Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Real Story of Nazi Eqyptology

I found the link to the article “The Real Story of Nazi Egyptology” on one of the Jack Sasson mailings. It interested me for many reasons but mainly that I had never thought of the Nazi’s interest in Egypt. Other than the Indiana Jones movies, mentioned in fact in this article, and my limited knowledge of the Nazi obsession with the Aryan race and looking for its origins, I had no idea that a great deal was done in the field of archaeology by the Nazis during the thirties and up until the end of the Second World War. The article is about Thomas Schneider, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who is in the process of examining this time in history and writing a manuscript.

Prior to the rise of Hitler, Germany had been known as a respected figure in Egyptology and even had an archaeological institute based in Cairo. Some famous figures in this field were Adolf Erman who helped to “unravel the grammar of Egyptian writing”, Ludwig Brochart who discovered the famous bust of Nefertiti, and Heinrich Schafer who made huge steps forward in understanding Egyptian art. Many American Egyptologists also trained in Germany, including the inspiration for Indiana Jones himself, James Henry Breasted.
One of Professor Schneider’s main points in this study is to show that the Nazis that were involved in archaeology during this time were in no way uniform in their studies or activities. One example is Helmut Berve, a professor or ancient history at University of Leipzig, who questioned the right of Egyptology to exist at all, saying that “Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Germany will automatically focus on the peoples akin to us in terms of race and mind; Egyptology and Assyriology will recede into the background,” transposing the ideals of Aryan thought into the study of the ancient world. Walther Wolf, another pro-Nazi Egyptologist who defended the study by saying that the ruling of Pharaoh can be likened to the way Hitler ruled over Germany and it’s conquests.

On the other side was anti-Nazi Alexander Scharff, who was one of the chairs of Egyptology at the University of Munich. He openly criticized Wolf’s work and contested that you could not use the “lens of Nazism” to critique or defend Egyptology because the two are completely unrelated. Despite his criticisms, he was actually able to keep his job throughout the war. George Steindorff was another prominent Egyptology professor, who also happened to be Jewish. He was forced to quit his positions and flee to America to escape from being placed in a concentration camp.

The Nazis also controlled the former German Archaeological Institute base, which operated until the beginning of the war in 1939. Professor Schneider believes that during that time, the Nazis used the base to advance themselves in the Middle East. The head of the institute, Hermann Junker, continued to excavate during the war and was a Nazi supporter. He focused most of his time excavating the Great Pyramids at Giza and worked primarily without direction from Hitler or any other Nazi officials. There is a lot of speculation, however that the base’s use was not confined to solely archaeological purposes, and that Junker often received Nazi guests and spread Nazi propaganda.

As far as the leader of the Nazis, Hitler, it is hard to say what is primary interest in Egyptology was. Professor Schneider did find a photo however of an Ancient Egyptian Art expedition in Berlin, 1938, with Hitler sitting in the front row. Hitler was also particularly interested in the bust of Nefertiti and refused to have it be returned to Cairo. In his great scheme for a transformed Berlin, Germania, Hitler planned to place the bust in a museum along side one of himself.

As Professor Schneider states, “This was, what I think, a decisive turning point in the international history of Egyptology,” and I after reading this piece I don’t think anyone could argue. Germany lost much of its academic credibility after this era, and lost some of its greatest contributors, such as Steindorff. This continues to affect Germany today and who knows what German academics could have accomplished had they not been disrupted by Nazism. It always surprises me how academic pursuits can be twisted and morphed into something entirely different by government or social influence. Especially after choosing to study Nefertiti for my excavation project, I am amazed at the history of her famous bust and Hitler’s fascination of it. I will most definitely have to look further into German Archaeology for that project, something I really hadn’t considered previously.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Response Paper #2: How Were Artifacts Made, Used, and Distributed?

It seems simple to say that artifacts make up the bulk of discoveries by archaeologists, but when you consider how fragile and small some of these artifacts are, it is amazing that we have any record of them at all. What’s more amazing is to consider that these items were crafted long before the use of complicated manufacturing techniques with relatively primitive tools. In our quest to understand ancient peoples and how they lived, worked and died, it is very important to study these artifacts, how they were made and used and when they were created.

An interesting point the author makes about artifacts prior to going into the rest of the chapter is that what we find may not be actually representative of how important the artifact was in the time of it’s use. One example is that during the Paleolithic period, most of the artifacts that have survived are made of stone, but there were most certainly tools made of wood and bone that were just as important. The author also expands on the knowledge we can gain by looking at artifacts. By using the artifacts to learn about the migration of goods and tools, we can make guesses about the trading habits of certain cultural groups, which lead us to know more about their economic systems and transportation.

