The Great War and German Archaeology

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By: Suzanne Marchand, Professor at Louisiana State University

The Great War marks an enormous watershed in the history of German archaeology, a kind of golden age. The two decades before its outbreak saw the opening or expansion of state sponsored investigations. In Mesopotamia, Assur, Babylon, Samarra, and Warka. In Egypt, Abusir and Tell-el-Amarna. In Asia Minor, Didyma, Kos, Miletus, Pergamon, and Priene. There was Baalbek in Syria, Samos in Greece, Pasargadae in Iran and Axum in Ethiopia. The Royal Museum in Berlin acquired three monumental gates (from Babylon, Mschatta, and Miletus), and (secretly) the head of Nefertiti.

Ishtar Gate from Babylon, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Ishtar Gate from Babylon, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Numerous other German excavators—funded by other means—started work at Hattusa in Anatolia, Tell Halaf in Syria, Jericho in Palestine, and elsewhere. Four ‘Turfan’ expeditions ranged across Chinese Turkestan, racing against Russian, French, British, and Japanese teams to wrench Buddhist murals from their cave walls. Very many of these excavations were taking place on territories held by the Ottoman Empire, which with the German Empire held a secret partage agreement, ensuring export of half of any finds, in violation of the official antiquities laws. Germany’s scholars and museums benefited immensely.

When war broke out in 1914, German archaeologists were called home though a few—such as Robert Koldewey at Babylon— stayed to protect their finds. Others, such as the amateur archaeologist Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, excavator of Tell Halaf, involved themselves in espionage; Oppenheim himself became the leader of (unsuccessful) efforts to foment jihad against the British and French in the Near East.

Theodor Wiegand, who had worked at Priene, Miletus, and Didyma, was seconded to the Fourth Turkish army. This may have been to oversee monument protection, but possibly to provide intelligence on the army’s movements, or to seek out sites and monuments that might be excavated by the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) or exploited by the Royal Museums after the war’s end. A number of young archaeologists died in the conflict. Perhaps less obvious, but still long-lasting, were the large number of scholar-fathers whose sons were killed. Their grief mixed with resentment and nostalgia in the postwar period to form a less than enthusiastic embrace of the Weimar Republic.

Market Gate, Miletus, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Market Gate, Miletus, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

In physical terms, the situation at the war’s end was grim. Many of the German excavation houses in Asia Minor had been looted or knocked down. In Egypt, the British accused the German scholars at Thebes of collaborating in illicit antiquities dealing; seizing the site, they demolished the guesthouse. The DAI Rome branch office narrowly avoided being turned into a housing facility for Italian art students. Eventually, thanks to delicate archaeological diplomacy, the Germans were able to reoccupy their Athens and Rome branch offices, and return to international conferences, but many relations remained strained.

Head of Nefertiti, Egyptian Museum, Berlin

Head of Nefertiti, Egyptian Museum, Berlin

During the Weimar era, both the state museums and the Foreign Office (the overseeing body for the DAI) were compelled to operate with much tighter budgets, and there was no longer an openhanded Kaiser to fund excavations. The result was that excavations at many prewar sites could not be reopened, and many former fieldworkers had to stay at home (where they had tons of accumulated treasures to study).

But perhaps the most consequential impact of the war, as far as German archaeologists were concerned, was that it marked the end of the ‘special’ but fraught friendship between the German and Ottoman Empires. Turkish resentment against the British and French—to whom the Ottomans owed enormous sums, and who continued to carve out as colonies in the region—had opened the way for this German-Ottoman ‘friendship.’ By the 1880s, the Germans had received the concession to build the so-called Baghdad Railway, and shortly after his coronation, Wilhelm II took a triumphal tour of the Holy Land.

By this time, German archaeologists such as Carl Humann and Friedrich Sarre had cultivated the collaboration of the Ottoman protector of monuments, Osman Hamdi Edhem. This archaeological ‘friendship’ would prove lucrative for the Germans, and, at first, for Hamdi’s own museums in Istanbul. Yet by the 1890s, as he saw the Sultan giving away the best artifacts, Hamdi became increasingly unhappy about the partage agreements, and began to organize his own Turkish excavations, at sites such as Nemrut Dağı in Asia Minor and Sidon in Lebanon.

Relationships with German excavators became more antagonistic in the wake of the 1908 Young Turk revolution—and were not improved by Wiegand’s expropriation of the Miletus Gate during the turmoil. When Hamdi died in 1910, his office was taken over by his younger, and more nationalist brother, Halil Edhem, who developed a particularly rocky relationship with the excavation teams in Mesopotamia. Indeed, angered by Koldoway’s packing and sending of antiquities down the Euphrates before inspection by Turkish officials, Halil shut down the dig at Babylon on June 7, 1914. The finds—including most of the Ishtar Gate—however, would not go on display in Berlin until 1934.

