New Challenges: Archaeological Heritage Management and the Archaeology of the 18th to 20th centuries

Katalin Wollák
Independent heritage expert

The European Archaeological Council’s (EAC) 24th Heritage Management Symposium was held in Bonn, Germany on March 23-24, 2023 within the framework of the Council’s Annual Meeting. The event took place at the LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn and was hosted by the LVR-State Service for Archaeological Heritage on behalf of the Association of State Archaeologists in the Federal Republic of Germany. See Figure 54. 

Figure 54. LandesMuseum Bonn. Image by LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn.

The Council brings together 34 member countries. The annual conference is its flagship event, and each year it focuses on a specific theme within archaeological heritage management. Presentations are available in hard copy or as a PDF (extended abstracts) and are published in the next year's issue of Internet Archaeology. See Figure 55. 

Figure 55. A picture of the last EAC publication from the EAC annual conference. Image by Marcel Zanjani/LVR-Amt für Bodendenkmalpflege im Rheinland.

The ca. 120 participants from 14 countries who attended the two-day conference listened to 24 talks organized into five sessions. The exhibition titled Das Leben des BODI. Eine Forschungsreise ins frühe Mittelalter / The life of the BODI. A journey of discovery into the early Middle Ages (running March 23 2023 - October 15 2023) provided an excellent backdrop for the conference. The exhibition presents the 7th-century Frankish warrior grave findings from Wesel-Bislich on the Lower Rhine along with related archaeological finds from all over Europe opened at the same time as the conference. A comprehensive exhibition catalogue was also made available. See Figure 56. 

Figure 56. A snapshot from the exhibition. Image by J. Vogel, LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn.

The main theme of the symposium was the widening scope of archaeology and the challenges faced by research into the 18th–20th centuries. As several speakers pointed out, international scholarship has acknowledged for decades that it is possible to study the Early and Late Modern Era or even the recent past (i.e. contemporary history) through archaeological methods, and that this approach offers significant insights into these centuries. The fact that the chronological boundaries of archaeological heritage vary from one European country to another makes the concept and perception of heritage management even more complex. This boundary is sometimes linked to a specific historical period or date (e.g., 1538 in Norway, 1711 in Hungary), but more often the boundary is dynamic, i.e. features and artefacts that are older than 100 years are considered archaeological heritage. The concept note reached by the conference suggested that remains from the 18th–20th centuries should be examined via the same archaeological excavation and documentation methods used for exploring periods more conventionally understood as the subjects of archaeological research. Although the research methodology is the same, the statutory tasks of protecting and preserving the remains and monuments of this modern era are a great challenge for heritage conservation.

In countries where the archaeological research of the 20th century is a standard practice, the integration of contemporary archaeology into academic discourse poses no problem. In other countries, however, both involving experts and relevant institutions and developing a legal framework to support the process presents certain challenges. As artefacts from these periods are less specific due to industrialization, the preservation, selection and documentation of this kind of material requires amended strategies and techniques.

The scientific coordinators (Erich Claßen, LVR-State Service for Archaeological Heritage; Alex Hale and Rebecca Jones, Historic Environment Scotland; Thomas Kersting, Brandenburgisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologisches Landesmuseum and Regina Smolnik, Archaeological Heritage Office of Saxony) invited the conference’s speakers to discuss these issues and present good examples and initiatives that have the potential to serve as models for heritage management practices in other countries.

The opening keynote lecture was given by Olivier Laurent (National Museum of Archaeology,  France), entitled “Archaeology of the Contemporary Past and Cultural Heritage in the Anthropocenic Age”. He discussed the novel challenges the discipline faces in the Anthropocene, which is characterized by a significant and global impact of human activity on the Earth’s ecosystems. In addition to the "Great Acceleration" of the mid-20th century, armed conflicts in recent decades pose serious problems. He suggested that the role of archaeology must be redefined in this context, in accordance with its duties of preserving material memory in a well-documented environment.

The first session was entitled “Protection, management and tensions”. The first speaker, Jaime Almansa-Sánchez (INCIPIT-CSIC) summarized the results of a four-year project called #pubarchMED (Public Archaeology in the Mediterranean Context), including 150 interviews with archaeology experts from different backgrounds. One of the topics covered was contemporary archaeology, with a particular concentration on the management of difficult heritage. As contemporary archaeology brings into focus those problems that have only been partially addressed so far (e.g. vast quantities of archaeological material, physical preservation), it may also be the key to finding new solutions. 

