Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros69Concrete’s memory

Concrete’s memory

Positioning ghosts of war in the Channel Islands
Gilly Carr
Traduction(s) :
La mémoire du béton [fr]


This paper explores the constraints upon archaeologists who working in the field of heritage studies who encounter tales of haunting, or have their own experiences with ghosts, during fieldwork. The discipline lacks the terminology to describe, analyse or understand such experiences, leading to either omissions, embarrassed anecdotes at the end of ‘serious’ discussions of fieldwork, or talking in metaphors. Using the case study of the Channel Islands, this paper explores ways in which archaeologists can talk and write about ghosts through recent understandings of the concept of ‘heritage’, through a rejection of UNESCO’s definitions of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the adoption of the concept of ‘tangible intangibility’.

Haut de page

Texte intégral


1When on fieldwork in the Channel Islands, where I was exploring the legacy and heritage of the German occupation of 1940 to 1945, I unexpectedly picked up a whispered voice on my Dictaphone. I was paying a visit to a dimly lit, unrestored, labyrinthine underground concrete fortification in Guernsey. Despite being alone, I felt that I was being watched and so turned on my Dictaphone in the manner of a TV ghost-hunter; I had heard stories about this place. The subsequent recording, a few seconds long, revealed a man’s voice whispering urgently, in English, “help us”. I did not hear the voice at the time of the incident and so was taken aback when I listened to the recording on my computer that evening.

2Those in the island to whom I played the recording informed me that this was the voice of a ghost of a slave worker who must have died in a rock fall during the construction of the fortification. He was speaking English because he was talking to me, an Englishwoman; spirits are not constrained by language, I was told. The more people I spoke to about it in the Channel Islands, the more of them spoke of their own ghostly or unexplained experiences inside German fortifications. It became clear that the idea that many of the concrete bunkers throughout the Channel Islands were inhabited by the ghosts of German soldiers – and more rarely, by foreign forced labourers – was well accepted among segments of the population, whom I discuss later. Ghosts of islanders of the occupation period are almost entirely absent, thus underscoring both the alterity of ghosts and the discomfort caused by “foreign presences” during this period.

3When I returned to Cambridge and mentioned these encounters – and played my recording – to archaeological colleagues at the university, they responded by shuffling uneasily in their seats, their estimation of me clearly disintegrating before my eyes. Shortly afterwards a pertinent opportunity presented itself, while I was in the audience of an archaeological conference, to raise what I thought was an interesting case study, in an attempt to broaden the discussion. The response was not long to come: I was publicly castigated in front of the whole lecture theatre for having raised the topic of ghosts at a serious academic conference, as if we were nothing more than antiquarians or folklorists. I soon learned that archaeologists do not – in fact, are not allowed to – speak or write about ghosts.

4And yet I was troubled by this. I had identified a phenomenon in the Channel Islands that seemed to me to sit side by side with the other legacies of occupation that I had identified (Carr 2014). Such debris of war included physical structures such as bunkers, museums and memorials, but also the invisible legacies that inhabit the realm of traumatic memories and long-demolished prisons and labour camps. Each of these has been perceived differently by different generations, as I explore below.

5The way that people spoke about ghosts, their form, their preferred place of haunting, their desires and function, seemed to me to be revealing a particular form of heritage. But how to designate it? What language should I use? Considering these ghosts simply as metaphors seemed unsatisfactory to me, because while it was clear in other ways that Channel Islanders were still metaphorically haunted by the German occupation, they were also literally haunted. Perhaps it was time to branch out and claim a different language? When talking to my students and colleagues in the field of conflict archaeology and post-conflict heritage studies (my own disciplines) about the phenomenon, I found myself naturally referring to them as “intangible heritage”, because this is, to me, literally what they were. And yet Intangible Cultural Heritage (or ICH, the acronym used by UNESCO) did not seem perfectly appropriate either to describe the particular kind of remain that ghosts of the German occupation are on these islands. With the distinction it operates between material structures on the one hand and, on the other, an immaterial dimension of heritage, as if floating in the air or in people’s memory, this notion seems unable to render the intrinsic link there is for the islanders between bunkers, these imposing presences, and ghosts, whose visibility proves far more ambiguous. Bunkers and ghosts are part and parcel of a single regime of memory, as well as the traces of a history that has persisted in time and in very material ways until now.

