GPR Uncovers a Lost Chapter of History
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GPR Uncovers a Lost Chapter of History


orrissey was a small mining town in the Elk Valley of southeastern British Columbia before the march of history breached its isolation. It became an internment camp during World War I (WWI) when xenophobic patriotism stirred into existence and culminated with the arrest and detention of Austro-Hungarian, mostly Ukrainian, and German foreigners living in Canada. The internment camp was in operation between 1915-1918 and was one of 24 internment camps that housed 8,579 prisoners of war (PoW) on Canadian soil. Rumours of Morrissey’s infamous escape tunnel have intrigued Sarah Beaulieu, a Ph.D. Candidate at Simon Fraser University since she first stepped foot in Morrissey and she was determined to locate the tunnel as part of her doctoral research.

Archaeological excavations at the Morrissey WWI Internment camp are the first extensive excavations to take place at any WWI internment site in Canada. An early newspaper report described a tunnel dug by the PoWs in an attempt to escape their barbed wire confines. The article re-counted the prisoners’ tunneling out the front of the PoW building, running parallel with the roadway and toward the guard’s quarters. It was assumed that the tunnel would eventually divert toward the left of a wood thicket where a reasonably secluded escape could be made.

GPR-archaeology ground scanning
Figure 1
Sarah Beaulieu surveying with the LMX200™ GPR

However, the plan had been thwarted the night before the escape was to take place and riots broke out upon its discovery. Had the prisoners been successful, it is likely that the entire camp would have been free to escape across the border into the state of Montana.

There is very little physical and archival evidence pertaining to the Canadian WWI internment operations. The internment buildings were dismantled upon the camp’s closure and the majority of the documentary records were destroyed in 1954. Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was an ideal solution for locating the tunnel since it is fast, non-invasive and limits the amount of destructive shovel tests that would otherwise be required. An LMX200™ GPR, purchased with a research grant from the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund, was used to survey the internment site and successfully locate the escape tunnel (Figure 1).

artifacts found using gpr
Figure 2
LMX200™ data showing the 3 LineView cross-section images of the possible escape tunnel highlighted by hyperbolic responses that were collected as part of a 3 x 6 m grid. A corresponding depth slice image (bottom) was then generated and the depth of interest was between 0.9 and 1.0 m as it outlined the presence of a linear feature indicative of a potential tunnel.

The real-time GPR cross-section images, shown in Figure 2 (top), clearly indicated a linear anomaly at a depth of 0.5m. A 10 x 10 m grid with 0.25m line spacing was set up over this area to further map the suspected tunnel. During grid collection, by looking at the real-time results on the LMX200™ it was decided to only collect a partial grid (3 x 6 m) as most of the targets were observed in this area. The collected grid made it much easier to identify a linear target, in this case the possible tunnel, that spanned the full length (6m) of the survey area (Figure 2, bottom). After the survey data was interpreted and the potential location of the tunnel identified, three cross-sections were excavated to ground-truth the GPR results (Figure 3).

archaeological site marking and scanning
Figure 3
Excavation was done at the locations indicated in the GPR cross-sections confirming the presence of the tunnel and other artifacts.

The tunnel has since collapsed; however, a fine layer of shoring remains visible. Numerous artifacts were excavated including alcohol bottles, food storage jars, paint cans, inkwells, tobacco and luxury food tins including sugar, syrup, cocoa and chocolate (Figure 4).

GPR underwater scanning
Figure 4
Escape tunnel artifacts uncovered using the LMX200™ GPR

The GPR survey determined that the newspaper report had deliberately misled the readership. It portrayed the prisoners’ lack of intelligence, since they were intentionally tunneling toward their captors instead of away from them. The true tunnel was dug under the washhouse adjacent to the PoW building, toward the back of the prisoner yard where wilderness and freedom lay beyond. A barbed wire cross and a hand-made shovel, used by prisoners to dig the tunnel, are now on exhibit in the Canadian Museum of History.

The use of GPR to non-destructively image the subsurface in real-time provided valuable insights and guided the subsequent excavation, allowing the archaeologists to discover a historical inaccuracy and shed light onto this dark part of our Canadian history.

Story courtesy of Sarah Beaulieu, Simon Fraser University