Germany and its archaeology: scandal or commonplace?

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by Björn Schöpe

December 11, 2014 – Starting 2013 the German land Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW) announced its plans to cut back drastically on the cultural heritage management. This was particularly alarming as the region is extremely rich of archaeological finds: Roman forts, prehistoric sites (the first Neanderthal was found there), but also of many historical buildings, churches and much more. Even chancellor Angela Merkel stated openly that in her opinion the regional government was making a mistake in choosing its priorities. A petition gathered over 27,000 signatures. Now its organisers stated that this action has had a certain success: the government moderated its plans. In 2015 there will be no complete pay freeze as previously considered, the cutbacks will not be as dramatic as feared. But this is only a declaration of the government, there is no written document available, yet.

In the last weeks a news item recalled us to reality: the sensational find of a new Roman fort in Olfen (NRW) is endangered of being definitely lost due to lack of staff and material to preserve this archaeological site. For over hundred years archaeologists had been looking for this Roman fort until, some years ago, they eventually found it. The field, however, where the remains are located, is now being cultivated again. Bettina Tremmel, responsible researcher at the Heritage Foundation Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe, was cited in the newspaper Hellweger Anzeiger: ‘Ceramics may be destroyed by agricultural machines, metal objects may be affected by fertilisers. … For the time being we just do not have any resources for this project.’ The costs for researching the site will amount to a six-figure sum. ‘That exceeds our financial capacities – and our staff.’

While the government claims sovereignty over all archaeological finds and their following study, it does not allocate the necessary financial means. Comparing NRW with the other states, the region is chronically underfunded. And that is not intended as a praise of Germany’s other regions: the Netherlands employ twice as many archaeologists as Germany, Great Britain even four times as many!
Once more, the case of NRW illustrates that cutting back on the cultural sector is the easiest way of implementing cutbacks because culture can hardly fight back.

Currently we can only hope for Germany’s cultural heritage that it remains under the soil. Otherwise chances are that it deteriorates half-excavated and that there will be no funds for restoration, let alone for making it publicly visible.

You can read the petition and the latest statement of the organisers here.

The Hellweger Anzeiger described in detail the situation of the Roman fort in Olfen (in German).