Monday, 12 May 2014

My latest archaeological adventures: Berlin and the West Country!

I'm back home in London now, after spending the past few weeks traveling, first in the German capital city of Berlin and then in England's rural West Country. Although both of these were holidays, I managed to ensure that I got a lot of archaeology stuff done too!

The Museums and Memorials of Berlin:

Classical goddess sculpture in Neues Museum.
Image by me, April 2014.
This was my first trip to Berlin, and while there I took the opportunity to visit a number of the city's many excellent museums, aided in large part by the handy guide offered by archaeologist Thomas Dowson over at his Archaeology Travel website. As Dowson notes, the heart of Berlin's museum culture is Museuminsel ("Museum Island"), a series of five institutions all clustered together on an island in the midst of the River Spree. Due to time constraints, unfortunately I didn't get a chance to see all five (I ended up skipping the Altes Museum of Classical archaeology and the Alte Nationgalerie of nineteenth-century sculpture), but I ensured that I had a look around the other three. Best known of course is the Pergamon Museum, which can arguably be thought of as Germany's answer to the British Museum and the Louvre. Divided into three sections, the Pergamon contains impressive collections of archaeological artefacts from three parts of the world: the ancient Near East, the Classical world, and the Islamic lands. I was particularly enamoured with their Near Eastern exhibits, which included the famed reconstruction of the Gate of Ishtar and the Processional Way, both of which had once existed in the ancient city of Babylon. One thing that I particularly liked about the Pergamon was the way that they were able to really convey quite a lot about the societies that made use of these artefacts, in part because they only had three societies to actually deal with - this is something that I would really like to see adopted to a greater extent in the British Museum. 

Next to the Pergamon is Neues Museum, which is somewhat more eclectic in its assortment of archaeological artefacts from across the globe. The Neues clearly treats the bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti as its pride and joy, and while it does have an admirable assortment of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, I was far more interested in its collection of items from prehistoric and medieval Europe, in particular the famed Berlin Gold Hat, which is likely Bronze Age in date. One thing that (as an archaeologist) I did find notable was the highly culture-historical nature of many of the exhibits there, which seemed keen to define the artefacts from Europe into separate ethnic and/or cultural groupings, a clear indication of the theoretical differences between Anglo-American and German archaeology. Also in Museuminsel is the Bode Museum, an assortment of Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque sculptures; such exhibits were not particularly to my cup of tea, but I enjoyed my saunter through the collections nonetheless. 

However, as interesting and enjoyable as the museums on Museuminsel were, I was actually more impressed by some of the exhibitions that could be found elsewhere in the city.  Only a stone's throw from the island, on the banks of the Spree, can be found the DDR Museum, a small interactive centre opened in 2006 that devotes itself to an exposition on the Deutsche Demokratische Republik ("German Democratic Republic", or GDR), the Marxist-Leninist governed state which existed in the eastern part of Germany from 1949 to 1990. Having been born in 1991, and thus thinking of East Germany as being very much a piece of history, I was eager to see the DDR Museum, and am pleased to say that I was certainly not dissapointed. Consisting of only a few rooms, the museum contains a wide range of artefacts from the days of the DDR, from cars and motorcycles to kitsch children's toys and garden gnomes, all of which are presented in a refreshingly interactive manner. Although a friend of mine who happens to be a committed Marxist-Leninist warned me that the museum would surely constitute nothing but farcically rabid anti-communism, I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case. The exhibits on offer, with their accompanying captions, offer a balanced account of the DDR and its bygone economic and political systems, albeit one that is clearly coming from a perspective of contemporary social and economic liberalism. If like me you find the latter twentieth century to be a fascinating period of time, or if you just like camp kitsch from the 1970s and 80s, then the DDR Museum is definitely well worth a visit.

The Dahlem Museum, perhaps my favourite of Berlin's museums.
Image by me, April 2014.
Another fantastic place that I visited was the Dahlem Museum in Dahlem, part of the city's affluent southwestern suburbs. Although it was apparent that the museum was in a state of flux, with various rooms being emptied and their contents moved (quite where to I wasn't sure) I was still really impressed by what they had to offer. The Dahlem Museum is divided into three sections: the Museum für Asiatische Kunst ("Museum for Asian Art"), the Ethnologisches Museum ("Ethnological Museum") and the Museum Europäischer Kulturen ("Museum of European Cultures"), all of which are contained within the same building. As much as I love London's ethnographic collections at the Horniman Museum, these museums had a truly fantastic collection of artefacts, and were exhibited in a well-designed and clean manner, a far cry from the Horniman's Edwardian-style collection of curios. I'm not a social or cultural anthropologist, and thus don't really feel qualified to assess the manner of presentation of many of the artefacts in the latter two parts of the museum, although I was indeed greatly impressed by the sheer volume and variety of their collections, and was particularly fond of their collection of Buddhist and Hindu artefacts from the Indian subcontinent (an area that I do know a little about thanks to my archaeology training).

