Sværholt: Memories of a Northern War Site

by Bjørnar Olsen and Christopher Witmore

Sværholt is a cape set between the wide fjords of Porsanger and Laksefjord in the northernmost Norwegian region of Finnmark (Figure 1).  The cape exhibits the characteristic topography of this northern coastline: a flat barren summit that from its northern edge plunges suddenly and steeply into the sea. On the southern side, the cape descends more or less evenly into a low isthmus connecting the cape with the main Sværholt peninsula. At either end of this isthmus are two small bays – the western is known as Eidsbukt, the eastern is called Sværholt proper, which for centuries hosted a small fishing hamlet (Figure 2).

In 1942 Sværholt became part of the gigantic German Atlantikwall defense line project mobilizing ca. 1500 costal batteries built along the Atlantic coastline from eastern Finnmark to the Spanish border. The artillery battery was perched at the summit of the cape (Figure 3) and comprised of six 145mm, long-range guns – capable of delivering a shell up to a distance of 18,000 m. The additional inventory of defensive weapons included anti-aircraft, anti-tank and field guns, flamethrowers, light machine guns, large spotlights, and 1778 land mines placed round the headland; another 800 naval mines were placed in the sea around the cape.

Accessed by a winding road built from the harbor in east bay, the fortified heights also included bunkers and various installations. The command and control bunker was set just a few meters from the northern crags and was connected with other units through an intricate system of dug-out tunnels that also acted as shelters, escape routes and munitions storage (Figure 4). Scattered along the upper slope to the south stood numerous buildings; mostly blockhouses serving various purposes (warming shelters, quartering and mess/kitchen for soldiers on duty). Their rear wall is often cut out of the escarpment while the front and gable walls are remarkable for their carefully stacked stone construction (Figure 5).

The main German garrison facilities were integrated within the fishing hamlet on the eastern side of the cape. Numerous buildings were erected out of prefabricated materials for living, storage, administration, health care, etc. In the west bay (Eidsbukt) the Germans placed the camp for the Soviet Prisoners-of-War along with watch posts, trenches, barbed wire obstacles and an extensive minefield. The coastal battery was manned by a German force of 150 soldiers and officers. The POW camp normally contained 50-60 Soviet prisoners. During WW2 Soviet prisoners of war served as a work force for the extensive German building projects in Norway. Out of approximately 90,000 prisoners, 13,000 would end their life here. 468 POW camps were established in Norway, far the most in the north.

In the fall 1944 the German occupation of Finnmark came to an end.  In October the Soviet troops launched a massive attack on the eastern Litza front (50 km east of the Norwegian-Russian border). The Germans were forced to flee and in anticipation of an invasion by the Soviet army (which never occurred) they gave up the eastern front and redrew from Finnmark. On October 28, 1944 Adolf Hitler issued a Fürerbefhel ordering the complete and forced evacuation also of the entire local population, as well as the implementation of Verbrannte Erde, scorched earth (Figure 6). Less than one month later 50,000 people had been 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. As the troops retreated nothing of advantage was to have been left for the enemy, including those locals who had escaped into the mountains.

Needless to say, Sværholt was part of this process. The locals were deported along with the soldiers and the POWs. Between the 11th and the 15th of November 1944 the settlement was burnt down and military installations destroyed or dismantled. The command bunker, gun emplacements, and auxiliary bunkers were all lined with explosives and blasted (Figure 7). All over these heights and along the slopes, shards of concrete and iron, chunks of stone and rebar, the remains of blast debris still lay more or less where they fell (Figure 8).

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 Figures 1-8

The POW camp at Sværholt

Initial surveys conducted in 2001 and 2010 drew our attention to Sværholt’s war heritage and prompted us to consider how it could be approached archaeologically. A start at exploring some of this potential, a small crew of four archaeologists  – Radoslaw Grabowski, Bjørnar Olsen, Þóra Pétursdóttir, and Christopher Witmore –  conducted a preliminary investigation of the POW camp in July 2011 as part of the Ruin Memories project.  We set out to accomplish three main tasks: firstly, to conduct a detailed survey of the camp area and to map all structure visible at the surface; secondly, to undertake soil chemical sampling of the entire camp area, mostly for phosphate analysis, in order to identify activity and residue areas not visible at the surface; and finally, to excavate test trenches in dwellings and other structures.

