Excavating Nations: Archaeology, Museums, and the Danish-German Borderlands by J. Laurence Hare (review)
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Reviewed by
J. Laurence Hare. Excavating Nations: Archaeology, Museums, and the Danish-German Borderlands. University of Toronto Press. xvi, 264. $70.00

The borderland perspective gives this study of archaeology, museums, and their relations with nationalism a very innovative character. In the Danish-German border region J. Laurence Hare has found a perfect example, and his awareness of the specific characteristics of borderlands in the process of nation building distinguishes this study from the dominant national approaches.

Originally a Danish fief within the Oldenburg monarchy, Schleswig constituted a heterogeneous region where Danes and Germans, but also a number of in-betweens, formed a very complex and specific social and [End Page 285] cultural reality. This region of transition without clear inner divisions became one of the first battlegrounds between national movements fighting for a border. It made the former Duchy of Schleswig the most prominent scene of a history of separation between two sides that claimed the same past.

In this borderland the contested past influenced the development of national consciousness in two nations. Simultaneously, it contained a very important regional dimension that is often ignored by national historians. The development of national ideologies ran very much parallel to the efforts of antiquarians, historians, and archaeologists to discover the past. Chronologically Hare follows the role of the Danish-German borderland in the nation-building process of both neighbours and describes how regional, national, and sometimes even the overarching ideology of a Nordic past influenced the discussions and convictions of archaeologists of the region. Here it is obviously a great advantage that the author does not himself belong to any of the parties involved. Consequently he is able to reconstruct this story without the almost unavoidable partisan flaw of most of his colleagues.

The borderland was a region of negotiation and conflict. Both nationalisms were searching for origins and roots in the same prehistory. Archaeology was among the most important producers of arguments and "evidence" for even a national prehistory. The Danish-German borderland played a prominent role in the development of a "Nordic" and a "Germanic" version of the same past.

An important aspect, however, is how this borderland is also instrumentalized by the two nationalisms as none of them would favour a regional past. A strong centralism gave the Danish state a leading role in the collection and the scientific organization of archaeology from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Control and keeping of artifacts became one of the first signs of a new quality of rivalry between the central power in Copenhagen and the regional centre of Kiel, where a regionalist ideology developed. The regionalists were eager to present their own narrative of the past and to keep the archaeological finds in the region.

Hare presents central figures on both sides of this debate and takes the reader into the details of their discussions. This is an important contribution to the study of the professionalization of this field. Some of the most important archaeological finds of the region such as the two Golden Horns of Gallehus, the Nydam boat, bog bodies, and not least the excavation of the major Viking centre of Haithabu, are discussed in the overall context.

Excavations, finds, and interpretations became part of the national arguments and some artifacts were given prominent positions in the national narratives. Hare demonstrates, however, that the relations between antiquarians and other protagonists were quite close, and even if [End Page 286] they found themselves on different sides of the national conflict, they knew and sometimes even appreciated each other. In light of the traditional narrative, it is interesting that Hare finds a high degree of professional acknowledgement and even co-operation among some of the involved.

The study of J. Laurence Hare is sometimes very detailed, e.g. in some of the discussions taking place among the protagonists. Readers without specific knowledge in the field might have welcomed a stronger focus on some of the well-known finds and their role in the debate. Still, this book is the work of somebody from the outside and this is an eye-opener that will enrich the discussion about archaeology, museums, and nationalism in a contested borderland.