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A site in history: archaeology at Dolni Vestonice/Unterwisternitz.


Whatever the journalist's definition of eastern Europe might be, let us state, as introduction to this Special Section, that Czechoslovakia is a country in Central, not Eastern, Europe. It is somewhat controversial to speak about its 'return to Europe', as some politicians would have it, as it has been there all the time.

VENCLOVA 1991: 306

Despite archaeology's focus on space and time, it often ignores the exact location in space and time of its own research. This essay seeks to examine varying grounds on which archaeological knowledge-claims have been made over time in relation to the well known Palaeolithic site, Dolni Vestonice, in the former Czechoslovakia. While it is necessary to consider the physical context of the artefacts that validate a particular hypothesis, at the same time it is also essential to unravel the social, historical, political and personal contexts within which the site, the materials and the investigators themselves are submerged.(1)

Palaeolithic archaeology, rooted in geology and positioned directly on the fault line demarcating the furthest edge of the humanities, combines the methodological aspects of natural sciences and the interpretive aims of social sciences. Its heavy reliance on stone tools, soil samples and geological profiles gives Palaeolithic archaeology the image of 'hard', or by extension 'objective', science. The appearance of agriculture, architecture, and cities in subsequent time periods substantially increases the distance between natural sciences and archaeology, flaming other archaeologies with a more humanistic mind-set. Thus Palaeolithic archaeology offers a pivotal case-study on the border between the historical development of a natural science, and a humanistic pursuit of interpretation of factual evidence.


Archaeological research operates within two contexts: one archaeological - the physical circumstances of the finds - and one culture-historical - the socio-political climate of the country in which the site is located, together with that of the researcher's country. These two contexts are inseparably bound. Giving meticulous attention to the archaeological context is itself no guarantee of a value-free interpretation, for all interpretations claiming to be factually based, and scientifically tested, are constructed in relation to both material evidence and social reality (Gero et al. 1983; Pinsky & Wylie 1989; for a different approach to similar questions, see Patrick 1985).

What constitutes a location worthy of a survey, a site in a need of excavation, materials worth collecting, identifying and analysing varies over time: it is culturally determined, constructed and reconstructed. The 1853 drought in Switzerland exposed the 'Lake Dwellings', resulting - histories of archaeology tell us - in a large-scale excavation and the discovery of the Bronze Age settlements (Trigger 1989: 83). Without doubting that the drought in question occurred, and helped to reveal the wealth of finds, one still has to question why the Swiss scientists were searching for ancient settlements in such a meticulous way, in that particular geographical location, at that point in time.(2)

Archaeological excavations and research, it is often written, should be problem-oriented, addressing specific questions formulated to deal with issues pertaining to the past (Renfrew & Bahn 1991; Thomas 1989). Yet one has to pause and consider the meaning of such a bold, basic statement in introductory text-books. What constitutes, at a specific point in history, in a specific geographic location, a question that needs to be dealt with? Presumably, a question is posed so as to obtain an answer, and an answer that is seen as vital and interesting. The question itself is a lead toward an answer, that acquires interest and meaning in a particular context. The specific historical and social context gives meaning to that social construction called the past, be it local, regional, national, or universally human in scope.

History of European prehistory

Palaeolithic archaeology operates within a time-bracket labelled as prehistory, the period before written records (Renfrew & Bahn 1991: 17). The term prehistory, as opposed to history, appears in England and continental Europe during the second half of the 19th century, signifying a separate, conscious aspect of the study of human existence (Chippindale 1988; Clermont & Smith 1990). At the time, prehistory was called prehistoire in France, preistoria in Italy, Vorgeschichte in Germany (Daniel 1963: 14). All these terms suggest a similar optimism: there was a tangible past before the occurrence of written records, knowable and worth naming. In Germany, with the concurrent rise of the nation state, the ancient past was viewed not only as something tangible but also something significant to the national identity, and prehistory 'changed its name' in 1886 from Vorgeschichte to Urgeschichte - indicating that it was the source (the prefix ur-) of history, rather than its antecedent (Sklenar 1983). Neither England nor France followed suit. Czech intellectuals, on the other hand, in the midst of battles for language rights in the Austro-Hungarian empire, avoided using the existing loan word historie (history) that would have suggested links to Western traditions, and instead adopted the term pravek with its strong Slavic ring. The created word evoked the image of ancient ancestral time (the prefix pra-indicates antiquity, old age along direct kinship lines), a Slavic past which the present population descended from (vek is the Slavic root for age). These three different words - prehistory, Urgeschichte and pravek - may serve as the background against which the materials from Dolni Vestonice were interpreted in the 20th century.


The site of Dolni Vestonice is located near a village of the same name, in the southern part of the central section of former Czechoslovakia known as Moravia. The country itself was created in 1918, as one of several small nation-states that rose from the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian empire after the First World War. In many respects its making was more a result of a political failure in the sphere of multiculturalism, particularly mis-handling the language question, than a mature decision of all parties involved. Political boundaries were created that did not correspond with ethnic territories, resulting in the incorporation of long-settled linguistic minorities into the new national entity. Czechoslovakia was simultaneously part of Central Europe and the westernmost Slavic country, possessing at the time of its creation large German and Hungarian populations in addition to Czechs and Slovaks. Historically, the country has never been comfortable with its geographically expansive and threatening, but also inescapably influential and appealing, German-speaking neighbours to the west, south and north, an unease that is counteracted by an equally ambivalent relationship with its eastern neighbour - the former Soviet Union, heir to the Russian empire. This historically shaped and ideologically charged geographic location, with perceived ethnic attachments and emotional value, played a major role in the collective national identities of the Czechs, the Moravians and the Slovaks.(3) FIGURE 1 records how the boundaries of nation-states have moved across its location.

