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Cover of British Archaeology 122

Issue 122

Jan / Feb 2012



All the latest archaeology news from around the country


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CBA Correspondent

Highlights of another year in listed building casework

Mick's Travels

Mick Aston explores less-visted sites in Brittany


Sebastian Payne looks at the reality of spotted horses


COVER STORY: Origins of London

The city reveals its chilling Roman past

Local Authority cuts and EH protection

The latest probelms and policies of procting our heritage

Dating Europe's oldest modern humans

Each team from Somerset and Italy thought they had it

Archaeology in Russia

Heinrich Härke reports on kurgans, politics and sprit

Operation Nightingale

Rehabilitating wounded soldiers with archaeology

Embroidering history

The strange tale of the Bayeux Tapestry, archaeology and the Nazi party


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


The strange tale of the Bayeux Tapestry, archaeology and the Nazi party

The Bayeux Tapestry is an extraordinary artwork. It was also a propaganda tool for William I and Napoleon, a focus of rival French and British theories in the 19th century and, in the 1940s, the subject of intense research by German academics. Shirley Ann Brown reports.

Bayeux Illustration

The narrow medieval streets in the centre of Bayeux lead today's visitors to the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant. Pride of place there is given to what is perhaps the most remarkable and best known artefact of the middle ages: the Bayeux Tapestry. This late 11th century embroidery – it is actually not a tapestry – was created after the successful invasion of England by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy. It stitches together a tale of political intrigue and brutal confrontation. Employing the common materials of wool and linen, it recreates the victorious Norman version of events between 1064 and 1066, culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

This 225ft (68m) long testament to regime change may have been intended for the walls of an aristocratic great hall, or for display in Bayeux Cathedral. Visual art makes powerful propaganda, particularly in time of war. The Bayeux Tapestry surely served the immediate Norman purpose of reminding all parties, whether Norman, French, English, Danish or Norwegian, that the conqueror and his supporters had won the right to be England's new overlords.

In the early 12th century, when the Anglo-Normans were the undisputed aristocracy in England, the embroidery disappeared from sight. Popping up only sporadically during the next 600 years, it reappeared with a flourish in the early 1700s when French antiquarians and archaeologists discovered it in the little backwater that was Bayeux.

The French immediately declared "la Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde", as they dubbed it, to be a national treasure, a monument to their glorious medieval past. In 1803 its propaganda value was appropriated by Napoleon – seen as a modern parallel to that great 11th century French conqueror, William of Normandy – when it was exhibited in the Louvre to rally citizens' support for the intended invasion of England. English antiquarians and historians immediately claimed that the tapestry was a monument to England's history: it had been created on English soil, by English embroideresses.

In the atmosphere of 19th century romantic nationalism, the embroidery featured in the search for identity by two rival countries. To the French, it was testimony to their military and cultural victories over the English. Across the channel, it represented the birth of modern England, a nation in which the Norman heritage had been absorbed into Englishness: benefitting from the best of Norman and Anglo-Saxon peoples, this ultimately led to the creation of the mighty British empire. By the beginning of the last century, the tapestry had become the focus for ever-growing scholarly debate, almost exclusively French or English – and, not incidentally, was evolving into an increasingly popular tourist attraction.

Nazi poster

A Nazi propaganda poster featuring a coat of arms of the medieval Teutonic Knights decorated with a swastika

An unexpected new player arrived in the 20th century: National Socialist Germany. On 8 July 1939, a memorandum arrived on the desk of Wolfram Sievers, the managing director of the Ahnenerbe, the Society for the Study of German Ancestral Heritage. This organisation had been established in 1935 by Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo and the SS, along with Herman Wirth and Richard Walther Darré. Its purpose was to undertake research and teaching to prove the early Germanic roots of Europe and the anthropological origins of the Aryan race. Anthropology and archaeology in the service of ideology would document the antiquity of Germanic supremacy.

An unexpected new player arrived in the 20th century: National Socialist Germany. On 8 July 1939, a memorandum arrived on the desk of Wolfram Sievers, the managing director of the Ahnenerbe, the Society for the Study of German Ancestral Heritage. This organisation had been established in 1935 by Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo and the SS, along with Herman Wirth and Richard Walther Darré. Its purpose was to undertake research and teaching to prove the early Germanic roots of Europe and the anthropological origins of the Aryan race. Anthropology and archaeology in the service of ideology would document the antiquity of Germanic supremacy.

The one-page memorandum proposed that the Ahnenerbe sponsor a proper, detailed study of "der Normannenteppich" – the Bayeux Tapestry. The reasoning was simple: the tapestry was a great monument to medieval Germanic hegemony, not to French national history. The early Normans, claimed the proposal, laid the foundations of both the medieval and modern German and English empires. It repeated the idea espoused in England that the establishment of the British empire could only be understood as the result of the enlivening of Anglo-Saxon tradition that followed the Norman takeover of England.

