Karel Absolon and the Moravian Paleolithic

A  micro saw, similar to the items found during the early1920ies at Dolní Věstonice in Moravia. This place was first excavated by Karel Absolon.

Karel Absolon (June 16, 1877 – October 6, 1960) was a Czech paleontologist, and speleologist. Without any formal education as an archaeologist, he was involved into most of the important excavations of paleolithic sites in Moravia during the 1920 and 30ies.Beiing the grandson of Jindřich Wankel (“father of  Czech prehistory) and married with the daughter of President Benes he was part of the intellectual networks of the Czechoslovakic interwar establishment

The career of Absolon was, undoubtedly, pre-destined by his family environment. His grandfather was Jindřich Wankel, a physician, who was however devoted to archaeology and speleology and whose discoveries meant a significant contribution to research in the Moravian Karst region. Karel Absolon took part in this research as a student and graduated in natural sciences from Charles University in Prague; in 1907 became senior lecturer in the field of physical geography and  curator of the zoological collections at the Moravian Museum in Brno, and a year later he gained the position of Head of the Department of Zoology and Paleontology. He remained employed by the Moravian Museum until his retirement in 1939.

In 1926 Karel Absolon became an associate and a year later external full professor of the Charles University in the fields of paleontology and zoogeography. His scientific activities were broad. He worked in zoology, speleology, geomorphology, paleontology and archaeology. Like his grandfather was especially devoting to the Moravian Karst, researching and mapping it systematically. However, his most important scientific activity was in paleoanthropology. During the years of the first republic, between 1918 and 1938, Absolon continued research on what was left after decennia of quarrying and wild excavations at Předmostí near Přerov at the Moravian Gate. This task was certainly not an easy one, regarding the complex stratigraphy and excavation-history of the site.

The discovery of Gravettian settlements in Dolní Věstonice was of eminent importance, and Absolon made excavations there from 1924 to 1938. His work, which he sometimes financed himself, brought numerous findings, especially statuettes of animals and figures of women made of clay, bone and ivory, among them being the” Věstonice Venus”. Absolon and his team mainly aimed to uncover as large a space as possible and find out the size of the settlement. The site for him was one large camp of mammoth-hunters. For these reasons, stratigraphy was observed only marginally, and relationships between artifacts were noted only toward the end of Absolon’s research at Dolní Věstonice. As a result of his ability to make use of the media for promotion and his talent for popularizing science, he significantly affected the general cultural history of the interwar Czechoslovakia. Karel Absolon’s name thus became synonymous with research into the oldest history of man.

After the German occupation, there was a run between several German researchers to continue the work at Předmostí and Dolní Věstonice. While the notorious “Ahnenerbe” boys (Bohmers, Schwabedissen), marginalized Absolon but also other German archaeologists at Dolní Věstonice, the Zotz group enforcedly aimed to evaluate the huge material, that had been collected from Předmostí. Ironically nothing of the material, that had been curated by the Germans survived the WW II. In addition allmost all manuskrips about the field work got lost during this time.

Bohmers attempted to ‘correct the neglect of scientific techniques over the past fifteen years’ (Bohmers 1941). For him, the foremost question that needed to be answered was that of stratigraphy, and the specific geological age of the culture located at the site. The German team shifted the focus from historically oriented prehistory to a natural-science-centered investigation that renewed close ties with geologists and specialists on pollen and mollusks. Indeed this new approach was leading the way to more meticulous research after the WW II by B. Klima.

In the 1920s, summaries by leading international researchers (H. Breuil, J. Bayer, H. Obermaier, and O. Menghin) were published, which tried to classify the Paleolithic of Moravia, known so far.  Breuil typologically recognized Mousterian, late Aurignacian (Gravettian) and Magdalenian. Some leaf points, known from Předmostí were suggested to be of Solutrian age (the Szeletian was unknown at that time).

