An archaeological project on Alderney has uncovered information about the labour and concentration camp of Sylt that once stood on the island, shedding light on the lives of prisoners during the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands in the Second World War.

Drone image over Sylt
This drone image shows the remains of Sylt. The the memorial plaque at the site can be seen INSET. [Image: Antiquity Publications Ltd, Staffordshire University, and FlyThru]

Historical records indicate that Sylt was initially established as a labour camp 1942, but was converted into a concentration camp when it was taken over by the SS a year later. It was believed to have been largely demolished when it was closed in 1944, and although an investigation was carried out by the UK government in 1945, many details of the terrible conditions at the camp were omitted when the report was finally released in 1981.

More recent research, however, has been carried out as part of the Alderney Archaeological and Heritage Project, which was undertaken by the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University between 2010 and 2017. This project set out to discover what physical remains of Sylt still exist, to provide new insights into the experiences of prisoners, and to preserve the site through accurate documentation. The results of the study have been published in the journal Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.23).

The investigation used a range of non-intrusive techniques, including examination of historical accounts and aerial reconnaissance photographs, mapping the site through geophysical surveys and LiDAR, and exploring the physical remnants on the island through fieldwalking and vegetation clearance.

Several structures were found to have survived, hidden under vegetation, including a toilet block, bathhouse, stables, and kitchen in the prisoner area of the camp, as well as several structures in the zone used by the SS. LiDAR and geophysical survey also identified extensive remains beneath the ground’s surface, including the foundations of prisoner and SS barracks, and the sickbay, in addition to a subterranean tunnel of unknown purpose leading from a bathhouse in the prisoner area to the site of the Commandant’s villa outside the camp’s walls.

These discoveries confirmed prisoners’ testimonies of the overcrowding and harsh conditions at Sylt, as well as demonstrating the increase in size, security, and number of prisoners that occurred when it was converted into a concentration camp. The research has also disproved previous assumptions that there are no physical remains at the site worth conserving, demonstrating that significant traces of the camp survive, both above and below ground.


This news article appears in issue 363 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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