Material culture

Archaeologist as a war historian – writing a history

About a year ago I wrote about my situation as a conflict archaeologist:

Year 2016 is a bad one for archaeologists in Finland. I have applied for several jobs without success. For example there were total of 21 applicants for one two week job as basic diggers and the chosen ones had worked as assistant researchers for years in the same archaeological unit.

I wasn’t depressed, though, because during year 2015 I managed to get few funds to start writing a book about a Finnish communication unit during Continuation War (1941 – 1944). Trouble was that none was willing to pay the whole sum I applied for, but from few sources I managed to get enough to get started. Currently I’m finishing the script. First rule of writing: no matter how much time you think you need to finish the script, it’s never enough! It always takes more time than you thought it would.

History of a military unit, as written by an archaeologist

The unit I´m writing about is Viestipataljoona 33 (short form VP 33), which could be translated as Field Communications Battalion 33. Unit differs from basic infantry or artillery units in several ways. This makes the job much more difficult. Field Communication units used a variety of equipment, most of which says nothing to even most enthusiastic war historians. Very little has been written about Finnish Army’s communications during the war, so the book will be a pioneer work of one sort.


Inside a radio car, which was captured from Russians. I have no idea what I'm looking at. Some sort of radio equipment?

Inside a radio car, which was captured from Russians. I have no idea what I’m looking at. Some sort of radio equipment, of course, but what exactly? Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.


To further make the task more difficult, I am writing the book during time, when most of the war veterans have passed away or are usually too old and fragile to give any info by interviewing them. I have to rely mostly on archive material, war diaries and correspondence. This is as much a opportunity as a challenge. Because I have to write mostly using material that was created during the war I get a pretty good picture of the intentions of the members of the battalion. If I use material which is made after the war I get a lot of hindsight and of course even fabricated memories.

An archaeologist writing about a history of military unit? Does that even work? I believe that as an archaeologist I don´t write about war history in a better or worse way than war historians. Archaeologists write differently. Archaeologists pay attention to different things than war historians. Usually the war historians make maps that show blue, red, black and white arrows that go zigzag in the map against different set of lines in certain time frame. Individuals brought to readers are often those, who showed bravery and valor in combat and their deeds are explained in detail. That is of course important and interesting, but I’m more interested in how the soldiers lived. As an archaeologist I pay great detail into how the men tried to improve their living conditions, what sort of tasks were they interested in doing and what sort of labor was hated or even neglected. How did the soldiers react to changes? How did they respond to propaganda? How did the feelings towards war change during the long Continuation war?



A Finnish volunteer member of Lotta Svärd, a lotta, is working with a switchboard. Nearly 20 to 25% of Finnish signal corps were women, Viestilottas (Communication Lotta’s). They were irreplaceaple and received credit as hard working, motivated and professional members of battalion. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

As a unit, I’m interested in how the Field Communications Battalion 33 acted as an organization. Did it work? How were the men lead? Were there differences between the three companies and HQ in battalion? How was the battalion made better – or worse – during the war as an organization? Did the unit do something else besides building and maintaining communications? Was there sand in the machine?

For example the 2nd Companys (a phone company, which build phone lines) war diary shows, that during fighting in summer of 1941 the whole Company was suddenly put to alert because the Russians might succeed in their attack in front lines and the men might have to be put to counterattack. During the wait for new orders Commanding Officer wrote into the official diary of the unit “Company commander started smoking after half a year break.” One humorous line in otherwise serious and official material told everything about the stress the unit was under.

Another example about differences in the battalion was that First and Third Companies get their men from countryside. Second Company got its men from Turku, a city. This made big divides in the unit since the farmers got holidays more frequently and they were usually prolonged because the men were needed during times the fields had to be ploughed and the grain sowed, and finally in the end of summer they got holidays for harvesting. This meant that the town residents got holidays less frequently and they were for shorter times. This had great impact on morale.