Traces of war and the memory of occupation

6The German occupation of the Channel Islands from 1940 to 1945 is the most important event in living memory today to local people. More than this, it is what distinguishes them from others within the British Isles, and is an important component used to define who is “local” (even though one quarter of the population evacuated to the UK before the Germans arrived). My mother’s family is from the island of Guernsey, although I have never lived there myself. Over a decade of fieldwork, I have on countless occasions found myself reciting my grandparents’ occupation narrative as a way of proving my own credentials. The German occupation is still current news; rarely a week passes when some aspect of the occupation is not referred to in the local newspapers.

7The experience of the German occupation of the Channel Islands was not unlike that of France in that Jews were persecuted and deported; those who committed acts of resistance were sent to Nazi prisons and concentration camps; foreign labourers were imported to build the Atlantic Wall; and ordinary citizens lived under increasingly restrictive conditions and dwindling rations of food. However, there were important differences: 2,200 people (the non-indigenous population) were deported to civilian internment camps in Germany; thousands of women and children evacuated to the UK before the Germans arrived; and most men of fighting age had joined the armed forces in 1939 and the spring of 1940 and thus were not present to be taken away as POWs or to join resistance armies. The main difference, however, between the memories of war in the Channel Islands and in France is that the islanders, as British citizens, mostly adopted the British war narrative, which focuses on victory and not victimhood (Carr 2012; Sanders 2012). Besides, their narrative focuses heavily on the occupiers: the might of the Third Reich played the role of Goliath to the Channel Islands’ David, and the islanders eventually defeated Goliath, small and weak as they were. As such, this gave them the right to display the spoils of war and the booty which fell to them as the victors (Carr 2014: 28–30).

8A popular pursuit in the islands is to “go bunkering” at weekends. This involves walking along the coasts and exploring old concrete bunkers, of which there are hundreds. These bunkers are part of the Atlantic Wall, a defensive system constructed along the Atlantic coast from northern Norway to southern France to prevent the Allies from retaking occupied Europe by force. In the Channel Islands, the bunkers were built by the foreign labourers of the Organisation Todt, a paramilitary engineering organisation of the Third Reich originally under the control of architect Fritz Todt. The labourers – up to 16,000 of them at their peak strength – were brought from all over occupied Europe as forced and “volunteer” labour and housed in labour camps throughout the islands (e.g. Ginns 2006; Carr 2016). The labourers from Eastern Europe, an unknown number of whom were Jewish, were often former concentration camp inmates and were treated extremely harshly.

9Some of these bunkers have been turned into private occupation museums, of which there are two kinds: one is a museum, complete with glass cases and information panels, which tells a story of the occupation; the other is restored to how the bunker would have looked while operational and is restored as far as possible with time-capsule realism. Beyond these differences, occupation museums all feature at least one mannequin fully dressed as a soldier – flanked by swastika flags, these seem to be eerily continuing the German occupation of the Island in these renovated bunkers. Many islanders have grown up with the twin manifestations of “the swastika and the mannequin” in these museums, which have proliferated on the fortified coastline since the 1970s (Carr 2014).

10Bunker restorers, typically from the second generation, report encounters with ghosts during their renovation work. Columns of mist have been seen at the command bunker at Noirmont Point, interpreted as spirit presence. “Orbs” or balls of light (not to be explained away as spots of moisture on the camera lens) are regularly seen on photographs; these, too, are commonly interpreted in the same way. Restorers who enter bunkers in the winter months to repaint the ceilings and keep the rust at bay have told me of hearing air locks close and heavy metal doors slam. All of these experiences are generally believed to indicate the presence of German soldiers who are carrying out their former duty: they are guarding the bunkers and don’t appreciate civilians entering their territory. The ghosts are held never to harm beyond scaring the bunker restorers.

