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Czechoslovakia: the last three years.

I feel somewhat uneasy in writing about Czechoslovakia, which no longer exists. However, the problems encountered by its two archaeological successors are more or less similar, although some divergence may be expected in the future.

The disintegration of Czechoslovakia into two parts is hardly comprehensible to foreigners, and in the beginning the attitude of the Czechs (who inhabit the western part of the former Czechoslovakia) was the same. They felt that the longing for independence was exclusively a Slovak affair; most Czechs were of the opinion that the idea of separation was a crazy one. The situation changed somewhat when the general election of 1992 brought left-wing parties to power in Slovakia whilst the Czechs voted for the right.

Czechs and Slovaks certainly have much more in common than, for example, Germans from southern and eastern Germany. Their similarity is not limited to language: Czech and Slovak are in fact a single language with two variants. To relate the problem more specifically to the interests of ANTIQUITY readers, the archaeology of the two nations is the same from both the theoretical and the methodological points of view (although Slovakia has been only slightly affected by developments within the Anglo-Saxon archaeological communities and their allies in the theoretical field over recent decades). In my view, Slovak archaeology has been one of the most successful constituents of Slovak national culture, since in this field Slovaks have been equal partners with other nations of central Europe.

Separation has now become a reality. It has created the Czech Republic, with some 10 million inhabitants, and the Slovak Republic, with some 5 million: neither is a very large state. The most serious problem that this has generated is the danger of parochialism, which can only be overcome if both countries join the intellectual, economic and political networks of Europe. Unfortunately, we are still far from large-scale integration, mainly for economic reasons.

According to the prevailing view among both the general public and archaeologists in 'the west', Czechoslovakia belongs to eastern Europe. I am unhappy about this, because the Slav language is our only link with the east. The development of the prehistoric cultures of Bohemia and Moravia was essentially the same as that of Germany and southern Scandinavia: most of the territory of Czechoslovakia was inhabited first by the Celts and then, in the first five centuries AD, by Germanic tribes. The immediate ancestors of the Czechs and Slovaks, who probably arrived from the eastern part of central Europe in the 6th century AD, chose the Latin variant of Christianity in the 10th century AD, after several centuries of hesitation. They completed their integration with their western neighbours by fully joining the Gothic civilization in the 13th century. With the exception of the unfortunate episode following World War II they had almost nothing to do with the east. If anyone in the Czech Republic uses the phrase 'eastern Europe' in relation to his or her country, it is almost certain to be in compliance with 'western' geographical concepts. Most Czechs, including archaeologists, favour the term 'central Europe'.

At the same time, I have to admit that the past 45 years have left behind much that does not belong to the western tradition. In analysing some points that are relevant to an understanding of recent developments in Czech archaeology, I must begin by returning to the past.

The past


It is a matter of common belief in 'the west' that we were subjected to strong Marxist philosophical indoctrination during the years of communist rule. This view was only partially correct, and then only for the first two decades, from 1948 to about 1968. Even at that time, 'Marxism' was interpreted through Stalin's eyes, becoming the ideology of the Soviet state rather than a philosophy. Nevertheless, all university students, even those at technical universities and medical schools, were obliged to pass examinations in this kind of 'Marxism', and as a result many became influenced by it. For those archaeologists with a theoretical orientation, Marxism became the only basis upon which it was permissible to formulate their ideas.

Many archaeologists who took university courses in the 1950s became Marxists unconsciously, because they mistook what they were taught for 'philosophy'. Philosophical Marxism in that period consisted of a coherent system of concepts derived mainly from the teaching of G.W.F. Hegel. Once this system had been accepted, it became difficult to make exceptions or to abandon it altogether for another system. This is, of course, true of any theoretical teaching. It was a tragi-comical experience to observe how archaeologists who strongly opposed communism on the basis of their family backgrounds accepted the Marxist conceptual network for these reasons.

The situation changed completely after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. No one could any longer believe in any honest goal of communism. At the same time it became impossible to believe that communism could be reformed into anything 'with a human face': people realized that there was no 'third way' between the Soviet type of socialism and capitalism. There was no longer any doubt that the very abstract form of the official Marxism of that time had nothing to do with philosophy and that it had become an apologetic ideology of the Soviet state. So far as I am aware, no Czechoslovak archaeologist became a Marxist as a consequence of his university training in the period after the Soviet invasion.