Most important things that I study in detail which other than archaeologists might ignore are the material conditions under which the men lived. I have especially studied trench art and I have a pretty good picture, what was manufactured and when and why during the war in this battalion. There were interesting changes during the war and of course there are the pieces of trench art that were made of forbidden materials like aluminium, which was direly needed in war industry. This kind of trench art was done in secret.


A wooden casket, made in 1942 or 1943 as trench art. The casket is rather big and on top of it there are two cancing bear figures.

A wooden casket, made in 1942 or 1943 as trench art. The casket is rather large. The caskets figures might contain a visual joke: the lid of the casket is round like a hill and on top of it two bears are posing or dancing. The object was made in the conquered city of Karhumäki, which literally means “bear hill” which explains the looks of this beautifully carved object. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

I’m also interested in the ways men fulfilled basic needs of a human being: food, light, warmth, cover. In almost primitive conditions, especially during winter it was no easy task to get these things and they definitively weren’t taken for granted. Some times over 80% of the men were used for months to chop firewood. Out of four platoons in a company maybe only one platoon could be used for working with building and maintaining phone lines.


The most important building in every Finnish unit: a sauna. Men showed ingenuity and effort to make proper saunas. Thanks to these facilities, Finnish army didn't suffer from typhus because the heat in sauna killed the lice. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

The most important building in every Finnish unit: a sauna. Men showed ingenuity and effort to make proper saunas. Thanks to these facilities, Finnish army didn’t suffer from typhus because the heat in sauna killed the lice. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.



Chopping wood in Karhumäki. Demand for wood as source of fuel for warming tents and houses and to keep power plants running was constant. Members of Field Battalion 33 are chopping wood in Karhumäki (in Russia) during 1942. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.


Food also showed another interesting divide in the battalion: the farmers got often packages which included food. According to one letter  such a package was lost in train and arrived after 2½ months. The food stuff was mostly spoiled, but pretty good frying grease was made out of a ham – after several layers of mold were cut off from top of it. The cities were of course at the mercy of rationing, but they could send one good that was actually unofficial currency: tobacco. With it the town residents could trade food, play cards etc.

I’m also interested in innovations, new ideas and inventions that were made in the unit. I try to write down meticulously about the new communication equipment the battalion received. Unit gave constant feedback about the equipment they were using: some was judged as unnecessary, some was badly designed. There were several mentions of inventions, but unfortunately they weren’t described in detail. For example there are few notes about new ways to bring phone lines into switchboards and alarming systems installed into switchboards, but sadly no instructions of how they were actually made were written down. Bummer!

New and old technology. Farrier, the blacksmith in charge of horses, is using a wheelstone powered by diesel engine. Al equipment had to be very mobile, because the men had to move freguently. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

New and old technology. Farrier of the battalion, the blacksmith in charge of making and putting shoes for horses, is using a forge which also uses a diesel engine. All equipment had to be very mobile, because the men had to move frequently. Picture: Liedon Museon arkisto, Archive of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

Of course when it comes to basic needs you might ask “WHAT ABOUT SEX?” Well, sexuality and sex weren’t of course written down in detail during 1940’s but a human being is a human being, so of course the question of sexual needs existed. When interviewing one veteran I asked him, what were the usual topics in everyday discussion. “Pussy and it’s endurance” the man replied. This is of course the unofficial documentation of the subject. One of the army’s field magazine wanted feedback from the army and the Battalion Commander and officer in charge of moral replied in official feedback “In every single magazine there should be pictures of pretty girls!!!” So there you have it. I haven’t found anything interesting for queer archaeologists, in case readers are wondering.

Material culture, living conditions, consumption, innovations, inventions… all these are basic archaeological questions when trying to understand past cultures. As an archaeologist I find myself asking myself time after time: what sort of material remains could I find, if I dug in places mentioned in war diaries, personal diaries and letters and so on? How would I interpret it? What sort of remains could a power plant made out of ancient locomobile leave behind after it’s evacuation? How would I interpet the effects of intensive recycling of all sorts of material? I managed to find the locations of the garbage yards near the unit, when they stayed in the conquered city of Karhumäki, but digging them (they are in Russia) is out of question. What sort of tale would those garbage yards tell about Field Communications Battalion 33?