11Bunkers play a pre-eminent (if not iconic) role in occupation heritage in the Channel Islands, if only for their ubiquity. They are also “mnemonic devices”, in Sharon Macdonald’s formulation (2013: 152), which enable “past presencing” (2013: 152), that is to make the past present in the present, or even to inhabit it. Of course, not all bunkers have been restored: only a minority have, and it is often the unrestored bunkers which are used for “bunkering”. These windowless bunkers, built by the labourers as personnel shelters, gun positions, and ammunition stores, are today impenetrably dark and empty, and often have a certain damp smell. The larger underground fortifications, among them extensive tunnel systems, have a strange faint breeze running through them. And as one walks through the echoing concrete chambers, one’s footsteps sound unmistakably like that of marching soldiers. It is very easy to become unsettled and feel deeply uncomfortable inside such places. The darkness alone makes one scared and come out in goose pimples. Some fortifications, however, have acquired more of a reputation than others for being haunted – oftentimes those that include underground tunnel systems. These are mostly unrestored and undeniably the most disturbing of locations; there are online social media pages dedicated to ghostly sightings within them (for example, the Facebook group “Guernsey Ghost Stories”).

12The first or occupation generation generally avoids or has no interest in bunkers, seeing them as ugly edifices that destroyed the beauty of their islands. They were fit only for filling with the debris of occupation, being sealed, covered in soil, and then forgotten. We can see this attempt to hide traces of the occupation both as a deliberate act of oblivion and as a wider metaphor for how this generation felt about the occupation. Moreover, as they were built by foreign labourers and not the islanders themselves, there was nothing especially central about bunkers to the occupation narrative – discussions about this period rather revolved around suspicions of potential collaboration.

13As features in the landscape that were deliberately hidden and sealed, bunkers became magnets for the second generation, who reacted by excavating and restoring them, and using them as a way to understand that which their parents would not speak about. For them, this experience was filled with the thrill and excitement of the discoveries they made when opening up the bunkers again for the first time since the occupation. While this generation have encountered ghosts during their visits in derelict bunkers, they tend not to go searching for them in the same way as the third generation. The subsection of this bunkering fraternity who visit the fortifications and tunnels specifically to look for ghosts comprise mostly the third generation. They go prepared with cameras and Dictaphones (and, in some cases, crystals and pendulums). This group tend to describe the occupation as the most “exciting” thing to have ever happened in their islands; they grew up hearing about it from grandparents, or listening to anecdotes passed down through the family (for most families have them, just as they have memory objects of the occupation such as an old pair of shoes re-soled a dozen times, or an old occupation identity card, or a jam jar filled with ersatz tea leaves).

14In order to come as close as possible to “witnessing” the occupation themselves, this generation thrive on vicarious experiences. While the second generation busied itself with time-capsule bunker restoration, swastika flags and mannequins in uniform, the third generation wanted to come as close to German soldiers as possible. By searching for and seeing, hearing, and sensing ghosts of German soldiers, the third generation were acquiring their own “tangible” experience of the occupation. To them this experience is “real” (and not a figment of their imagination) and summons up the same visceral reaction as their grandparents had when seeing soldiers over 70 years ago. The third generation’s experience in bunkers is filled with excitement and tinged with fear about what they might find. While their engagement with the past is almost wholly sensorial, that of the second generation was a more physical experience as they drilled into sealed bunkers and scraped away the rust.

Apparitions and encounters

15While ghosts of German soldiers are seen almost exclusively inside bunkers today, this was not the case in the past. It is unknown precisely when Channel Islanders first started seeing the ghosts of war; however, they were first recorded by Guernsey folklorist Marie de Garis, who wrote in 1975 that “one evening recently a young girl was cycling along the road … when she came along a platoon of soldiers in grey uniforms marching along. When she got home she asked her mother and her neighbours if any soldiers were in the island. She was told that there were none … She described the men and the neighbour declared immediately, ‘These are the German soldiers from the Occupation. I’ve seen them myself and so have other people’” (De Garis 1975: 198).

