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Considering Second World War Archaeological Heritage in France

Vincent Carpentier

Cite this as: Carpentier, V. 2024 Considering Second World War Archaeological Heritage in France, Internet Archaeology 66.


Fleury-sur-Orne, Calvados, Normandy. Excavation of a German machine-gun pit, later filled with Canadian metallic garbage
Fleury-sur-Orne, Calvados, Normandy. Excavation of a German machine-gun pit, later filled with Canadian metallic garbage (E. Ghesquière, INRAP)

The archaeology of the Second World War has existed since the 1980s in English-language research. However, the vestiges of this conflict were only officially included in French national heritage at the end of 2013. Only since 2014, the year of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, do preventive archaeology operations prescribe for World War II (WWII) sites. Public research programmes have also been set up to identify and characterise the heritage linked to the conflict, in particular the numerous remains of the Atlantic Wall on France's western seafront. During this decade, several archaeological operations have revealed the strong scientific potential attached to WWII sites throughout the country. At the same time, researchers from the National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) have drawn up a general research theme based on these remains which now form part of an international discussion framework. There are three main lines of research based on the typology of material traces from the conflict.

The first of these is dedicated to battlefield remains, which are currently being used to compile an archaeology of military operations in Normandy. The second is the study of defensive structures (bunkers on the Atlantic Wall and passive defence constructions) that are also the subject of exciting discoveries in Normandy and other French regions. The third area of research addresses remains linked to internment and mass crimes. In particular, this concerns the search, currently underway, of the only Nazi concentration camp on French soil, the KL Natzweiler-Struthof. This houses the European Centre of Deported Resistance Members (CERD) and performs important research on other deportation or internment memorials (e.g. Drancy, Mont-Valérien) and on a series of prison camps across France. These sites, long threatened by soil and coastal erosion, development or the looting of militaria, are now crystallising as powerful heritage assets, even though the expression and sharing of this archaeological memory of World War II comes in response to high levels of national and international public expectation.

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  • Keywords: archaeology, Atlantic Wall, battlefield, contemporary archaeology, France, internment, violence, World War II
  • Accepted: 31 Oct 2023. Published: 21 March 2024
  • Funding: The publication of this article is funded by the European Archaeological Council.
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Corresponding author: Vincent Carpentier

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Figure 1: Touffréville, Calvados, Normandy. German dugout in ˈEastern front styleˈ, the first foxhole excavated in Normandy (N. Coulthard, SDAC)

Figure 2: La Glacerie, Manche, Normandy. One of the prisoners' huts in the camp, with its manufactured stove (DRAC-SRA Normandie)

Figure 3: Graphs showing the increasing number of archaeological operations (surveys and excavations) in Normandy, 2004-2019 (V. Carpentier, INRAP)

Figure 4: Blainville-sur-Orne, Calvados, Normandy. Parts of the dismantled wreck of a Horsa glider of 6th Airborne Division, that landed on D-Day. These were used as raw materials by gunners of the Royal Artillery to build and provide comfort in their foxholes (V. Carpentier, INRAP)

Figure 5: Fleury-sur-Orne, Calvados, Normandy. Excavation of a German machine-gun pit, later filled with Canadian metallic garbage (E. Ghesquière, INRAP)

Figure 6: Fleury-sur-Orne, Calvados, Normandy. The sewers of the camp for German prisoners of Caen, La Grâce de Dieu, made of Canadian ammunition boxes (V. Carpentier, INRAP)

Figure 7: Fleury-sur-Orne, Calvados, Normandy. Some of the preserved remains of civilian shelters in the quarry beneath the Canadian military camp. Among them, some toys and other objects linked with the presence of many children (V. Carpentier, INRAP)

Figure 8: Maltot, Calvados, Normandy. At the very foot of the Hill 112 battlefield, a long-forgotten buried German soldier was found during the excavation of an Iron Age settlement (V. Carpentier, INRAP) This image shows human remains and preserved clothing.

Figure 9: Merville-Franceville-Plage, Calvados, Normandy. Trenches opened during an archaeological survey near the bunkers of one of the best-known Atlantic Wall batteries in Normandy. An unknown gun-position was found in this part of the complex, outside the extent of the museum (V. Carpentier, INRAP)

Figure 10: Pointe du Hoc, Calvados, Normandy. Actualised map of the battery and US Rangers' Memorial, made by INRAP after LiDAR- and geophysical surveys, showing every concrete and earth feature as well as bomb-craters (V. Carpentier, INRAP)

Figure 11: Rivesaltes, Pyrénées-Orientales, Occitany. One of the ruined barracks of the camp, before the foundation of the memorial in 2015 (J.-P. Legendre, MCC)

Figure 12: KL Natzweiler-Struthof, Natzwiller, Bas-Rhin, Communauté européenne d'Alsace. The new memorial of the gas-chamber built after the archaeological surveys, Summer 2022 (V. Carpentier, INRAP)

Figure 13: KL Natzweiler-Struthof, Natzwiller, Bas-Rhin, Communauté européenne d'Alsace. The 2022 excavation team working on one of the industrial buildings in the quarry (V. Carpentier, INRAP)

Figure 14: Montreuil-Bellay, Maine-et-Loire, Pays de la Loire. The remains of the camp for Roma people are still well preserved, thanks to M. Jacques Sigot who saved them from destruction (V. Carpentier, INRAP)

Figure 15: Savenay, Loire-Atlantique, Pays de la Loire. The excavation area of the camp of La Touchelais. Founded during the Great War by US Expeditionary Forces, it became a 'Frontstalag' for the internment of French colonial soldiers between 1940-1944 (A. Le Boulaire, INRAP)

Figure 16: Langrune-sur-Mer, Calvados, Normandy. Excavation of a deep German dugout into which the soldiers of 48 Royal Marines Commando buried and burnt their waste after the bitter fighting of 6-7 June 1944. Among the various objects were dozens of English beer and other alcohol bottles (E. Ghesquière, INRAP)

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