war

Archaeologist as a war historian – writing a history

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

http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/working-hard-or-hardly-working/

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?

 

Lotta.

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.

 

Woodchopping.

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.

Digging Diaries – Old Shipwreck, New Mystery – The Wreck of the London

Hello all, it’s time for a new vid!

Back in 1665 an enormous warship, named The London, exploded in the Thames Estuary. The crew had been preparing a seventeen gun salute before the vessel was due to set sail for the Second Anglo-Dutch War when a stray flame ignited 300 barrels of gunpowder.

A team have been diving this summer to rescue the archaeology and to solve the mystery of ‘The Wreck of the London’.

Subscribe to our channel and follow us on Twitter (@DiggingDiaries) to keep up to date with all  the new exciting digs and dives happening all over Britain this summer.

A day in ceramics, glass and metals. Conservation at the British Museum

8.55 am. Misting a waterlogged leather purse inside a pot with deionised water.

The purse contained a hoard of silver Civil War coins currently going through the Treasure process. If the leather dries out, it will distort. Treatment is delayed while questions of ownership and ultimate destination for the hoard are resolved but we have pressed for a speedy decision!

9.05 am. Excavating fragments of an Iron Age cauldron from a soil block.

This is just one of a group of bronze cauldrons, some with iron rims and handles, found at Chiseldon.

9:15 am: Identifying old restoration on a bronze portrait head of Augustus under ultra violet light.

The results of the investigation will be published and the head may go on display. You can find out more about the head of Augustus on the British Museum website.

9.22 am Revealing silver inlay in an iron Merovingian axe wanted for The World of Sutton Hoo exhibition that will open in September 2011.

Further details on the handaxe can be found in collections online.

9:30 am: Two 18 month contract posts have just started to clean coins from the Frome hoard, the largest hoard of Roman coins in a single pot found in Britain. They have calculated that they will have to clean about 40 coins each a day to fulfil their contracts.

An extensive blog has been posted by the Portable Antiquities Scheme on the discovery of the Frome Hoard and it will form part of a video conferencing workshop for children.

9:32am: Piecing together fragments from the old Naukratis excavation.

You can read more about the Naukratis research projecton the British Museum research pages.

9:37 am: Reconstructing the bowl that was placed over the mouth of the pot that contained the Frome hoard.

9:54 am: Removing a tiny wisp of cotton wool caught in the gold cloisons of part of the Ostrogothic Domagnano Treasure.

You can learn more about this object on Collections online.

12:32 pm: Reconstructing the pot that contained the Frome Hoard.

12:40 pm: More joins found in the Naukratis material.

12:43 pm: Editing a conservation record on the British Museum computer system. Recently it was announced that the 2 millionth record had been generated and most of these are open to the public via the BM Collections On Line website.

1:58 pm: Consolidating lead items that have formed part of a comparative study of galvanostatic and potentiostatic methods of reduction.

2:23 pm: Still gluing the Naukratis fragments.

2:26 pm: Still building up fragments of the Frome pot. (Note picture on the wall of the pot still in the ground.)

2:59pm: Investigating the Lilleburge assemblage, a collection of Viking objects that includes items still in the small blocks of soil in which they were excavated in 1886 from a long barrow in Norway.

For more details on the Lilleberge assemblage, visit these pages.

3:01 pm: Filling gaps in the Frome bowl.

4:58 pm: Examining an X-ray of a cheek piece from the East Leicestershire helmet made from iron overlaid with silver gilt. The helmet, which dates from just before the Roman invasion of Britain, was part of what was originally called the Hallaton hoard and was buried full of Iron Age silver coins

The Hallaton hoard has been acquired by Leicestershire Museums Service and Helen Sharp blogs about the treasure elsewhere on this site.

5:23 pm: Removing tarnish from an Anglo-Saxon silver gilt buckle for The World of Sutton Hoo exhibition that will open in September 2011.

You can find more information on the buckle on the BM site.