  • 1 Ghost stories are often told among a circle of friends, often in the late evening, and comprise sh (...)

16There is evidence to suggest that this belief in ghosts of German soldiers is transmitted from generation to generation via ghost stories.1 I probably heard my first such story as a young child from my Guernsey mother, probably around 1980, only her story was not about a ghost in a bunker, but about the ghost of a German soldier on a motorbike who was believed to haunt a local crossroads on the island. Such narration made meaningful the intangible entity who could potentially cross the path of our car journey that evening, and I have never been able to experience that stretch of road in the same way since.

  • 2 Names of those interviewed have been changed.

17I have collected around 40 interviews with members of the third generation who have had ghostly experiences, although most were prompted to share their stories only after I had told them of my own. They include Anna2 who, when on a ghost tour in the Mirus Batterie (one of four major gun batteries in Guernsey), heard what no one else in her group experienced: “someone screaming in what I thought was Russian – a real panicky scream in my ear. I went white … it felt like a ‘get me out of here’ scream … I definitely think it was a spirit or some sort of imprint within the building … a slave labourer.”

  • 3 “War gaming” is a popular pursuit among boys and young men and involves dressing up in uniform, di (...)

18Richard, who helps out in war gaming3 at the same location, regularly hears reports of sightings of “Fritz”, the German soldier who guards the place. “Fritz” manifests himself as a tall figure in a long black coat who appears on the edge of vision, makes light bulbs fail and torches flicker, and fires plastic balls out of thin air, but only when the war games are in progress. Richard reported to me seeing “shadows in the shape of a person passing along the wall, but you can’t hear any footsteps. It’s always in the same place. It’s not aggressive … I think it just wants to join in the game.” While Richard referred to the entity as “it”, he referred to the phenomena more generally as the manifestation of “a ghost – because everyone knows the Mirus Batterie is haunted”. He thought that Fritz did not die in this location, but simply “returned to where he was happiest in his life”. This explanation, strange as it may seem, is used regularly in the Channel Islands to explain the presence of the ghosts. It is a formulation which simply echoes the feelings of this generation of islanders themselves towards the occupation: it was the most important and formative period in the lives of all of those who lived through it and so it is entirely natural that the dead German soldiers would feel the same way.

19In Jersey, the Ho2 tunnel complex has a reputation for being haunted. Pale and shaking, Simon and John recounted to me an unusually terrifying experience they had in 2002. Before the incident took place they had taken several photos, some of which featured “orbs” and mist which appeared only on the digital camera screen and could not be seen with the naked eye. They then took a photo in which two shapes evoked the faces of both a German soldier and a North African forced labourer in the same strange mist. Simon reported to me that he then “felt like all the breath had been sucked out of me. I was clutching at my neck and could feel something squeeze it and I fell to the ground and woke up 20 seconds later.” John, seeing his friend panic and unable to breathe, instinctively held his necklace with a crucifix pendant above his friend’s head and recited the Lord’s Prayer, which enabled Simon to start breathing freely again.

20At this point in the narrative, Simon took a deep breath, looked at me, and said “and then things started to go wrong”. Both men were dogged, almost immediately, by incredible bad luck for years afterwards, which included the cumulative failure of most of their electrical goods within a fortnight, the marriage of one of the men, and their health. John started to see the face of a person behind him in the mirror and suffered with terrible depression. These problems they put down to their experience in the tunnels. The men decided to print their digital photos and burn a CD and then destroy them in an attempt to trap and destroy the spirit. This didn’t stop the problems. When asked what he thought the cause of the problems was, Simon replied, “I think we brought out something from the tunnel that day that got its tentacles into us. That place is a graveyard [for slave workers] and we stumbled on it and disturbed something. I’ve seen two Anglican priests about it and neither wanted to know. It was too powerful for them.” Simon then consulted what he called a “white witch” who was able to visit the tunnels and “make her spells and incantations”, as he put it. She told him that they had disturbed an “entity from the occupation era”.