As far as the types of artifacts found, there are two main classes – unaltered, such as flints, and synthetic, which were molded by human activity such as metal. The first recognizable tools were made out of stone around 2.5 million years ago and until the invention and widespread use of pottery, stone was the predominant material used. Through finding quarries and mines we can tell how the stone was removed and what kind of material was found. How tools were created also helps us to place them into a certain time period, as tooling methods evolved over time to become more efficient and complex. Another of the unaltered materials sometimes found is wood, although it takes a certain environment for the material to survive. Wood was a very important commodity for ancient cultures, and in fact many of the stone and bone tools made were for the harvesting of lumber. In a dry climate such as Egypt we have been able to find all sorts of materials that are wood-based including farming tools, furniture, toys, carpentry tools and even wooden ships. Waterlogged woods also can tell us much about woodworking techniques and how the artifacts were used. Plant and animal fibers are classified as unaltered materials but are very rare do to their fragile nature, especially from early periods.

Synthetic materials and their creation is strongly dependant on the use and control of fire, called pyrotechnology. The most important of these artifacts is clearly pottery, just due to the amount of it that has been discovered throughout the years and the differences that each culture puts into their clay work. From figurines to wine containers and bowls, almost every ancient culture produced pottery which also coincides with the settling down of cultures into villages and a more permanent lifestyle. Another prominent synthetic artifact is metal. The use of metals shows how human technique evolved over time, moving from working with copper and expanding to alloying and using bronze and other metals. Analyzing these artifacts in the lab allows us to see what kinds of metals were used and what techniques were employed in its creation.

While the article goes on to explain how these artifacts were used, I am more interested in their creation. What went through the creator’s mind when he first made a tool out of flint? These are some of the earliest pieces of evidence in the world of human discoveries that have affected the entire course of life afterwards. If that first person hadn’t created that tool or hadn’t figured out how to combine metals to create a stronger more durable metal then what could have been changed? It is so fascinating that these first tools have survived and we can still look at them today and see the creation of something new.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Response Paper #1: What is the Ancient Near East?

While reading Marc Van De Mieroop’s A History of the Ancient Near East, I was surprised at how little I really understood about the Near East. Even the definition, something I had always assumed meant the Middle East or simply Mesopotamia, was not what I had expected going into this reading. Mieroop designates the Near East as “the region from the Aegean coast of Turkey to central Iran, and from Northern Anatolia to the Red Sea” and defining Mesopotamia as only a part of the Near East, abet the most important and documented of the areas (1).

I had also never considered that the evidence of past civilizations found in Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas was so important because written word had only recently been discovered (around 3000 BC), providing us with great amounts of evidence about how the people there lived and died. Writing in this area has survived in great numbers. From stone monuments documenting the achievements of kings to clay tablets, the preferred method of documentation in this area, have remained for us to find after all these years. Texts range from “the mundane receipt of a single sheep to literary works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh,” and due to the dry soil of the region, preservation was relatively easy (4). I had never thought about how this might contrast with other cultures that used papyrus and parchment, relatively fragile materials, and how this affects our understanding of the cultures.

Another point made by Mieroop is that we have “only scratched the surface” of the archeological sites in the Near East during the 150 or so years that excavation has been taking place. When I tend to think of areas in the Ancient world that are famous for their ruins or structures, I usually consider Egyptian, Roman and Greek first. While this may be a naive view, I tend to feel that many of the major discoveries in those areas have already been made, or are at least underway just due to the greater amount of traffic and archeological study in those areas that I have read about in the past. The Near East presents a whole new wealth of knowledge that I had never even thought about in much detail. If there are thousands of uncovered sites left to explore, what’s to say that some of the most important discoveries in mankind’s history aren’t still beneath the dirt?

Something that I had heard about, however, was how war and the gradual closing off of the Middle East to western scientists, let alone all westerners who weren’t there for military duty, had effected archeology in this area. Not just considering the sites left to be discovered, but the destruction and looting of artifacts from museums in Iraq and other areas that have gone through wars and the complete destruction of sites, whether deliberate or by accident. This is cultural information that will never be regained, something that is so terrible and unnecessary. This has forced archaeologists to move to different areas of the Near East, mainly to the outlying areas of northern Syria and southern Turkey. Just from my perspective, while it is great that we still have access to some areas, losing the “heartland of Mesopotamia” because of war and internal conflicts is such a loss. That cultural heritage is something everyone should be able to access to, or at least the experts of that field should be able to go and learn what they can from something that could be lost forever.

When I first signed up for this course, I really wasn’t sure what the Near East was going to entail. After reading this chapter, I have a more concrete idea and more insight in to the benefits and problems with researching and exploring this area. I also have a better understanding of what could be found and what its purpose might have been, for example the structures of homes and how their size, placement, and even shape show us what was going on at that time with family structure and cultural shifts. The simple shift to a more rectangular structure from the previous round hints at a new social hierarchy and the evolution of specialized rooms. Taking that into context and the fact that the Near East is the presumed start of many of societies greatest discoveries such as agriculture and irrigation makes this an area of great importance in studying the evolution of mankind. Mieroop states his most important opinion in the introduction as well, that the “ancient Near East provides us the first cultures in human history which true and detailed historical research can take place, ” once again outlining its importance to world history and proving this is a place worth knowing (7).