Monday, June 01, 2015

In the Forest of History

Yesterday, I visited the LWL-Museum für Archäologie (Westphalian State Museum of Archeology) in Herne (not far from Bochum). The oldest finds are from about 250,000 years ago, the most recent from 1945. It is set up in a unique way - the permanent exhibition is below ground, as if it were an archaeological excavation. Many of the finds are displayed as they would have appeared when the archaeologists first discovered them. I found the museum rather disturbing at several points, and especially at the end.

As you walk in, you first encounter the "Forest of History" - a number of enormous tree trunks, set up as if they were a wood, that were discovered under water or in gravel pits in this region. They are between 5,000-14,000 years old, and were preserved in the water.

You then wend your way along a path through the museum, traveling chronologically from the distant past until 1945.

In the beginning of the museum there are many many stone tools, if you're interested in seeing their development and the different kinds of stone tools.

Many of the exhibits are taken from excavated graves, and thus include many grave goods - everyday or luxurious objects that were placed into the grave. The museum covers the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, and includes a couple of dioramas of small agricultural settlements.

Model of an ancient agricultural settlement.
Model of another agricultural community, from the first millennium BCE.
Other finds, from between the sixth and the fourth millennium BCE, included a large variety of earthenware pots, some plain, some decorated.

Sixth millennium pots. The large pot in the middle has some interesting incised designs.
Fourth millennium pots.
The exhibits showed the transition from solely earthenware vessels to bronze and then iron objects. Bronze itself could not be manufactured in this area, because of the lack of copper and tin. Bronze was imported and was then worked on by local metalworkers.
Bronze knives and other objects, from between 2800-700 BCE, also grave goods.
A large bronze beaker, probably acquired through trade.
Apparently, before the Romans came and even for several hundred years after that, most people lived in isolated family farms, not even in small villages. The museum presented one example of a small settlement with bigger houses, where quite a number of families lived. The image below is a photograph of one of those reconstructed houses.

One of the most interesting pieces of historical information that I learned was that while the Romans tried to conquer the whole of Germany, they were unable to. Roman settlement had begun to the west of the Rhine, for example with the establishment of what is now known as the city of Cologne. When they tried to go east of the Rhine, the Roman legions were defeated in 9 CE in the "Battle of the Teutoberg Forest." After several more years of bitter fighting, the Romans decided to stay west of the Rhine, meaning that Bochum (which is east of the Rhine) was part of the area that did not become part of the Roman empire. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about Roman history outside of what is now Israel, so I had had the image in my head that the Roman legions were always victorious (since they put down at least three Jewish revolts - in 66-73, 115-117, and 132-135). The Germanic tribes, however, were better organized and much stronger than the Jewish rebels, so they were able to keep the Romans west of the Rhine.

But this did not mean that there was no contact with Rome. The museum catalog says, "All the same the Germanic tribes must have still had contacts with the Romans since in every Germanic settlement archaeologists find goods from the Roman Empire" (Das Museum, 2004, p. 43).

The region east of the Rhine came under the rule of Charlemagne in the eighth century, and he brought Christianity to the tribes in the east. As the catalog says, "At the end of the 8th century Charlemagne, king of the Franks, integrated the region of present-day Westphalia into his kingdom and had the inhabitants converted to Christianity." In the museum, to mark this event, one walks into a small room containing a "forest" of upright spears, and hears sounds of battle, including people's anguished cries, signifying the battles between Charlemagne and the Saxons.

The path then brings one into the Middle Ages, feudal manors, the building of castles, and then to the European voyages of discovery and the Renaissance. Much less space is devoted to these events than to the Roman and early Christian periods.

What came next was very disconcerting. The path leads one abruptly into the mid-20th century, and then you see several posts from the fence of a concentration camp that was established in Witten in 1944, as well as items from prisoners in the camp - identity disks, plates, and cutlery used by the prisoners. (Witten is a town right next to Bochum).
The camp housed prisoners who worked in local factories. About 750 prisoners were originally brought there from Buchenwald (the Witten camp belonged to the larger system of camps affiliated with Buchenwald), but many died due to ill-treatment, starvation, illness, unheated buildings, and inadequate clothing.


On the left are the bowls, a pitcher, and cutlery.

To the right are the prisoners' identity tags.

I did some online research about the camp, and my next post will provide more information about the camp. There is now a memorial in Witten, in the location of the camp, and I'd like to visit there soon.

The final part of the path passes by items discovered in the rubble from Allied bombing of this part of
Germany. After the war, the bombed out sections of towns were rebuilt, which meant that the bomb rubble was covered by subsequent building. To right, in the glass case, are metal stamps used to make ration cards.

The museum was not what I was expecting. I thought it would be a more conventional museum, with exhibits in glass cases with explanations next to them. Instead, it was much more experiential. There were different sounds throughout the room. As you first walked in, through the ancient trees, you could hear the sound of lightning. Next to the cases filled with stone tools, there was the persistent sound of tapping. Leaving the small room the upright spears, in the doorway, a voice was reciting the Nicene Creed in German. In the enclosed "tent" with religious objects, there was the sound of church music and chanting. At the end, there were sounds of bombing.

This museum did not leave me with the feeling that history was safely in the past, and that when I left the museum I left the history behind, locked up in the building. No, history followed me out of the building, it came with me - the agricultural settlements in the woods, the battle in the forest between the Roman legions and the Germanic fighters, Charlemagne's armies converting people to Christianity, the Allied bombing and the inmates of the local concentration camp. It's all still here.

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