In contrast to Breuil`s scenario, Absolon himself thought that a Middle Paleolithic was absent in Moravia and he tried to reconstruct an “Old Aurignacian”, from incomplete excavations in the Moravian karst and surface collections which  consisted of Aurignacian-like scrapers and “Mousterioliths” combined with some leaf points. Absolons view, already outdated during the late 1930ies was the view of a 19th century naturalist, who looked for “evolutionary series” of stone tools. One cannot avoid the impression, that Absolon was convinced that all his “Glyptolithis” were animated beings. For his Předmostí-Monograph, which was published after he passed away, he had created thousands of pictures of his beloved artifacts.

After the war, Absolon, now being stigmatized as a “bourgeois patriarch” and possible “collaborateur”  by the communists, had no possibility to work again at the sites, he had once made world-famous.

Suggested Reading:

Great Monograph from From Martin Oliva via academia.edu: Dolní Věstonice I (1922-1942). Hans Freising – Karel Absolon – Assien Bohmers. Anthropos-StudiesVol. 37 /N.S. 29/:

and from the same author via academia.edu: Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Moravia

Thanks Martin for these wonderful books!

www.geo.uni-tuebingen.de/…/MGU_19_071-116_Valoch.pdf

 puvodni.mzm.cz/neruda/cz/…/OIS3guide.pdf

donsmaps.com/dolnivi.html

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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3 Responses to Karel Absolon and the Moravian Paleolithic

  1. Andrea Kasche says:

    Martijn Eickhoff: The history of a ”stolen” site Assien Bohmers and the SS-Ahnenerbe excavations in Unter Wisternitz / Dolní Věstonice ( at: http://www.rmm.cz/regiom/2009/eickhoff_bohmers.pdf)
    Abstract:
    This article addresses the excavations, done in the proximity of the village Dolní Věstonice (then called Unterwisternitz) by the research department of the SS, the so-called Ahnenerbe. In total there were three campaigns (1939, 1940 and 1942; in 1943 some additional soil drilling was undertaken). The project was headed by the Dutch geologist and archaeologist Assien Bohmers (1912–1988), who in 1937 at the age of twenty-five joined the Ahnenerbe as a member of the excavation department. During the campaign, Bohmers lived intermittently – in 1943 for the last time – in a guestroom of the Nikolsburg-castle. This article gives a micro-history of this Palaeolithic SS-Ahnenerbe-excavations. Furthermore it analyses not only Bohmers’ biography, but also the dissemination of the finds and documentation, and the content of the related publications. On top of that it relates the excavation to the recent discussions on the nature of Nazi-archaeology. It is argued that the mere use of scientific procedures by the Ahnenerbe cannot be the central criterion when analysing its archaeological projects. It is demonstrated that the Ahnenerbe was able to offer archaeologist, like Bohmers, an attractive position. This included research on sites beyond the traditional national contexts; as such, Ahnenerbe-archaeology literary went beyond the traditional borders. It is concluded that Bohmers was a prehistorian who during the Third Reich tried to develop, with complete dedication to traditional academic standards and with the help of the SS-Ahnenerbe, a Palaeolithic archaeology that functioned within the new national socialistic European order. Thus he was responsible for the implementation of an archaeological program of the SS-Ahnenerbe, including its imperialistic and genocidal aims. Seen from a Dutch perspective, this involvement turned him into an archaeological collaborator. This would have been only slightly different if during the war he had not taken the material from Dolní Věstonice to the Netherlands and if he, after 1945, had returned it unconditionally, which he did not, thus claiming a right to publish a “stolen” site and erasing a Palaeolithic past that had become part of the modern identity of the Czechoslovak Republic

  2. Katzman says:

    Thanks a Lot Andrea, I wished I could translate the whole article, but unfortunately I do not speak Czech….

  3. Pingback: Abri Pataud / Les Eyzies Stratum 4: Rare Artifacts | Aggsbach's Paleolithic Blog

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