Biblical Archaeology in Germany – Does it Have a Future?

By: Martin Peilstöcker

What if Biblical Archaeology went extinct in your native country? More than twenty years ago I left my native Germany to get a Ph.D. at Tel Aviv University and to work for the Antiquities Authority in Israel. But when I returned in 2009, the situation I found in Germany came as a shock. Biblical Archaeology is an endangered species and may never recover.

Ever since the Reformation, Protestant seminaries have held Biblical Studies in the highest regard. The Enlightenment meant that historical-critical investigations of the Bible were central to any theological program in Germany. Biblical Archaeology thus became a central part of theological studies at Protestant seminaries. But even in this supportive environment it only had the status of a “Hilfsdisziplin” (auxiliary discipline). With shrinking numbers of students at the faculties of theology in the 1990s, budgets were cut back and small seminars and institutes like those for Biblical Archaeology were closed, leaving only a handful. How could a discipline that once was so central have become relegated to an afterthought in just two decades?

The change happened more quickly than any of us could have imagined. At most universities, Biblical Archaeology has long benefited from the presence of associated historical-critical disciplines such as Near Eastern languages and literatures and Egyptology. University libraries were among the top collections in the world, and even research laboratories carried out their own field-projects. However, the shrinking numbers of students resulted in budgets being cut. Departments dedicated limited resources to “core” areas of theology, Semitic languages, Bible, and classics. Archaeology was seen as an interdisciplinary endeavor and so budgets were scaled back or cut completely. Small seminars and institutes like those for Biblical Archaeology were closed, leaving behind only a handful of places where Biblical Archaeology was taught. And in those places its importance had been diminished.

Garden of the German Protestant Institute in Jerusalem
July 2007 Prof. Dr. Dr. D. Vieweger, Leitender Direktor DEI Jerusalem+Amman)

The only German institution in Israel engaged in Biblical Archaeology was endangered as well. The German Protestant Institute, founded in 1900, is located in the Auguste Victory compound on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. As a result of the 1967 war a branch was opened in Amman in order to continue research in Jordan. Because of its location, since 1967 the German Protestant Institute could not carry out fieldwork in Israel because it is located, according to official German church politics, outside Israel. The institute became more and more isolated from the German academic mainstream. A field survey in the early 1990s in the region of Akko by the author and Gunnar Lehmann, then acting director, caused a heated debate among the board of the institute in Germany. The next director, the late Volkmar Fritz, did excavate on behalf of the institute in Israel, but was not renewed for a second term. It was proposed that the institution should be shut down and only after protests by the remaining German Biblical Archaeologists and the appointment of a new director, Dieter Vieweger, the institute survived. It is no longer exclusively supported by German Protestant denominations but now cooperates with the governmentally funded German Archaeological Institute.

The controversy over the German Protestant Institute made it clear how limited the influence of Biblical Archaeologists is in German academic and political circles. Most German Biblical Archaeologists were “self-made”; they had grown up within archaeological projects of the 1950s and 1960s in Israel such as the Tel Beer-Sheva excavations and had studied in Jerusalem or later Tel Aviv. Their knowledge of the history and archaeology of Ancient Israel was excellent, as was their ability to excavate. But the “real” German archaeologists mostly approached them with condescension.

German archaeological activity is shrinking along with scholarly output. A look at a list of publications by German scholars in the last decade or so shows not one archaeological project carried out in Israel or Jordan has published a final report. Conspicuously missing are final reports of the German excavations of the late Diethelm Conrad at Tel Akko (1978 – 1983), the renewed excavation by the late Volkmar Fritz at Tell Kinrot, or the project at Khirbet ez-Zeraqon in Jordan by Siegfried Mittmann (until 1992). Moreover, the list of publications of archaeological studies in pottery, chronology, or methodology is also short. Resources for excavation, study, and publication are simply not there.

Gottlieb Schumacher’s theodolite. (source: Prof. Dr. Dr. D. Vieweger, Leitender Direktor DEI Jerusalem+Amman

Declining interest is also seen outside of German university and government circles. The Deutscher Palästina-Verein (German Society for the Exploration of Palestine) was founded in 1877. Along with the American Schools of Oriental Research (founded in 1900), the British Palestine Exploration Fund (founded in 1865), and the French École Biblique et Archéologique (founded in 1890), the German society reflects the interest in the Holy Land which came into vogue all across Europe in the late 19th century. But in the last five volumes of the society’s journal, the Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins,out of 26 articles dealing with archaeology only five were studies written by German scholars.