Dolni Vestonice lies in the southern part of the Moravian Karst, traditionally a German region, later part of the contested Sudetenland. The village was known under its German name of Unterwisternitz, and the overwhelming majority of the population was ethnically German (Frolec 1985). Their identity within the newly formed state became unclear, since they had traditionally identified themselves as Austrian Germans under the Empire. As of 1918, they were no longer Austrian, and yet could not claim to be German either. The system that had allowed the ambiguity of a figure like the writer Franz Kafka - who lived in Prague, but was Jewish in ethnic tradition and religion, and German in the literary language - had collapsed. Where the old imperial German language had distinguished between tschechisch (Czech) and bohmisch (Bohemian), the new national Czech language recognized only one state identity - Czechoslovak. This only contributed to the German sense of alienation from the Czechoslovak state's identity, an issue that developed into a serious problem in the 1930s, and an irreparable crisis by the beginning of the Second World War, with generous assistance from German and Czech political parties.

The site located in the 19th century

The hilly region of Southern Moravia was of historical interest for centuries, mainly due to its claim of having been the location of the first Slavic state - the Great Moravian empire (9th-10th centuries AD). The search for the exact site of this once powerful community captured the imagination of all local patriots from the 18th century, when land and nation became inseparable concepts in the popular imagination (Gojda 1991). The first mention of prehistoric finds is dated to the 17th century when a doctor at the emperor's court recorded mammoth bones recovered in the vicinity of the village (Absolon 1938; Klima 1954; Schwabedissen 1943; Svoboda 1991). Throughout the following centuries local doctors, teachers, botanists and naturalists made numerous records of extremely large bones, later identified as mammoth. The hunt for ancient fauna was replaced, in the second half of the 19th century, by a search for ancient human inhabitants, partly due to increased awareness of the antiquity of humanity (Ermarth 1978: 68):

The swelling tide of Darwinism in the '60s and '70s even exceeded the impact of Hegelianism in the '20s and '30s. Psychology, anthropology, economics, geography, philology, ethical philosophy, and even epistemology were remodeled on Darwinian lines. The idea of natural evolution came to dominate the thought of the later nineteenth century in a way comparable to the fascination exerted by classical mechanics in the seventeenth century.

At the same time, optimism associated with the possibilities of science in answering questions previously in the realm of myth and fiction ran particularly high in the increasingly powerful German state. Bohemia and Moravia, still a part of Austro-Hungary at the time, were strongly influenced by these intellectual movements, in part due to their desire to gain independent recognition outside the empire and, in part, due to the traditionally strong ties with the German universities. The turn of the century was also marked by the growing nationalism and ethnic strife for recognition in many European countries. Consequently the intelligentsia in Central Europe, the local doctors, botanists, naturalists, geologists, as the practitioners of science, came to play the role of national revivalists, by providing scientific evidence for the importance of a local place. The Museum Society in Brno (the urban centre of Moravian intellectual life) was established in 1888, with a 12-member board of governors, including 10 amateur archaeologists and two historians (Frolec 1988).

The acceptance of evolutionary theory as a research framework, and as a new philosophical outlook on the questions of human antiquity (Grayson 1983), led to a 'Naturalization of Spirit' (Ermarth 1978). The search for the most ancient remains in caves was not coincidental (see Rupke 1983: 391-5, for a discussion of fascination with caves since the mid 18th century in France and Germany). Humanity no longer - or at least for the time being - stood in opposition to Nature, but rather had its origins in the natural world. Caves were an ideal setting that the new scientific geology could study, and at the same time presented an ideal metaphor for the birth of the 'modern' humans, the opening in the earth from which people came.

The first Palaeolithic finds in Moravia came from the excavations at Byci Skala in 1867, and later other cave sites were discovered and recorded: Kulna, Pekarna and, in 1880, the Sipka cave (Sklenar 1983: 119; Svoboda 1991). In the process of this meticulous search, Karel Maska, the foremost Moravian prehistorian at the time, discovered the Predmosti open-air site with 20 skeletons in 1894 (Sklenar 1983; Klima 1951; Absolon & Klima 1977). This spectacular and unique find diverted the attention from the caves, that have yet to render anything comparable to paintings of Altamira found in 1878. Yet the French Palaeolithic has been considered the ultimate measure of achievement in prehistoric times, and most archaeologists in Central Europe focused on later periods, the Neolithic and the Bronze ages, that appeared to have been much more impressive in this area. The majority of the Neolithic sites excavated around the turn of the century contained artefacts that seemed suitable for interpretations related to the ethnic identities of their makers. Pottery, art objects, weapons and house remains were viewed as possessing style unique to ethnic groups, present and past.

The difference between the mid 19th century, when the first sites were located, and the beginning of the 20th, when they were excavated, marks a crucial divide in the social climate, and in the sense of crisis in the political, cultural, and historical expectations of most European states (Crawford 1992; Jalevich 1987). The initial fascination with, and unequivocal faith in, positivism at the end of the 19th century seemed to have faded, and the stage for the new century was set amidst an 'anarchy of world views' (Ermarth 1978: 80-81):

Increasingly after 1880 intellectuals in many fields began to question the ultimate validity and grounds of scientific conceptions and came to challenge the effects which such conceptions had upon the conduct of life. In contrast to the earlier positivism, one is confronted with the singular spectacle of science brought to witness against itself. In some circles confidence in science began to wane and belief in the objective truth of science was questioned... These decades witnessed various intellectual movements of revival and innovation which went under the various names of neo-idealism, neo-romanticism, vitalism, voluntarism, the 'new irrationalism', and the 'new metaphysics'.