21On two occasions I have visited German fortifications in Guernsey with different local women who claim to be psychic. I hoped that these visits would provide ethnographic information collected in a controlled manner, unlike my initial encounter described at the start of the paper. My camera and Dictaphone were primed. Both fortifications were unrestored tunnel systems, and both experiences were similar. When I visited the Mirus Batterie with the first woman, Julia, she was able to see soldiers everywhere, simply “going about their duty. The place is immaculate. The man in charge is very proud of being here.” She told me that Fritz’s real name was “Albrecht” and that the bunker was his; her “psychic” vision allowed her to depict what the fortification looked like over 70 years previously without resorting to flags and mannequins. On the second occasion, with Sarah, we called out to the German soldiers in the empty bunker soon after we arrived. Immediately, even I could feel that the atmosphere of the place had changed, and Sarah said that another soldier had entered the room and asked us what we were doing there. Sarah staggered slightly, saying that she could feel his bayonet prodding her; we were trespassing in his territory. She asked the soldier who his commanding officer was but replied that “he’s just laughing, he says ‘he’s gone’. He says that he’s alone – he’s the only one left – the time has passed when he was part of a team and now he’s alone and has to protect himself.”

22In an underground tunnel joining the two M19 bunkers at Corbière in Jersey, Malcolm – the man who has restored the structures – has heard the scraping of jackboots in the concrete and seen a dense mist accompanied with a coldness and a feeling of being watched. A German soldier who apparently died nearby is reputed to haunt the place, and thus a local clergyman was invited in to conduct a ceremony in German inside the bunker, yet unsuccessfully so. A clairvoyant was also called in, who provided details of how the bunker looked during the occupation. These were used subsequently by Malcolm in his restoration work: he added a stuffed cat to a room where a cat used to sit, as was also later confirmed by a visiting old soldier during another seance.

23When I had first caught the voices on my Dictaphone, I went to visit the director of Guernsey’s privately owned occupation museum, and explained to him where I was standing when my Dictaphone picked up the recording. He calmly explained to me that this was where a rock fall killed a handful of slave workers in 1943 and that they were probably asking for my help. The tunnel where they were working was bricked off and their bodies were never recovered. We discussed whether it was possible to get the owners of the Underground Hospital to open up the sealed tunnel and perhaps free the spirits of the men. I realized that we were having a perfectly serious conversation about ghosts and that not for a second had my recording been doubted. I was considered a reliable witness, and besides, he had heard plenty of similar stories from that location.

24In due course, my psychic friend, Sarah, returned to the tunnels with me. She reported sensing “a couple of injured, emaciated slave workers with hollowed eyes and empty food bowls” who were “waiting to be helped to leave but didn’t have the energy”; they “still believed that they were physical”. They were being guarded by an armed soldier who threateningly told Sarah that the “men were his”. When I showed her the place where my Dictaphone had picked up the recording (but before I told her of my experience), she could “see” a rock fall and panicking people. She heard someone say “There’s nothing we can do for them now. The dead are dead.” She told me that there was a very indignant spirit, an overseer or “person who could punish”, who “had not expected to be so badly treated” and who was not rescued after a tunnel collapse had killed the men in his work party. He was furious that nobody had come back for his body. She said that she would need help in freeing both him and his men, as the spirit was too “angry and vengeful” for her to control.

25A “blessing” ceremony was held in July 2012, and two members of the clergy were present. They recited some prayers and sprinkled holy water while Sarah also attempted to communicate silently with the spirits to let them know that she could show them the way out. After the clergy had departed, Sarah accompanied me around the tunnels, the atmosphere noticeably lighter even to me. She reported that while some spirits of soldiers had come forward, ready to be shown the way out, others were sceptical that she could help them. One soldier was unable to come as he had an injured leg. Another was too depressed to leave as his home town back in Germany had been destroyed and his family killed. He had nothing left to “live” for. According to her, the religious intervention by the clergy had failed to remove the ghosts – like in Jersey. This shows a difference of viewpoints and protocols of interaction with ghosts held by different specialists, but most importantly, this indicated to me that in both islands the spirits of place were too important to be allowed to leave and that in fact they still held an important place in social relations. Thus, while the original occupying soldiers before them were “uninvited guests who outstayed their welcome” (Carr 2017), their ghosts are clearly made welcome and accommodated, as it were, in restored bunkers equipped with beds, plastic food, and all the accoutrements that they might need for their afterlife.

