Stanford Archaeology Center
During this past July and August The Whitewater PoW Camp Archaeology Project team, which connects colleagues from Stanford University, Parks Canada, and Brandon University, undertook the final of three summers of archaeology field work in Riding Mountain National Park. The research project is using both historical and archaeological methods to illuminate daily life in this prison camp that held German soldiers in Manitoba during the Second World War.
With significant help from six Brandon University undergraduate archaeology students, and with funding from a Spletzer Family Foundation Research Grant in German-Canadian Studies, our team successfully completed this year’s goal of excavating twenty-five excavation units (of 1 square meter each) placed into 6 areas where the camp’s inhabitants dumped their trash (what archaeologists call “middens”).
The dig produced 60 boxes of artifacts, representing a wide range of behaviors and activities that occurred in the camp. The excavations revealed signs of the PoWs’ work logging in the park – such as broken saw blades and tools; signs of the institutional nature of the camp – found in the highly regular nature of the plain Hotel Ware ceramics and bulk size food tins; signs of recreation – demonstrated for example by alcohol and smoking paraphernalia, bits of carved antlers, and a broken ice skate; and perhaps even evidence of ideology and political affiliations – as represented in military uniform and clothing buttons and insignia, and military hardware.
One of the goals of the excavations into the trash middens is to test whether possible changes in political affiliation and ideology over time among the prisoners – perhaps related to political reeducation programs implemented by the Canadians – can be traced through the abandoned material culture. Three excavation units were placed immediately adjacent to the camp’s concrete garbage incinerator, and one intriguing trend in the excavated materials from this area is that among the burnt trash remains we recovered hundreds of buttons and other clothing hardware items, such as rivets, eyelets, clasps, and buckles – the majority of which are from German Wehrmacht field and dress uniforms.
The material evidence recovered clearly shows that the incinerator was being used to burn clothing, but the reason for this remains a mystery for now. One theory is that the camp used the incinerator to burn the clothing of sick PoWs, or to stem parasitic insect infestations. Another theory relates to this question of ideology; perhaps the PoWs burned their Nazi uniforms after changing political affiliation, or, at the end of the war prior to being sent back to Europe.
Having just recently completed the excavations, many questions remain unanswered. For the next year, Project Director Adrian Myers will be based at Simon Fraser University where he will undertake the analysis and cataloguing of the excavated artifacts, followed by archival research, oral history interviewing, and the writing of his PhD dissertation. Simultaneously, Professor Suyoko Tsukamoto and her students at Brandon University will be analyzing the butchered animal bones revealed by the excavations, which will tell us more about what the PoWs were eating in the camp.
Stay tuned for further results and developments as the project continues to uncover the lost history of German PoWs in Manitoba during the Second World War!
For pictures of excavations and artifacts and for regular updates, have a look at the project website at www.whitewaterpowcamp.com.