Last month I was in the Channel Island of Jersey for the opening of my museum exhibition, Occupied Behind Barbed Wire. During the German occupation of the Channel Islands, around 2,200 people were deported to French and German civilian internment camps (a number not including those who were deported to penal prisons and concentration camps for acts of resistance).
Since 2006 I have been working with former deportees, collecting their testimonies and attending their twice-annual reunions. As an archaeologist, my particular interest is in artefacts, or in this case, the hand-made arts and crafts that they brought home with them from the camps, and I have now seen well over 100 private collections of such items in the homes of former deportees.
These objects are fascinating, and include items as diverse as sports trophies, ash trays and hair curlers made out of Red Cross food tins; handbags, shoes and jewellery boxes made from Red Cross parcel string; dolls’ cots made out of empty Red Cross cardboard boxes; and paintings, greetings cards, concert programmes and other artwork drawn on the back of brown parcel wrapping paper. In the past, such items as these have been seen as the meaningless but pretty ephemera from such places, and very much secondary in importance to diaries and documents. Today, however, these items are viewed as crucial witnesses to, and enablers of, survival. While Red Cross parcels may have enabled the deportees I study to have survived physically, the objects they made helped them to survive emotionally and psychologically.
As an archaeologist, I am used to interpreting objects. It has been fascinating to use these skills to help me understand 20th century objects. In the stiff-upper-lip 1940s, people poured their emotions, hopes and fears into the objects they made, making them powerful items, pregnant with meaning.
If this has inspired you and you would like to learn more about archaeology, why not browse our archaeology courses including the Undergraduate Certificate in Archaeology programme, the Undergraduate Diploma in Archaeology, and the Undergraduate Advanced Diploma in Archaeology.
Dr Gilly Carr, ICE University Lecturer and Academic Director in Archaeology