This was a period of despair. The western powers clearly indicated that they were prepared to abide by the Yalta agreement which delivered Czechoslovakia to the Soviets. At the same time, given the 1968 experience, there was no hope that any communist regime in Czechoslovakia could be removed by internal movements. Despair is often followed by moral decadence. This was the atmosphere in which many archaeologists became members of the Communist Party. Without Party membership it was hardly possible to achieve anything or to have access to possibilities for intellectual development (e.g. foreign travel). The children of those who were not Party members had little hope of going to university, and sometimes even of going to secondary schools. Some archaeologists -- not necessarily Party members but sharing their privileges -- became agents of the secret police. No one who has not experienced the bloodless pressure of a sophisticated totalitarian regime can ever understand how this could be possible.

It follows that philosophical Marxism was not an obligatory constituent of archaeological writing after 1968; however, at the same time, it was only permissible to imitate western archaeology in its technical aspects. For example, it was not possible to express sympathy with the 'New Archaeology' and, oddly enough, it was also dangerous to mention the existence of western European Marxists. I remember having difficulties over the use of the word 'structure' in spite of the fact that in my usage it had no connection with the structuralism of Levi-Strauss. Contrary to widespread belief, there was no censorship of archaeological journals, but editors and authors were aware of what they could publish without risking serious problems. This was, of course, another source of decadence since authors (including myself) consciously submitted to the regime.

Archaeological institutions

The structure of archaeological institutions was simple at the end of the 1940s before the communists took over. It consisted of three universities (Prague, Brno and Bratislava), a network of museums (only Prague and Brno with archaeologists), and the State Archaeological Institute located in Prague, Brno and Nitra.

When the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences was founded in 1953, modelled in every detail on the Soviet Academy, the State Archaeological Institute was transformed into an Institute of the Academy. The new Institute, based on Prague, Brno and Nitra, grew rapidly: the Prague Institute alone had more than 200 employees, some 60 of them graduate archaeologists, at the end of the 1980s, constituting roughly half of all professional archaeologists in Bohemia. It was only natural that the Directors of the Institutes should make decisions on anything of importance in archaeology. In fact, the Academy, which had been established to exert communist control over the whole field of science and the humanities, was given by law special rights in this respect, a wholly undemocratic situation.

The Institutes of the Academy were expected to carry out 'basic' theoretical research in archaeology, mainly through 'planned' (i.e. non-rescue) excavations, which usually lasted for decades (Bylany was a typical example). The Institutes of the Academy, however, took over a number of large-scale rescue excavations as time progressed, and they were always responsible for maintaining records of archaeological sites. Since they also assumed the role of museums, they developed into multi-functional bodies, carrying out all kinds of archaeological activities apart from the training of undergraduate students.

Theoretical work was planned at least five years in advance. However, since the plan was based on the predilections of archaeologists, it was usually not followed through over many years. This resulted in a situation in which it was not so important to publish as to present a satisfactory report. In any case, those who did not occupy the right position in the hierarchy were not expected to publish too much, and certainly not monographs. Archaeologists were praised and remunerated for excavating a site but not for publishing it.

The universities were poorly resourced, both in staff and technical equipment, and the system of study was unbelievable. Many students were accepted on the basis of political criteria (mainly the positions of their parents within the power structures), and virtually anybody who entered university to study archaeology completed his or her studies and was given a job in archaeology. All those who finished were presumed to be 'scientists' in due course and usually specialized in the field of their final theses. Incredibly, this system produced a fair number of good archaeologists.

Some museums, especially the National Museums in Prague and Bratislava, were allowed to employ more archaeologists, but otherwise they were afforded few opportunities. They were not even given new finds excavated by the Institutes of the Academy, which retained them in their own collections.

The archaeological part of the State Monuments Service was rudimentary, its functions having been taken over by the Institutes of the Academy. There was almost nothing comparable with archaeological units, as in the United Kingdom, or the German Bodendenkmalpflege.


The socialist economy was a very inefficient one, yet it spent a great deal of money on archaeology. However incomprehensible this fact may seem, it was presumably attributable to the phenomenon of hidden unemployment. The government was obliged to employ people in some way, and giving them jobs in archaeology would suggest that socialism supported 'science'. Hidden unemployment meant that everybody worked approximately one-half of his or her working hours; there was no incentive to work more, and in many cases this was even undesirable since there were not enough materials and energy for full-time employment, whilst the products would be difficult to sell. Besides, everybody needed a great deal of time to procure the basic necessities of life, which were not easily available on the market: if one urgently needed two long nails for one's home, it was often necessary to spend several working hours to obtain them, as it was impossible to buy everything during one's free time. It is not therefore surprising that people boasted publicly of not working as they should and that those who did work were looked upon with suspicion or scorn.

