History – a science that people obviously don’t want to be expected to do

archeology and history
History is a science that the German media often don’t want to expect of people. That should change!

dr Michael Buchwitz found fossilized traces of a dinosaur near Magdeburg in 2020 – but how should you know that?

© Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert / Picture Alliance

A few days ago we were fascinated by the photos of an aquatic reptile discovered in England. Why are such and other finds in Germany so little prepared for interested people?

Remember when a giant fossilized aquatic dinosaur was found in the UK just a few days ago? Or just recently unusually old mammoth bones next to Neanderthal tools? Both reports made it into the international press and both finds were featured extensively in BBC television documentaries (“Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard”, “Digging For Britain”). As was the fact that the origin and travel route of Stonehenge stones had been found (“The Lost Circle Revealed”). All events from less than two years ago that have interested not only the scientific community but also large sections of the general public. Strange that there doesn’t seem to be such finds in Germany. Since the Nebra Sky Disc, found by robbers in 1999, not much seems to have happened archaeologically in Germany.

Or are we just not aware of it? Of course, archeology is a topic that seems quite irrelevant compared to the current events surrounding Corona. Also: You don’t earn money with archeology. And especially in Germany, people are skeptical about their own history anyway – because it consists partly of unscientific quark that was fabricated by the National Socialists and partly of the National Socialists. A topic that is understandably extremely burdened. But shouldn’t the early history of today’s German regions be freed from unjustified glamor and unjustified disregard for this very reason and finally examined from a scientific point of view?

Archaeology: disregarded, underfunded, unloved

Archeology in Germany, as one hears from many who work in this area, is grossly underfunded. There is also a lack of respect and appreciation. Necessary excavations, for example before large construction projects, are mostly carried out by private companies. The main thing is that it’s fast. In German documentaries, archaeologists rarely get a chance to speak – mostly actors are in the limelight as moderators, TV faces like Harald Lesch, and otherwise amateur actors in historically questionable costumes or loveless computer animations are used. It’s not surprising that something like this hardly lures anyone out from behind the stove.

In Great Britain, the most successful formats are presented by experts that the public has long known: archaeologist Alice Roberts, historian Lucy Worsley, natural scientist and “national treasure” Sir David Attenborough, ancient historian Robin Lane Fox, archaeologist Neil Oliver, archaeologist are regularly in the limelight Francis Prior, historian Kate Williams. I don’t think anyone in Germany could spontaneously name an archaeologist or a historian. But why not? Why doesn’t the German media landscape, especially television, dare to put experts in front of the camera? The fact that even a cumbersome topic like archeology can become mainstream was shown by the British documentary series “Time Team”, in which a group of experts spent three days digging up people’s front gardens after they found Roman, Saxon or Victorian shards in their found a flower bed. “Time Team” was a popular ratings hit for years, despite technical terms and a lack of drama. The series gave the British a whole new understanding of their own history, of which they themselves were a part.

Germany is full of interesting finds and questions

One possible answer to the question of the missing prominent experts is probably that experts might say clever, subject-specific things that the audience doesn’t understand. And as a German media producer, there’s nothing more afraid of. In the minds of the relevant decision-makers, viewers who have to think about something for more than a second are immediately in an excessively bad mood, delete the guilty channel directly from the channel list and, just to be safe, throw the television off the balcony. The fact that this fear is also a reason for the mostly subterranean quality of German films and series is on another note. When it comes to communicating science, however, this has bitter consequences.

The first Neanderthal man was discovered in Germany. In Germany there are probably the oldest wagon tracks in the world. In Germany, Celts met Germans, and we still know far too little about both. In Germany there are burial mounds and megaliths, bog corpses from different millennia – or at least the preserved remains of all of that. There were already numerous important settlements in Germany in the year 150, recorded on the map of the Greek Claudius Ptolemy, which are still not all identified. An exciting project at the Technical University of Berlin, which aimed to correct the map data using today’s technical methods, received attention almost exclusively in scientific circles. In Germany, the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig is a center of science where Neanderthal DNA was first decoded a few years ago. The fact that archeology and history play such a small role here has nothing to do with a lack of finds or a lack of knowledge. Only with a lack of will.

There is hardly any money to be made from history

Yes, archeology and history are disciplines that cost money and don’t bring in any. Which a business administration fan could and would quickly and decisively label as “unimportant”. But why did we all look so enthusiastically at the photos of the gigantic fish dinosaur from England? Why do we know so little about the fact that countless dinosaur fossils, some of which are in excellent condition, have been and are being found in Germany? How come some of us can list all the wives of the notorious English king Henry VIII, but don’t know a single German emperor apart from Charlemagne, Barbarossa and perhaps Wilhelm II? (This is not about forced, memorized canon knowledge, please don’t get me wrong. This is about the possibility to get off Wikipedia to easily accessible information that is more than a colorful picture and a paragraph full of superficial guesses.)

History as a science that can and should be expected of people as such – which is missing. On TV, on the internet, in literature. There is this wonderful gray area between technical jargon and superficial entertainment, in Great Britain this area is used extensively. But in Germany people shun him as if he were mined. Maybe that will change one day. Otherwise, people interested in archeology and history often have no choice but to buy English-language books and watch English-language documentaries – and sigh at the many missed opportunities in this country.

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