Popular Prehistory: Is there anything new for the interested German speaking public?


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Archeological objects can only be understood by knowing their exact context and by careful interpretation using modest middle-range theoretical approaches emphasizing their material, social and ideological meaning.

Books about Prehistory written in German for an interested non-professional public are notorious rare. Screening the web-pages of large book stores shows astonishing results. The most popular German books about the topic are children’s books, esoteric publications or re-editions of books, presenting a decades-old state of knowledge. The situation of the French or Anglo-American market is completely different: There are a lot of popular science books dealing with prehistoric research on a high level and written by experts (Example:  Chris Stringer, Henry de Lumley and many others ; even the very prominent German expert Gerhard Bosinski is writing popular books mainly for an interested French audience). What is the reason for this observation?

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Archaeology provides a window to the past which is able to help clear away the mists of time; it gives insight into those periods for which there is no written evidence. However, the very nature of archaeology makes it inherently dangerous, because of data manipulation by ideologies.

During the 19th and early 20th century Archaeology was as a powerful tool in the building of modern nations (in the sense of „Imagined communities” according to Benedict Anderson). Unfortunately ultra-nationalistic, antidemocratic and racist concepts became immensely popular in German prehistorians after the lost WW1 and during the important formative years towards a professionalized prehistory. One of the most influential figures in the process of ideologisation of German prehistory before 1930 was Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931), a linguist and a professor of prehistory in Berlin, who tried to define archaeological cultures by specific artifact types.

According to him the superior Aryan race could be equated with the ancient Germans, an expansive and powerful culture, which spread through heroic migrations from the Nordic Countries into the South and East. Regions, where artifacts had been found that he considered being “Germanic”, were part of ancient Germanic territory. Using these arguments Kossinna was an early mastermind and pioneer of national socialistic (NS) expansionistic and repressive policy.

In the 1920ies Prehistoric research in Germany a poorly funded academic subject. After 1933, the year of Hitler’s accession to power, the situation changed and the Nazi-party did much for funding prehistoric excavations and institutionalize prehistoric archaeology at universities and on an administrative level. The number of university chairs was raised from 5 to 25 until 1942 and the number of institutes of the state archaeological service (“Landesämter für Vorgeschichte”) to fourteen. At the end of the Nazi-era, prehistory was firmly established as an independent discipline. Irrespectively if German prehistorians during 1933-45 in Germany were convinced National socialists  or only opportunists, they went “where the money was”- mainly to Himmler’s “Ahnenerbe”- organization, which funded a lot of excavations at this time. Mutual benefits for both sides are self-evident (http://www.aggsbach.de/2010/09/adaption-of-prehistoric-research-to-political-cir/).

After the lost second World War and the moral disaster left by the National socialists, Prehistoric research in Germany was disqualified as a “Nazi-Wissenschaft” in the public. Anyhow, many of the leading archeologists, who had started their first career under the auspices of Himmler’s “Ahnenerbe” organization soon made a second career after the “Stunde Null” in Western Germany.  The consensus of democratic parties in Western Germany was to integrate former Nazis en masse (including most of the University professors) to the gradually consolidating post-war society, but not to tolerate the re-establishment of a nationalistic / racist reference frame in public discourses** (http://www.diss.fu-berlin.de/diss/receive/FUDISS_thesis_000000094873?lang=en) .

This is one reason that German Prehistoric research moved into a self-chosen extensive theoretic deficit and partially lost touch to the international discussion. Empiricist approaches, following a research aim which focused on the classification of material culture, without attempting to develop a new theoretical framwork, were common.

Such attitudes dominated the field until the late 1980ies, when younger scientists, unbiased by and somtimes in direct opposition to the Nazi past, started their career. These researchers opened for a multitude of new methods and theoretic approaches and began to build up networks with other professionals on a global style. Hermann Parzinger is one proponent of this age cohort.

Hermann Parzinger, a specialists for the late metal ages, well known to the public by spectacular excavations of Scythian tombs from southern Siberia, quickly became one of the most renowned contemporary researchers of the antiquity in Germany. He was head of the German Archaeological Institute which he expanded and modernized. In 2008 he became the President of the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage – Europe’s largest cultural complex with 2000 members of staff and encompasses a total of 17 museums, libraries and research institutes. Parzinger was always an expert on making science “public knowledge”, but without banalising his message.

In his heavy weighted, almost encyclopedic book:  “The children of Prometheus „Parzinger already described in more than 800 pages 2,5 million years of human prehistory from the first hominids in Africa to the invention of writing in Mesopotamia. During the last years this book became the first modern publication about global Prehistory written by an expert for a German speaking audience.

A condensed version of the book and with an extension until the archeology of protohistoric and historic times will now appear as on-line seminar of the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”. The seminar is unpretentious and follows a minimalistic approach centered on the Speaker. Parzinger speaks about and explains the human career during prehistory and early history in 12 chapters and his narrative is straight forward and up to date with the international mainstream of archeologic thinking:


The use of media (some maps and significant pictures) is very cautious and avoids the usual sensationalist effects; already known ad nauseam from the usual TV-productions, that transport minimal information with a maximum of useless animation.

Parzinger’s narrative begins with an excellent methodological introduction to his subject and describes the human career as a long way from our scavenging ancestors to Homo sapiens and “Cultural modernity”. Parzinger nicely shows that the Neolithic was as a point of no return in human prehistory and competently describes the later phases of prehistory as a process of increasing complexity. He highlights how new materials were changing division of labor and social differentiation in early societies. Parzinger never neglects the impact of religious thinking and ideologies thinking on human (pre) history. Overall his approach is structuralistic and well trained by sociological theories of Protohistoric societies.

Anyhow, using mainstream paradigms for argumentations always carries the risk of making things too simple for the sake of intelligibility. One example is Par zinger’s repeated use of the term “Behavioral modernity” for the description of the behavioral repertoire of Homo sapiens when compared with other hominids.  This hypothesis has turned to be an oversimplification at least, if not a useless paradigm that should be dismissed, because it precludes a better understanding of the variability of the Genus homo ((http://www.aggsbach.de/2011/06/sede-boker/).

Understandably, Parzinger uses the “Behavioral modernity”-paradigm for telling his story about the “unstoppably” rise of Homo sapiens more concise, but in reality his narrative is weakened by such an implicit teleological approach. Parzinger is  working in Berlin, which may carry a certain risk  to get under the influence of Hegel’s “Weltgeist”. 


** Unfortunately this consensus has been weakened during the last years in Germany. The AfD Party is successful in reestablishing a Nazi movement.

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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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