Berlin: archaeological reconstruction and feelings

Berlin reeks of cool. Everyone you see is cool, and everywhere you go is cool, and everything you see is cool. The men wear impossibly skinny pants, the women have makeup and outfits that I wouldn’t begin to figure out how to imitate, everyone’s haircut is impossibly on point, and their sausage and fries are covered in a tomato-based-ketchup-like-curry sauce. I felt underdressed. Backpacker style means at any given moment you’re wearing four different shades of black, mismatched shoelaces, and your hair is four days unwashed.

No, I did not go to any of the techno/sex clubs with 36 hour parties; I just went to a lot of museums. A lot. Germany is a giant of archaeological acquisitions; I spent my 36 hour party on Museuminsel.

Tip: all the museums on Museuminsel (an island in central Berlin that houses the Bode Museum, the Altes Museum, the Altes Nationale Galerie, the Neues Museum, and the Berliner Dome), with the exception of the Berliner Dome, are covered by the Berlin Museum Pass. It’s 24€, valid for three days, and, if you hit all the museums on Museuminsel, saves you 30€ in admission fees, plus you get an audio guide included at each museum.

The coolest thing about Museuminsel isn’t the Pergamon Altar or the Ishtar Gate (though both of these are jaw-drop-worthy): it’s Museuminsel itself. The Alte Nationalgalerie is essentially a copy of the Forum of Augustus and the Temple of Mars, making the Altes Museum below it feel a bit like Caesar’s Forum. Walking through the whole thing feels like it would walking through Rome’s forum complex when it was still standing in full. The whole place being one massive reconstruction is fitting, as the museums themselves are full of smaller reconstructions.

The Pergamon Museum has the most reconstructions: it houses three if the biggest draws for archaeology fans, all three being incredible. The first is the massive Ishtar Gate, brought from Babylon and reassembled from the blue glazed bricks within the museum hall. Walking through it brings you to the second: the market gate of Miletus. This two level gate, not quite as huge, but still huge and with some pretty impressive statuary, is the most original of the reconstructions in the museum , comprised of a whopping 60% of original material. The next door opens up to the Pergamon Altar, and everything stops for a good few minutes.

It has everything. The gigantomachy between the Olympian gods and the children of Gaia is wonderfully laid out and explained, the altar dominates the room and the extreme angle if there stairs leading to the top reminded me exactly of the frighteningly steep theater on the Pergamon acropolis. There was a combined hour or so of information on the audio guide, from an analysis and description of the frieze to the history of the excavation. It was one of the best museum displays I’ve ever seen. I’m not just praising the Pergamon museum for the hell of it, but it was good to see reconstructions of ancient monuments, not just the altar, done so well. Reconstructions are controversial, since it’s hard to know exactly how a monument looked with only pictures on coins and descriptions in histories (and that’s the best case scenario).

I get excited by these things, particularly when I think about how they might excite other people to learn more about the classics and the ancient world. I feel the same way about plaster casts of famous statues. The Spurlock Museum on the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign campus has two notable ones, one of Augustus at Prima Porta and one of Laocoön and the serpents. The originals of both of these are housed in the Vatican Museum, but I really love that there are carbon copies of them around the world so people can see them up close without having to travel to Rome.

Berlin had some copies of smaller artifacts as well. In the Neues Museum there was one room devoted to Troy, and I would go so far as to say that half the objects were copies of the Treasure of Priam, which means….


Why is Berlin such a fan of Troy? Probably because Germany has been a huge fan if Greek and Roman archaeology in general for a long time, but also because Heinrich Schliemann, a German business man turned academic, was the first one to conduct large-scale excavations on the archaeological site of Troy, so there’s a reason for pride. What follows is a very brief and very simplified version of what is not at all a simple story.

In 1873, Schliemann unveiled the Treasure of Priam, a cache of precious artifacts including gold jewelry and weaponry that he had uncovered at Troy and took to be a lost treasure belonging to King Priam who would have ruled Troy in the time of the Iliad. By the time he announced the discovery, Schliemann had already bribed the people who needed to be bribed in order to get the treasure out of Turkey. It went to Greece and then to the British Museum before coming to rest in Berlin. In the middle of WWII tons of priceless artifacts and works of art were lost or destroyed, and somehow, Priam’s Treasure disappeared as well. Until 1993.

In 1993, Moscow got on the great big conference call of European nations and said, “Dudes, you will not believe what we found in the Pushkin Museum!”

You guessed it: Priam’s Treasure, complete and unharmed.

Germany, Great Britain, and Turkey simultaneously said, “Awesome! Give it back!” E

Russia then said, “Yeah…how about I just hold onto it for awhile? Yeah, that sounds good.”

That’s how I imagine it happening at least.

The thing is, if the Troy room is anything to go by, Germany is in an absolute tizzy over not getting the treasure back. I counted at least three references in the room to how Russia was refusing to return the collection “in spite of international law.” And the treasure isn’t even German, it’s Turkish. In the world of archaeological artifacts ending up in places they aren’t supposed to be, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt have gotten pretty screwed over. Countries like Greece that have financial troubles have been met with the justification of resources: that artifacts can’t be returned to them because how will they have the funds to take care of them? Turkey is different though. While Turkey has run into some trouble with the value of the lira dropping since the Occupy Gezi movement and the stock falling a bit, Turkey is still a very stable country, and the Istanbul Archaeology Museum is one of the best museums, not just of archaeology, overall, that I have ever visited. Turkey would be able to take care of any artifacts returned to them. However, I don’t really see any artifacts being returned to them, or anyone, anytime soon, for several reasons.

One of those reasons is that countries like Germany and Great Britain have no reason to give up archaeological treasures like the Pergamon Gate or the Elgin Marbles. These artifacts are all in counties that are secure and solid and have had them for a very long time. The only reason they would have to return them would be moral, and, historically, morality alone has caused very little action to be taken. The second reason is that arguments for the return of artifacts centers largely on big pieces, like the Elgin Marbles, that would, in the hypothetical situation of artifact return, most likely be the very last ones given back, as they hold the most commercial value for museums. I haven’t heard any discussion about collections of Cycladic statues or snarky Egyptian artifacts being returned, but every history class I’ve been in has had at least a small debate on whether the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece or not (spoiler: the Elgin Marbles will probably never be returned to Greece, at least in this century. The only way I see the Elgin Marbles being returned would be for England and Greece to completely swap their positions of economic power for a very long time and for Greece to buy the Marbles back with an absurd amount of money).

Those were the things I was thinking about a lot: how sometimes ethically ambiguous things can do good, like getting people excited about a subject area, and how scholars can debate for ages about who deserves to own those things, despite the fact that maybe they never owned them to begin with and can’t claim any part of their actual culture. It also made me think about how much value material objects can hold based solely on the value that we ascribe to them: when it comes down to it, the Elgin Marbles are a bunch of stone slabs, on which the carvings can barely be understood by the average citizen without the help of an audio guide and an explanatory pamphlet. One could say they’re important because they come from the Parthenon, but even that is one of the most ruined ruins I’ve ever seen, since it’s gone through hell and back about a dozen times in it’s lifetime. Even though I still love both of these things, the artifacts and the monument, seeing them up close makes me wonder how much of their value is contemporary respect and how much is tradition. However, being more aware of how far we’ve come in general terms and in restoration/evaluation technology, and how far we thought we had come, say, 50 to 100 years ago, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing just to value artifacts because of tradition; tomorrow might be the day a new laser/X-ray technology is unveiled that will tell us something new about 2500 year old stones.


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