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Doubly Important: Iron Age / ЖЕЛЕЗНЫЙ ВЕК


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Since November 10, 2020, the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg has been showing an exhibition that is important on several levels. Iron Age. Europe Without Borders is a further important building block in a long-established program of German-Russian collaboration. And the exhibits themselves, dating from the first millennium B.C., testify that it was a very exciting and dynamic period.

The exhibition Iron Age – Europe Without Borders presents cultures from the first millennium B.C., inhabiting various parts of a region stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Urals and Caucasus mountains in the east. It is the first such exhibition to give visitors a complete picture of the whole continent. The finds are arranged historically by the chronological span of a culture and geographically by its territory, whereby zones of contact between cultures also play an important role. At the heart of the exhibition are objects relocated from Berlin to the Soviet Union in 1945 as a result of World War II. They are complemented by important items lent by the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the State Historical Museum in Moscow, the A. S. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum für Vor‐ und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Pre‐ and Early History) of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin), making it possible to present a comprehensive picture of the European Iron Age to the general public in an exhibition format for the first time.

Rechteckiges bronzenes Gürtelblech mit getriebener, figürlicher Verzierung

Rectangular bronze belt plate with embossed, figural decoration in the so-called situle style. Late 6th - early 5th century BC; Find spot in Stična, Slovenia © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte / Photo: K. Goeken

Among the exhibits, a central role is played by around eight hundred objects that were relocated as a consequence of World War II. The collection of what was then the Prehistory Department of the Royal Museums in Berlin grew significantly under the German Empire, which was dissolved in 1918, and ultimately joined the ranks of Europe’s top museums. Finds from every period of prehistory and early history came to Berlin from various parts of Europe and beyond, including such outstanding objects as the Paleolithic skull from Le Moustier in France, the Bronze Age treasure from Eberswalde, the Hallstatt Culture grave goods from Stična in Slovenia, and Heinrich Schliemann’s collection of Trojan antiquities.

World War II brought a fateful series of events for the collection and for all of the museums in Berlin. Up until then, the collection of the Museum für Vor‐ und Frühgeschichte was housed in the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts), in the building that is now known as the Gropius-Bau. Early in 1939, even before the declaration of war, it was packed, taken away and put into storage at various locations in and around Berlin. After the end of the war, any objects from the Kunstgewerbemuseum that had not been destroyed by bombs were sent either to the British and American collecting points in Celle and Wiesbaden, or to the Soviet Union.

The laborious process of rebuilding Berlin’s museums to the point at which they could reopen took much of the 1950s. In the west of the city, they mostly contained objects recovered from the rubble of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, together with items that had been returned from Celle and Wiesbaden; in the east, they contained objects from the former collections that had been returned from the Soviet Union in 1956 and 1958. Large parts of the collection of the Museum für Vor‐ und Frühgeschichte were still thought to have been lost, however, including many outstanding pieces from the three “gold boxes” – as those in the know called the boxes in which its most valuable finds had been packed.

Since German reunification and the subsequent consolidation of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin with collections from both parts of the city, attention has turned to the question of the whereabouts of objects that have been missing since 1945. As the perestroika reforms took hold in Russia, there were increasing indications that numerous objects from the former collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin were to be found in Russian museums. Nevertheless, cultural goods brought to Russia remained subject to strict confidentiality until 1993.

Blick in eine Ausstellungssituation mit Archäologischen Objekten
Iron Age Hall in the Neues Museum Berlin © Claudia Plamp
Menschengruppe blickt in Museumsvitrine
In June 2013 the exhibition "Bronze Age - Europe without Borders" was opened by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Vladimir Putin © Bundesregierung / Denzel
Linsenflasche mit Tierfries, Keramik
From the collection of the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte: Lens bottle with animal frieze, ceramics, 5th century BC. From a burial mound in the forest near Matzhausen, Bavaria © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte / Photo: Claudia Klein
Mensch untersucht archäologische Objekte am Schreibtisch
In preparation for the German-Russian exhibitions “Merovingian Age” (2007) and “Bronze Age” (2013), German experts were able to examine objects in Russian depots that had been relocated due to the war © SPK / Peter-Klaus Schuster

Off to the Iron Age!

Discussions about the future of these objects initially focused mainly on the possibility of returning them to Germany. The museum managements quickly realized, however, that in order to identify other objects that had been lost during the war and were currently in Russian collections, they needed a firm basis of cooperation between the museums of both countries. In 1996, the Pushkin Museum presented the Treasure of Troy exhibition, in which the hoard of gold artifacts unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann went on public display for the first time since 1939.

In 1998, the Hermitage and the Museum für Vor‐ und Frühgeschichte laid the foundations of their collaboration with an exhibition titled Schliemann – Petersburg – Troy. The reappearance of the so-called Treasure of Priam and other parts of the Schliemann collection was a sensation at the time. The resounding success of this work led the two partners to develop ideas for another exhibition: The Age of the Merovingians – Europe Without Borders, in which they were joined by the Pushkin Museum and the Moscow State Historical Museum. This joint project, which came to fruition in 2007, can be considered a trailblazer for scholarly collaboration between experts from German and Russian museums. Even before The Age of the Merovingians came to the end of its run, the managements of the four participating museums in Germany and Russia had agreed, in view of its success, to extend their joint work in the form of a ‘Europe without Borders’ series.