Tangible intangibility

26These experiences of ghosts of German soldiers and slave workers are “tangible” in the sense that they are experienced as “real” by the population: the sounds of slamming bunker doors or German jackboots are “real”; the failing light bulbs are “real”; the smell of German tobacco is “real”; the sightings of soldiers out of the corner of eyes, and the fuzzy shapes in photos are “real”; and the resulting bodily reactions of fear are “real”. The reliance of islanders upon scientific technology such as digital cameras and Dictaphones to capture – even entrap – the ghostly presence provides very real, tangible recordings on various digital media. And the recourse to psychics, clairvoyants, clergymen and white witches – people who might reliably be approached to deal with such encounters and take them seriously – provide further tangible evidence that the spirits are “real”. Even the islanders themselves and their ghost stories are undeniably real. This, then, is tangible intangibility: the tangible evidence of the senses, of digital media, of people, relating to something so intangible that its very existence is able to be challenged, disputed or denied by those who have not had their own tangible experiences of the intangible. Ghosts, which are always present, even if they cannot always be seen, correspond to what Buchli and Lucas (2001: 12) called an “absent presence”.

27A number of interviewees have articulated to me a second interpretation of the ghostly presences that confirms the relevance of tangible intangibility to describe them. They suggested that the concrete of the bunker itself can act as a recording medium, absorbing the energies of the people who have lived and worked within it. Thus, when the conditions are favourable, the bunker is able to “play back” the recording. A variation on this theme of interpretation of ghosts within the very fabric of the concrete repeats the persistent “rural myth” that the Germans saw the forced workers as expendable, and so when they fell into the concrete mixing machine during bunker construction, they were not retrieved. Islanders thus imagine the dead as being trapped in the concrete, in a more or less literal sense; bunkers and ghosts, anyhow, are absolutely indivisible.

28Therefore, considering ghosts as an intangible heritage, dissociated from any kind of materiality, does not tally with the lived experience of Channel Islanders. Ghosts and bunkers are linked as “two sides of the same coin”, as Gonçalves and Deacon (2003) have put it. Pushing this point even further, Laurajane Smith (2006: 44) has sought to fuse the two concepts into one, arguing that heritage is as much about “what goes on” at sites as it is about sites themselves. If the concept of heritage should concern “what goes on” or a “cultural practice” at sites, then it should include in our case the acts of restoration carried out by the second-generation bunker restorers and the acts of ghost hunting by the third generation. It is not that the heritage site or place itself is not important; rather, it is not the “full story of what heritage may be”. Heritage is, Smith suggests, “a cultural process that engages with acts of remembering that work to create ways to understand and engage with the present, and the sites themselves are cultural tools that can facilitate, but are not necessarily vital for, this process” (2006: 44). In this formulation, we can say that ghost hunting is a cultural process that helps the third generation to understand the German occupation and what it means to Channel Islanders in the present. Smith (2006: 56) further argues that all heritage is “inherently intangible”, because what we engage with at heritage sites are the values and meanings that are symbolized or represented at or by heritage sites, as well as emotion, memory and cultural knowledge and experiences. This argument is entirely applicable to bunkers and ghosts, for these are the very values and meanings being articulated in bunkers by both the second-generation restorers and third-generation ghost hunters.

29Marianne Hirsh has written extensively about postwar generations and their experiences of war, specifically about the second or “postmemory” generation, the children of Holocaust survivors. Her work brings insights for understanding the children and grandchildren of those who lived through the German occupation too. She argues that the second generation grew up “dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, [and] whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation” (Hirsch 1996: 659). These stories are, like those of Holocaust survivors, “so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right” (Hirsch 1999: 8). While family photographs are central to Hirsch as the “building blocks” or “medium connecting first- and second-generation remembrance, memory and postmemory” (1997: 2–3), in the Channel Islands that medium is the German soldier in various forms and manifestations, in the bunker to which he remains intimately associated. The first, occupation generation experienced the original daily presence of soldiers, while the second generation has recreated it with mannequins in a time-capsule set-up, and the third goes searching for their ghosts in the unrestored bunkers.

