One of the tallest trees in the archaeological high forest just fell: Leo Klejn 1927-2019

With Leo Klejn we have lost one of the last, - perhaps the last – polyhistorian in the field of archaeology. His immense thirst of knowledge made him cover a vast field beyond archaeology, including ethnology or folklore, and philology. But his vast knowledge was couched in a razor-sharp, uncompromising critical intellect, which could not but impress, even when you disagreed. It also brought him into conflict with the old Soviet authorities, but he persevered, and after being released he continued teaching and researching in his hometown Skt. Petersburg, where I visited him several times in his small, but tasteful flat. His problems with Soviet authorities were of course also in part due to him being both Jewish and homosexual, which probably contributed to shape and sharpen his critical thinking. He published also a book on the theme of intellectual homosexual friendships throughout history. His theoretical and methodological influence on Russian archaeology was immense, but also in the former west did his work attract attention, not least after the publication of the much cited ‘A Panorama of Theoretical Archaeology’, in Current Anthropology (1977), and the discussions that followed.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain Klejn became a frequently invited guest lecturer at many universities throughout Europe and the USA, he seemed to be on a constant world tour during the 1990s, and it brought him into contact with a new younger generation of archaeologists, who like me, became rather fascinated with his personality and intellectual history. Several interviews followed as well. During one such a stay in Copenhagen in December 1991 I interviewed him about his life for the first issue of the Journal of European Archaeology, which appeared in 1993, and since then we remained friends. It meant that he would occasionally contact you on an issue he was currently engaged in. The last time it happened was two or three years ago (he was around 90, but only death would finally stop his research) when he interviewed me for his Russian blog (yes, of course he was a blogger) about steppe migrations, after we had published our results in Nature in 2015 in Allentoft et al., back to back with the Haak et al. paper. His was skeptical, and we had subsequently a long e-mail discussion, which ended up in him writing a critique of the two Nature papers, published last year in the European Journal of Archaeology, and with our responses, as well as his even longer response to our responses.

Many EAA members will also remember his opening speech at the EAA annual meeting in Skt Petersburg in 2003 about Russian archaeology. I could wish it had been published. But a few years ago, in 2015, he rightly received a biography of his extraordinary life: A Russian Perspective on Theoretical Archaeology. The life and work of Leo S. Klejn.

Leo Klejn lived a long, productive and intellectually courageous life, always critically looking for new challenges. I will miss him.

Kristian Kristiansen

  • Allentoft, M.E., et al. 2015. Population Genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia. Nature, 522: 167–72. doi:10.1038/nature14507
  • Haak, W. et al. Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe. Nature 522, 207–211 (2015).
  • Klejn, L. S. , W. Haak, I. Lazaridis, N. Patterson, D. Reich, Kristian Kristiansen, Karl-Göran Sjögren, M. Allentoft, M. Sikora, E. Willerslev 2018 Discussion: Are the Origins of Indo-European Languages Explained by the Migration of the Yamnaya Culture to the West? European Journal of Archaeology, 1-15
  • Leach, S: 2015 A Russian Perspective on Theoretical Archaeology. The life and work of Leo S. Klejn. Routledge.
Wikipidia has an extensive documentation of Leo Klejn.