Gottlieb Schumacher at Tell Mutesellim (Megiddo)

Many important archaeological projects were carried out by the Deutscher Palästina-Verein in its early years, including the excavations at Megiddo directed by Gottlieb Schumacher. But the society has not sponsored any fieldwork since World War II. Moreover, an offer to participate in the renewed Megiddo project directed by Israel Finkelstein, David Ussishkin, and Baruch Halpern in the early 1990s was turned down. A number of individual German scholars have been active in archaeology in Israel. Parts of the Tel Kabri excavation project of the late Aharon Keminski were co-directed by Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier, a classical archaeologist. Prof. Herrmann Michael Niemann from the University of Rostock participated in the Megiddo excavations and other Israeli projects, but his primary field is theology and the Old Testament. Prof. Manfred Oeming from Heidelberg co-directs the excavations at Ramat Rahel but he is a theologian and Old Testament scholar as well. The pattern is unmistakable; individual participation in Biblical Archaeology is dropping along with institutional support.

Seal of Shema from Schumacher’s excavations at Megiddo (source

What about the next generation? Today a student of archaeology in Germany interested in Biblical Archaeology and the archaeology of Israel proper is in a difficult situation. First, the opportunities for basic studies of archaeological sites, pottery and other typologies, excavation methodologies, and more are limited. Who should teach that in Germany? Second, while opportunities to participate in an archaeological excavation exist, German field-schools are very few; really, in recent years only those of the Johannes Gutenberg University at Tel Yafo (Jaffa) and Ramat Rahel of Heidelberg University. A few more projects are in their initial stage and have yet to change the overall situation. Others exist in Jordan and Lebanon, but work in those countries does not allow students to get first hand knowledge of modern field archaeology in Israel.

Many projects in Israel accept “volunteers” – another way of saying excavation tourism, a subject beyond the scope of this essay. But going back and forth with a wheelbarrow to the dump is not the best way for someone to learn what modern field archaeology is all about. Even if students find a dig, the German educational system poses other problems such as high tuition, which cannot be covered by scholarships, a different system of university credits, and the different dates of the academic year in Germany, Israel, and the US.

Overall, it seems to me that without a major change, the days of German Biblical Archaeology are numbered! In a few more years there will be no more German scholars; not to dig, teach, and even more importantly, to study the archaeology of ancient Israel and the roots of the monotheistic religions. The German-European view will be missed in global scholarly debates and at home in Germany. But it is up to the remaining German scholars and their institutions to change the situation.

Martin Peilstöcker is a research archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority and a visiting faculty member at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz and a guest curator at the Bibelhaus Erlebnis-Museum Frankfurt.

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3 thoughts on “Biblical Archaeology in Germany – Does it Have a Future?

  1. Important article pointing out some of the existing problems in German archaeology in Israel. Couple of points:
    I think if German archaeologists worked in Israel not neccessarily in connection with “biblical archaeology” and departments of theology - that would make for more involvement.
    I personally have been involved with a few German archaeologists thru the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath. The first major collaboration (funded by the GIF) was with the late Prof. Manfred Goerg and Dr. Stefan Wimmer (who is very much alive…), both Egyptologists from the Univ. of Munich, which focused on the early Philistine culture at Gath. This involved several years of excavations - and several publications.
    The 2nd very fruitful, and ongoing collaboration is with Prof. Joseph Maran (of Heidelberg; excavator of Tiryns; also funded by the GIF) relating to the connections between the Levant and the Aegean in the LB/Iron transition. Although the German team is not actively involved in excavations in Israel (but some are involved in processing finds from Israel), we have developed close and very productive research directions.
    I highly recommend Israeli, European and US scholars to engage in collaborative projects with German archaeologists - and start joint projects in Israel. This is all the more so nowadays, as many of the mid-eastern countries in which European teams could work in the past are hard to access safely in the current geopolitical situation in the mid-east.

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  3. Allow me to remark on one small point that my friend Martin made in his excellent review of the situation of biblical archaeology in Germany (which is not so different from that in other countries, including the US). He writes “Many projects in Israel accept “volunteers” – another way of saying excavation tourism, a subject beyond the scope of this essay. But going back and forth with a wheelbarrow to the dump is not the best way for someone to learn what modern field archaeology is all about.” I would point out that most volunteer excavation projects (and certainly the one I am personally involved with, Tel Gezer) run a field school which includes excavating, a lecture series, and touring archaeological sites. The excavation process includes more than wheelbarrowing- they even remove balks occasionally! Seriously, our volunteers learn what context means (what is a locus) and why it is important, how to record, take levels, draw balks, read pottery, etc. The total experience makes a positive impression on student volunteers, as it did on me (Gezer 1972-1973), influencing me to make archaeology my career.

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