The original archaeological research at Dolni Vestonice took place in a very specific historical and social climate of which it was a product, yet played an immensely powerful role in its construction. Understanding this relationship is essential, in order to unravel some of the reasons that stood behind the interpretations of the particular site and its materials later in the twentieth century.

The site Dolni Vestonice/Unterwisternitz excavated

A large-scale excavation began at the location in Southern Moravia in the summer of 1924. Dr Karel Absolon, a professor at the University of Prague and a curator of the Moravian Museum at Brno, led the project, and for the next 15 years was its director, its successful publicity manager, its chief fund-raiser, and the writer of all the research reports (Absolon 1925; 1927; 1938). Dolni Vestonice turned out to be an immensely rich find with large numbers of artefacts; the first evidence of portable art - a head of a bear - was located in the initial weeks of excavation in 1924 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The foremost prehistorians of Europe, gathered for the International Anthropology Congress in Prague in September 1924, were immediately invited to inspect the site, and participate in the experience. A black-and-white photograph shows a large group of bearded men in three-piece suits lying on the ground, crowded in a narrow gully but with solemn expressions, pursuing science. Count Begouen, we are told, was lucky, and found a piece of a mammoth bone and a micro-blade (Absolon 1938).

Considering the local politics in the 1920s, it is noteworthy that both the Czech and the German press in Moravia covered the excavation extensively at the time, without mentioning any national issue at all. The same can be said about Absolon's 1924 report, which is remarkable in its complete absence of any nationalism, though full of patriotism and pride in the region. He includes both the Czech and the German place-names, and from his published diary it is clear that, but for one, all the workers at the excavation were local Germans (Absolon 1938). The report written in 1938 in Czech for the local professional audience does not offer any racial or ethnic theories, and stands in a sharp contrast to the articles that Absolon published at the same time in French and German anthropological journals. These will be discussed later on.

The site and the noblemen

The first brief note in foreign press appeared in The Illustrated London News on 31 October 1925, under the most expressive title: 'A discovery as wonderful as that of Tutenkhamen's Tomb. Moravia over 20,000 years ago' (Absolon 1925) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. The impressive finds of the Egyptian tomb were replicated in Moravia, placing them on the same cultural level, while the British archaeologists were as successful as the Czechs in uncovering such treasures. This magazine later carried extensive coverage of the project, serving as the main source of information about it for the general public in the English speaking world, and for Western Europe in general. The second extensive report appeared a year later in German in the Acta Musei Moraviae, a local periodical put out by the museum of which Absolon was a curator (Absolon 1926). It may seem unusual that the report was not in Czech, the established official language of the newly independent country. Yet there were several reasons for this rather typical Central European phenomenon. Despite its newly acquired state of independence, Czechoslovakia continued to be dependent on Austria and Germany in many aspects, and scholarly language, education and research remained a powerful legacy of 300 years of cultural dependence. Most university-educated researchers, particularly those in physical and natural sciences, were trained in German. At the same time, even though Czech was then the accepted scholarly language in Czechoslovakia, such a spectacular site as Dolni Vestonice had to be made known to the very community from which the young archaeological establishment was trying to make itself independent. This peculiar situation persisted throughout the century, with different foreign languages playing the role of the master language. It continues to this day, and is not unique to Czechoslovakia, or even to Eastern Europe, but rather is expressive of the scientific capital of various countries, and the neo-colonial dependency of those that do not possess it.

Shortly afterwards, Absolon published articles for the professional audience in the French Revue Anthropologique and the German Tagungsberichte der deutschen Anthropologischen Gesellschaft. In both reports, he stressed the importance of the site itself as a new Aurignacian station in Moravia, and one of the largest in the world (Absolon 1927; 1928). A detailed description of the now-famous clay figurines appeared here for the first time, with the animal statuettes discussed as much as the (at the time) only female figurine, and the torso whose sex Absolon did not suggest. The description considered the figurine 'fortement steatometrique' [strongly steatopygic], a view that later changed, depending on the researcher (Absolon 1927: 86). None of these reports gave the statuettes any religious significance, and even though they were mentioned and described, they were not considered the highlight of the finds; 31 mammoths, after all, outweighed a 10-cm tall female figurine. The primary focus was the impressive number of mammoth bones recovered, the 'kitchen midden', with at least 31 complete individuals (Absolon 1927). The slaughter at the location was compared to the then-current extermination of elephants in Africa, where Absolon calls for a protection law so as to avoid the fate that the mammoth met in Moravia (Absolon 1927: 88). Analogy with Africa and Australia was a frequent explanatory device in Absolon's writing, its connotations varying immensely over time, as did perceptions of race, and the primitive.

The most extensive popular coverage appeared in a series of lengthy articles in 1929 in The Illustrated London News. The articles contained most of the photographic evidence cited and widely used during the following decades by researchers discussing the site. The whole series carried an impressive title, 'An Amazing Palaeolithic "Pompeii" in Moravia', in a far from subtle comparison to the famous Roman site (Absolon 1929; 1936: 499):

As we learned from the Pompeii how the Romans lived, this 'prehistoric Pompeii' will reveal how primitive Europeans lived under the glacial conditions; the readers are introduced to the hearths and homes of the mammoth-hunters of Moravia.

