Modern Archaeology
An Underground History Lesson

Where the original relicts of the border fortifications have been lost, Corten steel has been used to indicate where the elements once were, making them more visible;
Where the original relicts of the border fortifications have been lost, Corten steel has been used to indicate where the elements once were, making them more visible; | Photo: J. Hohmuth © Berlin Wall Foundation

Archaeologists are thought of first and foremost as experts in antiquity, but in fact they also dig for relics of our more recent past – at the site of the Berlin Wall, for instance.

At the Berlin Wall Memorial, visitors throng around the “archaeological windows”, looking at the remains of the death strip through a pane of glass set into the ground, their heads lowered as if they were standing at a grave: footprints of the border guards on the patrol path are visible, as are “tank traps”, bullet casings, barbed wire, karabiners and ropes used in the dog runs for the Alsatians.

When the archaeologist Torsten Dressler, a specialist in modern archaeology, began digging at Berlin’s Bernauer Strasse in 2007, his work reaped indulgent smiles from his colleagues. The first archaeologist to do so, he spent four years with his team searching for the archaeological remains of the Wall – which may have been torn down, but has by no means disappeared. Its skeleton lies buried underground. He explains that the architects of the Berlin Wall Memorial site asked him at the time what all that had to do with archaeology. “It is extremely difficult to get people to acknowledge the value of contemporary archaeology”, says Dressler. And certainly no one is bowled over in the least when a Bronze age settlement is unearthed, particularly these days.

The world’s most recent archaeological monument

The critics only fell silent when he presented the results of his work on the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Wall in 2011. The section of the border strip on Bernauer Strasse that was the subject of his research, including the exposed footprint of the Reconciliation Church that had been demolished in 1985, was placed under a preservation order. Dressler thus prevented further luxury loft-style apartments being built on this important historical site. Today the Berlin Wall is regarded as the world’s youngest archaeological monument.

Why does contemporary archaeology have such a hard time? It was long the case that archaeologists focused predominantly on prehistory and protohistory; in some instances their research interest might have extended up to the Middle Ages. Excavations involving the history and culture of the twentieth century have only been taking place in Europe since roughly 1990. For many years, the Nazi era in particular was suppressed.

The earth hides many secrets

It was only when Germany started systematically working through its Nazi past and through the GDR past that archaeologists there also began stepping up their search for objects of more recent history. In 1992, Europe agreed in the Valletta Convention to also acknowledge younger relics as archaeological heritage.

Trained archaeologists are not the only people interested in the relics buried underground, however. Amateur archaeologists like to hunt for military remains, particularly in the state of Brandenburg where battles were fought on almost every square inch of its territory at one time or another. They dig without any permit and sell anything they can find on the Internet or at markets: weapons, ammunition and even explosives, as well as parts of crashed US aircraft or tanks. The bestselling items on the black market are those emblazoned with a swastika. Amateur archaeologists also enjoy speculating about hidden treasures on Internet forums. The Amber Room of Prussian King Frederick I, lost since the end of the Second World War, is thought to be buried beneath the earth in Oranienburg, while the gold allegedly hoarded by the Nazi Hermann Göring is rumoured to be in a lake in Brandenburg.

Researchers found Fanta bottles in the satellite concentration camps

Claudia Theune is fighting against a falsified representation of history. The director of the Institute of Prehistoric and Historical Archaeology in Vienna, she is the only academic in the German-speaking world who teaches contemporary twentieth century archaeology. She explores excavations from the First World War to modern industrial sites in her book Archäologie an Tatorten des 20. Jahrhunderts (i.e. Archaeology at Crime Scenes of the 20th Century).

According to Theune, historians have already been extensively working through the history of the large Nazi concentration camps since the late 1980s, but have only begun focusing on the 1,200 or so hitherto largely unknown satellite camps in the past 15 years. They discovered evidence there that gave new insights into life in the camps – for example Fanta bottles buried in the ground. The ingredients for manufacturing Coca-Cola were in short supply in the so-called Third Reich, so this orange-flavoured substitute from Essen was supplied to concentration camp guards from 1940.

Spoons and combs are testimony to will to survive

Researchers also found handmade aluminium spoons and combs under the earth, however. “They tell us much about the misery suffered by the victims, but are also testimony to their will and fight for survival”, explains Claudia Theune. “A person who still cares about their personal hygiene has not given up the will to live. This is something that no photograph or text can explain.” Can archaeology thus be described as a tactile lesson in history? “Yes”, says the professor. “Objects are able to tell us a great deal about people from the past. They often have more of an emotional impact on us than texts.”