Material memory – in praise of Ruin Memories’ Sværholt study

I’ve just read a fascinating account of a recent archaeological excavation carried out at Sværholt in remote northern Norway by the Ruin Memories team. The site report, written by Bjørnar Olsen and Christopher Whitmore details the physical steps taken in their excavation of the traces of the former Soviet PoW camp and its associated local Atlantikwall heritage. But what has struck me most are the following fragments, which help the authors build towards the compelling conclusion that I quote from below:

i) Macro: This region was evacuated in October 1944, and a ‘scorched earth’ policy (an inverted-pillage) was unleashed upon the people, infrastructure and ways of living of this place. Like Olsen and Whitmore, I will let the chilling statistics speak for themselves:

“50,000 people [were] evacuated, while the remaining 23,000 had escaped into the mountains.  Scorched in the course of this month in the high north were 10,563 homes, 4711 barns,  ca 350 bridges, piers and light houses, 106 schools, 471 shops, 53 hotels and guesthouses, 21 hospitals, 27 churches, 141 chapels and gathering houses,  and 229 factories and workshops. Boats and roads were destroyed, 22000 telegraph poles chopped down. Livestock and family pets killed.”

ii) Micro: The camp ovens were constructed of stacked stone, in traditional Russian style. The gaps between the stones were packed with concrete. Olsen and Whitmore have found still-visible fingerprints within the concrete where it would have been poked and pushed into the crevices.

In furtherance of the Ruin Memories project’s examination of the materialities of memory, the authors close with the following:

“…what is crucial is the “isomorphic” capacity of things, a capacity of bringing the very particular aspect of their own pastness to us. This also involves a care for the ineffable, for that which escapes historical consciousness, for that which is regarded as too trivial, as self evident or even too embarrassing to be spoken or written about. Such concerns relate to how to make the outdoor oven work properly, how to replace the hood on a clog, how to keep warm using ad-hoc materials in the middle of winter, how to fight lice, or how to defecate on a freezing stone bench in a rock shelter latrine. Surely, things’ memories are also ambiguous; we cannot know for sure if the alcohol one held by the bottles in the garbage pits were consumed by the guards alone or shared. We cannot say if the guards were German or Austrian. We cannot say if they were old or young. We do not know who fired the shot inside the dwelling. The ambiguities of material memory often swallow any trace of human specificity. However, what this form of memory loses in anonymity, it gains in another kind of nearness, intimacy and directness; one whose eloquence lies not in words but is imbedded as expressive statements in rolls of barbed wired, in blasted bunker, or in a flattened zinc bucket stuck away under a floor. This is part of the propensity of things.”

Their report is well worth a read, and is available at:


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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