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Cover of British Archaeology 115

Issue 115

Nov / Dec 2010


All the latest archaeology news from around the country


On the Trail of Viking Women

Jane Kershaw reports on an astounding quantity of Viking-style jewellery found in England

THE BIG DIG: Bestwall Quarry

At this large site in Dorset local, largely unfunded amateurs were nominated to manage the archaeology with fascinating results

Life Between the Nations

The wartime correspondence of German refugee archaeologist Paul Jacobsthal

Excavating the Living Dead

Alistair Barclay examines the stories of the many people who were buried on Boscombe Down, Wiltshire

The Human Remains Crisis

Change is promised, but fieldwork continues under conditions that many are unhappy with

The Little House by the Shore

The directors of the Star Carr excavation update readers on the endangered organic remains

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' third exploration, we introduce Great Excavations – The Musical

on the web

Neolithic excavations online and the Cranbourne Chase gets an overhaul

CBA Correspondent

From CBA Director, Mike Heyworth on academia


Your views and responses


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Life between the nations

The wartime correspondence of German refugee archaeologist Paul Jacobsthal, by Sally Crawford and Katharina Ulmschneider.

Paul Jacobsthal's name is not familiar to many – even to archaeologists. One reason for this oversight may be that his important archive (57 boxes of photographs, notes, research and correspondence) has, until recently, been uncatalogued and essentially inaccessible. These documents are held by the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford. They tell a compelling story of an archaeologist's determination to pursue research in the face of adversity; to continue collaborative work with an extensive network of archaeologists across the world – not least in Germany – before, during, and after the second world war; and to maintain academic integrity. Recent grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Reva and David Logan Foundation are now enabling researchers and volunteers to bring Jacobsthal's archive to light.

Paul Ferdinand Jacobsthal (1880–1957) was an established classical archaeologist and director of the Seminar at Marburg University. There, in 1928, he was instrumental in founding the first German chair in prehistory, only shortly after the creation of the first ever such chair at Edinburgh. In 1935 he was deprived of his post "aus rassischen Gründen" – on racial grounds and he and his wife, Guste, were forced into exile because of his Jewish origins. In a world where racial interpretations of German prehistory were a key part of National Socialist ideology, Jacobsthal may already have drawn unwelcome attention to himself as a staunch defender of the new archaeological discipline.

With the help of his friends, including John Beazley (the classical archaeologist with whom he began publishing an inventory of Greek vases in 1930), he found refuge at the Oxford college of Christ Church; he soon became the university's reader in Celtic archaeology. His treasured collection of photographic negatives and equipment was confiscated, and had to be left in Marburg. As his letters reveal, however, once in England he immediately set about rebuilding his catalogue of early Celtic art and rewriting his research in English. The result of this effort was published in 1944 as Early Celtic Art (Clarendon Press); it remains the seminal work on the subject.

While the scholarship and intellectual achievement of Early Celtic Art have been fully recognised, few who have enjoyed its text and plates are aware of the circumstances under which it was produced – or that it represents a quiet but determined act of defiance towards the Nazi regime, not only by Jacobsthal, but especially by the many contributing German academics. In 1944 England was still at war with Germany, and Jacobsthal had to conceal the identities of the German men and women who had continued to supply him with information after his exile. His correspondence, however, reveals their names.

What is striking about these letters is how many of them were written on the headed notepaper of German institutions – and without the required "German greeting" (Heil Hitler). As civil servants, not one of Jacobsthal's correspondents should have written to him at all, and they were taking a small but significant risk. Those who wrote to him between 1935 and the outbreak of war included his good friend Eduard Neuffer (the man who, "but for hateful reasons", would have been acknowledged as the coauthor of Early Celtic Art), Gero von Merhart, the Austrian holder of the chair of prehistory at Marburg, and Wolfgang Dehn, Merhart's successor.

One of the enduring puzzles of Jacobsthal's life is his relationship with Alexander Langsdorff after 1929, when they co-wrote a well-received book. Langsdorff was one of Jacobsthal's star pupils. Letters dating to the late 20s indicate a cordial relationship: in 1929 the two went on a field trip with Neuffer to visit museums and sites in the south of France, as Langsdorff's handwriting in Jacobsthal's notebooks indicates. But Langsdorff was a National Socialist, having taken part in the Munich Beer Hall putsch in 1923. He joined the Nazi party in 1933, two years before Jacobsthal was deprived of his post, and rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming cultural attaché to von Ribbentrop in London in 1937. The close of the war found him masterminding a major Nazi art theft from Italian museums and private collections. Did Langsdorff maintain contact with Jacobsthal? Did he help his old friend and mentor to escape from Germany? An enigmatic letter in the archive seems to suggest that Jacobsthal had private knowledge of Langsdorff's London appointment.

The letters sent to Jacobsthal at Christ Church by his German colleagues before 1940 were terse and strictly academic. They were all aware that their correspondence might be intercepted and read – in one letter, written on February 20 1939, Jacobsthal warned Josef Fleißig, museum director in Budapest, that his previous communication had been tampered with. After the war, however, there was a rapid and lengthy exchange of news. Jacobsthal was particularly upset to learn of the deaths of so many of his former students: Buttler, Holste, Wagner, Eckes, Lucke, Behaghel, Nass and Grünberg. A generation of brilliant young German archaeologists had perished, leading Jacobsthal to lament: "Finis prehistoriae, historiae, archaeologiae Germanicae" (the end of Germany's prehistory, history and archaeology).

