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Screenshot: Legenda personnel searching for lost Royal Navy graves at Jūrmala, Latvia. [Public Domain via Facebook used in the public interest]

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In what may yet turn into an archaeological diplomatic incident, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have told Latvian group Legenda Archaeology to cease and desist in their search for two Royal Navy sailors allegedly buried on the coast of Latvia in 1919. The search for the men by the volunteer battlefield recovery group was apparently undertaken without the knowledge or support of the two bodies in the UK which have responsibility for missing members of the armed forces, the CWGC itself and the Ministry of Defence Joint Casualty and Compassionate Center, with an MoD spokesperson telling thePipeLine, the live streaming of the search by Legenda on Facebook was “disrespectful”.

On Friday 26 June a group of men and women, some wearing military style camouflage and patches, gathered in the peaceful woods behind sand dunes on the coast of Latvia on the Baltic sea and began to probe the ground. They were searching for evidence of one of the less well known stories in British military history. The intervention by British forces in the civil wars which followed the Russian revolution and, in particular, the involvement of the Royal Navy in vicious combat in the Baltic sea.

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In the Autumn of 1919 British cruisers and destroyers, as well as French naval vessels, were providing naval gunfire support to Latvian independence fighters around the Latvian capital of Riga and in the course of the Baltic campaign one hundred and ten British military personnel were killed.

Two Royal Navy sailors in particular, it is claimed, were buried by local people at the resort town of Jūrmala on the Latvian coast west of the capital Riga, after their bodies were washed ashore. The burial, it is said, took place in the traditional place reserved for drowned sailors behind the sand dunes, out of the reach of winter storms.

It is claimed also that the grave of the two men was photographed and kept in good order by local people, at least down to the 1940’s, but the grave site has since been lost.

Nonetheless, in Facebook posts announcing the search Legenda claimed to be in contact with an elderly lady who remembered the site of the grave.

“With this photograph, her memories, probes and ground penetrating radar we will try to find them.” Legenda said.

However, thePipeLine understands that almost as soon as the post became known in the UK on the morning of 26 June [2020], questions began to be asked about what appeared to be going on behind the beach at Jūrmala and whether the work was even known to, let alone authorised by, either the Latvian or British authorities, even though the graves of service personnel generally have protection under International Law.

Founded in 1999, Legenda Archaeology is probably best known for its regular excavation of the remains of Russian and German personnel killed in Latvia during World Wars One and Two. In particular Russian and German personnel killed fighting in the brutal campaign in the so called Kurland Kessel, between October 1944 and April 1945. The organisation was seen undertaking that role in the British TV series “Battlefield Recovery” [aka Nazi War Diggers- see thePipeLine here and passim].

Here it must be said that the work recovering the remains of missing soldiers does gain plaudits from members of the public who share the belief that, “The war is not over until the last soldier is recovered,” as Legenda states on its You Tube channel. The practical expression of this emotional manifesto is the attempt to return the remains of service personnel who are missing, or whose graves have been lost, to their families and to the jurisdiction of their homeland, so that they can lie in marked graves alongside their comrades.

This is a point of view which is shared by some in the UK, including author Dilip Sarkar who has campaigned to change the Ministry of Defence’s policy of refusing to set out actively to find service personnel who are missing in action [MIA], most notably aircrew, including those lost in the Battle of Britain.

However, the UK policy remains that which has operated since World War One. That is that service personnel are buried in the location where they died, as is the case with the two sailors buried allegedly at Jūrmala.

Critics of that policy contrast it with the United States Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) which does undertake desktop and field investigations, committing teams of archaeologists and forensic anthropologists to the task of recovering the missing.

However, critics of Legenda argue that the DPAA is a government body, accountable to elected politicians and it’s research and science led approach is in marked contrast with that of the Latvian group, particularly as Legenda is also privately run and unaccountable.

Neither is Legenda is an orthodox archaeological body, although it includes the word “archaeology” in its title, it is claimed.

The critics point out that the the 1992 European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (Revised) [the Valletta Convention], has been law in Latvia since January 2004, and it demands that,

‘archaeological excavations and prospecting are undertaken in a scientific manner’.

However, critics question whether that is so in the case of Legenda’s work and point to a number of areas where the organisation’s practice departs from “scientific” archaeology.

In particular Legenda’s field teams are by enlarge made up of lay volunteers, including third country nationals; excavations are rarely, if ever, seen to be supervised by forensic archaeologists or anthropologists and the organisation does not publish the results of its research or excavations except on social media, including as videos on Facebook and a popular You Tube channel with over seven thousand subscribers.

