Sunday, 30 October 2016

Excavation of a Nazi Camp on British Soil –

Dr Gillian Carr

Report by
Tom Meharg

The UCD Archaeology society was delighted to host Dr Gillian Carr as our guest lecturer on the 20th October. Dr Carr is a Senior Lecturer and Academic Director in Archaeology at Cambridge University working primarily in the field of conflict archaeology. Dr Carr’s lecture focused on recent excavations of a Nazi Camp on the island of Jersey, one of the few places of German occupation on British soil. Through investigation of the Lager Wick camp and other remnants of the wartime past of Jersey aspects of the islands history and the narrative of occupation were scrutinised against the physical evidence. Insights to life of the inmates, guards, and islanders, who interacted with the camp through occupation and after the war, are made available in the archaeological record. Dr Carr’s lecture presented the realities of the hidden history of Nazi occupied Jersey.

The lecture initially outlined the occupation from the Late June invasion of 1940 to the final withdrawal after D-Day and Operation Overlord and in 1944. Slave labour camps throughout the Channel Islands housed foreign labourers brought to the island to construct the Atlantic Sea Wall. Looking at the archaeology of the islands from a landscape perspective a huge industrial urban infrastructure is apparent. Quarries, stone crushing buildings, railways, and bunkers scar the land. Dr Carr drew a parallel between occupied Jersey and Norway, describing it as a ‘Landscape of Evil’ a land of occupation and forced labour.

The main focus of the lecture was ‘Lager Wick’ a slave labour camp on Jersey. Understanding this site required a multidisciplinary effort, a simple archaeological approach was not appropriate. The importance of eye witness accounts was incredibly valuable for testimony of the purpose of the camp and the experience of the labourers. Today the site is heavily overgrown and geophysical surveying is impossible. A great source of information were wartime aerial photographs, however problems of resolution, shadow, and the temporary, shifting nature of the camp buildings means these images were difficult to interpret. In addition to this the Germans had made a conscious effort to obscure the actual camp, for example, one of the yards was built in the shape of an ornamental garden to mislead wartime intelligence. With some areas of interest identified, Dr Carr was ready to excavate.

The lecture continued to present information gained through excavation. In the 2014 season posts, gates, and fences of the camp’s perimeters were uncovered. It looked as if a 7ft barbed wire fence surrounded Lager Wick during the war although an eye witness claimed a local farmer installed the excessive 7ft fence after the war.  It became apparent through excavation that many of the wooden buildings were on stilts and an attempt to raise the ground level with beach sand was also evident. Finds of iron nails and concrete also scattered the site.

In the 2015 and 2016 excavation seasons a building initially interpreted as a latrine block contained combs, medicine bottles and a tooth brush. It was suggested that this latrine was for higher officers due to a French hotel ashtray discovered in the trench. Upon revisiting the site in 2016 the story changed, finds suggested the latrine was probably a potato store instead, cashes of seashells pointed towards a period of starvation in camp. This highlights the difficulty of identifying a building through material culture.

Other areas excavated included the molten glass and charcoal remains of a barrack lodge identified through augering. Also found here were cufflinks, a schnapps glass, and a mug with the eagle and swastika motif, suggesting this was the overseers lodging. Other finds on the site associated with the camp included a padlock, a spade and a boot. However Dr Carr explained the difficulty of identifying some items as ‘camp material culture’ due to the fact that the area had been used as a communal dump in the post war era.

The greatest outcome of these excavations is a challenge to the silent history of occupation in Jersey and the Channel Islands. The victory narrative overrides an interest in the actuality of occupation life and many of the islanders are sceptical of the benefits of such activities. To open a dialogue and research slave labour camps and the wartime experience may help archaeologist identify other such sites in occupied Europe. Although the material culture at Lager Wick mainly represents the occupying force it is a side of history often supressed in the traditional narrative of these islands. 

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