In a way life was easy in a socialist society. One did not get too much money, certain goods and services were unobtainable, and the acquisition of others required unbelievable effort, but there was no pressure and no responsibility, and almost everybody was equally poor -- nails could be bought during working hours. The general socialist approach to work, permeating every sphere of human activity, could not leave archaeology untouched. All this did not happen because people were lazy but rather because they found themselves in unnatural conditions which they could not control or change.

The present

Everyone knew that socialism would end one day, but I have to confess that I did not myself believe that it would pass away so rapidly. November 1989 brought political freedom, but it did not automatically change the other sub-systems of society. Scrutiny of the general situation in Czechoslovakia reveals that both the moral and the economic consequences of communist rule have caused much greater damage than had originally been suspected.

The archaeology of the present day is, of course, not restricted ideologically in any way, but the situation is not yet fully normal: for example, no variant of Marxism is yet openly favoured by any archaeologist. The 'Velvet Revolution' has resulted in a limited measure of destruction of previous power structures, but the old communist elite (including that established within archaeology) is trying to regain control. Its aspirations are greatly aided by people who look backwards at the easy socialist way of life with a certain degree of nostalgia, since everyone is expected to buy nails in their free time and there is pressure to use working hours for writing reports and articles. What follows is an account of the present state of the main sectors of Czechoslovak archaeology after three years of political freedom.

The Academy of Sciences

The Soviet-style Academy of Sciences with its large Institutes has changed very little since 1989. Its survival is due to a large extent to the creation of pseudo-democratic institutions elected by the scientists themselves, which make the leadership of the Academy and its Institutes dependent upon the trade-union requirements of their employees. These requirements, of course, provide for little, if any, change. Any changes that have occurred in the Academy have been achieved in some of its Institutes.

The staff of the Prague Archaeological Institute, which I shall describe in some detail, was reduced by about one-third in 1991 without anyone noticing. In parallel with this reduction in numbers, the activity of the Institute, whether measured in terms of the income derived from rescue excavations or the number of publications, has increased. The strategy of planned non-rescue excavations has been abandoned completely; instead, answers to theoretical questions are sought through the excavation of endangered sites. At the same time, the abandonment of so-called 'basic' research by more than 50 archaeological graduates has been in progress, since it would hardly be possible for so many people to carry out basic theoretical research in a country as small as Bohemia. The work of the Institute has been deliberately based on two types of archaeological activity, corresponding with the archaeological units and the Royal Commissions in the United Kingdom.

Over the past three years the Institute has received funds to enable it to buy computers, magnetometers and other technical equipment to the point where it has become almost saturated. A computer database of Bohemian sites is being compiled and an extremely fruitful campaign of aerial photography has been launched. Institute archaeologists have travelled widely abroad, bringing back information about recent developments. Three groups of British archaeologists are working in Bohemia, informal contacts have been developed with French and German colleagues, and it is hoped to establish links with other, smaller, archaeological communities. The traditional one-sided orientation of Bohemian archaeology towards Germany has been superseded in favour of more varied links, although Germany has not been abandoned as an important partner. To further foreign contacts, one of the Institute's periodicals, Pamatky Archeologicke (founded in 1854), has been converted into a foreign-language journal (English, French, German).

This is not the right place for a discussion on theoretical currents in the Institute. Suffice it to say that a debate has been initiated on post-processualism, which will be published shortly.

There has so far been no radical change in the size of the Institutes. Important changes are expected in 1993, however, because the budget of the entire Academy has been cut by the government by some 40%, presumably to stimulate its transformation. The Archaeological Institutes will not escape this cut: they are likely to be split into two parts, one carrying out rescue excavations and the other engaged on archaeological inventory work. It would be desirable if some of the theoretically oriented archaeologists from the Institutes could be transferred to universities in the not too distant future. In this way the reorganization of one sector of Czech archaeology would be almost completed.

