In this blog, written exclusively for the Festival of Archaeology, Deputy Research Director, Bob Clarke, takes you on a creative exploration of archaeological approaches to studying the Cold War and asks, why does the archaeology of the Cold War matter today? 


A bit about me and the Cold War

I have worked for Wessex archaeology for six years. In that time, I have run projects covering sites from the Mesolithic up to the modern day. Before that I worked with the University of Bath and the Ministry of Defence investigating various aspects of the southwest landscape, not unsurprisingly this included a lot of 20th-century military sites.

I should point out that I served in the Royal Air Force between 1981 and 1990 - the last, and some would argue, most dangerous phase of the Cold War. Indeed, my last five years involved the mighty tornado, an aircraft designed to punch back potential Soviet incursions. Being part of the operations team for this aircraft inducted me into some of the more secret aspects of the Cold War. This has left me with a lifelong fascination for the period and why I feel compelled to write this blog. 

Dr Bob describes the role of the Royal Observer Corps during a recent television interview.

Dr. Bob describes the role of the Royal Observer Corps during a recent television interview. Bob Clarke's Collection.

The relevance of the Cold War today

I encounter quite a lot of banter from my professional colleagues regarding my obsession with ’concrete’. Granted, the Cold War is a period from the recent past and survives in living memory, but it is important to remember its relevance today.  

The 20th century was punctuated by revolution, assassination, invasion, military expansion, and worst of all genocide. We know that all too often ‘history is written by the victors’ and certainly this was the case throughout the 20th Century. In many cases, the general knowledge about one or another event, especially in the Cold War, has been embellished, exaggerated or even fabricated to suit one side's ideology or be detrimental to their opponent. 

“Yes, yes, that's all very well” I hear you cry, “but what about the archaeology?” 

The study of the archaeology of the Cold War does not strictly adhere to traditional archaeological methods. The Cold War is much more than a collection of material culture, although such artefacts do play a role. The Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common was a major feature of the British Cold War, gaining international press coverage  throughout the 1980’s, although the archaeology of the peace camps are extremely fragile and ephemeral. That is in stark contrast to the focus of such protests, the cruise missile launch site, which is now protected as a scheduled monument.

The archaeological investigation of sites related to specific events in the Cold War is in its infancy but already the written narrative bears little resemblance to the facts in the trenches. Ultimately, archaeological methods allow for a more balanced and authentic narrative to be presented. 

CND information pamphlets often distributed at rallies CND information pamphlets often distributed at rallies

CND information pamphlets often distributed at rallies, images taken from original from Bob Clarke's collection. The archaeology of protest and the Cold War is often reduced to such a febrile items as pamphlets leaflets and posters. Now nearly 40 years later this is often all that remains of mass gatherings, sometimes thousands strong.

An archaeological view of the Cold War

Britain’s Cold War was dominated by a complex mixture of high-end scientific innovation and technical manufacturing, providing countless jobs across the country, and bringing prosperity to towns and communities across the nation. 

In a simplified way, we could argue that a study of the landscape of arms production and development can inform the development of settlement patterns around the United Kingdom. 

The most obvious issue in the mind of the public during those years was the spectre of nuclear war. The government maintained that we needed a deterrent if we were to survive in a nuclear world, whilst peace Groups argued that they made us even more of a target for Soviet missiles.

From 1957, the public's concern over nuclear weapons manifested itself in the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). What started as a march every Easter from London to Aldermaston eventually became a substantial political undertaking. Protests in Britain became huge affairs after the announcement that American cruise missiles would be stationed in Britain. CND and a number of its offshoot organisations also spent time exposing central government plans to protect themselves in substantial bunkers dotted around the British countryside. These physical markers in the landscape can be studied with traditional archaeological methods but the archaeology of protest leaves very little physical evidence. Marches to and from sites, by their very nature, leave nothing in the landscape, as do smaller gatherings outside British air bases. That said, the description of such activities should be treated archaeologically as it demonstrates lines of protest across the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the impact such protests had on local communities should neither be underestimated or excluded from this narrative. I argue that the routes that marches took to and from such controversial locations should also be considered and recognised as part of the archaeology of protest. As an example, the peace camp at Greenham Common, Berkshire has it’s origins in Cardiff, Wales when a group of women marched from the city in 1981 to the airbase.

