Echoes from the Recent Past: An Archaeological Ethnography of Historic Cold War Radar Sites in the UK

  • Steven Leech

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis is an archaeological and ethnographic exploration of historic military sites associated with the Cold War. It takes a multi-sited approach to former radar installations in the UK and examines the range of meanings and values that surround them, as well as their mediation, management and curation in the contemporary landscape. This thesis provides a detailed study of a range of related (although not necessarily overlapping) practices, which have accumulated around these places since the 1990s. Much has been written about the ruined-aesthetic of abandoned military sites. Moreover, conservation professionals have undertaken extensive research and granted heritage status to a number of key sites. However, little academic research has been carried out concerning the contemporary social life of former military installations. Furthermore, despite valuable archaeological research concerning the character and form of Cold War historic sites, little attention has been given to the ways in which they are involved in the production of ideas surrounding the Cold War and Cold War heritage in the present; this thesis aims to cover both of these issues. Each of the main chapters in this thesis focuses on a particular set of practices or relationships surrounding historic radar sites, which have been treated in a relatively sporadic and uneven fashion – some have been demolished, others left in ruination and limbo, whereas as a few have been designated as nationally important heritage sites. Therefore, a number of heritage and memory practices are covered, including conservation management, militarisation and nostalgia, as well as the museumification of Cold War sites and objects and the (often) disparate memory practices of former radar veterans. Principally, the analysis in this thesis focuses on extensive ethnographic research undertaken by the author at a number of sites in the UK. This includes semi-structured interviews, participant observation and archival research undertaken in England and Scotland. The key case-studies are the listed and scheduled monuments at RAF Neatishead in Norfolk; the Air Defence Radar Museum, which is located on the same site; and a former early warning site at Saxa Vord in Unst, Shetland. Research conducted at a number of other Cold War sites and museums is also discussed. The principal aim of this thesis is to contribute a set of nuanced and detailed accounts surrounding the archaeology and heritage of the recent past. The Cold War was a varied and complex phenomenon – one which is much debated. Manifold legacies of the Cold War also continue to shape and influence the contemporary world. In a similar manner, concepts and practices surrounding heritage and memory are widely studied, but remain slippery and resist straightforward interpretation. Therefore, the complexities surrounding these phenomena are magnified when they are combined in the present through the notion of Cold War heritage. In order to add some specificity to these related issues, this thesis focuses on two main questions (which are really two-sides of the same coin): what kind of heritage emerges in relation to historic Cold War radar sites? And, what kind of Cold War is produced in the context of heritage and memory practices? Throughout the thesis, it is argued that the Cold War is an uneven, complex and occasionally difficult heritage to deal with in the UK. Mostly, this relates to practical problems such as the complexities surrounding the ownership of former military sites, as well as a number of other conceptual and philosophical issues. For example, in the context of designation and management, this emerges as a tension between the idea of the Cold War as avant-garde heritage and modern conservation principles that underpin contemporary heritage management practices. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on materiality, place and continuity in heritage and memory practices are also brought into relief. At times, these are s
Date of Award31 Dec 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorSian Jones (Supervisor) & Rupert Cox (Supervisor)


  • Nostalgia
  • Absence
  • Memory
  • Curation
  • Militarisation
  • Ethnography
  • Conservation
  • Intangible
  • Heritage
  • Cold War
  • Materiality

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