For the first time, the Germanic tribes will be the focus of a large-scale archaeological exhibition. In collaboration with the LVR-Landesmuseum Bonn, the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte is showing the special exhibition The Germanic Tribes: Archaeological Perspectives on Berlin’s Museumsinsel. The Neues Museum will present the shifting history of research into the Germanic tribes and its reception, while in the James-Simon-Galerie – which is reopening its doors to host the exhibition – more than 700 exhibits will be on display, including numerous new finds and outstanding loans from across Germany, Denmark, Poland and Romania.
Broken up into seven chapters, the exhibition at the James-Simon-Galerie will offer insights into the archaeology of the communities who populated the area east of the Rhine and north of the Danube between the 1st and 4th century CE, for whom Caesar coined the term Germani to refer to various linguistic and ethnic groups living in this region. Spectacular finds and simple everyday objects paint a picture of an agrarian society with an upper class that was connected across regions, identified primarily through their opulent graves adorned with precious metals and Roman imports.
Their metalworking was highly developed and produced objects of superb skill and beauty. A highlight of the exhibition is without doubt the intricately adorned shield boss from the famous princely grave of Gommern, which was produced by skilled Germanic metalworkers from a solid Roman silver receptacle and adorned with silver-gilt pressed tin, gilding and glass inlays.
Conflict Only With the Romans?
Everybody knows about the wars between the Germanic tribes and the Romans, although only from the Roman point of view. However, we also know of archaeological evidence of violent conflicts between different tribal groups. Extensive examples of objects looted on the battlefield that were then sacrificed by being sunk in bogs in northern Germany and Scandinavia convey an impression of the size of the Germanic armies, their weaponry and organisation, which were modelled on their Roman contemporaries. One of the most valuable finds from the Thorsberger bog near Schleswig is an ornamental panel of metal made of gilt sheet silver and bronze with a sculpturally wrought animal frieze and dense rows of human heads, which was sacrificed as a sign of gratitude to the gods for a victory on the battlefield.
Written Sources from Germania
The inscriptions on a number of exhibits provide a glimpse of the few examples of written material from Germania. The oldest Germanic inscription from the 1st century CE on the fibula from Meldorf can be read from right to left as IDIN (Ida) in Latin letters and from left to right in runes as HIWI (the domestic one), thus connecting the runic alphabet with the Latin one from which it evolved.
Research on the Germanic tribes has always been significantly shaped by the tensions between the Roman Empire and Germania, with the Roman perspective usually occupying the foreground. This exhibition places the focus on the region of Germania, but also addresses Rome’s relationship with the Germanic societies.
Germanic Tribes in Research: Now and Then
The second part of the exhibition, titled “The Germanic Tribes: 200 Years of Myth, Ideology and Scholarship”, sheds light on perceptions of Germanic culture, particularly in the Berlin museums in the 19th and 20th centuries. This topic is presented in the “Vaterländicher Saal” of the Neues Museum at a historical location: in the mid-19th century, the spectacular murals on “Norse Mythology” conveyed to the public for the first time an impression of Norse cosmology, although their interpretations were only based on Medieval sources. The detailed interpretation of this frieze, which traces back to the stories of the Edda, forms the initial focus of this section of the exhibition.
Against the backdrop of 200 years of research into the Germanic tribes, the exhibition also highlights how the Berlin museums responded to the various historical scholarly discourses on the questions of the origins, expansion and dating of the Germanic tribes in the form of shifting museum conceptions. In the early 19th century, for example, the perception of the Germanic tribes was determined by their mentions in texts by authors from classical antiquity. At the end of the 19th century, the classical conception of the people of Germania began to be connected with archaeological findings. In the early 20th century, a dispute developed over whether archaeological cultures from the Bronze Age or the Neolithic Age could be designated as “Germanic”. This produced a dangerous proximity to the Nazi’s racial ideology. Since 1950, references to the people of Germania have become less common, with scholars preferring to refer to people of various archaeological cultures from the pre-Roman Iron Age (ca. 700 BCE to the beginning of the Common Era) or from the subsequent era of the Roman Empire (until 370–80 CE).
A special exhibition by the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the LVR-Landesmuseum Bonn.
The exhibition is supported by the Kuratorium Preußischer Kulturbesitz.
GEO is the media partner for this exhibition.
The exhibition is accompanied by the publication of a catalogue through wbg Thiess, Darmstadt. Hardcover, 640 pages, ca. 300 colour illustrations, ISBN: 978-3-8062-4261-4, retail price: €50, reduced museum price: €39 (german only).