The POW camp is situated on a flat and grassy area at the base of the raised-beach terrace at the end of a small drainage where the creek meets the broad platform of the lower fossil beach at Eidsbukt (Figure 9 and 10). It is sighted between the observation posts for the western bay and the two lines of barbed wire emplacements intersecting the wide fossil beach area. The surveillance infrastructure was established along the edge of the raised-beach terrace for the coastal defenses and doubled as a monitoring station for the POWs below. Consisting of erstwhile zigzag trenches, guard posts/gun emplacements, light poles and foundations for spotlights, the primary monitoring station for the camp was concentrated on either side of the drainage. The zigzag trench on the south side of the drainage terminates in an observation nest set in a stone revetment under a roof of reused railroad ties and turf.

Measuring 42 x 42 meters and quadratic in outline, the camp was completely surrounded by a double perimeter fence (Figure 11). On the south, this double line was set on vertical wooden posts; most of the stubs are still visible. Many of the poles lay where they fell. On the north, the second line was set on screw pickets, many still breaking through the heath. The main gate is situated next to the northeastern corner and connected to the road leading to the battery and the garrison. Along the creek, which intersects the south side of the camp, but outside the fence, a stone paved path provided an elevated route across the marshy ground. At its southern end stone built steps leads up to the presumed camp latrine set in a rock shelter (Figure 12). Two toilet benches are set in stacked stone – privacy is afforded by a low front stonewall, the height of which also allows for impromptu inspection. Immediately to the west of the rock shelter is another barbed wire fence, which terminates on a steep angle at a higher cliff face, and thus blocks any possibility of escape.

Inside the camp are the remains of six dwellings (see Figure 11). Of these sod foundations – remains of a turf lining set around the base of the structures to protect the inhabitants from the cold – four are circular and two are rectilinear. The circular tents were constructed of thin prefabricated plywood and the rectangular ones went with more ordinary barracks. In one of the circular dwellings, a large iron basin in the shape of a squat bell remains. Just a few meters east of the camp, and slightly elevated, we find the dwellings used as warming huts and rest by the guards on duty. These are hardly distinguishable from those provided for the inmates (the same plywood tent).  Near the gate at the northeast section of the camp is an intact stone-built oven (Figure 13). The oven was constructed of stacked stone. The interstices were packed with concrete by hand; fingerprints are still visible. Such open-air ovens are, in this area, an unmistakable Russian material signature; they are even called “Russian stoves”, and were used at least since the Middle Ages for baking bread.  Its presence in this context, even with a hybrid dash of German concrete, is a sign of at least some tolerance or acceptance of culturally specific behavior. For some reason it was among the few things not destroyed.

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 Figures 9-13

The investigations

Our fieldwork began with the excavation of six small test trenches (see Figure 11). Excavation trenches were undertaken in areas where the remnants of sod foundations, stubs of posts, or other features suggested the likelihood of success with respect to gathering information about the camp and its daily life. Soil samples were extracted from a 75 x 65 m area covering the fenced area of the camp and the immediate surroundings. These were subsequently analyzed for inorganic phosphate content (CitP) (Figure 14) and magnetic susceptibility (MS) (Figure 15). Elevated phosphate levels are in this context likely to represent bone refuse and human and animal waste products, while MS may indicate high heat exposure and thus the presence of fires, hearths, etc. The sampling and analyses were conducted by Radoslaw Grabowski and the Environmental Archaeology Laboratory at Umeå University in Sweden.

Trench 1 was situated in the middle of the sod foundations for the south easternmost circular tents. Measuring 1 x 2 with a small 1 x .5 meter extension to the north, this trench was aligned with respect to the large iron basin (Figure 16). Just under the turf was a stone lined hearth containing coal and iron slag. Around the natural stone there was a thin layer of concrete that had been spread out in several phases. Assuming the large basin once set above this hearth, it is likely that it was enrolled either as a large cauldron or a bathtub. Originally this structure probably had an earth floor similar to the others, but at some point a circular stone-lined hearth was constructed – fitting the iron cauldron, while the rest of the floor was lined in a thin concrete covering.  In step with these changes the dwelling probably ceased to be used as living quarters, and became more of a tent for food preparation, bathing and/or laundry (this structure is situated next to the creek).  The low phosphate level and elevated MS levels in the samples from this structure may speak in favor of the latter option, though a few fish and animal bones were recovered from the trench.

