Restored to memory, but not to Germany

Bernhard Schulz on “Bronze Age: Europe without borders from the fourth to the first millennium BC” at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg until 8 September


Bronze ceremonial axe, last third of the third millennium BC

Human history can also be viewed in terms of the speed at which knowledge is disseminated. The further back we look, the slower the transfer processes we observe. Knowledge and use of bronze took one and a half millennia to travel from the Middle East to Egypt and from there via central Europe to the northern part of the continent. Bronze, an alloy of nine parts copper and one part tin, became the material used for weapons, cult objects and everyday objects for centuries. At that time Europe did not have even the beginnings of territorial powers, and so this show has the subtitle “Europe without Borders”.

The exhibition also includes treasures from Berlin that were carried off to the Soviet Union by the Red Army in 1945 and have been regarded as state property since the Duma passed legislation to this effect between 1996 and 1999. Initial negotiations to resolve this issue – heralded by the German-Russian agreement of 1992 – have been shelved. The academic dialogue continues, however, and the Staatliche Museen Berlin (Berlin State Museums) are participating in the Petersburg exhibition with 230 items on loan from the Neues Museum.

The Petersburg event is “not an exhibition of looted art, but an exhibition on the Bronze Age,” emphasises Hermann Parzinger, president of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), in an interview: “The museums involved have a great interest in the collaboration. We had already staged a joint exhibition on the Merovingian period, and I can imagine the series moving on to the Iron Age”. The dual-language (Russian and German) catalogue on the Petersburg exhibition was compiled by a “bilateral working group”. Parzinger himself has contributed a substantial essay.

On 5 May 1945, before the Wehrmach surrendered, three not particularly large crates were handed over to the Soviet commandant or Berlin; in them, densely packed, were the most valuable items held by the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Museum for Prehistory and Early History), part of the Berlin State Museums group. These findings “are central for the pre-history of Germany and central Europe,” explains Matthias Wemhoff, the current director of the museum. The three treasure chests “contained the precious objects that had been found during the previous 150 years.” No spectacular finds on a par with these have been made in the intervening years. Canal- and road-building works in the 19th and early 20th century brought these buried treasures to light. “The treasures taken to the Soviet Union are unique,” emphasises Wemhoff. “We won’t find any more of this quality in the future.”

There are, he concedes, chance archaeological finds like the Nebra sky disk, discovered in what is now Saxony-Anhalt. “Yet the Dieskau Hoard, from very close to Nebra, belongs to the same cultural group,” explains Wemhoff, highlighting one of the many connections that the Berlin collections in storage in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, and in the Hermitage, could make with those in Germany. “The Trojan gold is displayed in the Pushkin, but nothing else is. Only here in Berlin would we be able to present our country’s pre-history.”

And the history of Berlin in particular: the items carried off as war trophies include the Spandau Hoard, discovered at the confluence of the Spree and the Havel in 1881. This was a Bronze Age sacrificial site, containing objects from the second millennium BC, including decorated swords. The Eberswalde Hoard – discovered in a clay vessel during excavations in 1913 – dates from a thousand years later. This vessel has now travelled to the St Petersburg exhibition, where it is joined by eight finely ornamented gold dishes and numerous gold wires and bars – pieces that have been awaiting further processing for nearly three thousand years – from Moscow. “This was something like a state treasure – similar finds are documented in Mycenae,” explains Wemhoff, setting the find within the wider cultural context of the age.

Wemhoff hopes that the exhibition will “restore these objects to their place in our cultural memory, so that people realise that these are fundamental elements of German history”. Many collections were “senselessly torn apart,” says Parzinger, himself a globally renowned archaeologist, highlighting the less spectacular side of looted art: “Including, for example, hundreds of grave inventories. We want to know if they still exist and where they are – and then to work on them, in collaboration with our Russian colleagues.”

The Hermitage exhibition expands the geographic scope to the whole of Europe. “For the first time,” says Wemhoff, “cultures that have never been seen together are brought into connection and we can see the links between them.” A final sentence that could certainly be interpreted two ways – as well as suggesting something to aim at in the future.

Published Thu, 27 Jun 2013 15:45:00 GMT

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