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Contemporary Archaeology in the Mauthausen Memorial

Deutsche Version

Historical archaeology, resp. contemporary archaeology is still a young discipline in the field of archaeological research. Archaeological investigations at places of National Socialist terror in Europe represent an integral part of this discipline. There has so far been a considerable number of archaeological investigations of objects being directly connected with the Holocaust and places of National Socialist crimes. In part, these are places of crimes which were - consciously or unconsciously - forgotten during the post-war period and which shall now become places of remembrance of the Holocaust.

The still visible remains of the former concentration camps and the artefacts salvaged at excavations, as pieces of remaining material culture, strikingly show the inhumane and brutal system of the Nazi regime in its manifold aspects. The relics of both offenders and victims today serve as witnesses of terror in the collective European memory.

In addition, the artefacts and remains salvaged in the course of excavations are increasingly used for political education. Only few contemporary witnesses can still tell pupils in schools or visitors at memorials of the terrible events in the camps. Archaeological finds from former concentration camps already play a significant role in youth education. Memorials are no longer authentic places, but memorials and museum exhibitions, together forming places of learning for the historical-political education concerning National Socialism.

The amendments to cultural heritage preservation laws in many European countries – where a former time limit concerning the relevance of archaeological monuments was repealed – have contributed to the fact that archaeologists focus more closely on sites of National Socialist terror and also on battle fields and armament factories. Furthermore, it has in part been necessary to revise the exhibitions and concepts of memorials. Thus, new concepts of exhibitions and tours were developed, resulting in alterations of the buildings and consequently in excavations and the recovery of finds.

Redesigning the memorials and exhibitions also necessitated historical and archaeological investigations in the former concentration camp at Mauthausen, Austria. The construction of the camp began in summer 1938. It was established as a concentration camp for the prisoners in Austria and the inmates were forced to work in the nearby granite quarries. Many died as a result of inhumane conditions, of undernourishment or were killed by the despotism of the SS, or murdered in the gas chamber. Mauthausen was no extermination camp, like some camps in eastern Poland. Already in 1947, the camp at Mauthausen was handed over to the Republic of Austria by the Soviet occupation authorities on condition that it be converted into a memorial.

At that time the aim was to make visible again the roll-call area and functional buildings of the SS (laundry, kitchen, detention building, infirmary) on the one side and and a first row of inmate barracks on the other. All these are areas which were, at that time, seen as highly symbolic of the suffering of the prisoners. In its centre, a sarcophagus was erected as a central memorial. The remaining barracks and outdoor areas of the camp were explicitely regarded as historically not worth preserving. Besides, the barracks were still used during the post-war period. Some were removed and used for other purposes. In the course of time, only an archaeologist’s eye could detect the remains of the outdoor areas above ground. Access for visitors was mainly limited to the central buildings around the roll-call area and the exhibition. The newly devised concept focuses on making visible the entire spatial dimension of the camp. Careful alterations to the buildings are necessary and the day of liberation, 5 May 1945, is taken as a reference point.

In its final phase the concentration camp Mauthausen consisted – apart from the main camp (camp I) with twenty inmate barracks - of extensions (special camp, camp II) inside the camp walls as well as the so-called Russian camp or sanitary camp southeast of the main camp with ten barracks, a kitchen barrack and a sanitary barrack, camp III southeast of the main camp and a tent camp consisting of five large tents in the northern outer area. Additionally, various barracks of the SS were used for accommodation or as workshops.

In order to determine the remains of the mentioned outer areas still preserved in the soil, a large-scale geophysical survey was carried out in the sanitary camp (fig. 1), the tent camp and a workshop area of the SS. The exact locations of barracks and further buildings in the sanitary camp, the tents of the tent camp and numerous workshops in the northern area could thus be detected. Here was also one of the execution sites of the camp, about which little was known from other sources, but which could, in all probability, be localised. Based on these results, targeted excavations regarding archaeological and historical issues can now be carried out. Any building measures in the museum are accompanied by archaeological excavations.

fig. 1: Geophysical map of the sanatory camp (© ArcheoProspections®)

A first excavation in summer 2009 aimed at investigating the preservation conditions in the soil and finding out which remains and relics still existed. The front part of a barrack in the sanitary camp was excavated (fig. 2). The barracks are about 55 m long and approximately 9.5 m wide. The foundation walls with their rubblestone foundation were still well preserved. The paved entrance area was situated in the centre. The interior was divided into three parts by pillars; furthermore, the foundation of a stove could be found. An entire stove was recovered from a pit near a barrack. A large part of the finds consists of architectural elements but there are also numerous personal items that can be attributed to the inmates, such as a Russian soldier’s mess kit (fig. 3).


 fig. 2: Front of barrack 6 in the sanatory camp, Mauthausen


fig: 3 Cup and dishes of a Sowjet soldier, sanatory camp.