By means of specific examples Liisa Seppänen (Finnish Heritage Agency) presented different approaches to archaeological material from younger periods and also discussed the legal framework that is currently being reformed. The next speaker, József Laszlovszky (National Institute of Cultural Heritage, Hungary), pointed out that the chronological boundaries of archaeology are often defined by political history. Via a Hungarian example, he demonstrated that legal background, academic approach, and actual practice may differ significantly. Via further examples, his lecture also demonstrated how excavations of historic gardens, industrial sites, battlefields, military camps, execution burials and quarantine sites contribute to our understanding and interpretation of the historical periods of the 18th-20th centuries.

Presenters Agnieszka Oniszczuk and Jakub Wrzosek (National Institute of Cultural Heritage, Poland) explained how large-scale development-led archaeology in Poland facilitated the discovery of abandoned villages, manors, cemeteries, farmsteads, as well as the locations of armed conflicts dated between 1800-1945. This also contributed to the development of forensic archaeology. They presented methods that are partly applicable within the existing heritage framework and partly require new innovative solutions.

The presentation by Alexander Gill (National Heritage Board, Sweden) emphasized the benefits of a legislative environment that can adapt to new expectations. An amendment of the Swedish Historic Environment Act in 2014 redefined ancient monuments as dating before 1850, adding that younger monuments can also be included in this category if they meet the statutory criteria, of which he gave several examples. At the end of the sessions, the floor was opened for questions and reflections. See Figure 57.

Figure 57. The floor is opened for questions and reflections. Image by Marcel Zanjani/LVR-Amt für Bodendenkmalpflege im Rheinland. 

The second session was entitled “Challenges, choices and ceramics”. The first talk was given by Guy Stiebel (Tel-Aviv University & Israeli Archaeological Council), who discussed how the Israeli Antiquities law followed the concept of the British Mandate Law of the 1920s (in which artefacts and features that date before 1700 AD are considered antiquities). However, some key developments of recent history (such as extensive modern military activity in the 20th century, excavations in what was once concentration camps and the archaeology of refugees) necessitate a different approach to modern heritage. 

The next speaker, Niko Anttiroiko (Heritage Agency, Finland) presented a novel application of 21st-century technology: machine learning adapted for heritage management. Within the LIDARK project, (semi-) automatic feature detection was carried out over half of the territory of the country, covering nearly 100,000 square km using LIDAR imagery and thousands of features were recorded. Some features from the 17th-20th centuries (such as tar and charcoal kilns and the remains of World War I and II era defensive structures) are relatively uniform and are, therefore, easily detectable through remote sensing. The evaluation, validation and further analysis of the results raise a series of questions and may also pave the way to a paradigm shift.

No chronological boundary is applied in heritage management in Austria; therefore speaker Eva Steigberger  (Federal Monuments Office, Austria) presented the previously-established practice in the management of three types of 20th-century material: Alpine terrain that holds the remains of two World Wars along the slopes and ridges up to 3000 meters above sea level, the unknown camps of World War I and II and the industrially-produced mass finds in connection with the atrocities of the two wars. She stressed the need for consistent, clear and transparent answers to the questions of ‘what/how much/how to preserve’, in which respect developed guidelines may be instructive. Christoph Keller (LVR-State Service for Archaeological Heritage in the Rhineland) discussed an example of how the archaeological research of late 18th and early 20th-century mass ceramic production in NordRhine Westphalia produced new results. He also touched upon challenges in documentation, archiving and selection.

In the third session, entitled “The Holocaust, conflict and changing approaches”, five papers explored the sensitive issues of conflict / contested archaeology. The first speaker, Gilly Carr (University of Cambridge), focused on the delicate relation to Holocaust heritage, the complex problem of safeguarding these sites and their role in education, remembrance and pilgrimage, emphasising the indispensable involvement of local communities. She articulated her belief that only a pragmatic approach can take the matter forward.  

A French case study presented by Vincent Carpentier (INRAP) focused on locations of the Normandy landings on D-Day in 1944, the Atlantic wall, battlefields and different camps. In the last decade, several preventive archaeological interventions took place at these locations and complex research programs were also launched. The speaker presented the scientific and heritage conservation background of the cited examples and the lessons learned from their research.

The next speaker, Barbara Hausmair (University of Innsbruck), discussed the archaeological methods used to investigate the legacy of the Nazi period. Presenting the archaeological inquiry into the Nazi shale-oil project 'Unternehmen Wüste', she demonstrated an excellent methodology for inclusive heritage management.