Trench 2 was excavated across the turf lining and door opening towards the center of the floor in the westernmost circular tent (Figure 17). The floor level was formed when turf was removed from the inside and used as a basis for the turf layer around the outside of the plywood structure. This trench exposed a wooden doorstep, and  deposits of coal use for firing immediately outside of this opening (the trench did not extend far enough into the center to expose a possible central hearth). The floor had no stone or wood covering and consisted of trampled earth in which one posthole was found, and also some intentionally dug pits containing artifacts (possibly hideaways). Small amounts of plywood were found scattered on the floor along with some other wood fragments probably stemming from the framework.

A 1 x 2 meter unit, trench 3 was excavated at the opening of a concrete channel associated with the oven. The opening of the channel doubled as an exposed pit, which was filled with the front portion of an iron stove (Figure 18). Other debris from this stove, including the stone lining and the rear wall, was found near the two sod foundations to the west of the stone oven. The opening to the concrete channel was lined with stones. Inside, the channel remained an open void. Its bottom was covered with metal fragments, screws, nails, and barbed wire. The stone oven was constructed of stacked stone and packed with concrete by hand (see Figure 13). The top is covered with large stone slabs, with a small opening at center. This opening was crowned by a makeshift iron flue. Inside there were no discernable traces of cooking (blackened stone or wood). Wooded framing around the front opening, including a wooden lintel, suggests that it may have been used as a smoker and/or was built shortly before the evacuation.  It is interesting to note the high levels of phosphate (and MS) just to the east of this structure, possibly indicating an area intensively used in the preparation of animal-based food (see Figure 14 and 15).

Trench 4 was excavated across one of the rectangular turf-lined foundations, providing evidence for an elevated floor that resting o the stacked stones that remain in the interior. Finds in this trench were quite close to the surface, suggesting that they had fallen between, or had been hidden away beneath, the floor planks. Trench 5 was a 1 x 3 meter unit encompassing the remnants of the two gateposts (see Figure 28). The posts were set in holes packed tight with stones. The southern post had a slight rise on the exterior stone, perhaps to secure the gate at the base.

Trench 6 was a 1 x 1 meter test pit into a dump just outside the northern perimeter of the camp. The dump was recognized late in the course of taking soil samples and probably covers a quite substantial area as indicated by the phosphate and MS analyses. The test pit suggests that the trash had been deposited in large pits (Figure 19); probably dug by the inmates. Despite the small size of the trench, huge and varied amounts of garbage were found here; alcohol bottles, tin cans, bones, plastic, string, slag, coke and coal, wood, rubber, etc.

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 Figures 14-19


The artifacts retrieved from this trench and the trenches inside the POW camp allow us to explore some issues with respect to our aim in flushing out the contributions of an archaeological approach at Sværholt. Most of the artifacts consisted of iron debris, nails, bolts, barbed wire fragments, wood pieces, coke/coal, etc, but among them were also other, more peculiar finds, which we shall briefly present.

Alcohol bottles – A large number of the fragmented bottles once contained hard liquor (Figure 20); these relate most likely to the presence of guards in the camp area. It is well known that German soldier were given alcohol to cope with the misery of life on the frontlines and in battle, but Sværholt never witnessed the horrors of battle. Thus to find these bottles here in such large quantities may speak more to the hardship of manning an outpost in the far north. However, fragments of bottles were also found in the inmates dwellings. Could these be the remains of contraband activity or other illegal transactions? A medicine (or toiletry) bottle was also found in trench 1 (Figure 21).

Food items – A substantial number of tin cans of various shapes and sizes were uncovered in both the midden and the camp dwellings (Figure 22).  The fragmented remains of the packaging for a field ration were also found. Fish and animal bones (yet to be determined) were also quite plentiful but mainly in the midden, which suggests the use of local resources.

Footwear – Large quantities of debris from shoemaking – mostly cuts of rubber, but even a few pieces of leather – were found in trench 2 (Figure 23).  The most common footwear for the prisoners was clogs or “slippers”, and some of the half cuts that were found are probably hoods for such wooden footwear.  The amount of material from one dwelling suggests a certain allowance for the practicing of particular skills. In trench 1 a German, iron boot heal and toe plate were also found, the former partly encased in concrete.