Thus in 2013, the second exhibition, The Bronze Age – Europe without Borders. 4th – 1st Century B.C., opened at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and subsequently at the State Historical Museum in Moscow. Both demonstrate in exemplary fashion how contact and collaboration between specialist scholars can create the framework for a stable network of German and Russian cultural institutions.

Thanks to this favorable state of affairs, German scholars are increasingly being granted unrestricted access to Russian museum storage facilities, which is an essential step in continuing the efforts to track down and identify cultural assets relocated from Germany. In 2013, an agreement was reached to continue the series with an exhibition on the Iron Age and thus to apply, to a new chapter, the experience gained in identifying cultural assets that have long been considered lost. The Iron Age would also fill the chronological gap between the two previous Europe without Borders exhibitions.

The core of the current exhibition consists of objects from the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte that were relocated to the Soviet Union as a result of the war. They are going on show to the public for the first time since 1939, together with objects from the Museum für Vor‐ und Frühgeschichte in Berlin that help to reconstitute these archaeological complexes. Additional loans from all of the participating museums in St. Petersburg and Moscow bring the total to around 1500 items, offering a comprehensive historical survey of cultural developments in Europe as a whole. The exhibition can justifiably claim to open up the European prehistory of the first millennium B.C. to the general public. Many of the artifacts on display can be assigned to the widespread Hallstatt and La Tène cultures. The neighboring regions in the zone north of the European uplands (Mittelgebirge) are also represented, namely the late Lusatian cultural groups, the House Urns and Face Urns cultures, and the Jastorf culture.

The earliest evidence of the use of iron has been found in Asia Minor, and dated to the late second millennium B.C. From there, the new metal, which was tougher than bronze and more readily available, spread far and wide. The founding of Greek colonies in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions, and the associated expansion of trade, facilitated contact with the ‘barbarians’ to the north and east, who readily absorbed the foreign cultural influences that this brought. Societies emerged that display marked social differentiation.

In Italy, one such culture developed into Etruscan civilization. Between the Alps and the upland ranges, the Hallstatt culture predominated during the early, pre-Roman, Iron Age. In the western zone of its territory, the Celtic La Tène culture emerged during the fifth century B.C., but the eastern Hallstatt culture prevailed until the third century B.C. The east was also an important zone of contact with the nomadic horse cultures of the Scythians – and later, the Sarmatians – who were spreading westward from the Eurasian steppe.

Artifacts from Spain, Italy, southeastern Europe, and Turkey bear witness to the spread of the Celtic culture during the Migration Period, beginning in the fourth century B.C. Also represented in the exhibition are the material legacies of the nomadic Scythians and Sarmatians from areas around the Black Sea, as well as those of the Bosporan Kingdom. Finally, the cultures of the forest zone in the European part of Russia, which adjoins the steppe area to the north, and the Koban culture of the Caucasus complete the picture of a diversity of cultures during the pre-Roman Iron Age.

The Museum für Vor‐ und Frühgeschichte is contributing a great many objects on loan, most of which have been selected to complement the finds from settlements, graves, and hoards that were relocated to the Soviet Union as a result of the war. One of the highlight loans is a belt plate from the Hallstatt burial site at Stična, which is decorated figuratively in the style used for situlae (ritual bronze vessels). Some of the other finds unearthed there are now kept in the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The lens bottle from Matzhausen, which is engraved with an unusual animal frieze, has also been lent for the exhibition. Another outstanding item is the fragment of a bronze fitting with depictions of a human figure and an animal, probably from the Kartli region of today’s Georgia, which is stylistically close to Scythian-Maeotic art and that of the Caucasus region. A completely preserved counterpart, which was likewise kept in Berlin until the end of the war, is now to be found in the Hermitage.

The exhibition also features highlights lent by the museums in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Visitors can marvel at masterpieces of the Scythian goldsmith’s art from the royal kurgans (grave mounds) of Solokha, Kelermes, Chastye or Chertomlyk, and Kul-Oba, to name but a few. Among the relocated objects from this cultural area are two carved, zoomorphic, bone plates from the Taman peninsula, which are considered highly significant as examples of the influence of Scythian art on the Celtic style.

Two archaeological complexes exemplify the importance of the Iron Age exhibition. The first consists of 34 curvilinear decorated bronze objects from Comacchio in Italy, which have been kept in St. Petersburg since the end of World War II. They are counted among the masterpieces of the early Celtic Waldalgesheim style. The second is the burial complex from Besseringen in Saarland, unearthed in the middle of the nineteenth century, which comprises a group of important, early Celtic, chieftain’s graves. Of these grave goods, the bronze carriage fittings of a two-wheeled chariot are still in Berlin, while the bronze beaked jug is now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the gold choker is in the Pushkin Museum. On the one hand, this exposes the absurdity of the war-related separation of the artifacts in the collections, but on the other hand, it demonstrates the importance of the German-Russian dialogue and the associated collaboration between the museums, because it is these that have brought such important objects back into scholarly discourse and public awareness after a hiatus of more than eighty years.