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Aerial Command Centre: A Contemporary Archaeological Excavation of the Cold War

5 Jun-2015 | Skrivet av Historiska studier i Arkeologi | Forskning | Utbildning

By Jacob Hjerpe (text), Maria Persson and Tony Axelsson (photos)

During the past few weeks a research project was initiated by the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Gothenburg with the intent of excavating the site of a command centre utilized by the Swedish military during the Cold War. It is called Command Centre ”Björn” (transl. ”Bear”) and was the place from where the Swedish attack air fleet would be directed in the event of a USSR invasion of Sweden. The site that we excavated was thought to have been kept a secret up until 1963 when the spy Stig Wennerström revealed the site to the Soviet Union. It was still militarized and used actively in military training and showcasing of Swedish military prowess in hopes of deterrence after that, but a bomb safe mountain room was built as well to complement it. Björn is situated 13 km south of a Swedish town named Skara, in the county of Västra Götaland, relatively deep into the interior of the Swedish mainland. Idyllic and sprawling fields surround the small and heavily wooded grove, which now and in times past hid Björn from foreign as well as domestic eyes.

In 1995 the site was abandoned and demilitarized, after which it was bought by a private land owner who has rented out the property as several storage facilities. Over time he has gradually become more interested in what purpose his property could have served in times past. His willingness to study it, in a historical as well as archaeological light, fits well with the general direction that our department has turned toward where more and more focus is primed toward the contemporary archaeological field as many internationally renowned scholars in the field work within the University. Subsequently it became an interest for us and excavations were initiated in the middle of May by professors Tony Axelsson and Maria Persson, along with second term students of archaeology such as myself.

Björn is where the First Flight Squadron, also known as ”ÖB:s Klubba” in Swedish (”the Supreme Commander’s Gavel”), was led from; the squadron was a top modern fleet hardly outmatched anywhere in the world. Whilst this time period was the primary focus of our excavation, there are many additional layers, prior to this latest historical development at the site, which also piqued our interest. Military activity at the site can be traced all the way back to World War Two when Field Seven Jonstorp was located there, which was a secret airfield for the take-off and landing of military aircraft and personnel. There are also two Neolithic settlements within the confines of the site. We uncovered many findings from the time of Field Seven, among them the most spectacular and eye catching one of the entire dig, which were two cylinder shelters situated relatively close to the main building of the site, called “kyrkan”(“the Church”).

"Kyrkan", the main building at the site.

Kyrkan, the main building at the site, from where the air fleet would be directed. (Photo: Maria Persson)

During our first week of excavations at the site our primary job was to examine and analyse our surroundings and find interesting places to excavate. However, before we got to that the first thing we did was to remove all vegetation from an area above a strange hole in the ground, and subsequently turf it off for an excavator to come and remove the larger rocks. Prior to the start of the excavation many thoughts had been had about what might be down there; everything ranging from a supply room for crisis situations to a secret chamber of some description. In the end it turned out to be the two cylinder shelters, pictured below, which were dated to and used during World War Two, in case of bomb raids.

Deturfing and initial excavations.

Deturfing and initial excavations above the cylinder shelters. (Photo: Maria Persson)

Investigating the interior of the shelters.

Tony Axelsson and Anders Berglund investigating the interior of the shelters. (Photo: Maria Persson)

In addition to this, during week two, we all spread out in groups within the compound to start excavating the multitude of sites that we had found the week before. I was in a group that found, and thus were designated to investigate, another peculiar hole in the ground, albeit slightly smaller. My group spent most of the week digging this hole, which was littered with tons of debris and heavy residual materials from constructions elsewhere, and we eventually uncovered a bunker. This bunker was utilized as a last resort splinter shelter to provide fire from, in the event of a ground invasion of the area. The excavation was incredibly heavy as the roof had been intentionally broken and stones along with concrete had been piled on top to conceal and incapacitate any reuses of the bunker in the future.

Excavation of the bunker in progress.

Excavation of the bunker in progress. (Photo: Maria Persson)

The other excavations focused on similar aspects. Another bunker was found close by which was only partially excavated to determine how it compared to the one we fully uncovered. There was also a group of students whose main job was to determine how Björn was connected to the outside world, at all of the temporal layers at the site. They worked with telephone wires, old electrical schematics and the like to see how Björn’s state of the art telephone connection was built and utilized.

Studying cables and wires.

Tony and the communication team studying cables and wires. (Photo: Maria Persson)

A croft ruin from the 19th century was also uncovered, and nearby some postholes, possibly for a house of some sort, was found. These kinds of finds were plentiful in the area and we did not have enough time to date and especially not excavate all of them, but this is good as it leaves open opportunities for future generations of students along with their excavations to be placed at the site.

Another fascinating find was a large circular earth wall that featured many different interpretations for its use. We did open up and examine a couple of test pits in the circle, and after discussions with the Home Guard, it was determined that it had been the site of a large tent for military conscripts and exercises. A retired officer in the fortification corps who visited the site was on the other hand firmly convinced that it was a now decrepit old site that used to harbour an anti-aircraft cannon, as it was consistent with ones that he’d built during the Cold War. This would also place it within the timeframe of Björn proper. I personally believe in a mashup of the two theories: that the Home Guard utilized it after the hypothetical aircraft cannon was removed, as the Swedish military, especially in recent years, have had to find ingenious ways to reuse places and materials due to budget cuts.

The earthen circle.

The mysterious earthen circle, with the reladen test pits visible to the right. (Photo: Maria Persson)

Military graffiti at the site, in sentry boxes and bunkers, were also examined in a similar way to that of the Bronze Age petroglyphs at Tanum. This was done by one of us students who has specialized in studying these inscriptions, and the examination yielded plentiful interesting insights into the people who populated, used and lived within the confines of the grounds, most of them conscripts. Most of us found this rather humorous as some of the military rituals that come about when a large group of men live together for an extended period of time can be viewed as rather odd, to say the least, from an outside observer’s perspective.

All of these projects subsisted and were worked on side by side throughout the week, with a group of students finding time to go and discover another interesting grove with yet more places of interest. We did have time towards the evenings as well to go out and explore the beautiful town of Skara and its large gothic cathedral in all of its splendour.

The archaeological team.

Group picture of the entire archaeological team, featuring archaeologists Tony Axelsson, Maria Persson and Anders Berglund along with the Spring 2015 class of the continuation course in Archaeology. (Photo: Tony Axelsson)

I, and many of my fellow students with me, found this to be a very rewarding experience in preparation for a further career in the archaeological field. The fact that an excavation of this kind has the availability of informants who lived during the time we are investigating really places it in a different interdisciplinary light where we also had to learn some basic ethnological interview techniques. This was to handle the information gained from that perspective, which later could be applied to our findings in the ground. As an opposition to the purely material, albeit sometimes also textual, character of the usual labour with which archaeologists dabble, this was an interesting inception into the practical archaeological field, as up until this point we’d merely worked with the theoretical side of the profession. Hopefully further excavations can be done at this fascinating site dating to such an important time in the history of Sweden, where more facts can be found not just about the events that transpired behind closed doors, but also about the everyday folk who were a part of it.

Jacob Hjerpe is a student in Cultural Heritage and Archaeology.

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