Game pieces – Two identical (one fragmented) game pieces made of white glass were found in two different dwellings (trench 2 and 4) (Figure 24). Such finds give face to another side of life in the camp and speak both to internal sharing, and outside transactions.

Pipe cleaners – a set of pipe cleaners was found hidden underneath the floor in the barrack trench (Figure 25). What are such items doing in a POW camp? How did they get here? Along with alcohol, tobacco is not on the common list of rations for the prisoners. Still a tiny fragment of a pipe shaft was found in the round house nearby.

The 11.5 mm cartridge – this cartridge was yet another find from trench 2. It is an 11.5 mm cartridge containing the head stamp “RA” and year “1941” (Figure 26).  RA may mean the Remington Arms company; however, this cartridge is produced by the Norwegian Raufoss Ammunisjonsfabrikk, that the Germans took over after their occupation in 1940. They produced these cartridges for a special pistol, the 11.25 mm Automatic Colt Pistol, manufactured by another Norwegian arms factory taken over by the Germans, Kongsberg Våpenfabrikk. In this factory the Germans produced more than 8000 pistols to be used as everyday “hand weapons” for officers. A proof of violence, a fatal accident; or even an execution inside a dwelling; or just a warning shot? The Colt was fired, no doubt, but so far we may just speculate as to what or who it was aiming at.

There were other finds such as a needle for mending fish nets, buttons (one from a Italian WWII camouflage Zeltbahn, carrying the inscription “EQUIPEMENTS MILITAIRES”), a homemade flat-pressed zinc bucket (found hidden (?) under the floor in trench 2) (Figure 27), and even a plectrum for a string instrument. Some of these small, recovered things suggest that rules were negotiated or at least that there were some acceptance of deviant behaviour. They possibly also suggest networks for the movement of contraband and for bartering; a hidden “economy” where desired goods were circulating.

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 Figures 20-27

The memories that things hold

To speak of the memories that things hold does not imply that a bundle of pipe cleaners, fragments of burned glass, a machine gun nest or the vestiges of a wooden threshold are passive carriers of past meaning; neither do these things act as faithful intermediaries to those kinetic experiences which occurred around them. Nor should the memories that things hold be conflated with the conscious and willful faculty of human recollection. Rather 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 had-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.

Clearly, we should not overdo the difference between conscious memory and material memory. Things also act as facilitators of memory of the first kind, as triggers of particular memories that by nature often are involuntary.  They may thus light up a wider field and provoke us to reflect in a conscious way about those no longer present.  Still, we think that these reflections somehow differ from other recollections. And without claiming any pretentious mode of reenactment, we are convinced that a material – or an archaeological engagement – with Sværholt also makes us think its past different. There is something else to the immanent craft of archaeology, to cutting heath and moving stone, to working on ones knees through the cold rain, to see, hear and feel the land and the sea, to drinking from the stream and washing with cold water in the midst of this place where Soviet POWs lived and suffered. This is all very different from reading about Sværholt in the comfort of our study. It adds an experiential and phenomenological dimension that should not be underrated when trying to understand what happened here 70 years ago (Figure 28).

Figure 28

Directly witnessing how close – and how similar – the guards and the guarded lived, for example, leads you to contemplate their common fate as stranded individuals from faraway southern places.  Sværholt is a lonely cape, and the winter is indeed long and dark at 71° N. There was no escape. Consider the experience of spending months watching each other through the fence, of climbing the winding road to the ice and snow covered summit of the cape during winter darkness with the foaming sea deep below, not knowing when – or if – you could leave. There is a common saying about those German soldiers that turned the blind eye to when POWs received food from locals or that broke the rules in any other ways: “those who looked away.” Maybe Sværholt, more than other place, afforded such behavior – even some fragile bonding – as also witnessed by the archaeological material.

The German POW camps have been described as technologies of terror, as theaters of bestiality, and, in retrospect, as painful heritage. And rightly so, they were undoubtedly not the place one wanted to end up.  Thus what we need is not yet another revisionist account but a thicker description; a more nuanced and detail-rich exposition that, for good or for bad, also allows for the less obvious, the over-looked, the othered, the non-canonical. The memories that things hold are less judgmental, less prejudiced, they are more subtle, more open. It is our conviction that archaeology, in both the most generous and explicit conception of the term, can contribute significantly to thickening this remembrance. The work undertaken at Sværholt, despite is very limited and preliminary character has for us proved this potential and revealed some of the many memories that it holds.





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