The proposal described the Bayeux Tapestry as the most important document for the events of the Norman conquest. But only the English and the French had published it, in a manner unacceptable to German thinking: the scholarship was based on the mistaken premise that by 1066 the Normans were essentially French. Instead, the proposal argued that the tapestry provides indisputable evidence that the Viking heritage and the traditions of their Scandinavian homeland survived in pure form in Normandy at that time. And if 11th century Normans were still Vikings, they had to be seen as legitimate players in Germanic history.

Viking settlement, Haithabu

The vast Viking age settlement of Hedeby (Haithabu) was the subject of excavations throughout the last century, and is now the site of a museum. In the 1930s fieldwork was supervised by Heinrich Himmler and his friend and archaeologist Herbert Jankuhn

To irrefutably link Normans and Vikings, it was recommended that the tapestry's images be studied for their narrative and for details of material culture. This proposal seems to have come from Peter Paulsen, professor of archaeology at the University of Berlin. Paulsen was a Viking expert with an international reputation, and a dedicated member of the Nazi party which he had joined in 1927, at the age of 25. He was one of the growing cohort of respected and very well educated scholars who were willingly recruited to carry out the Ahnenerbe's cultural investigations. In the end, his future lay not with the Bayeux Tapestry project, but with the plunder of Polish museums.

One of the main archaeological sites associated with the Vikings was Haithabu (Hedeby in English), a ninth century settlement in southern Jutland. The Danish excavations there were taken over by the Germans in the early 1900s, and came under the supervision of Heinrich Himmler in 1934. Herbert Jankuhn, an archaeologist who had worked at Haithabu since 1930, developed a close friendship with Himmler, and became site supervisor of the excavations in 1937. In 1940 Jankuhn, a member of both the Nazi party and the SS, was appointed head of the Ahnenerbe's excavation and archaeology section. Himmler and Jankuhn shared an obsession with the "Nordic spirit" and the Vikings.

Wewelsburg Castle

Wewelsburg Castle, where Himmler sought to celebrate the Germanic achievement: the tapestry may have been destined for there. It was looted when war ended, and is now a museum. The Tapestry was moved to the Chateau de Sourches in August 1941. In 1944 it was taken to Paris, where it survived the war.

The Bayeux Tapestry project finally got off the ground in June 1941, when four men were sent from Berlin, headed by none other than Dr Herbert Jankuhn. He had formulated a plan whereby a varied team of credible experts would study the tapestry as artefact and work of art, and from as many different angles as possible, using methods perfected during his years in the field. The strategy was to assemble all the information needed, so that studies could continue after the tapestry had been moved to safe storage. First, the tapestry had to be "dug" out of the cellar of the Hotel du Dôyen in Bayeux, where it had been rolled on a spool, placed in a padded, zinc-lined wooden case, and then deposited in a purpose-built concrete shelter. This had been done in September 1939 when Hitler marched into Poland.

Jankuhn's own task, in addition to overseeing the project, was to initiate a detailed description of the tapestry. He was accompanied by Dr Karl Schlabow, head of the Textile Museum in Neumünster, who was to scrutinise the fabric and take exact measurements. Herbert Jeschke, an artist who specialised in archaeologically correct drawings, was to produce an accurate, detailed, full-size pen and watercolour facsimile. Rolf Alber was assigned to take new photographs of the embroidery, in colour and in black-and-white. After the first week, Alber was replaced by Ursula Uhland from Marburg University. During the project's last two days, a man named Loeb was given permission to create two propaganda films of the tapestry.

The investigation lasted from June 23 to July 31 1941, and was conducted in the monastery of St-Martin de Mondaye, about 5 miles (8km) south of Bayeux. The night before it was moved to Mondaye, the regional Nazi leaders were given the opportunity to view the hanging. At the beginning of August, the embroidery was transported to the Chateau de Sourches, where the Louvre had deposited some of its most valuable treasures. It was to remain there until June 1944.

Heinrich Himmler

Heinrich Himmler, one of the chief power holders in Nazi Germany, co-founded the Ahnenerbe, the Society for the Study of German Ancestral Heritage, in 1935

In August 1941, shortly after the team left Bayeux, Himmler deployed Jankuhn to Crimea to lead a team of archaeologists whose job was to prove that the area was the cradle of the Goths. Dr Hermann Bunjes, a historian of medieval art educated in Paris, Harvard and Marburg, now became the embroidery project's guiding spirit. As head of the German Institute of Art History in Paris, he recruited an additional group of scholars, all either professors at German universities or Ahnenerbe researchers. They were to use the written material, photographs and drawings created by the Bayeux team. Their goal was to produce a lavish, four-volume multidisciplinary study of the Bayeux Tapestry, featuring it as a great monument of Germanic history and including a complete coloured photographic facsimile. It was to surpass anything that had been accomplished in the past.