The next presentation by Sam De Decker Sam De Decker (Flemish Heritage Agency) and Wouter Gheyle (University of Ghent) focused on a Belgian (Flemish) initiative to provide support for synthesizing archaeological data produced via development-led archaeology in Flanders. They also discussed how new knowledge and insight is handled based on the comparative analysis of 172 recent excavations of WWII sites and historical aerial photographs.

The last paper of the session was given by Gediminas Petrauskas (Klaipėda University), Lijana Muradian and Augustina Kurilienė (the latter two both from the Ministry of Culture, Vilnius),  who presented the emergence of Lithuanian forensic archaeology, the challenges posed by the research of artefacts linked to the Lithuanian Partisan War (1944-1953) and the possibilities of management and interpretation of 20th-century conflict sites.

In the fourth session, entitled “Developing interdisciplinary practices”, the speakers Michael Baales and Manuel Zeiler (LWL-Archaeology for Westphalia), Marcus Weidner (LWL-Institute for Westphalian Regional History), Juliette Brangé (Archaeology Nord-Est), Théo Aubry (Archaeological Service, Department of Charente-Maritime), Michaël Landolt (DRAC Grand Est), Jacek Konik (Warsaw Ghetto Museum / Vistula University), Pavel Vařeka (University of West Bohemia), and Uta Halle and Cathrin Hähn (both State Archaeological Office, Bremen) analysed the different attitudes towards dark heritage in the research on the tangible and immovable heritage of WWII in the territories of Germany, France, Poland and what is today part of the Czech Republic (prisons, concentration camps, forced labour, internment and prisoner of war camps, ghettos, massacre sites and cemeteries). The aspects of memory politics, heritage management and preservation were discussed and different options of elaboration, social reception and interpretation were presented.

In the last session, titled “Significance, values and emerging themes”, first Michael Malliaris (LWL-Archaeology for Westphalia) presented examples of how 18th-20th-century developments often led to decisive interventions into landscape and land use in Westphalia. These changes and their impact often become subjects of interest both for citizen science and for academic research. The next presentation drew attention to a specific element of Irish heritage management—namely, that large infrastructure development companies have their own Archaeology & Heritage Departments. The Irish speaker, Emer Dehenny (TII Archaeology and Heritage Light Rail) presented the activities of one of these departments through examples of a public transport development project in Dublin. His talk demonstrated how archaeological investigations helped to gain a better understanding of the city’s development in the 18th-20th centuries in particular. The paper given by Kaloyan Pramatarov (National Archaeological Institute with Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences) highlighted that, although the history of Ottoman Bulgaria lasted nearly 500 years – namely, from the late 14th century to the Liberation of Bulgaria in 1878, in the second half of the 20th century due to the de-Turkification tendency, the demolition of Ottoman monuments (mosques, baths, bridges and public buildings) often occurred. Through examples from Sofia, the speaker demonstrated the changing approach to restoration and the preservation of Ottoman monuments in the last two decades. The last presentation was given by Anja Prust (State Office for Archaeology, Saxony), who explained the preservation dilemmas linked with lignite mining in the Lusatia region of Saxony. Five teams are currently working on industrial landscapes in abandoned mining districts, looking for long-term solutions for the proportional and feasible preservation of industrial heritage (such as the remains of monumental industrial buildings, collieries, forced labour camps and devastated settlements, etc.).

In his closing note, Alex Hale (Historic Environment Scotland) reflected on the issues outlined by each session, including the accelerating rate of change and its impact on historic landscapes and the people inhabiting them. He pointed out that several papers dealt with 'contested' or 'difficult' history/heritage, namely conflict archaeology in the context of WWII, especially the archaeology of the Holocaust. Although traces of historical events that took place 80 years ago are now the subject of research, their resonances and impacts are still perceived through personal stories. He stressed that the results and interpretations by experts should be linked to the added value of citizen science, as practitioners of contemporary archaeology are no longer passive observers, but active participants in processes that may be rooted in 20th-century events, but still continue to unfold today.

As the presentations made it clear, the central issue is not whether archaeology’s chronological boundaries include the 20th century. The key is an open, sensitive approach based on local communities’ involvement and social inclusion. The wide range of topics covered by the talks illustrated how research into the modern period facilitates a re-evaluation of archaeology’s methods and roles in understanding the past and how the discipline can contribute to the tackling of sensitive present-day issues through offering insights into modern developments.

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