30Bunker restoration and ghost hunting both demonstrate the skill of “double vision”: the ability to see the landscape in which they live both as it is now, and as it was then, at one and the same time. Both pursuits enable parts of the population to point out features that no longer exist, and tell occupation-period stories associated with them. It comes in the form of a much-desired acquired skill for the second generation, who take pains to learn it, while for the third generation, who have heard stories at two removes, and who might eschew the attempts of their fathers to re-experience the past, it is a more innate form of double vision that has tended to develop. While their connection to the occupation is, like that of their fathers, “mediated not through recollection but through imaginative investment and creation” (Hirsch 1996: 662), they have sought to vicariously re-experience the past without the props of mannequins and refurnished bunkers. Their “authentic encounters”, just like those of their grandparents, also generate anecdotes and stories to share among their friends. These stories hold just as much cultural cachet – of a different sort – to the learned knowledge of the occupation that has been acquired by their parents.

31By dividing the engagement with bunkers according to the way that different generations use(d) and reuse(d) them, we can better understand the palimpsest of ways in which they are generally experienced today, acknowledging that the reactions of all three generations are still “alive” today. This, then, is a growing tradition where the weight of meaning accumulates.

Intangible Cultural Heritage

32While there seems little problem among academics in theorizing about intangible heritage by saying that all heritage is intangible, this view is not yet reflected in the language employed by UNESCO (Smith and Akagawa 2009: 2-4). The UNESCO Convention on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage lists five domains in which it manifests: as an oral tradition and expression; in the performing arts; in social practices, rituals and festive events; in knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and in traditional craftsmanship. More broadly, the text of Article 2 of the Convention defines ICH as including “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills”, as well as the “instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity …”4 Indeed, many of these resonate with the case study I have outlined above.

33Although UNESCO’s position indeed divides heritage into the intangible and the tangible, seeing it as two separate things, it could be seen and commended as providing a terminology which allows those of us who work in heritage studies to talk about ghosts in a legitimate way, or at least to legitimate the academic discussion of ghosts in our writings. Meanwhile, Denis Byrne criticizes UNESCO’s approach for allowing no place for what he calls “the invisible”: as heritage valorizes objects and sites, it seems to have little to say about places and things which are not visible, such as ghosts. Drawing upon the example of Heonik Kwon’s ethnographic work in Vietnam concerning archaeological sites and ruins animated by spirits of the dead of war (Kwon 2008), Byrne is exercised by the fact that such forms of heritage are not yet covered by Western concepts of intangible heritage, with its insistence on the visible, on proof, and on rational argument. The focus is still overwhelmingly, he argues, on the physicality of sites and on the monumental (2009: 242–43).

34As we have seen for the Channel Islands, bunkers cannot be properly understood without their ghosts. The tangibility of the bunkers and the intangibility of their continued occupation constitute each other. The intangible changes the experience, the emotions and the very meaning of encountering the tangible, and the reasons for claiming it as “heritage”: we do not need recourse to societies vastly different to our own to understand the indivisibility at play here. In fact, until archaeologists and heritage practitioners acknowledge ghosts as legitimate material to work with, they will always miss a crucial dimension in the life of people’s whose life and history they wish to account for. It therefore follows that it falls upon those of us who wish to write about such things to simply do so. The term “tangible intangibility” may help us to do so with legitimacy and in a way that reflects the true indivisibility of that which we study.


