Notes from the Field

  • Exhibition Notes
  • by Ivan Gaskell
  • June 7, 2016

Krieg: eine archäologische Spurensuche

Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte, Halle (Saale)
November 6, 2015 – May 22, 2016


A tangle of human skeletons embedded in a soil matrix presented vertically in a gun metal grey case well over twenty feet high dominates the entrance to this exhibition on the archaeology of war. The bones and skulls, many of them open-mouthed as though caught in a last agony, seem about to tumble onto the viewer standing beneath. This is a mass grave containing the remains of forty-seven soldiers, stripped of their clothes and tossed naked into a shallow pit. This is not a mere representation of a grave, some carnival ghost train mock horror, but the grave itself and its actual human contents.

These were soldiers killed in a battle between Catholics of the Holy Roman Empire led by Albrecht von Wallenstein and a Protestant army of Swedes and Sweden’s German allies commanded by the Swedish king, Gustav II Adolf (also known as Gustavus Adolphus or Gustavus Adolphus the Great). In the Battle of Lützen (November 16, 1632, NS), a key battle of the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedes saw off the imperial threat to their northern German allies, but their charismatic king was one of approximately 7,000 killed.

This exhibition takes the discovery of the mass grave in 2011 and its excavation as a starting point for an archaeological examination of warfare in hominim history up to 1632. It proposes that archaeological evidence is immediate, empirically incontrovertible, and objective, whereas that of documents is the result of human calculation, subject to interpretation, and therefore untrustworthy. This is the view of processual archaeologists who study what used to be called “prehistory” (Vorgeschichte: a discredited term) rather than the informed opinion of historians or post-processual archaeologists trained to interpret texts and things as complex human products that are never quite what they seem.

What is to be learned from such excavations, and why might historians want to obtain such information? There is much to be said for improving the scope of accounts of the past to include ordinary people, rather than focusing exclusively on the elite. Challenges to exclusively elite history were mounted long ago so that “history from below” is now so well established that its practitioners often accommodate an entire social range in their accounts. Even if Krieg is questionable as archaeology, it nonetheless presents historically useful data on ordinary soldiers. For instance, the analysis of tooth enamel led to the identification of their geographical origins. Most were from within the Holy Roman Empire, and only two or at most three were from Sweden. The majority were likely Wallenstein’s infantry, though one, who had a previously healed leg injury, was probably a horseman. Krieg gives insights into the elite’s experience of battle and its ultimate consequence no less than that of the unidentified soldiers. Leading a cavalry charge, King Gustav Adolf was shot several times and killed. Among his clothing taken by imperial soldiers was the buff moose hide coat he wore (Royal Armory, Skokloster Castle, Stockholm). Sent as a trophy to Vienna, it was only returned to Stockholm following World War I. Gustav Adolf’s antagonist, Wallenstein, is represented by the taxidermic mount of one of the war horses he rode during the battle, and his red velvet-covered saddle embellished with gold braid (both Muzeum Cheb). Wallenstein survived the battle by little more than three months, for he was assassinated in February 1634.

The ambition in this exhibition to cover both high and low in the account of the Battle of Lützen is admirable. There must be, though, an ethical concern over exhibiting the remains of the dead. The excavation of the mass grave, and the analysis of the remains, respectfully conducted, might be ethically acceptable. This accomplished, though, one might make a case that responsibility to the dead requires their re-interment without exposure to the public gaze.

European treatment of those killed in battle changed between the seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. One watershed was the American Civil War, vividly described by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering (2008). As Faust shows, for the first time, governments took responsibility for the respectful burial of the dead, ideally with individually marked graves. The British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens memorably implemented this innovation following World War I in his meticulously sited cemeteries in northern France and Flanders. War cemeteries became sites of remembrance at once public and private.

As a consequence of the nineteenth-century change in war burial practice, it would be scarcely conceivable to exhibit the remains of the dead disinterred from a mass grave from a nineteenth or twentieth-century conflict. Should contemporary standards be applied retrospectively to the fallen of earlier European wars? It seems reasonable to assume that most, if not all, of the soldiers from the Lützen mass grave were Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant, and hoped to find rest in consecrated ground. However secular an archaeological or historical project might be, is there not an obligation to the dead that transcends any advantages to be gained from public display, and conceivably even from scientific curiosity?

Are such qualms characteristically North American but not European? In Skull Wars (2000), David Hurst Thomas discusses the indignities and insults to which settler scientists have long subjected Native American bodies, prompted by the recently concluded case of so-called Kennewick Man or the Ancient One. He is an approximately 9,000-year-old human skeleton discovered in Washington in 1996. After twenty years of legal wrangling, he is to be returned for reburial to the five tribes that claim him as an ancestor. The current protection of Native American human remains, including the obligation of institutions receiving federal funds to repatriate them to Native successor communities on demand, is in stark contrast to their previous treatment as objects of anthropological research. Many Americans, whether Native or not, have either long respected the dead or have been newly sensitized to the obligation to do so. Even if some may still see no wrong in analyzing human remains, many would draw the line at their display. Thomas argues that “scientists must deal with human bones in a more respectful and sensitive manner.” From a North American viewpoint, this seems incontrovertible.

The display of the dead—at least, some classes of the dead—may not be as questionable in Germany as it has become in North America, but even making such an allowance, the display in Krieg arguably crosses a line. An exhibit of these skeletons designed to promote understanding could have been presented horizontally, in the same plane as the grave existed in situ. Instead, these people are transformed into a monumental relief. But this is no sculptural representation, rather a ghoulish spectacle: a sublime aestheticization of the actual dead. This Barnum style showmanship may bring press and public attention, but its sensationalism seems unconscionably exploitative.

The analysis of the skeletons has arguably added to the historical understanding of the Thirty Years War, but their display in an otherwise engaging exhibition is a miscalculation.*

Ivan Gaskell is professor and head of the Focus Project at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

*The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial publication: Harald Meller and Michael Schefzik, eds., Krieg: eine archäologische Spurensuche (Stuttgart: Konrad Theiss Verlag, 2015).



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