This introduction carried several messages addressed to varied audiences, first and foremost in Europe. When Absolon points out later in the article, 'great light has been thrown on the antiquity of humanity', it is clear that it is only a certain part of humanity on whose antiquity light has been shed - the Europeans (Absolon 1929: 875). The 'homes and the hearths' make it a familiar sight, particularly to the British readers that are introduced to it. Further, the links created between England, where the article appeared, Pompeii, where the grand Roman history was suspended under the ashes of the volcano, and the 'prehistoric Pompeii' in Moravia covered with sand, so as to evoke the image of one grandiose, uninterrupted European past just waiting to be uncovered. At the same time, Absolon makes sure that Moravia is placed on the map of Europe, and of the world (Absolon 1929: 875):

Moravia has thereby become one of the most important countries for the study of the origin of man and human culture, as here under loess, we have the largest Palaeolithic stations in the world... the mammoth hunters are, in fact, the outstanding feature of Ancient Moravia... their habitations are of world-wide importance, because at the time of their occupation, Moravia was the scene where man passed through important phases in his development.

Patriotism on one hand, and regionalism on the other, permeated all the writing. The newly established Czechoslovak republic was promoted vigorously, at the same time as it was subjected to internal battles between central Prague and provincial Moravia. This first article in the series is in particular a strong appeal for acceptance of Czechoslovakia, and Moravia, as European countries with the same glorious past, and for recognition of the local scholars as sophisticated archaeologists who know their field. 'I am fully aware of my great responsibility to future generations... and have adopted a firm scientific basis for research... the location has been explored methodically and in accordance with modern views', wrote Karel Absolon, proceeding to describe his excavation methods in detail, while leaving it to the specialist reader to decide who the future generations would be who would consider a Moravian archaeologist their forefather (Absolon 1929: 875). A similar appeal to the authority of science is also to be found in the 1927 French article, but none of the local ones, indicating the desire for Czechoslovakia to be included in the scientific circles of modern Europe. His concluding remarks echo this wish for recognition: 'I should be happy if some larger specimen of these Moravian prehistoric records could become part of the collections of the British Museum of Natural History, as a proof of Czechoslovakia's respect for the great English nation' (Absolon 1929: 875).

The site and the primitive

The entire series of the articles presented Dolni Vestonice to the European audience, both lay and specialist, as a camp of mammoth-hunters, who caught the animals by cunning, appreciated their brains as a delicacy and created large numbers of decorative objects (Absolon 1929; 1936; 1937). Despite the occasional stress on sound scientific methods, Absolon constructed the whole interpretation as a suspenseful discovery narrative. He incorporated into the interpretations most of the current anthropological theories that suggested migration from Asia to the west, and later with the retreat of the ice-sheets northward. Absolon suggested that the skeletal material from Moravia, in combination with the artefacts, constituted sound proof that the Eskimos were descendants of fossil men of Magdalenian Europe, supporting his argument by citing a study in The Annals of Eugenics from 1926 (Absolon 1929).

The issue of race would develop over time, and one can notice a radical difference between the writing from the 1920s, and that from the late '30s. As mentioned earlier, from the beginning Absolon considered the occupants of Dolni Vestonice to have been 'primitive Europeans', yet drew his analogies from African and Australian cultures. The female figurine had four small holes on its head which, Absolon suggested, had feathers stuck in them as in African fetishes (Absolon 1929). The recovered pigment was associated with various stone slabs and round stones as toiletries, and interpreted as evidence of body painting, similar to that of the Australian aborigines. The reasons for making such analogies were never stated, much less discussed or substantiated.

In 1935, Dolni Vestonice first appeared under the German name, Unterwisternitz, in a short report in the Zeitschrift fur Rassenkunde about human teeth recovered that were perforated in the same way as the animal teeth that presumably formed a necklace. This brief note itself is not in any way an indication of Absolon's adherence to racist views, yet the fact that he did publish the piece, short as it may be, in a journal that at the time already focused intensely on studies of racial differences and their implications for social policies is indicative of a greater historical milieu that he did not escape. We must remember that it was not only under the extreme and catastrophic developments of Nazi regime in Germany that race became an issue.

The then common belief in human differences rooted in biology surfaced the following year, when another report in The Illustrated London News discussed the latest clay figurines. Absolon expressed his hope that the most recent scientific methods would enable the study of fingerprints, so as to determine 'whether they differ from those of living men today' (Absolon 1936: 547). As much as African and Australian cultures were considered comparable to the fossil record in the 1920s and early 1930s, by the mid 1930s they were seen as different. Previously, 'European civilization' evolved where that of Africans and Australians stopped. In the later years, a serious attempt was made to prove that the 'Europeans' had completely separate ancestry. When a small ivory head was found at Dolni Vestonice in 1937, the news was announced under the heading 'By a Prehistoric "Leonardo da Vinci"' of 30 thousand years ago: the Earliest Known Portrait of a Human Being - an Ivory Head' (Absolon 1937: 549). The importance of the find was expressed in unambiguous terms by Sir Arthur Keith, who wrote the introduction to the article (Keith in Absolon 1937: 549):

It is of particular interest to us Europeans - for it is a portrait of one of the white or Caucasian pioneers who began to colonize Europe in the later phases of the Ice Age. It is not merely the early history of Moravia that is opening up, but the history of our European forefathers - and foremothers!(4) - soon after their first arrival in Central Europe.