After the war, Jacobsthal suddenly found himself in demand by former colleagues and acquaintances as a character referee. Wolfgang Dehn, who had been head of the Institute of Archaeology at Marburg from 1942–43, wrote to Jacobsthal asking him to add to the set of references and testimonies he was gathering to prove to the authorities that, "despite my belonging nominally to the Party or its Organisations respectively, I was not a wild Nazi, and in particular, that I have not given room to Nazi trains-of-thought in my works". Jacobsthal obliged.

Refugee life in England

Life in England for Paul and Guste was not straight-forward. He found a niche and friends in Christ Church and the university, but it was a great shock to him to be interned by the British on the Isle of Man for several months in 1940 as an enemy alien, leaving Guste in Oxford. His later private account reflects the traumatic nature of this period of internment. Once he was released, the awkwardness for both of them as Germans in wartime and post-war Oxford remained. "The other problems of our life are too complicated to even hint at", he wrote to a correspondent shortly after the war. "England is very, very different to how guidebook writers present it... That life between the nations as we lead it is not easy, is evident, and the contact with friends, which is possible now, illuminates these difficulties even more". Jacobsthal missed Germany and the life he had lost because of the war. He found much to admire in Oxford, but his decision not to accept naturalisation after the war is telling. Refusing to return to Germany (because, he said, a Nazi had been retained on the staff at Marburg), but unable to become British, he was truly living "between the nations".

In spite of these problems, Jacobsthal was in no doubt about the advantages of working in Oxford. "The [research] atmosphere", he enthused to one correspondent, "is probably as good as nowhere else in the world: classical archaeology and other fields devoted to studies of the past excellent. To every question you get a knowledgeable answer from someone here". He could be an acerbic observer, however. Notably excepting his good friend Sir John Beazley, he accuses some of his English colleagues of "[saving] themselves through doing nothing and a charming kind of noble dilettantism".

Jacobsthal was the driving force behind attempts to re-unite post-war British and German prehistoric archaeology. He hatched a plot, supported by the Oxford prehistorian Christopher Hawkes, to bring over Gero von Merhart, "the leading prehistorian of Germany". The idea was to reconnect and exchange ideas on museum material, excavation results and new methods such as air photography. He also sought to pit Merhart against Hugh Hencken from the Peabody Museum, Harvard. Hencken was enthusiastic, but unfortunately what would have been a pivotal meeting for the future of prehistory never took place: Merhart felt unable to make the trip.

The archive shows the extent to which Jacobsthal was an avid and determined collector. During his lifetime he amassed thousands of photographs of Celtic and related art: his correspondents, including museum staff, academics, private collectors, art collectors and art dealers – all of whom were pressed into supplying images for him – covered the whole of Europe and America. During the war, harried staff at museums in Britain were obliged to remind him several times that artefacts were unavailable – keepers were in the military, didn't Jacobsthal know there was a war on? He visited hundreds of museums, describing finds in well over 125 notebooks. All images, like his letters and other notes, were meticulously kept and stored, leading him to admit that he was suffering from "stamp-collectors madness". The potential of his notebooks as a record of pre-war European museum collections has yet to be assessed.

Given Jacobsthal's meticulous attitude to all things affecting his work, it is surprising that he left no clear guidelines as to who was going to inherit his archive. He was set against only two things – Cyril Fox (whose own study of early Celtic art was published in 1958) taking it over for his planned Celtic Institute at the Courtauld Institute in London; and Christopher Hawkes getting his hands on it for his planned Celtic Art archive at Oxford. In the event, after Jacobsthal's death in 1957 it was Martyn Jope, his assistant on the follow-up volume on Celtic Art in the British Isles, who took possession of Jacobsthal's papers. But where were they to be kept? Correspondence in the Jope archive at the Institute of Archaeology reveals the tortuous route by which it was agreed that Jacobsthal's research papers, photographs and letters should be moved from his "workshop" at Christ Church to the Institute at Beaumont Street, where they have remained ever since.

So what is Jacobsthal's legacy?

He was a man of vision – a founding father of the subject of prehistory as a separate discipline in Germany, and an architect of the rebuilding of "new" post-war British-German prehistory. He brought together scholars and actively promoted information exchange and publications in post-war Britain, Germany and America. He fought off nationalistic and political doctrines, never letting his work be tainted by them. Instead he always fostered a pan-European approach to archaeology, showing himself and the Celts he studied to be true Europeans.

Sally Crawford and Katharina Ulmschneider would like to thank their team of volunteers: Pam England, Tricia Hallam, Grace Hudson, Marissa Kings, Mark McKerracher, Roellie Reed, and Janet Walls. The authors are directors of the Jacobsthal Archive Project and are keen to hear from anyone who knew Jacobsthal, or who had similar refugee scholar experiences in Oxford. Visitors and volunteers at the archive are welcome.

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