Riku Kauhanen

Conflict archaeologist

Master of Arts (Archaeology, University of Turku, Finland 2012 and folkloristics, University of Turku, Finland 2014)

Photos are from the collections of Museum of Lieto, Finland.

Breadwinning & Archaeology – It´s Part of the Game, Folks!

Maria Beierlein de Gutierrez, Yavi-Chicha ceramic, colonial ceramic and plastic container

Maria Beierlein de Gutierrez, Yavi-Chicha ceramic, colonial ceramic and plastic container

When I found out about the Day of Archaeology, my heart went out to it. I was inspired to write about this day to make the world know what all these supposedly dusty archaeologists are working on. Let me put my grain of sand to it! As an archaeologist, I am working for 10 years now in a remote region of South America: the Altiplano de Sama in South Bolivia. Home to a overwhelming regional culture called Yavi-Chicha, which has been consistent for as long as 1000 years between 500 and 1535 A.C. We don’t know much about it, and that is where all my questions about it come from. Who were these people? Why were they so self-constrained but at the same time so widely spread in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina? Apart from this archaeological work I have been writing at Language of Things on materiality, museums, archaeology and other musings. Its kind of a non-scientific channel of work.

And it was when I heard about the actual DAY of archaeology, the 11th of July, that I realized that maybe my Day of Archaeology would depict something typical of archaeological work, but that is NOT included in the least in the popular vision of “the shovel-swinging archaeologist“. It´s the fact that I won’t be doing “archaeology” in the term of “working in the field/lab”. Instead, I will be dedicating half of the day to the work that earns my and my family´s daily bread. Which has nothing whatsoever to do with archaeology. And the other half of the day I organized someone who will take care to pick up my son from school and I myself will be off: to a course on museum on “Teaching & Curating“. And by now, I can almost see the question marks in the eyes of everyone. What the hell has all this to do with archaeology? I can tell you.

Archaeology, as has been stated over and over by some awful colleagues (have a look here, if you like), is a job which is almost always underpaid. That is, if you get a job at all. Which I haven’t. At least not an archaeological one. I am working in an office, and all my archaeological work, the writing, thinking and analyzing sherds, has been reduced to my spare time. Which is not much, considering that I am alone with my son because his dad is doing an extended fieldwork session far away (which I support, by the way, so I won’t complain about this). But this means that time is reduced to the wee hours of the night. And I am not alone in this – almost every archaeologist I know has some sideline of work that has NOTHING to do with archaeology – but it pays our rent.

Over the years, this situation became more and more intolerable to my archaeological soul and I decided to go off and try another line of work, one with is more in line with archaeology. Which is where the second half of my “Day of Archaeology” comes in. Curating & teaching at a museum is in line with my fervent belief that we have to communicate archaeology and the past, as much and as best we can. So I took this course consisting of 5 modules, and am learning about curating & teaching at the museum. I am trying for a year now to get into it, but museums (as well as archaeology as a career) scarcely offer “real” jobs. And I can’t afford to apply to almost unpaid internships. And I can’t be taking courses which require me to move house for 6 months and stay away from my home for weeks on end. Someone was joking these days that archaeologists don’t have kids and its true: doing archaeology is difficult if you want to raise children at the same time.

So, this is my day of archaeology: earning the daily bread in an office. Going off by noon, I switch over to the museum to take the course in order to get back to a job related to archaeology. And in the night, after sharing s´thoughts with colleagues as concerned with museum teaching as I am, I will be reading literature on sherds and ceramic analysis. Because in the end, something wonderful has happened: I can prepare myself and our son for a trip to South America, going to analyze some hundred sherds of the formative and regional period – i.e. between 500 b.C. – 1535 a.C. I got funded for a four-week-trip and we will be doing this together. That’s the other side of archaeology: you get all the “exotic” fieldwork you ever wanted. So I will be back to where the photo above comes from: Bolivia. Seeing pots.

