Reflection from Valerie Bondura
“The Old Town of Belchite— children no longer run around, you can no longer hear the songs our parents used to sing.”
The above image is from the door of a large ruined church in the old town of Belchite, in Aragon, Spain. Belchite was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, with the town changing hands multiple times between 1936-37 before being ultimately captured by Fransisco Franco’s Nationalist troops. After capturing the by-then ruined town, the Nationalists set about building a new town for local families sympathetic to their cause, while Republican families were sent away to a nearby internment camp known as Rusia, a dark joke referencing the Republicans’ communist leanings. Franco decreed that Old Belchite would stand in ruins (see photo below) as a monument to the power of his “New Spain”, and Spanish schoolchildren were required to visit the ruins during the decades of Franco’s rule. New Belchite, built directly next to the old ruins and separated only by a chicken-wire fence, was to be a precise foil— a demonstration of Fascist organization, propriety, and conservative values rising from the rubble of Old Spain.
As archaeologists, our team from CSIC-INCIPIT (research institutes in Spain) has focused on uncovering the remains of the battle for Belchite, including trench systems in the surrounding area, survey in the old town itself, and excavation of a nearby Nationalist barrack that was turned into a concentration camp after the war to incarcerate defeated Republicans and political subversives.
There is so much I could write about— too much for a small blog post— so I will focus on one thread of our fieldwork. Since the late 1980s, archaeologists have been grappling with the political nature of our work. It is not, as it might superficially seem, all just stones and bones and dead people. One of my favorite ways to think of archaeology is of it as the discipline of memory— we are not just excavating and interpreting history, but heritage. The narratives we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from are mnemonically pegged to places and things, and it’s these places and things that archaeologists dig up. When those places and things are related to a violent past and traumatic memories, the politics involved in exposing and interpreting them become even more sensitive and serious.
In Belchite, decades of Fascist repression have blanketed much of the town’s history in a thick silence. The town remains politically divided and the Partido Popular, a conservative party
descendent from Franco’s Nationalist party, holds most of the major elected offices in the city. The yoke and arrows (yugo con flechas), the Spanish equivalent of a swastika, can still be seen on houses and buildings throughout Belchite, such as the one in the above photo. The Franco-era church, a large, somber structure, casts its Catholic shadow heavily over the town.
And beyond Belchite, the Spanish government has been slow to acknowledge its Civil War past. Recently, a member of Spanish parliament declared that there were no more mass graves to be found in the country, and that the number of victims from the war era had been radically overstated. And yet our team identified a mass grave site just this summer, one previously unknown and one that has not been mapped or excavated. Archaeology demonstrates that there is much more work to be done, regardless of political declarations otherwise.
Against this backdrop, our team set out for its second season in Belchite. Composed of both Spaniards and British volunteers, we conducted fieldwork in search of remains of Republican, Nationalist, and International Brigades forces in the area of Belchite. Historically, the International Brigades (particularly American and British battalions) played a large role in the various Republican offensives and defensives of Belchite, and thus our project hopes to include materials related to the Brigades in our analysis of the Civil War.
Without explicit political leanings, our team focused on any and all sites related to the Spanish Civil War in the area. We excavated Nationalist trenches alongside Republican ones, and I often found myself moved by the sheer normalcy of the things left behind by soldiers on both sides. Liquor bottles, toothbrushes, pieces of uniforms, morphine vials, small ink wells— when you are excavating, it is difficult not to think of the young men these things belonged to, of how afraid they were, to imagine the things they must have wanted and to try to figure out what motivated them to fight.
We uncovered materials in trenches near Belchite that related to a wide variety of historical actors, including Carlists— an ultra-Catholic fundamentalist group that supported Franco. By identifying where bullets were produced based on maker’s marks on their discarded cartridge casings, we were able to largely reconstruct entire battle sequences, including one poignant area where we could see a single Nationalist soldier fleeing a Republican barrage in his trench, based on the cartridges that created a line out of the trench and downhill, and the items apparently dropped by the soldier as he fled.
We had hoped to share our results, to give a public talk for the people in town. We had worked closely with many of the older generation in Belchite, those who had lived in the old town before it was destroyed. Many had painful memories that they shared with us in bits and pieces, about public executions and police brutality, about constant anxiety over being the next target of Fascist repression, over losing property and land and family heirlooms. Many people from town visited our excavations on a regular basis, coming by to see what we were uncovering and to offer their own stories related to the material. People wanted to talk and they wanted to listen, to hear about what we had found.
But when our project director went to book a space in town to give the talk, he was stonewalled. The mayor’s office quietly refused to give us a forum by making it difficult for us to find anywhere to reserve. When we put up fliers advertising our lecture, it seems that our open publicity was one step too far. Part of our team was unceremoniously evicted from a municipal guesthouse they were renting attached to Belchite’s tourist information office. The eviction occurred without prior notice while we were in the field; we were alerted mid-day that it was happening. Suitcases, groceries, everything was piled up out on the sidewalk while our team of archaeologists protested in vain. With one week left in the season, there was a scramble to find accommodation for the recently homeless members of our team, and who ended up tripling and quadrupling up in rooms the only hotel in town.
The eviction was a cold reminder of the very real politics of doing Civil War archaeology in Spain. For many, the legacy of the war lives on today, with many politicians and citizens continuing the ideological project of building a “New Spain” in Franco’s image. For others, who lost parents, children, and friends to the Civil War, the systematic repression of information—such as the targeting of researchers investigating Civil War sites— sends a clear message: your memories must be forgotten, and you must never speak of them again.
There is no way for me to do justice to my fieldwork experience in this brief blog post, and so I look forward to having more opportunities to share our results and my thoughts in the future. In closing, I’ll point any Spanish-speaking readers to the excellent blog associated with our project, found here: http://guerraenlauniversidad.blogspot.com.es/ (you can also Google translate it). I’ll end with a last image of Old Belchite, whose ruins you can now pay a small fee to tour. A monument to the power of New Spain, perhaps, though maybe someday there will be room for other kinds of stories and memories to be housed there as well.
Author: Valerie Bondura is an archeologist at Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, continuing her training in the PhD program in the Anthropology department.
Photos provided by the author.