Museums are not the only thing that Berlin has to interest those with a passion for archaeology and the past, however. While the city certainly doesn't have the quantity of historic buildings that many European cities have to offer (due largely to the sheer level of destruction wrought in the Second World War), it is an excellent place to view post-war architecture and planning. Similarly, it has a variety of memorials scattered throughout its public places, primarily to the many millions of victims of Nazism; for those with a keen interest in how humans memorialise the dead, Berlin is a really interesting place to visit. All in all, it is a fantastic city and I'm looking forward to returning next month in order to deliver my paper on "The Revived Cultus of Antinous" for the Free University of Berlin's "New Antiquities" conference.

Prehistoric and Medieval archaeology in the West Country:

The dolmen of Spinsters' Rock was first erected in the Early Neolithic and
is thus one of the oldest monuments in the British Isles.

After returning from Berlin, I was off to England's West Country, there to stay in North Devon, a part of the world that I have come to know and love fairly well over the past fifteen years. Rather than spending my time wondering around museums, here I had the opportunity to engage in a far more "hands on" approach to archaeology, traversing the national parks of Exmoor and Dartmoor in search of an assortment of prehistoric and medieval monuments, several of them far from the beaten track. Perhaps the oldest archaeological site that I had the opportunity to visit on this occasion was Spinsters' Rock on Dartmoor, a surviving (and re-erected) dolmen that constitutes the entrance/exit to what would have been an Early Neolithic chambered long barrow, a tomb in which the early pastoralists of the British Isles interned their dead, perhaps as part of a belief system that we might label "ancestor veneration". Over the years I have seen a number of these such monuments across southern England, from Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire to Kit's Coty House in Kent, but Spinsters' Rock was undoubtedly one of the most visually impressive and although it is not particularly easy to find, is well worth a visit by the intrepid archaeological explorer!

Over the course of the week I was also able to visit both of the surviving stone circles that still stand on Exmoor, the national park that stretches across parts of Devon and Somerset. Although like the aforementioned dolmen they are similarly megalithic (i.e. made of stone), such circles are far later in date, having been constructed at some point during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages, a period when a new belief system revolving around such circles seems to have become prevalent throughout much of the British Isles. Although there are many intensely visually impressive stone circles in Britain, from Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire up through the Lake District's Castlerigg and Swinside and on to the likes of the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, unfortunately Exmoor cannot claim that its circles are quite up to this spectacular standard. Both Porlock Stone Circle and Withypool Stone Circle have suffered heavily over the centuries, having been damaged almost beyond recognition by locals who deemed them a nuisance or desired the stone for other purposes, leaving only a few small megaliths barely jutting out of the ground to mark the location of what once must have been a couple of impressive ritual monuments. Nevertheless, as someone with a keen interest in the archaeology of ritual, religion, and spirituality, I was still really interested by them, particularly as I was able to gain a phenomenological appreciation of how they sit within the wider landscape, something that no book can provide. I must admit however that they are probably only one for the dedicated archaeological traveller, and certainly aren't likely to become popular tourist attractions any time soon.

The two stone circles that still survive on Exmoor National Park: Porlock stone circle (left) and Withypool stone circle (right). As these photographs (taken by me, May 2014) evidence, both are now barely visible in the landscape due to the heavy damage that has been sustained by the megaliths which make up the circles. Nevertheless, the wider landscape surrounding the sites is still visible.

There were many other sites dotted throughout the heathland and farms of Exmoor that I was also able to visit on this particular mini-adventure. I was able to see a number of the many Bronze Age tumuli, or burial mounds, that dot the landscape, including the three Wambarrows on Winsford Hill, as well as the two standing stones on Porlock Common known as the Whit Stones, which might also be Bronze Age in date. I was also able to visit the Caratacus Stone, a megalith of unknown origins that is engraved with a Latin inscription probably dating from the Early Medieval. I had hoped to visit another engraved megalith that is usually dated to the Early Medieval, the Culbone Stone, but unfortunately it seems that the pathway on which it is situated has recently been closed off by the local landowner (which was very frustrating, but an unfortunate hazard of being an archaeological tourist!)

Driving back to London, I was able to stop in the county of Wiltshire, there to visit one of the most impressive and unique prehistoric monuments in the entire British Isles: Avebury. A massive henge monument containing the island's largest known stone circle and composed of the most colossal megaliths that I have ever seen, Avebury (like the slightly better known Stonehenge) is part of a wider ceremonial/ritual landscape with a range of different monuments scattered across the vicinity. Unfortunately the wind began to howl and it began to pour with rain, meaning that I couldn't stay there too long, but I hope to return to Avebury under better weather conditions before too long.

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