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Book Review: The Origin of the Germanics
On the Method of Settlement Archaeology by Gustaf Kossinna (1911)
There is possibly no figure more controversial in archaeological history than Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931). This Prussian born scholar has become synonymous with a pre-WW2 paradigm which prioritised biological race, the homogeneity of prehistoric cultures and a hierarchy of human societies, with Germanics at the top. Consequently his theories and ideas are talked about today as ghostly spectres which need to be kept away and condemned into oblivion.
Yet, curiously, for all the dislike of Kossinna’s thought, none of his books or writings have ever been translated into English. This is fairly remarkable, and has led to a proliferation of second and third hand literature about his scholarship, but very little Anglosphere literature which actually engages directly with it. This is why Trevor Sutcliffe’s translation of Kossinna’s short work The Origin of the Germanics is such an important moment. For those of us who don’t speak German, we can finally read what he wrote. The choice of work is a perfect start, since here Kossinna outlines and defends his most famous proposal - the method of settlement archaeology - then demonstrates how it works by tackling the evolution of the German people.
At 34 pages, plus some wonderfully translated maps, it is a short but fascinating read. The first half of the book is quite funny in some ways, since he names some of his detractors and sets about showing how wrong they are, in what seems a brash and arrogant style compared to modern academia. Nonetheless, his arguments illuminate his mind and how he thinks about archaeological methodology, and one can clearly see forerunner to arguments that still resound today.
He sums up his thesis in a very succinct sentence: ‘sharply delimited archaeological cultural provinces coincide at all times with very specific ethnic groups or ethnic tribes’
What does this mean? Kossinna’s ‘settlement archaeology’ was an approach where archaeological settlements were divided up by cultures, which represented distinct ethnic groups. For example, a new style of pottery in a region which previously had none would be classified as belonging to a new incoming people. The joy of reading this particular book is all the arguments against this are presented to the reader through Kossinna’s critics. Four major critics to be precise: Eduard Meyer, Otto Shrader, Moriz Hornes and Oscar Montelius.
I can’t list all the arguments here, but a few key examples should demonstrate how misunderstood Kossinna has become in contemporary discourse. Firstly Meyer attacks Kossinna’s thesis arguing that one cannot strictly link material objects to ethnicity, since no culture has a totally uniform and homogeneous set of artefacts. True enough, and Kossinna agrees, but he qualifies:
‘never has a tribe within an ethnic group comprehensively adopted the entire culture of a foreign people which is completely absent in any of the other tribes of that first ethnic group’
This seems a reasonable defence. It is one thing to say that Neolithic Britons had different styles of pots or houses, it is quite another to say that they wholesale adopted the trappings of Bronze Age life without people moving onto their lands. Meyer follows up by pointing out that some movements of people are largely invisible, and uses the example of Greece. Kossinna retorts that his method was developed for northern Germany and Scandinavia, where the types of archaeological artefacts suit a settlement approach - he acknowledges that small castes of warriors invading a region would indeed be initially invisible. These are both important qualifications, and display a level of nuance I’ve never seen attributed to his thought.
In a one sided dialogue with Montelius and Schrader he further highlights crucial methodological details. Trade could indeed account for some shifts in material culture, and pottery is indeed a most valuable material for his analysis, with its longevity and tendency to be decorated and shaped differently in time and space. But he has never relied on simple pottery alone. Let me give the reader a most perfect example of this error, from a 2021 paper:
Kossinna ignored the fact that such a situation of congruency of regional distribution patterns of specific archaeological object types—e.g., pottery, tools, jewelry, house forms, burial rituals—exists virtually nowhere in the European archaeological record. Instead, he worked around this inconvenience by defining archaeological cultures using only one single type of artifact, mostly pottery, after whose specific types many cultures are named (e.g., Linear Pottery culture, Corded Ware culture, Funnel Beaker culture). The step of further investigating whether or not the spatial distribution of specific types of associated stone tools, house forms, or burial rituals would actually match the regions defined via pottery style has, ever since the time of Kossinna, been largely skipped, probably because it almost never worked (e.g., Furholt 2008).
-Mobility and Social Change: Understanding the European Neolithic Period after the Archaeogenetic Revolution. Furholt. 2021.
This would be damning, relying just on pottery alone to infer ethnicity. Fortunately Kossinna never said this. In his own words:
But have I ever just “identified pots with people”? Are my conclusions really built on such inadequate foundations? Haven’t I always looked at entire cultures in their main area of distribution as well as in their offshoots? In the case of grave finds, this always includes the peculiar burial rite: whether burial mound or flat grave, whether with or without stone protection, stone coffin, and so on, including the characteristic additions of specifically shaped weapons, implements, jewelry, especially amber and shell jewelry, and so on…
Reading critics of Kossinna today, one would be forgiven for thinking he dominated German archaeological thought. In fact he did not, and was always being attacked by his contemporaries, including over definitions of race and ethnicity. To single him out as an especially racist scholar is simply wrong. Simultaneously modern critics overstate his prominence and downplay his scholarly rigour, in reality it was more like the other way around. As one reader of Kossinna noted back in 2002:
… scholars interested into the history of archaeological theory tend to concede Kossinna a decisive role for the establishment of a national(ist) archaeology based on the ethnic interpretation of archaeological ‘cultures’. Repeatedly he has been described as the archaeologist, who gave European archaeology a paradigm. Against this view, for example Ingo Wiwjorra had denied Kossinna role as initiator of a new paradigm in archaeology, and in the same manner Sebastian Brather recently stated that Kossinnas function as theoretical innovator has been heavily overrated, pointing out to the fact that the concepts for ‘culture’ and ‘peoples’ were already widely spread at the end of the 19th century… regarding the fact, that even avowed opponents of Kossinna methodological principles regularly made use of ethnic interpretations, is seems that the genesis of the ‘ethnic paradigm’, which was by no means limited to Central European archaeology, was far more complex that sometimes presumed…
The basis for Kossinna’s reputation as an archaeologist was his immense knowledge of the archaeological material, which was acknowledged even by his opponents. On numerous travels to museums in several European countries he documented prehistoric findings in a very efficient way. Kossinnas original catalogue of archaeological findings is preserved in his bequest. It is maybe the most valuable part of his scientific legacy, because many of the originals were destroyed, especially during World War II.
-Heinz Grünert, Gustaf Kossinna (1858–1931). 2002
It is for all these reasons and many more, that we should read Kossinna today. Properly, without caricature or prejudice. It may be that his work sits comfortably within the paradigm of his day, neither an innovator nor a crank, but a modest diligent scholar. But since he has become the main villain of pre-war archaeology, it is necessary that we read him and come to our own conclusions.
I understand that more translations of his work are underway, so I shall refrain from tackling his command and interpretation of the origin of the Germanic peoples here. I recommend anyone interested in modern debates within the field read this book. Northern European prehistory from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age appears in his work, and if nothing else, we should support independent writers and translators who want to resurrect old and important voices.