First a stone quarry, then a brewery cellar, shelter, business basement, then housing development… Since 2015, these basements in Fleury-sur-Orne have become an arena for extraordinary scientific research. Winner of the 2018 Schlumberger Museum Award, the REFUGE 44 project – led by the Inrap (National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research) in partnership with the CRAHAM (Michel de Boüard Centre – Centre of research in archaeology and ancient and medieval history) – carried out in an old stone quarry that was left in a remarkably good state of preservation combines historical, sociological and archaeological interests. History of a multi-objective project.
A quarry-shelter in ’44
On 5th June, 1944, Bombs began falling on the Caen plains and civilians were urgently fleeing the area. The Normandy landings were impending. In Fleury-sur-Orne, André and Lucien, the Saingt brothers, opened the cellar of their brewery to the residents who were fleeing to the south. This old quarry, which could be accessed by a slightly sloped path that when down 15 metres, accommodated up to 1,000 people during the heaviest time in the fighting from June to July, 1944. “The estimated number of refugees is difficult to say – a notebook once existed, but now it is nowhere to be found – the number varies depending which period of the Battle for Caen,” Laurent Dujardin, speleologist and historian at CRAHAM, said. At the end of July/beginning of August, families were asked to quickly evacuate, leaving behind what few possessions they had. Frustrated by the authorities’ failure to acknowledge the site after the war, the Saingt brothers decided to close up the premises, while organising once a year just a quick tour of the quarry for close friends and family.
“This place has had many, different lives as a quarry, a brewery cellar, a shelter, and the careful observations provided by witnesses helps us to understand the site and its changes”
“When the brewery was abandoned in the 1960s, the logistics company that took over the property was not interested in the underground premises, but the transporting company still allowed us to go down there in the 90s,” Laurent Dujardin said, who is passionate about the subject. But at the time, no one imagined that this old quarry could have a connection to the Second World War…“When I explored it for the first time 25 years ago, for me, it was just a heap of discarded rubbish bins,” Laurent Dujardin remembered. It was by studying other quarries around Caen that the historian/speleologist realised that some of the rubbish was not from the past few decades. In 2005, the property was purchased by a developer for constructing homes. The underground access was then filled in during construction work. Alerted to this, Laurent Dujardin intervened. “We made the developer understand that there was some important heritage artefacts below the building site. Only a portion of the quarry was destroyed. We were lucky.”
Reconstitution and interpretation efforts
10 years later in 2015, Inrap and CRAHAM, in partnership with INSA in Strasbourg and the speleologist team from Hérouville-Saint-Clair began the project called Refuge 44. And with good reason: the exceptionally preserved state of the site – abandoned for nearly 75 years – offers first-time scientific insight that helps in studying and understanding the events of 1944. “Families took over sections of the quarry that were just a few square metres and made boundaries with stones, sometimes hanging things such as aprons. In all, these small living quarters remain archaeological relics, with property and objects that have been preserved,” Cyril Marcigny, archaeologist and assistant scientific and technical director for Inrap Normandy, said. The site is about 2 hectares in size and can now be accessed by a 15-metre well so scientists can explore the area for many different purposes. “We are performing a very particular type of investigation of the area. We do not touch anything. We only study the objects that can be found on the ground.” The first goal of the work: create a raw-data archive of a site that will gradually disappear.
“We are uncovering a new historic source, containing data that historians and sociologists can use, which doesn’t appear in the traditional sources for the era.”
Toys, cups, plates, eyeglasses, coins, jewellery, butter jars, artillery shells, pistols, a gramophone… the quarry is full of treasures. As of now, nearly 8,000 objects have been put into the database. “With a team, we made a three-tier assessment of each of these objects at their location, providing information about them: coins that are clearly French, a knife handle without a blade, a rosary in a visible position, location of the bed linen…” Lasergrammetry of the volumes, photogrammetry of the objects, drawings of the living quarters… “all of these documents comprise so much information that we can then study them in a 3D virtual reality model, which will allow us to go back down into the site while remaining in the laboratory.” Through this work, the archaeologists can now review and compare different studies so they can offer new interpretations. “For example, if I take the coins and perform a spatial assessment on the computer of where these coins are located throughout the quarry, we can see different progressions. That helps us have an idea of how people moved through these different living quarters.”
