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Interview with Matthias Wemhoff, Direktor des Museums für Vor- und Frühgeschichte

Neues Museum

What we always wanted to know about the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte…
Matthias Wemhoff, Director of the 'Museum of Prehistory and Early History', has the answers.

What time period do the terms "prehistory" and "early history" refer to?

These terms can be explained by developments in historical scholarship: for a long time, the term "history" only applied to research based on written sources. Everything that came from the era preceding recorded history was categorised as prehistory and everything that was known through just a few surviving written sources was considered early history. Today the discipline of history covers all types of sources equally.

The museum's holdings are based on finds from excavations by well-known researchers and adventurers - how do archaeologists work today?
Indeed, a significant part of our holdings was amassed in the decades preceding the First World War through large research projects and excavations, although collectors have also played an important role. Nowadays, the situation is more sensibly regulated by laws to protect cultural heritage. Collections can be expanded primarily through the acquisition of older collections, which is essential for us as one of few museums that can present the early periods of European cultural history so comprehensively. Spectacular one-off finds have become a rarity today.

The Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte is closely associated with the name of the internationally renowned archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. He discovered the ruins of the city of Troy and bequeathed his private collection to the Berlin museums. What significance does this unique treasure have for the museum?
Heinrich Schliemann is one of the most significant patrons of our museum, and in fact of the entire Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. He certainly deserves greater respect than has been the case so far. Our museum now houses 9000 of the 12000 objects that were once in his collection, and are of great importance to research. Unfortunately, despite international laws, many gold artefacts and other objects have not been returned by Russia [after their seizure as loot after the war].

Your collection also includes the remains of a Neanderthal. What can bones from 45000 BCE tell us today?
The remnants of the Neanderthals from Le Moustier-a prehistoric site in France-demonstrate just how important these early collections are. Research on Neanderthals has made great strides in recent times-and "our" skull has played an important part in this progress. Even now, 100 years since its acquisition, it is still an outstanding piece as very few Neanderthal finds to date are as well preserved.

What is the most exciting or most significant object that you as an archaeologist have brought to light?
That would have to be the discovery of somewhat unremarkable but easily datable pottery shards and a coin from the 9th century, which enabled me to date a burnt layer uncovered during the excavation of Herford Abbey. This was a key find for the overall interpretation of the site.