The situation Legenda finds itself in was summed up in a blog post by archaeologist and expert in cultural heritage and conflict, Sam Hardy who wrote following the controversy over Battlefield Recovery/Nazi War Diggers,

I would prefer Legenda’s volunteers to have the training and resources of the forensic excavations under the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in Bosnia and Herzegovina or the humanitarian exhumations under the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP) in Cyprus, where all of the work is conducted by professionals (or, indeed, the training and resources of their professional equivalents in Poland); and I’m sure they would too; but they don’t.

To some critics, of greater concern than the general lack of obvious archaeological skills is the fact there is little transparency regarding what happens to military artefacts, such as helmets, weapons and other equipment, found during Legenda’s, self styled, humanitarian excavations.

Complicating the picture is the fact that, with the French and Belgian authorities clamping down on artefact hunting by amateurs and dealers on World War One and Two battlefields, Latvia is now a destination of choice for militaria collectors and metal detectorists, with some local entrepreneurs offering recovered battlefield artefacts for sale, including personal items like medals and badges, and even battlefield digging holidays.

While not doing anything illegal, Legenda itself has blurred the line between recovering missing soldiers and recovering artefacts for militaria collectors by offering participation in one of its recovery projects as a raffle prize, with the third prize being,

A mystery relic*recovered from the kurland battlefield”

Although the organisation took pains to separate the relic on offer from the recovery of missing soldiers, stating that this is a

(*relic found where no human remains have ever been found)”

While the excavation at Jūrmala produced few artefacts, and none connected with the possible missing sailors, a number of concerns about the methods employed were reported by archaeologists observing the excavation.

Of most concern was the apparently crude nature of the excavation techniques being employed in what is Legenda’s first attempt to find the remains of British personnel.

Far from the using non invasive ground penetrating radar to reconnoitre the site, which had been promised in the Facebook post, the video live stream showed members of Legenda probing the ground at the dig site with steel rods and an auger. This is a method which can cause significant damage to fragile archaeology such as human remains.

Screenshot of a member of the Legenda team using visualiser software in the search for lost Royal Navy graves. [Public Domain via Facebook used in the public interest]

Another member of the team did appear to be using a hand held electronic device linked to a smart phone app. However, these devices are often marketed to amateur users, particularly treasure hunters and manufacturers have been criticised for over claiming their capability, for supplying poor quality software and, in some cases, for marketing the devices as a form of ground penetrating radar capable of finding cavities tunnels and other sub surface structures at depth, when they are not effective in that role.

When the excavations actually began there appeared also to be a lack of coordination and archaeological method, critics claimed.

The marking out of the excavation area with measuring tapes, or the surveying in of the excavation trench appeared more informal than would be expected on a regular archaeological site, with no careful cleaning back of surfaces in order to try to spot grave cuts and there was little sign of the paper or digital recording the results of the excavation, which is usually deemed an important part of the chain of evidence if human remains are recovered and the process moves to one of identification using forensic methods.

Screenshot of members of the Legenda team as they open a trench in the search for lost Royal Navy graves. [Public Domain via Facebook used in the public interest]

Excavators were also shown working in what in professional terms could be seen as an overcrowded trench, with excavators sometimes getting in each others way and with some apparently using large garden trowels which are generally regarded as too crude for the delicate and precise work of excavation. Particularly excavation where human remains might be encountered.

In common with the practice observed in other videos published by Legenda, neither was the excavation kept tidy and forensically clean as would be standard practice in professional archaeology in the UK, or in the recovery of human remains by a team working to recognised guidelines with the support or consent of the Ministry of Defence, or international bodies such as the United Nations.

Answering a question about the circumstances of the dig on the Facebook live stream Legenda’s social media spokesperson wrote,

“We are working under the authority of Latvian M.O.D. who are in contact with British M.O.D. as currently there is no concrete proof there are actually British sailors here.”

However, a series of phone calls and e-mails made by thePipeLine while the excavation was still underway, revealed quickly that the UK authorities claimed not to have been aware of Legenda’s excavation at all until notified by members of the public on the morning of 26 June, after the excavation had started.

Worse for the appearance of the dig, the two organisations who should have been involved and even represented on site, had the excavation been agreed through regular channels, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC] and the UK Ministry of Defence Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre [JCCC], were actually concerned by what they were seeing on the live stream.

While making clear that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has no power, rights, or authority, to police former battlefields, nor to comment on national legislation and conventions which regulate activities such as archaeology, metal detecting and the treatment of human remains in each country, a spokesperson for the body told thePipeLine on Friday afternoon 26 June,

“We were not aware of the broadcast or activity [by Legenda] until it was raised with us by a member of the public this morning.