Different areas of study using a 3D model
To verify their interpretations or when doubts persist, the team speaks with witnesses from the period. A few years ago, Yvette Lethimonnier (read more here), who was 11 years old in 1944, made an emotional trip down into the old quarry where she had once hid with her family. “We put the first observation-based archaeological interpretation up against a reading from witnesses. We can verify in particular the deviation between what an archaeologist can propose and what a witness remembers. That also helps us to shed light on the organisation of the shelters. “Glass syringes, thread for stitching wounds, anti-staphylococcus vials in a specific space… The hypothesis of medical treatments available in the quarry was confirmed by Yvette, who remembered for example that a certain Doctor Cohier provided medical care in a corner of the quarry.
“We are also carrying out experimental archaeology. This project gives us insight into older time periods”
For over 4 years, these campaigns, which last one to two weeks per year, offer researchers the chance to look into different areas of research: work on the burying of objects, fires, assessing and understanding the sites…(Read below Using 3D modelling created in partnership with the students at INSA in Strasbourg, the archaeologists and historians move forward with their explorations in the laboratory with the help of augmented reality: “Working with the 3D model and with specific tools, we can take measurements, continue to evaluate and collate the objects that are going to contribute to the database. “A scientific objective that will soon be adapted for the general public. “Aside from being a raw-data archive and a scientific tool, the important aspect of this 3D model is that it can offer the general public the chance to explore the archaeological efforts. Learn about the living quarters, see and touch the objects in a virtual setting filled with many types of displayed information… and offer an interpretation! “This innovative cultural mediation tool, which is under development, will be presented to Normandy residents during the Science Festival next October.
SPOTLIGHT : Refuge 44, many-tiered research
Aside from understanding the events of 1944, the exploration of the quarry/shelter in Fleury-sur-Orne allows the teams from Inrap to delve into other periods of history. Explanation with Cyril Marcigny.
- Burying objects: “We are in a confined space with a clearly defined time period of 75 years. The ground is very hard and yet objects are stuck in the ground. We are therefore going to measure the burying depth in the quarry over time. It’s interesting because when we worked on older time periods, we tend to have a very specific strategy, meaning to study objects down to the centimetre, whereas here, in 75 years, there objects that are buried down to 5 centimetres. That allows us to put into perspective what was done in periods reaching further back.”
- The assessment of sites: “Before working on the Fleury-sur-Orne shelter, I oversaw the excavation of a grotto from the Bronze Age (from 3000 to 1000 BCE) in Dordogne. There was a major debate over the use of grottoes in this period of history, namely if they were used as a habitat, a shelter or a sanctuary. It’s this last hypothesis that is generally accepted, particularly with the observation and study of the position of the objects. But the first time that I came down here, I realised that there were the same type of objects, made differently because it is a more recent period, but placed in similar positions: large vases placed up high, skeletal remains placed in piles in certain places… But, we are not in a sanctuary here. The waste is only managed in a certain way. Precious or large objects are placed in a certain way…so we can find ourselves among positioned objects that can seem cultural, but are just pragmatic. That also allows us to return to older hypotheses.”
- Research related to fire: “In some living quarters of the shelter, we found elements that resemble small fireplaces, like you would find in older time periods, going to prehistory or protohistory. These fires have a characteristic typology with a visible crust. But with the help of witnesses, we know that no fires were made in the shelter. The crust was formed when externally produced wood coals were placed in specific areas in the shelter. Again, this feedback helps us analyse the habitats in grottoes in a different way, where the existence of fires was one of the main questions.”