With race becoming a major issue in the European context, Moravia had been recognized as a part of the 'civilized' world, a bearer of European history. The east Europeans did not have to ask for recognition when their material was useful in promoting a particular ideology - that of Caucasian Europeans. Local scholars did not mince words in making racial comparisons either: 'How crude are the faces of present-day Australian aborigines, or the pygmies of Central Africa, compared with this 'classical' portrait from old oriental civilizations, or even a modern drawing such as the head of Christ by the Dutch painter Jan Toroop in "Night in the Cathedral",' wrote Karel Absolon in 1937, and he expressed belief that the necessary exact scientific somatological analysis and anatomical construction would show measurable racial definitions (Absolon 1937: 552). The narrative to promote motherland and the native region was replaced in his writing during the 1930s as Czechoslovakia, and Moravia, were already accepted as a part of Europe. A peculiar combination of a pan-European historical narrative and scientific discourse emerged, aiming to provide a story of European racial purity, especially that of Caucasians of Christian faith. As mentioned earlier, the different treatment of the material before different readerships was most striking. The local audience was offered a slightly romantic, suspenseful account of six weeks of labour, discoveries and a vision of the future (archaeological and by extension also national) that reinforced the pride of place (Absolon 1938). The international readers were given proofs of all the current racial anthropological theories (Absolon 1927; 1936).

Less than two years later, Czechoslovakia was invaded and broken up, and Bohemia and Moravia, as Bohmen-Mahren, became a protectorate of Germany. Karel Absolon ceased to be the director of the excavations at Dolni Vestonice, and new racial questions came into focus. These questions were equally rigorously explored with the latest scientific methods, but Slavic populations were no longer included in the sample of the Caucasian race.

During the first 15 years of excavations and research, Absolon and his team mainly aimed to uncover as large a space as possible and find out the size of the settlement. Originally, the physical space, its size and the mammoth-bone accumulations composed the context. The site was one large camp of mammoth-hunters. For these reasons, stratigraphy was observed only marginally, and relationships between artefacts were noted only toward the end of Absolon's research at Dolni Vestonice. The main goal was to put this Moravian site on the map, and prove the coexistence of mammoths and humans. Once that had become an accepted possibility in the mid 1930s, the clay, bone and ivory objects acquired a new meaning. They were no longer the mere decorations of the mammoth-hunters whose sheer existence had been in doubt. Rather, these objects themselves grew meaningful, as they could now reveal the identity of their makers. Relationships between the artefacts became the essential interpretive clues, and the association of the art objects with the mammoth bones was reduced to that of supporting context.

The need, and desire, to prove the contemporaneity of the ancient fauna and humans led to the inclusion of specialists on the team. Geologists, pedologists and palaeontologists participated in the analysis, mainly to assess the period of occupation, and their contribution consisted mainly in establishing credibility for the narrative that surrounded the prehistoric settlement. Their analyses were not included in the international publications, remaining only a part of the Czech technical reports.

The site Unterwisternitz excavated

In 1939, following the Munich agreement of the previous year, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, and Bohemia and Moravia became a German protectorate, a situation that would last for the next six years. Charles University in Prague began teaching in German; and prehistory, labelled as 'the national science', became one of the most popular subjects. The head of the department Prof. Lothar Zotz published a number of articles on the prehistory of the region, arguing for the German ancestral ties to the land (Zotz 1940; 1944) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 4, 5 OMITTED]. His best-known student Gisela Freund, the only published woman archaeologist to have worked in Moravian Palaeolithic research, undertook a comparison of the Unterwisternitz/Dolni Vestonice material with other Palaeolithic materials from the wider central European region, including the Willendorf collection for her dissertation research (Freund 1944). This project never took off, possibly due to a struggle between the University and the Forschungsstatte fur Urgeschichte des Ahnenerbe (Research Center for the Prehistory of Ancestral Heritage), a new research organization established by Himmler (Freund 1944: 3-10). The research centre achieved complete control over the site, the excavations and the retrieved materials from previous years, considering it too significant for its own goals to share it even with other German archaeologists. During the three following years, Dr Assien Bohmers attempted to 'correct the neglect of scientific techniques over the past fifteen years' (Bohmers 1941a: 45). Consequently, the foremost question that needed to be answered was that of stratigraphy, and the specific geological age of the culture located at the site (Bohmers 1941b). The German team shifted the focus from historically oriented prehistory to a natural-science-centred investigation that renewed close ties with geology. In collaboration with specialists on pollen and molluscs and with geologists, Bohmers announced that, for the first time, the Wurm Interstadial had been discovered and scientifically proven at this location (Bohmers 1941a: 45). The same site then was again a source of national pride, only of a different nation - German, and this time as a place of an overtly scientific breakthrough.

Yet this concern for science was not isolated from human issues. Bohmers ventured into the area of cultural materials as well, and offered an interpretation equally linked to the issue of race. According to him, the art objects, rather than the mammoth bones, were the most important find, as from these one could get a glimpse of the world-view (Weltanschauung) of their makers (Bohmers 1941a: 47). Bohmers further explained that the characteristics of these artefacts, combined with the geological assessment of the deposits, confirmed the hypothesis that the people who inhabited the site were of the Cro-Magnon, Aurignacian or Brno race (Bohmers 1941a: 47). This, according to him, was significant as these people appeared after the 'annihilation' of the Neanderthal on the European, Asian and African continents, which was one of the greatest conquests of all times. These people were of a 'europide' shape and from them later came the 'Indogermans' (Bohmers 1941a: 47). Coming in the midst of a world war, an interpretation justified in such explicit racial terms needs little commentary.

Bohmers, like Absolon, remarked that the ivory head reflected the racial features of the population of Unterwisternitz/Dolni Vestonice and it 'was not for example Mongoloid or Negroid but rather a fully Indo-European racial group' (Bohmers 1941a: 51). Mainly due to its fairly distinct facial features, this piece attracted far more attention than other figurine fragments that may have had bodies but no faces. Bodies were assumed to be universally undifferentiated; racially, ethnically indistinguishable, they only varied in the levels of fatness. The Vestonice figurine seemed steatopygic to Absolon, but fairly slim to Bohmers. Yet they both agreed that faces were the markers of difference.