The contents of the projected book were discussed in a couple of meetings in 1941 and 1943, arranged by Wolfram Sievers. Bunjes would write the introduction. Alfred Stange (professor of art history from Bonn University) would discuss past scholarship; Jankuhn would describe the tapestry's physical details; Otto Vehse (professor of medieval history at the Hanseatic University of Hamburg) would discuss its historical authority; Stange and Bunjes would write about its art historical importance; its significance for the history of culture would occupy Dr Martin Rudolph (lecturer on settlement history from the Technical University of Braunschweig), Jankuhn and Dr Joseph Otto Plassmann (a cultural historian with the Ahnenerbe); the technical study of the fabric and embroidery was the focus for Dr Karl Schlabow (a member of the original team), while the analysis of the material and colour would occupy Dr Walther von Stockar (textile archaeologist from the University of Cologne).

The tapestry and its images were, not surprisingly, occasionally employed as propaganda to foretell Hitler's eventual victory over the English: even Lord Haw-Haw used it to emphasise England's vulnerability in one of his infamous radio broadcasts. But the Ahnenerbe's interest in the Bayeux Tapestry may have been so keen because of its perfect fit into Nazi pan-Germanic ideology. It demanded study because it bore witness to the earlier unification of the Germanic cultures of England, Normandy and Scandinavia. It could serve as a precedent for the Nazis' desire to recreate a unified Germania, a homeland for all the Germanic volk. For the Ahnenerbe, the Bayeux Tapestry was a unique visual testimony of the events and people who brought about one of the most important advances in the early medieval Germanic world, a unification which had reverberations in the 20th century.

Sievers realised that it was important to keep his boss, Heinrich Himmler, apprised of this project. To this end, he gathered a collection of the new photographs of the tapestry into a bound volume and presented it to Himmler as a personal gift at Yule, 1942. Himmler personally acknowledged his deep appreciation.

What was the ultimate planned fate of the embroidery? There is no indication that it was intended for Hitler's projected Museum of German Art in Linz. But it had been singled out for special attention. On June 6, 1944 the allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. On June 27, the tapestry was moved without warning to Paris and deposited in the Louvre cellars, ostensibly because of fears that Sourches could be targeted by the Allies: but other important artworks were not moved.

The allied forces advanced towards Paris, and by August there was fighting in the streets. On August 21, two SS officers presented themselves to General Dietrich von Choltitz, Commander-in-Chief of the German Armed Forces in Paris, saying they had orders to remove the tapestry from its shelter. At a time of severe rationing, they had two trucks with enough fuel for a long journey. But finding it impossible to seize the tapestry because of the fighting, the men left empty-handed. The order for the embroidery's removal had come from Himmler himself. What were his intentions?

In 1933 Himmler had chosen Wewelsburg Castle, near Paderborn, as the location of his planned "Nordic Academy", a cross between a monastic retreat and a finishing school for the upper echelon of the SS. A whole curriculum was set up for the schooling of the SS officers in order to re-create the lost world of the "Nordic race". Obsessed with the idea of the SS as a revival of the medieval Teutonic Knights, Himmler had chosen the area where this military order had launched their offensive against the Slavs in the 13th century. Himmler devised increasingly complicated plans for an immense complex of buildings to be developed at great expense.

Ahnenerbe symbol

The Ahnenerbe symbol, an Odal rune around a sword

Combining his myths, Himmler also imagined the castle as the locus for the rebirth of the Knights of the Round Table and appointed a council of 12 leaders in the SS organisation. The castle crypt was called Valhalla and was eventually to hold their ashes. Individual rooms were given the names of Germanic heroes and decorated in the medieval style, with runes and swastikas liberally incorporated into designs. Himmler installed his personal collection of ancient and medieval weapons in the castle. A large research library and museum were set up and Dr Wilhelm Jordan was appointed castle archaeologist, in charge of excavations in the area.

Himmler had wanted tapestries hanging on the walls in the great rooms at Wewelsburg. It is tempting to speculate that the Bayeux Tapestry was destined for exhibition once again in a castle. This would be an apt location for a monument attesting the Germanic/Nordic unification of north-western Europe nine centuries earlier, and in June 1944, Wewelsburg was still secure. On March 31, 1945 Himmler ordered the dynamiting of the castle with all of its contents. Two days later, when the American army took control of the grounds, the villagers had already looted remaining artworks and valuables from the ruins. Like Wagner's Valhalla, Himmler's dreams of a neo-medieval military order housed in the castle went up in flames. Fortunately, the tapestry remained safe in Paris. It was returned to Bayeux on March 2, 1945.

Shirley Ann Brown is professor of art history at the Department of Visual Arts, York University, Toronto and founding director of the Registry of Stained Glass Windows in Canada. Her "Decoding Operation Matilda: the Bayeux Tapestry, the Nazis and German pan-nationalism" is in The Bayeux Tapestry: New Approaches, ed MJ Lewis et al.

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