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Mexico recovers archaeological pieces from Germany

June 17, 2021

Almost three dozen items were handed over by two German citizens, who approached the Mexican Embassy in Berlin to express their interest in returning the objects.

Rogelio Granguillhome und Rupert Gebhard
The topic of returning artifacts has become a sensitive issueImage: Lino Mirgeler/dpa/picture alliance

Mexico has recovered 34 pre-Columbian artifacts that were voluntarily returned by two German private collectors, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday.

"Two German citizens approached our embassy in Berlin to express their interest in returning archaeological pieces that were in the possession of their families," said the Mexican foreign minister's legal consultant, Alejandro Celorio.

The Mexican Culture Ministry tweeted details of the items recovered: "Among the cultural assets there are bowls, vessels, stamps and an Olmec-style anthropomorphic mask."

The mask, made of rock and from the period 1200-600 B.C., was just one of the objects dating back centuries. Others included anthropomorphic clay figures and a three-legged Mayan clay pot from the period 1000-1521 A.D.

13 recent archaeological finds in Germany

The artifacts reveal how Germany was at the center of major developments on the European continent.

Image: Urgeschichtliches Museum Blaubeuren/J. Wiedmann

A 'forged' sky

The Nebra sky disc was seen as a sensational archaeological find, believed to feature the world's oldest known depiction of a cosmic phenomenon. It was found by treasure-hunters with a metal detector in Saxony-Anhalt in 1999. First estimated to be 3,600 years old, German researchers are now questioning that dating.

Image: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt/J. Lipták

The most ancient depiction of a human being

The Venus of Hohle Fels was discovered in 2008 in a cave in southwestern Germany. The nearly six-centimeter ivory figurine is believed to have been worn as an amulet. It is dated to between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago, making it the oldest known depiction of a human being in prehistoric art.

Image: Urgeschichtliches Museum Blaubeuren/J. Wiedmann

A mighty hat

Three of the world's four known Golden Hats from the Bronze Age (1000 BC) were shown at a 2019 exhibition at Berlin's Gropius Bau museum. They served as a symbol for deities and priests in a sun cult that was practiced in Central Europe during that period. Made of thin gold leaf, the hats are presumed to have covered a similarly-shaped headdress made of organic material.

Image: Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte Berlin/C. Plamp

The treasures of Cologne's wharf area

Archaeologists uncovered thousands of finds — including these oil lamps from the first century A.D. — in the mud on the site of the former Roman port in Cologne. At the time, the newly established Roman settlement was an important trade center, where one could easily find goods from North Africa, Pompeii or Aquitaine. A 1,900-year-old Roman boat was also discovered in Cologne in 2007.

Image: Römisch-Germanisches Museum der Stadt Köln; Foto: Axel Thünker, DGPh

The secrets of a Celtic princess

At the end of 2010, a complete early Celtic tomb of a noblewoman was retrieved from the earth near the southern German town of Herbertingen. It contained bronze and gold jewelry that were imported from afar. The find provided further evidence that trade with the rest of Europe was already strong by the sixth century BC.

Image: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Stuttgart/Y. Mühleis

Roman luxury in the grave

A particular Roman tomb was discovered in the town of Haltern, in North Rhine-Westphalia. It contained, along with the remains of a man, an intricate bone-carved kline, which is a bed for the dead. The kline was transported from Italy to Germany to guarantee Roman luxury even after death. The 1,900-year-old deathbed was reconstructed from thousands of fragments.

Image: LWL-Archäologie für Westfalen/S. Brentführer

The 'Swiss knife' of the Stone Age

The hand axe, the longest-used tool in human history, was already in circulation around two million years ago in Africa. The hand axes found in Eurasia were much younger however, dated back to 600,000 years ago. The all-round tool was likely to have different functions such as chopping, cutting, scraping, hitting and even throwing. This piece of flint stone is at most 35,000 years old.

Image: Archäologisches Museum Hamburg

Rider on the firestorm

This bronze rider was among the 11 sculptures unearthed in Berlin's historical center in 2010, a discovery known as the Berlin Sculpture Find. The 1933-34 sculpture by Fritz Wrampe, listed as "degenerate art" by the Nazis, was believed irretrievably lost. The works removed from museums were however stored by the Nazis in a depot. The rider was deformed by the heat of WWII bombings on Berlin.

Image: Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte Berlin/A. Kleuker

Europe's oldest battlefield

At the end of the 1990s, thousands of human bones and weapons were unearthed along the Tollense River in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. It turned out to be the oldest archaeologically verifiable battlefield in Europe discovered to date. Though it remains unclear where they were all from, the warriors traveled great distances to join the battle. Several of the 3,300-year-old artifacts are shown in Berlin.