In Bohmers' view, the physical space was the crucial context, but this time, the vertical aspect mattered more than the horizontal. Where Absolon wished to impress with breadth, Bohmers tried to secure the depth. The mammoth bones were no longer a major attraction; rather, racial definition and its dating dominated. Hence, the art objects in context - carefully positioned in a scientifically verified stratigraphic sequence - became the focus of research. The ancestors of the present population were 'Indogerman'; after all this was the German village, Unterwisternitz.

The site Dolni Vestonice excavated again

Seemingly uninterrupted by international turmoil, research returned to Dolni Vestonice shortly after the end of the Second World War. However, the village lost its German connotations as the entire population was expelled in 1945-6, and forcibly re-settled in Austria and Germany, while new Czech inhabitants moved in. Unterwisternitz became the Czech Dolni Vestonice, lending the illusion of Slavic permanence, while purging all memories of the German settlement in an effort to forget the horrors of the war. Needless to say, along with the village, control of the site passed back into Czech hands

In 1945, continuing what the German team had started, an interim Czech team carried out a very detailed geological and pedological study. During the war the entire area, as well as many others all over Europe, had been carefully mapped and surveyed for military purposes. A large number of scientific instruments that the army had for these purposes, became available to geologists who carried out survey for mining companies, and to construction companies that were re-building the roads in the post-war period. As a result, most research by archaeologists in Czechoslovakia at the time was closely tied-in to these enterprises, due to a lack of other equipment and funds.

The original reports from 1945-7 are not available, probably due to the transitional character of the post-war regime. In 1948 Czechoslovakia fell firmly under the domain of the Soviet Union, and anything written in the post-war period was either left unpublished or disappeared, only to reappear in the 1950s in an altered form. This gap is so striking that the proliferation of works that came out afterwards, dealing solely with stratigraphy, is even more astonishing. All of prehistory became one complex stratified deposit that needed to be investigated. The group of researchers that worked at Dolni Vestonice after the war, Knor et al., summarized the situation very succinctly in the foreword to their 1953 volume (Bohm in Knor 1953: 5):

The entire problem of the Upper Palaeolithic and its typology, as well as the questions of the geological periodisation of the last glaciation, has come to be addressed, together with the methodical issues of open air sites, so successfully by the Soviet archeology. It became clear to us that further research at Dolni Vestonice must look for new approaches to work.

The last sentence sounds especially striking, since Bohm does not explain why it became clear, or what the new approaches were, yet it is obvious from the brief foreword and the reports themselves that 'further research' depended on this premise, or at least on its inclusion in the foreword. Following this Czech foreword was, we find, a Russian translation and, as the manuscript continues, a Russian translation for each contribution as well. We should remember that the years 1949-56 were politically severe, with show trials, labour camps and arrests of innocent people whose crime was their supposed 'betrayal of the republic'. Making one false step may have had severe consequences, particularly in fields so highly ideological, and at the same time public, as archaeology.

The adoption of the new approach was also followed by a removal of Dr Absolon from his research position, and his forced professional insignificance until his death in 1960, when his son, by then living in the United States, was not even allowed to attend the funeral. Any bibliography of Karel Absolon's work is a clear testimony to his fate, the last date in it being 1947. The monograph on Dolni Vestonice that he was planning to publish never came out, and his monograph on Predmosti was posthumously edited in German by B. Klima (Absolon & Klima 1977).

In this era, complete immersion in the soils and their sequences was the safest approach to take. The scientific writing that previously supported and justified the dominant ideology was now used to protect the scholars from the ideology of their own society. Geology, pedology, palaeontology of micro-vertebrates became the safe haven for all those who supposedly studied past human societies. The justification for this complete avoidance of interpretation, and the exclusion of people from archaeological consideration, was found in adopting an extreme ecological perspective (Knor et al. 1953: 8):

Today, we are no longer interested in collecting objects, but rather in scientific observations, which can be done only through a systematic survey of all aspects of the Palaeolithic sites.... we were therefore not interested in flint artefacts, bone objects, figurines, skeletal remains of humans and animals, but rather in their depositional environment and how they related to it...

In order to be able to say anything about past societies, went the interpretative logic, one needs to know intimately the natural environment in which they lived. In the process of such detailed research, no one will talk about the people, their relations, or their social system, so went the underlying political logic. Consequently, the stratigraphic sequence became the context that needed to be analysed before anything else, a process that could - conveniently - last ad infinitum.

The situation in Eastern Europe stabilized after the mid 1950s, and the Cold War became less of an immediate and obvious presence. This loosening of political tensions opened the door for the prehistoric people to return to Dolni Vestonice, and the new work re-discovered humans in the past. However, these were not from 'pravek' (ancestral past) any more but rather from the international Palaeolithic. Science had arrived to stay but, in contrast with the earlier wartime writing, at least the prehistoric populations were not placed in the wide and general Wurm Interstadial, but in the more personal Palaeolithic, defined not in terms of the weather but the means of production - by stone tools. Archaeology under these new conditions accepted the existence of a rigid Marxist interpretation as the inevitable framework into which everything had to fit. For that reason, a perfect fit was somewhere in the middle, no elaboration or imagination involved; as long as a detailed description of the material remains is accomplished, the framework will provide the necessary explanation. Materialism and means of production were combined, and resulted in the major focus of Czechoslovak archaeology until the present: typological study of tools. Most of Eastern European archaeology paid lip-service to Marxist theory without making any attempt either to understand it, or to consider its relevance for social theory (Laszlowsky & Sikoldi (1991) provide an excellent discussion of the absence of theory in Eastern European archaeology; see also Kobylinski (1991), and compare with Neustupny (1991) in the same volume). Palaeolithic archaeology solved the dilemma of balancing methodological and theoretical needs by opting for the former, and was in effect reduced to a technique of recovery, assuming a scientific appearance.

