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Germany’s Ancient Pasts

Archaeology and Historical Interpretation since 1700

In Germany, Nazi ideology casts a long shadow over the history of archaeological interpretation. Propaganda, school curricula, and academic publications under the regime drew spurious conclusions from archaeological evidence to glorify the Germanic past and proclaim chauvinistic notions of cultural and racial superiority. But was this powerful and violent version of the distant past a nationalist invention or a direct outcome of earlier archaeological practices? By exploring the myriad pathways along which people became familiar with archaeology and the ancient past—from exhibits at local and regional museums to the plotlines of popular historical novels—this broad cultural history shows that the use of archaeology for nationalistic pursuits was far from preordained.

In Germany’s Ancient Pasts, Brent Maner offers a vivid portrait of the development of antiquarianism and archaeology, the interaction between regional and national history, and scholarly debates about the use of ancient objects to answer questions of race, ethnicity, and national belonging. While excavations in central Europe throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fed curiosity about the local landscape and inspired musings about the connection between contemporary Germans and their “ancestors,” antiquarians and archaeologists were quite cautious about using archaeological evidence to make ethnic claims. Even during the period of German unification, many archaeologists emphasized the local and regional character of their finds and treated prehistory as a general science of humankind. As Maner shows, these alternative perspectives endured alongside nationalist and racist abuses of prehistory, surviving to offer positive traditions for the field in the aftermath of World War II. A fascinating investigation of the quest to turn pre- and early history into history, Germany’s Ancient Pasts sheds new light on the joint sway of science and politics over archaeological interpretation.

336 pages | 8 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018 


History: European History, General History, History of Ideas

History of Science


"An archaeologist named Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931), writes Maner, 'claimed that a "Germanic" people had continuously inhabited central and northern Europe from the Bronze Age to his present day.' The Nazis, as is well known, promoted similar ideas in even more noxious forms. Yet despite an undeniable link between archaeology and racism, this is only half the story. Many German archaeologists were far more interested in local or pan-European history and, unlike fiction writers, very cautious in making any claims about their 'ancestors.' This book examines the often ignored 'non-national approaches to archaeology [that] endured alongside the racist and nationalist perversion of prehistory.'"

Times Higher Education

"An especially ambitious addition to the growing literature on the subject, addressing both the provincial and the national efforts to reconstruct antiquity and to relate ancient pasts to modern communities. . . . Historians wishing to understand the various cultural meanings that contemporaries applied to antiquities will come away delighted with new details on familiar figures . . . . Maner does a good job of placing developments in Germany within a European context, something that is often overlooked in many similar national studies."

German History

"As Brent Maner shows in his excellent Germany’s Ancient Pasts, antiquarianism opened the door to often intense and politically charged debates about the role of prehistory in German society. . . . Brent Maner offers a balanced, erudite, and highly readable perspective on a topic of enduring interest to students of modern German cultural history."

Journal of Modern History

“This is a very fine book, based on rich and deep research. Germany’s Ancient Pasts provides a useful synthesis and overview of the development of what Maner calls ‘domestic’ archaeology, a field that embraces prehistory (Vorgeschichte), proto-history (Frühgeschichte), and also geology, ethnography, folklore studies, and physical anthropology. Detailing the wide variety of purposes domestic archaeology served in the period of its flourishing (roughly 1820–1914), Maner’s book tells an important and nuanced story about why it is that Germans, like other Europeans, became so involved in the excavation, collection, and exhibition of artifacts in the years after Napoleon’s demise.”

Suzanne L. Marchand, Louisiana State University | author of "German Orientalism in the Age of Empire" and "Down from Olympus"

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations


Part I. The Discovery of Germany’s Ancient Pasts

Chapter 1. The Sources for Prehistory: Texts and Objects in the Eighteenth Century
Chapter 2. Preparing Artifacts for History: Archaeology after the Napoleonic Wars
Chapter 3. Archaeology and the Creation of Historical Places

Part II. The New Empire and the Ancient Past

Chapter 4. Rudolf Virchow and the Anthropological Orientation of Prehistory
Chapter 5. Domestic Archaeology: A Preeminently Regional Discipline
Chapter 6. Narrating the National Past

Part III. Between Science and Ideology

Chapter 7. Professionalization and Nationalism in Domestic Archaeology
Chapter 8. Prehistory as a National Socialist Narrative


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