Archäologie an Tatorten des 20. Jahrhunderts (English: Archaeology at Crime Scenes of the Twentieth Century). By Claudia Theune. Archäologie in Deutschland, Sonderheft 6/2014, Paperback, 112 pp. ISBN 978-3-8062-2961-5.

Archäologie an Tatorten des 20. Jahrhunderts is special issue of the popular science magazine Archäologie in Deutschland, presenting recent work in contemporary archaeology. Its author, Claudia Theune, focuses largely on relics of National Socialism and, more specifically, the Holocaust in Germany and Austria, but she also refers to Anglophone and French studies on other subjects in the field of contemporary archaeology. Her publication is intended as an introduction to the field of twentieth-century archaeology, which is still very young, but which, she argues, is already everyday practice among Germany’s monument protection authorities. The magazine is lavishly illustrated and features an overview of memorials and museums of war and tyranny in Europe as well as a thematically ordered list of references.

Conceptually, Theune argues in her introduction, contemporary archaeology is different from the historical archaeology of the middle ages and the modern world. While the former originated in an interest in the history of cities that lay destroyed after the end of World War II, the former should be conceived of as a practice of memory as much as an investigation of history. Although she introduces contemporary archaeology as an overarching project that includes industrial archaeology, garbology, and conflict archaeology of the twentieth century, most of the magazine is devoted to the narrow field of conflict archaeology. When history becomes palpable through an archaeological approach, Theune argues, historical context becomes plausible and successively enables memory.

In the chapters that follow, the author briefly introduces textual sources, images, and objects as complementary resources for analysis in contemporary archaeology, before turning respectively to World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. International projects on the Western Front and other theatres of war, as well as on trench art and mass graves, are only briefly summarised, although she provides detailed accounts of some individual projects, beginning with a report of a dig at a POW camp in Quedlinburg. Most of the projects she discusses relate to the Nazi era in Germany, and are associated with the longing in German society to come to terms with the past, especially from the 1990s onwards. This longing has also led to major excavation campaigns at former concentration camps and at other sites of Nazi terror. Theune explains the political and societal context of these digs and the insights they have contributed to our understanding of the Holocaust and the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Often, these campaigns have taken place in the context of the erection of memorials, and have served to literally uncover the past. The finds have also shed light on the day-to-day routines and circumstances of both the victims and the perpetrators. In the face of these monstrosities, the author’s remarks on military relics of the Westwall and the Atlantikwall bunkers and anti-aircraft emplacements sit somewhat uneasily within the chapter on World War II. While this juxtaposition mirrors historical concurrence, I believe that a non-chronological outline would have served the special issue’s objective much better. In the chapter on the Cold War era, for instance, Theune presents as examples Soviet internment camps in the former East Germany, sugar bowls as a curious piece of material culture in the Sachsenhausen camp, and relics of the Berlin Wall. Material legacies of Cold War militarisation akin to the Atlantikwall for World War II are left out. Given the growing body of work that focuses on the Cold War exclusively, her collection of cases appears somewhat random.

The book concludes with two short final chapters on contemporary archaeology beyond the conflict theme―citing contemporary examples of projects at landscape and household scales, industrial archaeology, and innovative projects in Anglophone archaeology and on archaeology as a manifestation of memory culture. Theune holds that archaeology creates places of memory in a literal sense and it is “without doubt” that “uncovered concrete evidence offers a more immediate approach to historical knowledge than other media at an authentic site” (my translation). A contemporary archaeology, the author suggests, in the German context, has come a long way from the new social movements of the 1980s―from uncovering histories, to building sites of learning and exemplary involvement with memory culture.

Theune’s book is an engaging introduction to the field of contemporary archaeology, with in-depth accounts of archaeologies of the Holocaust, terror, confinement, and forced labour in twentieth-century Europe. Consequently, other material legacies of war and contemporary archaeology beyond conflict are excluded. Most importantly, however, Theune’s work is the first attempt at such a synthesis in the German language and succeeds in raising the public profile of contemporary archaeology for scholarly and enthusiast audiences alike.

Gunnar Maus
Department of Geography
Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Germany
[email protected]

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