Any attempt at interpreting the social context was bracketed with Soviet sites where similar situations occurred, or which Soviet archaeologists considered significant. Evoking this master reference and others within the Eastern alliance became a necessity, as most archaeologists had very little access to foreign materials, and theoretical developments in the West were unknown. All theoretical discussions of this particular time period cited the same work - Engels' The origin of the family, private property and state - accepting his scenario of matriarchy, equality, and no private property. For example, Klima's interpretation of the social context reads (Klima 1963: 97):

The immense bone accumulation is not merely a sign of the abundance of animals in the area, but more importantly, it is the sign that numerous members of a matrilineal clan lived here for a long period of time, in prosperity, and sometimes even an overabundance of food, and that they did not feel excruciating, long-lasting hunger. Economic well-being was secured, besides gathering, by collective hunting, whose success depended on good organization, hunting strategies, and effective weapons. Even though these were in personal, individual possession, the fact that hunting was a collaborative effort, meant that the kill was communal property. The large size of the settlement and the large number of the accumulated bones fully prove the correctness of interpretation based on historical materialism.

Stabilization of political boundaries in Europe since the second half of the 1950s resulted in a renewed cooperation with some western countries. In scientific research this led to a new attention to international publications. A longer overview of Moravian Palaeolithic research was published in 1957 in the German Quartar where Lothar Zotz was the editor, and it was in this journal that Moravian research was regularly presented throughout the 1960s, a tradition that continued when Gisela Freund succeeded Zotz as editor in 1968 (Klima 1963; 1965; 1968; 1991; Valoch 1959). Excavations at Dolni Vestonice in the 1950s and '60s recovered remains of a kiln with fired ceramic pieces (possibly covered by a hut-like structure), a burial of a woman, several pieces of human skeletons, and more mammoth bones (Svoboda 1994). All these attracted sufficient interest in Czechoslovakia, as well as abroad, and served as a vehicle to strengthen contacts with the scientific community in other European countries.

The most striking find came in 1986, as a part of a salvage operation during the construction of a controversial mega-dam project that flooded a vast area in the vicinity of Dolni Vestonice. A burial with three perfectly preserved skeletons drew instant attention, not only in Czechoslovakia but also in the wider archaeological community in Europe and North America. The three individuals were presented as a replacement for the skeletons from Predmosti that perished at the end of the war in 1945, allowing again for interpretations of the prehistoric people's lives: their difficult survival, their 'irrational religious beliefs', their 'strange burial practices' (Klima 1987: 252). Not unlike the significant finds at Dolni Vestonice in the 1930s, the three skeletons were presented as unique objects in Palaeolithic research, providing direct information about the 'prehistoric inhabitants of the European steppes' (Klima 1987: 252). The re-establishment of Dolni Vestonice as one of the more significant Palaeolithic sites in Europe on this new empirical basis created a new interpretive space for the researchers, as well as popular writers (Auel 1990: 492-647). Yet in scientific terms the space was largely to remain empty; the human finds generated much interest, but most technical work continued to focus on stone tool typologies.

The dramatic political events of 1989 in Eastern Europe brought about remarkably little change in archaeology, particularly Palaeolithic archaeology. The site of Dolni Vestonice is now frequently visited by Western researchers, but the theoretical approach remains relatively unaffected. Typology combined with scientific techniques dominates the research, and a basic evolutionary paradigm is the motivating force. Ideology or history, whether current, past, or even prehistoric, is considered irrelevant. The recent stasis of Palaeolithic archaeology in Czechoslovakia, and Eastern Europe in general, finds support in the continuing preoccupation with stone tool typology in Western European archaeology. It also lends credence to Communist-period research, and allows the possibility of claiming scientific neutrality all along.

In 1992 a remarkable short article entitled 'Who was Lothar Zotz?', by K. Sklenar, appeared in a small newsletter of the speleological society of Czechoslovakia. The author discusses the contributions of L. Zotz to 'Czechoslovak archaeology' (the entity which, if archaeology were to operate without a social context, would exist as a unified, local branch of independent science), arguing that his membership in the Nazi party was only formal, and any extreme pro-German rhetoric in his articles should be ignored for the sake of the scientific contributions made (Sklenar 1992: 16):

It is clear that he [Zotz] could not have reached his position without a membership in the ruling Nazi party; however, we all know from our own experience, how many capable people consider joining the party as a condition and a price for the opportunity to have a professional career, without internally identifying with the principles or even practices of the party.

I would suggest that this article closes the circle between the practice of war-time science under National Socialism, and post-war science under Communism, while retaining the perfect illusion of a neutral, rational scientific tradition.

Traumas born of the Second World War paralysed most social sciences and humanities in Central Europe, a condition only augmented in Eastern Europe by the experience of the Communist experiment. The consequence has been a theoretical silence, in need of a historicizing, self-reflexive discussion. Only such debate would enable social scientists to move from disciplines defined only by techniques, to more theoretically engaged studies that directly contribute to our knowledge of the human condition, past and present.(5)


Of all the branches of archaeology, work on the Palaeolithic has been positioned most closely to the natural sciences, due to a combination of the material available for study and the techniques involved in its investigation. This close connection to neighbouring realms such as geology has lent Palaeolithic archaeology the aura of objective science, even while the ultimate subject in question remains human and social. Within the Palaeolithic tradition this scientific connection has frequently blurred into scientism, and a belief that interpretations represent the stumbling-block of proper neutrality. The stories that social scientists spin lead them astray from neutral facts and the material evidence; narrative obscures what would be otherwise clear data. Critics of the concept of neutral science have directed most of their attention towards textual deconstruction of interpretations, analysis of the structure and the underlying logic of the argument, presuppositions and hypotheses. Sociological and historical studies of developments in archaeology have shown the extent to which these are embedded in a socio-cultural context. However, this type of analysis leaves the choice of research techniques, material evidence, collaboration with other sciences, and what counts as data largely intact. A major insight of recent social study of science (e.g. Latour 1987; Shapin & Schaeffer 1985) is precisely that techniques are not neutral, and that facts - however factual - are social constructs, embedded in social and political contexts.