Image: Landesamt für Kultur und Denkmalpflege Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

An magician's laboratory

At the end of 2012, pots, cups, retorts and distillation stills — an entire laboratory — were found in Wittenberg, the city of Renaissance alchemist Dr. Faustus. The artifacts were however broken into 10,000 pieces. Pieced back together, they revealed the oldest known laboratory in Europe, dating back to 1520-1540.

Image: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt/J. Lipták

An ancient protective decoration

An incredible find was discovered near Lake Constance in southern Germany: a Neolithic decoration on clay plaster. It shows that humans were already heavily decorating their houses by 4000 BC. The segment that was displayed in Berlin is believed to be a complex depiction of ancestors or deities that were to protect the house.

Image: Landesamt für Denkmalpflege Hemmenhofen/M. Erne

Christ in the grave

Pilgrim badges were worn in the Middle Ages by Roman Catholics as souvenirs of their pilgrimage, and some of them took their badge with them to the grave. This lead alloy pilgrim badge from the 13th-14th century was found in Harburg (today part of Hamburg). It shows Christ riding on a donkey.

Image: Archäologisches Museum Hamburg

900 grams of hacksilver

In 2005, a hiker in Upper Lusatia happened to find an important trove of silver, known as the Cortnitz hoard. Most of the coins and silver jewelry pieces from the 11th century were hacked. The fragments came from Bohemia and Moravia, but also from Bulgaria, Scandinavia and even Baghdad. Hacked fragments of silver served as currency before official coinage was established.

Image: Landesamt für Archäologie Sachsen/U. Wohmann
13 images

Sensitive issue

Diego Prieto, director of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, highlighted the "growing sensitivity" in the global community about the need to respect cultural heritage and return artifacts.

The recovered pieces were handed over to embassy officials in May of this year.

Twenty-eight of the objects were in the city of Monheim am Rhein in western Germany and the remaining six in Recklinghausen, some 70 kilometers (43 miles) away. 

Treasures of underwater archaeology

At the bottom of seas and lakes, research divers make historical finds time and again — artifacts from the Stone Age to World War II.

Image: Dr. Florian Huber

No GPS under water

The research divers in Germany systematically study coastal regions and inland lakes. They also work around the world, such as in Mexico and Indonesia. Historical sources, like old land and sea maps, or actual eyewitnesses, sometimes lead them to a discovery underwater. Coincidence, however, is the biggest factor in discoveries. GPS cannot help researchers, as it doesn't work underwater.

Image: Dr. Florian Huber

Sensational, surprise discovery of 'Enigma'

While recovering an abandoned "ghost net" on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2020, a team led by marine archaeologist Dr. Florian Huber discovered a valuable piece of German history: an Enigma, one of the legendary Nazi deciphering machines from World War II. It had become entangled in the trawl net.

Image: Christian Howe

Antique wooden boat

Water acts as a preservative for ancient artefacts, such as wooden boats from the Roman Era. Some have been found sealed airtight on the seabed or at the bottom of a lake. However, the salt water in the North Sea and Baltic Sea aggravates the material more severely, leading the metal to rust. But on land, the wood would have long since rotted and turned to dust.

Image: Dr. Florian Huber

Mysterious shipwreck

Remains of ancient shipwrecks or even submarines and military ships from the two World Wars are often found by research divers. Since many aircraft were also shot down over lakes or the sea, such finds are everyday business.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/PA Wire/Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project

Pure chance for researchers

It is rare when marine archaeologists do not have to dive deeply to unearth an ancient treasure. In the spring of 2021, a dugout canoe from the Stone Age was recovered in the remote riverbed of the Old Rhine at Lake Constance. The boat corpus was very well preserved: The bank mud had preserved the wood airtight. The valuable "original boat" was discovered by a standup paddler.

Image: Florian Huber/Wirtschaftsministerium/dpa/picture alliance

Fragile cargo

The moment air hits the prehistoric material again, damage to the object is possible. So transport to the research laboratory must be conducted very carefully. This 8-meter-long (26-foot-long) dug-out canoe is 4,500 years old, so it is fragile cargo. It will be preserved and examined in detail. The researchers hope to gain insights into the early Bronze Age in the region.

Image: Florian Huber/submaris/LAD

Sunken cities

The coastal regions of the seas or shore areas of large lakes were already populated in past millennia — as ports of call for trade. But the rise in sea levels or other external circumstances, such as storms, volcanic eruptions or natural catastrophes, caused them to sink into mud and water. Millennia later, ancient settlements have been recovered from the sea, such as here in Egypt.

Image: Getty Images/AFP/K. Desouki

Cosquer Cave

One of the most spectacular underwater discoveries was undoubtedly the cave named after the professional diver Henri Cosquer. He discovered it in 1985 off the coast of Marseille. Named after him, the Cosquer Cave is considered by scientists to be one of the most interesting Paleolithic caves ever found.

Image: MC DRAC/SRA PACA/Luc Vanrell
8 images

jsi/sms (AFP, dpa, EFE)

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