The path leading from the main camp to the quarries was excavated as well. Today it is a path with an irregular, uneven paving, both sides of the path overgrown with grass. The aim of the investigation was to find out whether the path dates to the Nazi period or the post-war period. The results revealed two phases, both dating to the 1930s and 1940s. The massive foundation of the second phase is striking, it consists of relatively large rubblestones so that the path could withstand high loads. In the first phase only slabs were laid, without any foundation beneath. By clearing the waysides the entire width of the path from the Nazi period was revealed. It was considerably wider than the modern path and drain gutters leading along each side were excavated.

Core drillings were carried out in the so-called ash dump. This is a semicircular area with an inner diameter of about 12 m, today enclosed by a hedge and with a memorial stone in its center. Behind the memorial site the terrain drops away sharply to a dell. Extent and size of the ash deposition were to be determined. With a borer of 10 cm in diameter 14 drillings were made in the area inside the hedge and two drillings outside, for checking purpuses. The drillings were deepened until the natural soil. The cores were examined, the finds salvaged and the entire material (soil, cremated remains and ash) was subsequently placed into the ground again. It appears that the area had already been prepared and levelled off for the depostion of ashes by the National Socialists. Further levelling layers between the ash layers were documented as well. In addition to the cremated remains of the murdered inmates there were various finds, among them personal items of the prisoners and also ashes from other furnaces. Towards the slope, the ash layers were considerably larger than in front of the ash dump.

Investigations concerning building archaeology are carried out at a large scale. Successively, all buildings are examined from the perspective of contemporary history and as to their building phases. Detailed analyses of the killing area with the execution sites 2 and 3, the gas chamber, the area including the crematoriums and the camp brothel have already been finished. The alterations made during the conversion of the camp into the Mauthausen Memorial, including interior painting, new tiling or other changes in the rooms, could clearly be documented. These findings are especially important for the area of the gas chamber. This area and the small room in front of the gas chamber, where the apparatus to funnel the gas was situated, were investigated. Different tiles are clearly visible on the wall where the apparatus was originally installed. A picture taken shortly after the liberation shows a repair with nine tiles and and a hole in this place. The Nazis seemed to have removed the devices and closed the hole with nine tiles. Later, the Americans examined the spot to find the hole where the apparatus was installed and sealed it again with 16 tiles (fig. 4). A GPR survey confirmed the findings: The hole through which the gas was funnelled from the antechamber to the gas chamber is located behind the 16 new tiles.


fig. 4: Small room in front of the gas chamber with the removed 16 tiles (© ArcheoProspections®)


The partly uncovered borders and wall and ceiling sockets in the brothel barrack are remarkable. The sockets, painted over after the war, should contribute to a somewhat friendlier atmosphere in the sex-cabins while the brothel was still in use - another symbol of the cynicism and brutality of the system of concentration camps.

During the reconstruction of the so-called infirmary, accompanying investigations were carried out. Thus, the floors and doors in all rooms dating to the Nazi period and also facilities in wet rooms could be documented.


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Cl. Theune, Zeitschichten - Archäologische Untersuchungen in der Gedenkstätte Mauthausen. In: KZ Gedenkstätte Mauthausen Mauthausen Memorial 2009. Forschung, Dokumentation, Information (Wien 2010) 25-30. (download: mauthausen-memorial.at/db/admin/de/get_document.php?id=150)

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Photographs: Claudia Theune

Translation: Ulrike Fornwagner


Historische Archäologie
Univ.Prof. Dr. Claudia Theune-Vogt
Institut für Urgeschichte und Historische Archäologie
Universität Wien
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