Others the asbestos used to temper certain types of North Scandinavian pottery. But German construction workers are on a whole other level than us. They regularly find Allied bombs from WW2.

One weighing 500 kg was recently found six metres below ground level in Göttingen, Germany, during work on a sports arena. And when the bomb squad set to work on it two days ago, the bomb exploded, killing three and injuring six. They’re civilian casualties in a war once fought by their grandfathers.


  1. #1 Interrobang
    June 3, 2010

    I’m given to understand that potato farmers in France and Belgium still have to run their harvests through metal detectors in case what looks like an earth-clotted potato is actually an unexploded WWI hand grenade.

  2. #2 thewhatifgirl
    June 3, 2010

    Wow, that is truly sad.

    I also just heard a story over the weekend about archaeologists in my area discovering that the coffins they were working on were infested with arsenic, which they had been unknowingly breathing in for weeks. And here I thought, when I first started on my path to becoming an archaeologist, that the only dangers an archaeologist might encounter were disease-carrying insects.

  3. #3 Ted H.
    June 3, 2010

    When I was stationed on Okinawa there would be regular stories about how new construction would have to be stopped because they dug up something from the WWII battle there. If they were lucky it was just vehicle wreckage. If they were unlucky it would be unexploded munitions and they would have to call the Marines over to dispose of it.

  4. #4 Andrew G.
    June 3, 2010

    The WW1 stuff is especially problematic because of the risk of finding unexploded chemical munitions.

  5. #5 Ted H.
    June 3, 2010

    Kind of makes Indiana Jones look like kind of wimpy. All he had to deal with was Nazis and giant rolling boulders.

  6. #6 Alex Besogonov
    June 3, 2010

    Happens regularly in Russia. Findings of WWII bombs and hand-grenades are quite common (though not as common as earlier).

    People are still advised NOT to walk in certain woods near the Saint-Petersburg.

  7. #7 NancyNew
    June 3, 2010

    My daughter is spending several weeks this summer at an archaeological dig in Israel. Those involved got “Minefield Safety Training” … basically instructions on NOT crossing marked fences–evidently the site itself is fine, but don’t stray!

  8. #8 Art
    June 3, 2010

    Life gets rough when the ape descendants shift from tossing feces at each other to lobbing large hunks of explosive filled metal. Particularly when they apply their freakishly large brains to making the aftermath as hard to clean up as possible.

    Aerial bombs dropped often included time-delay and anti-tamper mechanisms that were intended to keep firefighting and rescue crews away, or at least as frightened as possible. A bomb that falls and explodes causes damage and disruption for a limited amount of time. A bomb that lays there causes a disruption for much longer. Such bombs were often fitted with fiendishly clever anti-tampering devices that were designed to make the bomb as close to impossible to disarm as possible.

    There is a fair amount of literature detailing, at various levels of technical minutia versus novelization, the thrust and parry of bomb design versus the fledgling science of bomb disposal.

    Some of the earliest live military recordings are of a lone bomb technician speaking into a microphone and explaining exactly what tool he is using and exactly what he is doing. They recorded it so that if the bomb exploded they would try a different tool or procedure. High risk experimentation most scientists would blanch at undertaking.

    But it makes a gripping read.

    Seems to me this EOD crew underestimated the bomb. That is the only reason why they might have more than one technician in the hole at any time. It is natural to assume that a device that is most of seventy years old is likely inert. Or at least relatively insensitive. The fact is that most are. But there is always a slim percentage that through design, or as a result of deterioration, have become hair triggered.

  9. #9 PsyberDave
    June 3, 2010

    I imagine factory workers in the 1940 enthusiastically participating in the war effort having no idea that the bomb they were building would explode in 2010 killing people that hadn’t yet been born (and maybe whose parents had not yet been born) and who would not even be their enemy.

  10. #10 murmel.jones
    June 3, 2010

    During four months of excavation in southern Germany last year I had to call the demining squad twice to remove unexploded WWII ammunitions from the area of a bronze age cemetary. Same problem while fieldwalking/detectoring, our region was a battle zone in 1945, so we often find bullets, ammunition parts and even live ammunition in the ploughsoil. The regional authorities issued leaflets identifying the most dangerous forms of ammunition, and we are obliged to announce such finds to the police. Local farmers and construction workers sometimes have a rather relaxed attitude to these war relics and just pile them up at the field limits …

  11. #11 Martin R
    June 3, 2010

    Piling the grenade shells up into clearance cairns…

  12. #12 Geoff Carter
    June 3, 2010

    Just for Balance; during an excavation I once found a pig buried in lime on the site of a former abattoir – scared me.
    We had to call the army in with a flame thrower,and abandon that part of the site.

  13. #13 Martin R
    June 3, 2010

    What microbe were you afraid of? You weren’t going to eat it, I hope?

  14. #14 Geoff Carter
    June 3, 2010

    As a vegetarian most finds hold little interest for me.

    We had to call in a ministry Vet, but he refused go near it or to test it until it was destroyed completely!

    So we never found out what it was, or at least we were never told, but Anthrax was the main concern, it’s persistent little bug[ger].

  15. #15 Sandgroper
    June 4, 2010

    One of the events I know of occurred in Hong Kong, where a large Dutch dredging ship (a trailer suction hopper dredger, for the technically interested) picked up a submerged WW 2 anti-ship mine (one of those spherical things covered in spikes). The mine detonated in the pump head, lifting the ship out of the water and breaking its back. No one was killed, but several crewmen were seriously injured. The ship was a write off, and was towed to Vietnam for scrap.

  16. #16 henry hoppe
    June 19, 2010

    Intersting article about ‘Tunnel Rats’ on Okinawa:


    … but I just surprised more munitions aren’t found. The WW1 battlefields seem to throw up more, is that because the shells were less reliable?

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