I have shown in the case of Dolni Vestonice that Palaeolithic archaeology is just as susceptible to social influences as any other branch of archaeology. In addition, the prospect of deciphering the enigma of human origins, the solution of the time and space question of when 'we' became what we are today, adds to the possibility of strengthening particular origin myths, territorial claims and justification of modern-day social phenomena. The interpretations of the site have clearly been used to promote different agendas over time. Research in the 1920s tried to promote the newly created state of Czechoslovakia, place it on the map of Europe and secure its position in the origins of civilization. Nationalism played an indirect role when the site was officially located in Moravia, Czechoslovakia; its location in an ethnically German part of the country was never mentioned. The overriding sentiment was less anti-German than a desire to emphasize that the Czech lands belonged to a pan-European civilized world. This claim of European unity turned towards a Caucasian racial affinity in the 1930s, and then, after the German occupation, the key racial category was narrowed down to the exclusion of Czechs. German research focused on the origins myth, as the question of 'Indogermans' came into prominence, and the site was in a sense rediscovered, and found to have been located in a German part of Europe all along. After the war, the historical and political context of communism framed a concentrated study of the means of production, affirming the correctness of the crudest form of Marxist theories. Internationalism and economic production were re-told against the background of the earliest human history.

However, as I have shown in this historical study of Dolni Vestonice, it is important to note that not only the interpretations of the site varied over time, but that scientific techniques, methods of excavation and the choice of data shifted as well. As meticulously as Absolon uncovered a large horizontal space with numerous faunal remains in the 1920s and '30s, the German team carefully focused on the vertical space, the geological sequence and its dating. Both methods were just as scientifically solid and justified, as was the post-war preoccupation with stone tools and typology. Moreover, this consistent tradition of sound methodology gave the illusion of a single, neutral, apolitical scientific enterprise evolving all along, even as researchers and local people come and go. Yet technology is no more neutral than interpretations, and facts are as social as are the words that talk about them; all can be alternately emphasized or ignored. Alison Wylie (1989) has noted that there are material constraints to interpretations, and that evidence is not infinitely plastic. I would add that what counts as evidence seems to be more so, and that different contexts allow for the collection of different data. Even while keeping to the facts, and nothing but the facts, we are always working through history.

Acknowledgements. I would like to thank the Archaeology faculty at the University of California, Berkeley for their support, especially Meg Conkey and Ruth Tringham. Mike Bisson, Lisa Lloyd, Peter Redfield, Bruce Trigger, Barbara Voytek, Judit Zsoldos and the extended Tomasek family all have contributed directly to the history of this essay. Jiri Svoboda and Bohuslav Klima provided invaluable assistance during my research in Czechoslovakia, while the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the University of California at Berkeley generously contributed monetary support. Finally, I must acknowledge the perceptive and helpful comments of two anonymous reviewers. All errors in fact or interpretation, however, remain my own responsibility.

1 In following the case of Dolni Vestonice over time, I will take a historicist position in assessing the value of its interpretations, suggesting the problematic nature of the notion of 'good' and 'bad' science. It is important to note that such a stance does not imply the non-existence of bad or unsuitable techniques, procedures or methods, only the absence of transcendental certainty beyond the reach of context or time. For a sampling of recent work in historical and sociological studies of science that informs this essay, see Bowler 1983; 1989: Clark 1991; Crawford 1992; Fortescue 1987; Foucault 1970; Haraway 1989; Latour 1987; Longino 1991; Lynch & Woolgar 1990; Rudwick 1985; Shapin & Schaffer 1985; Weiner 1989; and, of course, Kuhn 1970.

2 It does matter after all, as the historian of science L. Pyenson asks: 'why astronomy rose to such prominence in the Netherlands, despite a climate entirely unpropitious for star-gazing, while no such tradition emerged in a topographically well suited country of comparable size and temperament, Switzerland' (Pyenson 1989: 379). See Lowenthal (1985) on relations between nation and landscape.

3 In 1930 Czechs officially accounted for 51[center dot]1% of the population and Slovaks another 15[center dot]8%, while Germans (22[center dot]3%), Hungarians (4[center dot]8%) and Ruthenians (3[center dot]8%) made up the most substantial minorities, in addition to Jews (1[center dot]3%), Poles (0[center dot]6%), and - most likely underreported - Gypsies (0[center dot]2%) (Magocsi 1993: 132-3).

4 The remark refers to an argument between Absolon, who insisted that the head depicted a man, and Keith, who was convinced that it was a portrait of a woman. Neither provided an explicit rationale for his respective attribution of gender to the object.

5 Addendum: President Vaclav Havel offered in 1992 an official apology to those Germans who were expelled at the end of the war, calling it an unjust punishment based on a faulty presumption of collective guilt. His speech was not welcomed on either side: the Czechs fear retribution and possible loss of property and land, the Sudeten Germans desired far more, beyond the act of recognition of injustice.


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SILVIA TOMASKOVA, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley CA 94720, USA.
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