35I started this paper by bemoaning the fact that, as an archaeologist interested in the heritage of war, there was no way for me to write legitimately about a particular form of this heritage – the ghostly – even though I saw it as just another legacy of war, albeit one that was “tangibly intangible”. If heritage should be about “what goes on” at heritage sites rather than just about the sites themselves, it remained to be shown that it was possible to write about and analyse ghosts in these terms. I have thus suggested a new addition to our heritage language, and one which seeks to satisfy both “Western rationality” (itself a problematic term, as my “Western” case study shows) and those who wish to write about ghosts. “Tangible intangibility” is positioned as a way of acknowledging the indivisibility of ghosts and bunkers, showing how both would be impoverished (and something different altogether) without the other. It also acknowledges the centrality of the materiality of the phenomenon (i.e. the bunker). The very physicality of the experience – whether this refers to the Dictaphone recordings, the photos, the flickering lights, the psychics, or the concrete walls of the bunker – provides the necessary visible media to demonstrate, talk and write about that which is otherwise described in words deemed either illegitimate or which themselves reify the tangible/intangible divide.

Haut de page


“The Absent Present: Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past”, in Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas (eds.), Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, London and New York, Routledge, 3–18.

“A Critique of Unfeeling Heritage”, in Laurajane Smith and Natsuko Akagawa (eds.), Intangible Heritage, London and New York, Routledge, 229–252.

“Occupation heritage, commemoration and memory in Guernsey and Jersey”, History and Memory, 24/1, 87–117.

, 2014.
Legacies of Occupation: Heritage, Memory and Archaeology in the Channel Islands, Switzerland, Springer.

, 2016.
“Nazi camps on British soil: The excavation of Lager Wick forced labour camp in Jersey, Channel Islands”, Journal of Conflict Archaeology, 11/2–3, 135–157.

, 2017.
“The Uninvited Guests who Outstayed Their Welcome: The Ghosts of War in the Channel Islands”, in Nicholas Saunders and Paul Cornish (eds.), Modern Conflict and the Senses, Abingdon, Routledge, 272–288.

Folklore of Guernsey, Guernsey, The Guernsey Press Co. Ltd.

The Organisation Todt and the Fortress Engineers in the Channel Islands, Jersey, Channel Islands Occupation Society.

General Report of the Scientific Symposium on “Place – Memory – Meaning”: Preserving Intangible Values in Monuments and Sites. Available online, [last accessed 6 June 2017].

“Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy”, in Mieke Bal, Jonathan V. Crewe, & Leo Spitzer (eds.), Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, Hanover and London, University Press of New England, 2–14.

, 1997.
Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, Cambridge, Mass. & London, Harvard University Press.

, 1996.
“Past Lives: Postmemories in exile”, Poetics Today, 17, 659–686.

Ghosts of War in Vietnam, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Memorylands: Heritage and Identity in Europe Today, London and New York, Routledge.

“Narratives of Britishness: UK War Memory and Channel Islands Occupation Memory”, in Jodie Matthews and Daniel Travers (eds.), Islands and Britishness: A Global Perspective, Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Uses of Heritage, Abingdon, Routledge.

“Introduction”, in Laurajane Smith and Natsuko Akagawa (eds.), Intangible Heritage, London and New York, Routledge.

Haut de page


1 Ghost stories are often told among a circle of friends, often in the late evening, and comprise sharing personal anecdotes of “real” ghostly encounters. Most English people and Channel Islanders have a “ghost story”, whether or not they themselves believe in ghosts; this is not necessarily seen as a contradictory position.

2 Names of those interviewed have been changed.

3 “War gaming” is a popular pursuit among boys and young men and involves dressing up in uniform, dividing into teams, and shooting at each other with small plastic or polystyrene balls.

4 See [last accessed May 2018].

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Gilly Carr, « Concrete’s memory »Terrain [En ligne], 69 | 2018, mis en ligne le 22 juin 2018, consulté le 02 avril 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Gilly Carr

University of Cambridge –

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Haut de page
  • Logo MSH Mondes
  • Logo Hauts-de-Seine
  • Logo Centre National du Livre
  • Logo Musée du quai Branly
  • Logo Université Paris Ouest
  • Logo FMSH-Diffusion
  • Revue soutenue par l’Institut des sciences humaines et sociales du CNRS
    CNRS - Institut national des sciences humaines et sociales
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search