The goal of this transformation should on no account be a mere imitation of a foreign model. The greatly diversified structures of archaeology in different western European countries has resulted from their adaptation to local conditions over many decades. Czech archaeology should develop in the same way, but it is to be hoped that the process will be a less lengthy one.


Unfortunately the changes in the universities have been less adequate, with the exception of the fact that there are now more students and they are no longer selected on political grounds. Students are no longer guaranteed jobs on graduation, but this has so far had little effect, as the demand for archaeologists has exceeded the supply (this is an effect of the old socialist system, when very few students were accepted). The main problem is that graduates are all of the same level and all aspire to carry out 'scientific' work, since their university courses have been very specialized. This system may produce a few good specialists, but at the same time many archaeologists desperately seeking employment when the present short-term boom is over.

Students are taught mainly artefactual archaeology; in addition to the archaeology of Czechoslovakia, that of the surrounding countries of central Europe is usually well covered. Ecofacts are given some attention but at a level far below that in, for example, Britain. Personal experience of ecofacts and technical skills such as conservation or computing are poorly developed, which is understandable given the fact that the Charles University in Prague carries out no excavations. In this respect students at Brno are better off, since they can take part in their department's excavations and process the resulting finds.

The staffs at both Prague and Brno are very small, though here again the situation in Brno is the better. The Institutes of the Academy provide assistance, but this cannot fully replace the missing university teachers. Another problem is that two universities with chairs of archaeology are not enough for the Czech Republic. All this means that the university archaeological departments must be the next to be thoroughly modernized.


In addition to the National Museum in Prague there are many regional and local museums, each employing a single archaeologist and only in exceptional cases up to four or five specialists. Museums absorb most of the archaeology graduates. However, their work is largely ineffective because of their isolation and the lack of necessary equipment (the latter being a consequence, of course, by the former). They are usually unable to cope either with a large excavation or with the documentation of the finds already deposited in their museums; they are also incapable of accepting large collections from the Institutes of the Academy or from any future archaeological units.

The system of isolated archaeologists in local museums may work if they represent a supplement to the work of other well-functioning archaeological bodies, but in the present-day Czech Republic this is not the case. If these museum archaeologists could be assembled into small, well equipped regional groupings, much more could be achieved with the same number of people. Such grouping is, however, unlikely, since each local archaeologist in this category is paid from a different source, usually city councils.

Archaeological units

At the present time there are very few independent institutions operating as excavation units. Some are museums, and others belong to the State Care for Monuments, an organization which is traditionally responsible almost exclusively for standing medieval and later monuments. Most rescue excavations are carried out by the Archaeological Institutes of the Academy of Sciences. As already mentioned, these are likely to be split up, one of the resulting parts becoming an excavation unit whose main preoccupation will be with rescue work.

This may not represent a full solution to the problems. Archaeology is a regional discipline, and a centralized body can only work properly if there is a rationale behind it. I am not certain that a central institute carrying out rescue work in, for example, the whole of Bohemia, is reasonable. At the same time, however, it must be borne in mind that the future regional policy and structure of the Czech Republic has not yet been decided and so excavation units would have an uncertain future if they were to be regionalized immediately

The legal regulation of archaeological field activities as provided by the most recent amendments, in 1987 and 1992, is reasonably satisfactory. Developers are obliged to consult archaeologists about their plans in advance of starting work and to pay for any necessary archaeological excavations. However, this provision has already been ignored on a number of occasions because of insufficient archaeologists being available to enforce it or to carry out excavations. A new law is expected soon, which it is hoped will not prove to be less satisfactory.

In my view all types of archaeological institution -- universities, excavation units, site-recording institutions, museums, research institutes (some possibly combined) -- should be based on a strong feedback between the empirical study of sites and finds on the one hand and theoretical considerations on the other. There should be no theory using finds for illustration and no excavations or site databases which have no immediate impact on theory. If these objectives can be achieved, there will be good archaeology.


In this paper I have tried to demonstrate that there are two main problems facing Czech (and possibly also Slovak) archaeologists: democratization and effectiveness. The normal functioning of the whole archaeological community, including its theoretical output, depends on how successful the community will be in securing these basic conditions in its work.

The last three years of Czechoslovak archaeology have been in my opinion among its most fruitful periods. We have initiated, locally at least, a structured change from the undemocratic and ineffective Soviet-style organization of archaeology towards an organic European model.
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Author:Neustupny, Evsen
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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