Returning to Where We Have Never Been

The invitation of Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal to venture down an archaeologist’s rabbit hole into a dimension of reverse-engineered history is surely appropriate for the journey he and his colleagues have made both this year and last.   Belchite, a town in the northern Spanish province of Zaragoza,  is one of the locations in Spain where the ghost of General Francisco Franco can still be felt on the wind,  in the air and within the decaying ruins of a town he ordered to remain as a ‘living’ memorial after its total destruction in the Spanish Civil War.  Alfredo has returned for 2 consecutive years to do battle with this singular ghost,  assembling his own army of like minded archaeologists, anthropologists and volunteers.

 Forty years after his death, Franco’s ghost town stands like a shadow over the nuevo pueblo the defeated and captured Republican soldiers built to replace the shattered original . Separated by a single road, the new town has been described as a ‘fascist’ design of straight roads;  an uninspiring,  inorganic grid system.  There is no mistaking the scrawny, elongated angels perched on the minaret-tower of the mudejar  church at the town centre or the yoke and arrows ( el yugo y las flechas )  insignia high on a wall opposite;  both are incontrovertible signs of the right wing Falange movement which Franco ideologically identified with.  The defeated subjects of the Second Republican government built the new town at the same time as their progressive values,  belief systems and personal constitutions were being systematically degraded by forced labour,  inadequate nourishment,  political suppression and constant fear of death.


In 2015 the digger rumbles across the scrubby grass and  lifts buckets of earth,  revealing the original brown soil walls and gravelly bottom of a trench from 80 years ago.  Snake-like it winds its way across the high ridge,  just several hundred yards from the white walled cemetery to its front and high above the ruined Seminary behind it.   In this trench first Nationalist solders,  then Republican soldiers fought and died.  Archaeologists scrape and dig with pick axes and trowels to unearth as closely as possible its original contours and design.  Down the slope towards the Seminary  more workers dig to unearth the latrine of what is considered a concentration camp.  Situated between missing marian statues of the Virgen of Lourdes and Pilar of Zaragoza it had once been a garden where trainee Catholic priests could seek solitude;  now the repetitive clang of trowel on stone provides an alternative spiritual experience in the September sun.  Latrines were used by Francoists as ammunition to further rob the strength and life from prisoners,  like slow moving bullets.  High above both the latrines and the trench a pill-box on a further promontory is being assessed;  the digger will be needed to remove all of the rocks successive farmers have dumped into it,  obscuring where the machine gun was once nested.  To the left,  in a little valley,  is  Campo de Rusia,  a former military base used to provide institutional accommodation for Republican mothers and children until such times as their political persuasion was corrected,  when they would be offered alternative homes.  Higher still,  and rolling along the ridge of a long range of hills towards the town of Mediana de Aragón,  is the so called Parapet of Death,  where the trenches of the two front lines stand only 60 metres apart.  At the highest point of these bleak hills the smell of thyme and rosemary cleanses whatever is left of a military stench,  though the shards of grenades,  bullets and shells lie all around with a rusting metal patina.

This landscape of conflict  remains a battleground where the metaphysical archaeological concepts of materiality and ephemerality are the main conceptual weapons of today’s soldiers and freedom fighters;  young intellectuals trying to make sense of and undo a wrong which stubbornly,  at least in Spain,  will not yield to science or reason.  Archaeology has become a broad empathic science,  scrubbing away its traditional hoary skin of accumulating artefacts like magpies collecting shiny objects, to become an all-encompassing humanistic ensemble of cultural assessment,  imagination and projection.  Alfredo himself discusses the concept of anamnesis,  which he describes as an inner knowledge of things which we do not know we have;  a knowledge base which is instinctive,  accumulative and develops into a form of higher empathy where artefacts found convey an emotional story-board of an individual’s ( and his/her society’s ) inner constructs.  He describes being able to use this accumulation of knowledge to sense the emotionality of the person whose possessions have been found and to further understand the liminal environments explored;  almost like finding and understanding strands of DNA.

Little red flags across the soil denote the position of finds;  bullets,  cartridges,  clips which once held 5 cartridges.  Rusting and decayed, popping out of the impacted earth like little grubs amongst the ants and black beetles which share their terrain.  Alfredo can tell their origin;  Russia Mosin or Mexico for the republican bullets and Germany Mauser for the nationalists.  The republican ordinance is older,  from another generation,  less predictable,  more unreliable.  But they both cause death. The thin metal casings of early grenades, as dangerous to their carriers as to the intended enemy,  are fragments scattered like a constellation of rusty stars upon the ground .

Kneeling and scraping away in this alien landscape the world subjectively changes;  we are in the environment of soldiers and militia,  a dimension where carefully constructed patriotic illusions of sacrifice to god and country slowly refocus into a reality of fear and panic,  of men firing blindly towards an enemy they perhaps cannot see but know in another time as brothers and fellow countrymen.  Rusting sardine tins ,  the broken light blue glass of medicine bottles,  the sharp metal of barbed wire ,  a small metal button which has become dislodged,  a crucifix fallen from the neck of someone,  a leather heel from a boot,  glass from a bottle of cologne to make a soldier smell less like death;   all provide some light for the shadows,  some meat for the bare bones of history,  material culture for the archaeologists to work and reconstruct with.  Alfredo sweeps the metal detector across the  landscape searching for further evidence,  then sweeps across the spoil heap,  its little buzzing sound coming and going like an incongruous computer game in a more prosaic, ancient landscape.

The old town is now surrounded by a perimeter fence,   the crumbling church towers of  San Martin de Tours and San Agustin rise above the petrified landscape where many thousands died in 1938.  Its ghosts are finally being contained and the ghost of Franco slowly being exorcised.  A potential mass grave site has been found,  secrets are being uncovered,  and those secrets still remaining are demanding the attention of a young generation of Spanish people asking questions about their country’s past.  The systematic trans-generational destruction of progressive thinking and freedoms from 1939 to 1975 requires light to rinse away the residual darkness.  The brooding ghost town of old Belchite and its crumbling glory is sometimes the site of film sets ( Pan’s Labyrinth, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen ) and has recently began inviting tourists to learn of its history,  with 3 guided tours provided every day.  Perhaps this exposure is a metaphor for more widespread progress into understanding and countering the darkness of oppression, evidence that the ghosts of Franco can be exorcised one by one and proof that returning to where we have never been is more a reality than a dream.