Forgotten Battles. Ruins of the Spanish Civil War

by Alfredo González-Ruibal

Taste and smell

In 2011, we excavated the remains of a Republican military camp occupied during the winter of 1938 in Abánades (Guadalajara). Inside a stone shelter, we discovered a tiny bottle of woman’s perfume. In a nearby dump, a small can of anchovies. These are not the kind of objects that one usually finds in the frontline. I interpret the bottle of perfume as a souvenir from a wife or girlfriend. The anchovies might be a delicacy given to the soldiers who were going to be slaughtered in a forthcoming offensive. What impresses me most is not just that these things are out of place, but that they brought with them their out-of-placeness to the filthy trenches—with their smell of sweat and rotting and their taste of cold mess. Imagine the shock of opening a bottle of Myrurgia perfume, inhale profoundly and be instantly taken very far, away from the camp, and the war, and the stench.

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“But when from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of the essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time.


What is the matter of supermodernity? Steel, concrete, glass, plastic? For me, the ruins of the contemporary past are made of stone. Of stone worked by hand: the lime or granite used for making the walls of farms in Galicia and civil war fortifications in Castille. The archaeology of the contemporary past gives testimony of a multiplicity of times. Also of the Stone Age: a Neolithic time of peasants and shepherds. For me, stone in the twentieth century speaks of defeat and failure: of traditional rural life, of the Popular Army of the Spanish Republic. Of other societies that could not be.

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Deep stratigraphy seems to be a prerogative of ancient sites: Near Eastern tells, Palaeolithic caves or classical cities. Yet I have often found more complex stratigraphies in Spanish Civil War sites than in many prehistoric sites that I have excavated. In the Republican trenches of the University City of Madrid, where we worked in 2008, we found thick deposits of thin sandy layers, varve-like, almost one per year since the trenches and shelters were abandoned in April 1939. The rivulets and gullies that descend from the hill slope drag organic matter in their way to the valley bottom. In years of heavier rain, the rivulets lay thicker deposits of rich, gray-brownish sand; in drier years, the deposit is thinner and less dark. In these strata we recovered the postwar history of the place: the Republican dugouts of 1939 became a homeless shelter in the 1940s, a picnic area in the 1960s and a place for sex from the 1970s onwards—each level dated by coins; each level, a layer of oblivion.

There are other kinds of deep stratigraphy. In the Nationalist fortifications of Abánades, we dug a shelter in 2010 that was completely backfilled after the war. Almost two meters of sediment and rubble appeared in the back of the shelter. We found remains from the last months of the war there: tin cans, cartridges, mortar pieces, clasps, nails. The usual kind of stuff. But also Late Iron Age and early medieval pottery and bones that testify to the long occupation of the place before the civil war. The digging of the shelter in late 1938 cut through the strata and turned everything upside down. The soil and the artifacts were mixed up once again during the postwar backfilling, until they were excavated by us and sorted out: the magic of archaeology put every layer and every artifact back in its place in the unilineal sequence of history. Yet despite all our work of temporal purification, the site had reminded us already that the archaeology of the contemporary past is the archaeology of all pasts together.

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There is a material culture of pain. In the twentieth and twenty-first century, it is made of bullets and twisted iron fragments. A high percentage of our findings are of this kind. In the site of Enebrá Socarrá, a sheep pen occupied by Nationalists troops and besieged by Republicans in early April 1938 in Abánades, we found hundreds of shell fragments—from tanks, heavy artillery and mortars. They were all over the place. Including in the neck of a twenty-year old Nationalist soldier. The fifteen-centimeter razor-sharp piece of iron stuck into his body did not kill him, but surely caused him horrendous pain, not to speak of the shock. Because he did not die immediately: he had to be finished off with a pistol bullet in the chest. Either by his comrades or by his enemies. This, we do not know. 

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In our excavations, we document every fragment of anonymous life in the battlefields and in the mass graves of the fascist repression. We would like to give the names back to the murdered, but it is extremely difficult. This is the result of supermodern destructiveness: the annihilation of persons. Not only their lives, but their memory as well. As if they had never existed. We may not be able to return them their names, but we return personhood: the personhood that is materialized in a ring, a well-worn pencil or a pair of glasses.

In one of the mass graves of Castuera (Extremadura), we exhumed 11 bodies of Republicans assassinated after the war. One of them had, among other things, a dental prosthesis, a military buckle of the regular army, a cigarette holder, a pocket mirror and a flea comb. He was probably an officer, a man of certain status, concerned with his hygiene and physical appearance. The prisoners who were going to be killed in the concentration camps were usually deceived: they were told that they were being transferred to another prison or simply released. They gathered their meagre possessions before they left the camp. This is why in the mass graves we find a faithful image of the last instants of life of these people. The things they carry with them portray them in their last breath.

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The individual with the mirror and the comb kept something else with him: a sachet with coins (some of them deformed), fragments of copper, and rings. He was a skilled man, an artisan, perhaps a jeweller or a designer. He was capable of making beautiful signet rings out of copper coins. This turned out to be helpful in the camp, where he exchanged the rings by food—or for another day of life. In the end, it did not save him. He was still making rings when he was taken from the camp.

In the mass graves, we do not retrieve the dead, we retrieve lives.

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