Peace protestors at RAF Greenham Common, 1981.

The first peace protestors arrived at RAF Greenham Common in late 1981. It was soon established as a women only venture due to the perceived view that nuclear war was a male dominated environment. CND distanced itself from the camps, however the KGB did not, and it is rumoured that the site was infiltrated by Soviet agents. (Department of Defense Imagery photo no. DF-ST-84-08474)

One organisation, however, has left an archaeological legacy, it is this that I want to use to underpin why we need to study Cold War monuments. It is a fact of the British landscape that you are only ever around 10 miles away from a Royal Observer Corps (ROC) underground monitoring post. The ROC was a voluntary organisation whose origins can be found in WWI. Its development was inextricably linked to that of aerial warfare.

Between 1957 and 1968 just over 1500 underground monitoring posts were constructed across the United Kingdom. These were a reaction to the development of the hydrogen bomb, a much more destructive weapon than those that had been dropped on Japan in 1945. A ground burst of an H-bomb sucked up thousands of tonnes of debris as the fireball rose into the sky. Its fireball was highly radioactive and created the mushroom cloud that is so symbolic of the weapon. As the material began to fall back out of the rapidly expanding cloud it was deposited downwind of ground zero. It was this radioactive fallout that posed the most significant danger to life after the effects of the heat and blast of the immediate detonation. 

On receiving an ‘air attack red’ warning from stations around the northern hemisphere, including the famous ‘golf balls’ At Royal Air Force Fylingdales, North Yorkshire, ROC post crews would retreat into the monitoring post and wait for the instruments set up above ground to record the flash, blast and associated radiation of any detonation. Incidentally, the phrase “4-minute warning”, widely used as a demonstration of the futility of the Cold War throughout the 1980s, originated from this warning system. 

CND rally leaflet. CND rally leaflet.

CND information pamphlets often distributed at rallies, images taken from original from Bob Clarke's collection. 

The role of the post crew was to report on information regarding the effects of a nuclear burst in their area.  This fallout tracking was supposed to give the public and military as much time to get undercover as possible so as to miss the dangerous effects of the fallout cloud. 

The number of posts was substantially reduced in 1968 and the entire underground network stood down in 1991, after the cessation of hostilities.. 

So, let's jump back to our original question ‘Why does an archaeology of the Cold War matter?’ Well for a start, I bet a lot of the phrases used above, such as ‘Ground Zero’ and ‘fallout’, you have used at some point.

The problem with the Cold War is, much of the proceedings were enacted behind closed doors. Security clearance and the judicial use of the Official Secrets Act ensured that not much has made its way into the record. Personal accounts from those who were inducted into the activities of the ROC are a fantastic resource. As for a landscape archaeology of the ROC, these monuments demonstrate that nuclear warfare, had it broken out, was likely to affect the entire country; the posts being equally spread across the British landscape demonstrating that concept. Members of the ROC saw themselves as performing a humanitarian role giving warning to both the public and military when deadly clouds of radiation fallout were above the British Isles. Again, this provides a more balanced view of the social impact of the threat of nuclear war.

This topic still fascinates the public. When Wessex Archaeology recently uncovered a, near complete, example of an underground monitoring post near Wokingham the story appeared in a number of news outlets. Up to that point, it was thought that this structure had been completely removed. The fact is that any discovery like this forces us to confront our, often unsavoury past, and this is why we should consider an archaeology of the Cold War a relevant topic. 

Importantly, any study of the Cold War be that through its records, abandoned sites or technologies (nuclear weapons), that still threaten the peace of the world, must remember that this is the reason why we see substantial turmoil in the world today. The continued archaeological study of landscapes and monuments connected to the Cold War is both timely and relevant, confronting that recent past may just help us steer clear of repeating the event.