And this means that, again, I have to be 100 % prepared on topics like “style“, “material culture” and the meaning of things in a society that lived some 600-1000 years ago. It’s one of the most fascinating works Ive ever known and I have to admit that I will never cease to speak about its relevance to us. These sherds mean so much to the people that live right now in this region, that they founded a society that reincarnates the past to the living people. They claim to be descendants of the producers of this ceramic I am studying. They see these past people as their ancestors, as their cultural roots. If THIS is not relevance of the past to the here and now, I don’t know what could ever be relevant. It´s risky and its controversial, but it IS a real connection of today’s people to a past. A past that has been created and transformed, but a past that matters in a very direct way to many persons.

So, maybe my “Day of Archaeology” can sum up some parts of archaeology, even if I am not working currently in an archaeological job. But the non-archaeological bread winning, the desire of being currently developing skills to communicate our field of study and the practical work of studying a part of the past that is relevant to living people – maybe these three things can make clear what archaeologists do.

Let´s do it again&again&again!

Research team at Torohuayco, Sama, Bolivia, in 2007.

Research team at Torohuayco, Sama, Bolivia, in 2007.


What would Batman think about the Persepolis Fortification Tablets? Debating Heritage and Archaeology’s Place in the Social Sciences

I’m currently finishing my Honours degree (equivalent of a fourth year for those outside Australia) in Brisbane, Australia. My Day of Archaeology was spent in the classroom, taking a research colloquium course to finish the coursework component of my degree. Luckily for this post, our class today was particularly interesting and gives some insight into where archaeology is positioned as a discipline (in the Australian university system at least).

This interdisciplinary colloquium includes students from the four social science disciplines, archaeology, anthropology, sociology and criminology. Over the course of our degrees this is the first course that has brought us all together.  We’re here to learn from each other, discuss our similarities and differences, and ultimately become better researchers. It turns out that even though we are in the one ‘school’ we know so very little about each other, stereotypes abounded in our first class. Archaeologists apparently alternate between looking for treasure and dinosaurs, anthropologists seem to mostly follow Indigenous people around pestering them with questions, sociologists are reportedly obsessed with the philosophy of long dead white men, and criminologists seemingly harbour desires to be Batman. Blatant stereotyping aside, the social sciences are united by a rigorous interest in humanity, a desire to better understand its many nuances and intricacies, and ultimately to contribute our knowledge back to society.

Today’s class features a debate over the potential sale of the Persepolis Fortification Tablets in order to pay off a debt that Iran was judged to owe the victims of the 1997 Hamas bombing in Jerusalem (this is a serious and intensely political case on which you can read more about here). This debate brought up serious questions about cultural heritage, its role in the creation of identity, value in an irreplaceable source of information on the past, and whether items of cultural heritage should be exempt from treatment as ‘assets’.

Clay Tablet, Persepolis Museum, Iran. Image by Pentocelo via Wikimedia

Clay Tablet, Persepolis Museum, Iran. Image by Pentocelo via Wikimedia

What I found most interesting about this debate were the different perspectives that we all had on this one case. Whilst we all recognised the importance of the tablets and emphasised the global nature of cultural heritage, each discipline had a different focus. The sociologists were most interested in aspects of power and control, criminologists over the legality of the case and the commodification of heritage objects, the anthropologists were concerned with the issue of state control over material culture and the intertwining of cultures, and the archaeologists focused on the preservation of cultural heritage and the integrity of these priceless collections.

It seems unfortunate that this is the first time we have been united in our degrees as it is so clear that we have much to learn from our fellow social science disciplines. There is a tendency to put on blinkers and not see the valuable contributions and perspectives that others have on your own discipline. I’m not sure if any of the archaeology students were quite prepared for the unique criminological or sociological take on what you’d assume was a straight archaeological case. As an archaeology student one of the most important takeaways of this day has been the importance of being interdisciplinary and the value of being open to other perspectives.

Off now to rid the streets of crime…