Robert Koldowey

Robert Koldowey

This incident exposed something Hamdi and Halil had suspected all along: German ‘friendship,’ meant to be a counterpoint to French and British imperialism, was still fundamentally a policy of expedience. The Turks who opted to join the Central Powers on November 1, 1914 surely did so, correspondingly, for their own reasons and not out of ‘friendship.’ But the military alliance ensnared German archaeologists in complex diplomatic maneuvers that give insights into the political impossibilities, in the postwar era, of returning to the intensive and extractive archaeology of the pre-1914 era. I would like to end this brief piece by quoting from some documents I have recently found in the Royal Museums Archive and which shed fascinating light on the end of the great age of imperialist archaeology.

The documents, written in 1917, are addressed to Wilhelm von Bode, Director of the Royal Museums. By this time, Bode had wearied of the conciliatory approach German archaeologists and military officials had adopted toward the Turks. He had thus opened a campaign to take advantage of the alliance to reconfirm the 1899 secret accord. A memo advising against this, written by Islamic archaeologist Friedrich Sarre (who was himself almost certainly intriguing in Persia in the hopes of winning this neutral country’s backing for the German cause) offers a window on Sarre’s fears, and on the complicated archaeological diplomacy necessitated by the policy of German friendship.

In the memo, Sarre told Bode that he would be happy to try to advance the cause of the Museums alongside his military duties, but begged him not to ask for new concessions at a sensitive time:

Since the [promulgation of] the constitution Turkey has fallen under the sway of nationalism. During the war this has intensified and has been furthered by the government for transparent reasons. Our attempts to keep Turkey from signing a separate peace have, similarly, just strengthened these nationalistic ideas, because in our far-reaching accommodations on all political and military questions, for example, on the question of the dissolving of the capitulations, they have found support from our side. The leading Turkish statesmen, who have remained true to us and continued their pro-German policies under the most difficult conditions against the Entente-friendly orientation of the higher classes and all the minority peoples (Fremdvölker) of the Ottoman Empire and against the will of the whole war-weary lower classes, will now find it very hard to understand how they can make concessions to us which will be interpreted as indulgences; they will protect themselves, in order not to do their opponents the favor of allowing their patriotism and their dedication to protecting the nation’s property and rights to be called into question. This will be the case, if the government brings before the parliament a change in the antiquities law with new provisions that are beneficial to us.

There might be an opportunity, Sarre argued, to discuss concessions with the Cultural Minister privately, without the presence of Halil; but the Turks in general had learned to fear foreign archaeologists, as Turkey has so long been “an object of foreign expropriation.” Sarre had learned to see archaeological extraction through their eyes.

Theodor Wiegand

Theodor Wiegand

Osman Hamdi Bey

Osman Hamdi Bey

Max Freiherr Von Oppenheim

Max Freiherr Von Oppenheim

 

Sarre’s memo continued with predictions and prescriptions for future archaeological diplomacy. It was doubtful that the 1899 treaty would hold under the new regime, he argued, even if Turkey managed to come out of the war victorious, with its lost provinces reinstated. For now, it would be better to preserve the policy of cultivating ‘friendship.’ Sarre concluded with a blast at Koldewey, who was agitating to have the army in Iraq gather all the remaining boxes of finds at Babylon and ship them to Berlin. “Really?” raged Sarre.

At a moment in which Turkey is engaged in the last, desperate battle to defend its strongholds in Mesopotamia, fighting to defend the ancient city of the Califate? ….When every arm and every animal is needed, in order to halt the ten-times more powerful opponent, the army ought to give up, in order to carry boxes of antiquities? Not really to save them for science; also not to save them for the Turkish museums. No, [to save them for] the Institute in Berlin! Who among us, who has actually been part of this experience and who is really a soldier, would have the gumption to ask the war minister in these hours to do such a thing?

Wilhelm von Bode, painting by Max Liebermann, 1904

Wilhelm von Bode, painting by Max Liebermann, 1904

This is exactly the kind of thinking, he fumed, that prevented the Turks from putting their all into the war, and reminded them that their main goal must be ‘Turkey for the Turks.’[1] And indeed, Turkish archaeology in the Republican era was aimed precisely at the needs of the Turks.

Suzanne Marchand is Professor of History at Louisiana State University.

For further reading:

Suzanne Marchand, Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750–1970 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), and German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[1] Sarre to Bode, 20 May 1917, in B Museums Archiv, N. Bode, Sarre/Bode Briefe.

Other Links to Check Out:
Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, Berlin

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1 Comments for : The Great War and German Archaeology
    • Andrew Thopson
    • July 12, 2016
    Reply

    Given the history, and his obsession with the “master race”, is it more likely that Hitler exterminated the Jewish communities in and around Europe because they would not let him near Jerusalem? Knowing that there would be a major uprising should he decide to take it by force.

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