The Archaeology of Occupation, 1940-2009: A Case Study from the Channel Islands

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Military occupation and archaeology

The experience of being militarily occupied is something that endures in the memories of individuals and communities long after the occupying army leaves, as is readily apparent today in the European countries which were occupied during World War II (WWII). Occupation is a humiliating and suffocating experience and is often characterised by fear and shortages of food, fuel, raw materials and outside news. It involves disruption to normal life and a loss of control. It can often mean an end to privacy; everyday activities are under surveillance and even neighbours can be perceived as less trustworthy than before. Oppressive laws are creatively circumvented in order to eat, to live and to inject life with a modicum of normality. Such circumvention can often lead to a jail sentence, although the feeling of living behind bars can also function as a metaphor for being occupied--at least in the Channel Islands (e.g. Wyatt 1945; Keiller 2000).

From 1940-1945, the Channel Islands were the only British territory to be occupied by Nazi forces. By April 1942, when the garrison was at its maximum size, occupying soldiers numbered one for every two Islanders (King 1991: 26), compared to a figure of one for every 100 civilians in France (Sanders 2004: 128). These soldiers had the right to enter and search a house without prior warning. The Occupation had a profound impact on the whole population, who were variously evacuated, occupied, deported or imprisoned; everyone was affected in some way. Families were split up and the Islanders endured five long years of hunger and oppression. This trauma has been passed down through the generations and, although its effect is weaker now, it continues to affect the Islanders--and the Islands themselves--today. The Occupation (always spelled with a capital 'O' locally) lives on in the annual Liberation Day ceremonies, in re-enactment in schools, in newly uncovered unexploded bombs, in the local Occupation societies, in the concrete Nazi fortifications that litter the Islands, and in the memories of the 'Occupation generation'. This legacy has become a fundamental part of Channel Island identity and heritage--a legacy that can be explored by archaeologists via the analysis of landscape, heritage and material culture, and the material manifestation of many of the unequal power relationships between people who lived in that landscape throughout occupation. This paper, then, outlines the concept of 'occupation archaeology', based on fieldwork which has investigated the legacy of an occupation, and which has been conducted through landscape, heritage and material cultural approaches. Its purpose is not only to illuminate a particular case history, but to define areas of analogy for the detection and investigation of occupation elsewhere.

Occupation artefacts

The Channel Islands have a rich archaeological and historical record, ranging from Neolithic chambered tombs and Roman ships to medieval castles and Martello towers. Bur the Islands are more thickly covered with data from the Occupation period than from any other.

Occupation material culture typically includes wartime identity cards and newspaper clippings, weapons and army uniforms. But the objects of principal interest to the occupation archaeologist are those classified as 'trench art' (as defined and discussed by Saunders 2001, 2003) and 'make do and mend'. These two categories of items are hand-made, recycled, reworked or otherwise personalised by individuals who were living through the Occupation and who made the items as a direct result of the situation in which they lived. Whether they were made as a way of coping with the shortages of war, or as a souvenir of the period, an item of resistance, a gift, or simply a way of passing an idle moment, each of these items, the material from which they are made and the form that they take, speak more powerfully of the experience and emotions of occupation than helmets and pistols, so favoured by collectors of militaria. …