Upon receipt of the notification we immediately took action – informing our contacts within the UK government (who in turn have raised the matter through their official channels) and the group in question.”

The spokesperson added,

“We formally requested they [Legenda] cease and desist their activity and pointed out that, in our view, it is possible the grave they were searching for was moved to the CWGC war graves plot at Nikolai cemetery in the 1920s.”

The CWGC believes that the entire event might have been pointless as there may have been confusion about the lost burials, which may not even be lost.

The CWGC explained that the burials at Jūrmala may have been transferred to the small CWGC cemetery at Nikolai [Meza] in the 1920’s once Latvia had gained independence from the Soviet Union. However, many of the personnel buried in the region were temporarily commemorated by the organisation in the UK when access to the Baltic nations became difficult during the Cold War.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the former Soviet Union which gave the Baltic States back their independence, the CWGC reverted to commemorating casualties at the cemetery at Nikolai [Meza] in 1992.

In other words, seen from Latvia, the fact that the personnel had been commemorated on memorials to the missing in the UK may have led to the mistaken impression the sailors were indeed still missing.

The CWGC was also concerned at the live streaming of the dig on Facebook.

The organisation’s spokesperson also stated that it had made clear its policy on the search for, and recovery of, human remains,

“We firmly believe, out of respect for the individuals themselves and their potential next of kin, that this should be a private matter and not in the public domain and certainly not for entertainment.”

The spokesperson said.

While it is fair to say that the various comments on the live stream do not suggest an audience which was watching for entertainment, so much as out of genuine interest, Legenda’s video’s do show routinely graphic close ups of the skeletal remains of soldiers being excavated and it is likely that the live stream would have shown the remains of the Royal Navy sailors had they been located during the dig.

There is also concern that the regular posts of Legenda’s Paypal account details, with the accompanying suggestion that viewers might want to support the work of the organisation, was in poor taste at best, essentially turning Legenda’s first search for British personnel into a fundraiser.

Supporting the comments of the CWGC a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence, Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre [JCCC], which deals with historic casualties, like those from 1919, as well as those currently serving in the armed forces, told thePipeLine that this organisation too was not aware of Legenda’s activities at Jūrmala before the morning of 26 June.

The spokesperson confirmed however that as soon as it was made aware of the excavation JCCC contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which in turn made the Legenda Project aware that it too regarded their actions as disrespectful.

The spokesperson also confirmed that it the organisation had informed the British Embassy in Riga about what appeared to be going on. 

If remains were to be found and an official report is submitted by Legenda, the spokesperson stated, the MOD’s research and adjudication on identity will follow standard processes.

JCCC also backed up the CWGC’s opposition to the Facebook live stream stating,

“For common decency reasons, our position is that we do not want any – be it British or otherwise – human remains to be filmed or live streamed.

This is out of respect, not only for the individual who made the ultimate sacrifice, but for his family too.”

Regarding the apparent lack of archaeological supervision and failure of Legenda personnel to employ forensic search and recovery methods, the spokesperson commented that JCCC hoped a chain of evidence could be maintained in the event any remains were located and that all artefacts which might assist identification would remain as part of a single archaeological record,

“JCCC would always hope artefacts found with a British casualty would be passed to the relevant authorities.” the spokesperson said,

“In this case, MOD JCCC would ask the Defence Authority to make representation to the Latvian government to see if a process could be put in place to ensure any artefacts are handed over.”

At the time of publication the Facebook post about the June 26 excavation at Jūrmala on Legenda’s group page has been viewed more than thirty nine thousand times, with viewers in the UK, France, the United States and New Zealand as well as in the Baltic states.

Not bad for what the Legenda social media spokesperson described on Facebook as,

“…simply a reconnaissance of an old ladies memory of possible graves that may or may not be British and may or may not even still be there.

Meanwhile there is no way of telling how much money was donated to Legenda’s Paypal account, the details of which were displayed on the header and within the comment thread during the unauthorised excavation and which still stand at the time of publication, but it may well have gone some way to making up for the disappointment.

Neither is it clear whether the matter is closed at the diplomatic level.

However, the apparent failure of the excavation to find anything other than a few spent rounds and other minor relics of from World War Two and the remains of a dog certainly offers Legenda a way to back out of the search, while saving face.

Even so, that may not be enough for critics of Legenda’s self appointed role and what sometimes seem to be its bargain basement methods.

They may well hope that the British and Latvian Governments will cooperate to ensure that such unauthorised attempts to interfere with the resting places of missing British personnel do not occur again.

Legenda Archaeology has been contacted via its published e-mail and messenger accounts and asked to comment on the circumstances of the dig and the concerns raised by the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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