Antikensammlung and Classical Archaeology

A Berlin Perspective from Budapest.

A. Schwarzmaier – A. Scholl – M. Maischberger (eds),
The Antikensammlung. Altes Museum, Neues Museum, Pergamonmuseum
Berlin 2016.

The reader will undoubtedly wonder why I am recommending a book published seven years ago. The answer is simple. This book, among its many other merits has much to tell us about the relationship between museum antiquities collections and the discipline of classical archaeology and, more broadly, about the current state of relations between museology and scholarship.

The book’s title refers to what could be called (paraphrasing André Malraux) an imaginary museum of Greek and Roman art. It contains a catalogue of selected ancient works from the three different Berlin museums listed in the subtitle of the book, which account for the three-part division of the volume. In this case, scholarship seems to have trumped institutional politics: the volume gives the reader a comprehensive overview of the masterpieces of ancient art that you will see if you visit Berlin.

This book is also partly a museum guide: it presents the works of the Neues and Altes Museums in the order in which they appear in the exhibitions themselves (p. 23–277; p. 279–304). The collections of the Pergamonmuseum (p. 303–370) are still virtually inaccessible because of the massive construction works that have been ongoing for decades now – to these we owe the beautifully restored Neues Museum (2009) and its entrance-wing, the James-Simon-Galerie (2019). In that case, the book gives us easy access to what we cannot see.

It presents 186 artworks of Greek, Cypriot, Etruscan and Roman origin, although this number is misleading because the vast Pergamon Altar frieze and the Temple of Athena Polias of Priene are both counted as single entries. The best of the ancient art in the major Berlin collections is thus made available to the reader in a virtual exhibition explored through the pages of a book. And it is much more than that: the exceptional richness of the material and its presentation means that the reader can learn a great deal about the history of ancient art and religions.

The volume was edited by the director of the Altes Museum and two other senior researchers whose sense of duty has led them to accept the enormous task of running one of the largest antiquities collections in the world. This double vocation of scholar and museum leader has a great double advantage. A scholar who also happens to be heading a museum of classical antiquities will consider their position not as one of power, but of responsibility, and thus will be more open to the timeless advice of our fellow scholar and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (161–180): “Take heed not to be transformed into a Caesar,… for it does happen.” (VI. 30.) (Even Nero’s first years as emperor were regarded as a golden age by many in antiquity.) The second advantage is no less important: directors of this kind usually think it self-evident that they should promote research on the works entrusted to their care, and not lock the collection away from others.

The map on the front endpaper makes clear the importance of ancient art in the cultural history of Berlin: of the five museums found on Spree Island, only the Alte Nationalgalerie has no ancient works in its collection. The picture that opens the introduction gives a similar impression (p. 7). The first Antiquities Museum, which opened as the Königliches Museum in 1830, defined the whole of the north side of the city’s square central park, the Lustgarten, which was enclosed on its three other sides by the royal palace, the cathedral, and a military armoury. The four sides of the Lustgarten were the architectural expression of the four great pillars of the Prussian monarchical state.

The book is the work of twenty-nine authors who comprise some three generations of scholars. All have worked in one of these museums, either on the West or East sides of the old divided Berlin. Their careers may have developed in different directions, but nearly all of them have spent most of their research lives in one of the three museums. It would, the editors seem to have thought, be a shame to let everything they have learned go to waste, since a real understanding of the works that make up any antiquities collection can only be achieved through decades of direct acquaintance with the objects themselves. This is what sustains knowledge, and it is essential to the life of an antiquities collection, because without it the museum object remains a piece of lifeless matter. The list of authors is also a representative roster of current German classical archaeology. The Berlin classical collections have for decades enjoyed curators who could stand their ground as authors in a representative selection such as this. All this is elementary, and springs from an understanding of the basic meaning of the saying ars longa vita brevis: the profession of classical archaeology takes a long time to master, while the life of a scholar is short.

That the antiquities museums of Berlin take the continuity of their scholarship very seriously is clearly displayed in the life’s work of someone who has not long ago left us: the prominent archaeologist Gertrud Platz (1942–2019), whose entire career was tied to the museums of Berlin, both as a scholar and as one of their leaders. After her retirement in 2007 it was only natural that she should continue her research: freed from administrative obligations, she completed major catalogues of two extremely difficult groups of artefacts – bone objects and cameos, which are today considered as the basis of all scholarly work in these areas. It had never occurred to anyone that they should not hold on tightly to Gertrud Platz’s knowledge, since, were it to be lost, who would ever be able to relearn it all? A thriving centre of research can be obliterated at the stroke of a pen, but who knows whether it might ever be recreated even after generations of work? Good things are easily destroyed but hard to build, and the continuity of knowledge and professional tradition, once snapped, cannot be re-established.

The volume presents each single category of objects or artistic genre through the work of multiple authors. The material was not, therefore, divided up by the editors into a series of sealed scholarly fiefdoms: each class of works, whether vases, sculpture, or gems could count for its expert presentation on several different hands. On the title page, a sentence in small type proclaims that this book is the English-language version of the 2012 German edition – “completely revised and slightly expanded.” Four years must be a long time in the world of classical archaeology. Some descriptions are unchanged from the previous edition, where such changes were deemed unnecessary. The translator, Stephanie Pearson, is an American archaeologist working in Berlin, and is therefore well-acquainted with the objects.

All the descriptions reveal a great amount of scholarly expertise, and a desire to say something meaningful or at least interesting about the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. A giant golden fish and a fragment of a silver amphora are able to offer fundamental insights about the relationship of Greek, Scythian and Persian art (nos. 75, 76). From a terracotta relief showing a bride preparing for her wedding night a tragic story can be reconstructed (no. 139); and we can also read a summary of how the largest glass amphora surviving from the ancient world might have been made (no. 55). Since the authors know the works in question better than anyone else, their descriptions often call attention to details that an outsider would hardly notice: a visitor, therefore, would learn far more roaming the collections with the catalogue in hand.

At one point in the text we find a modest remark: “see the database of marble sculpture in Berlin” (p. 373). This is an allusion to Arachne, German classical scholarship’s enormous online portal. Planning such a thing, let alone realizing it and then making it accessible and useful to scholars and the wider public is a gigantic task, oceanic in fact, but also at heart very simple. It must be undertaken with passion and deep knowledge: if either is lacking, all the money and energy devoted to it is as good as wasted. Arachne was one of the founding pillars of the digital galaxy of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), which is now bringing the work of several decades of work into fruition: a database which grew out of very small beginnings has grown into an indispensable research tool containing four and a half million entries, including works of art, photographs, books, and documents (see

This catalogue of the Berlin Antikensammlung thus presents an unforgettable survey of one of the most significant museum centres of classical art and its study: its masterpieces, its scholars and the research that they do. In doing so, it also gives us some insight into the everyday life of a modern and thriving antiquities collection, one run by scholars and experts to the benefit of everyone in society. To paraphrase the author of the Picatrix (Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm), that marvellous 11th-century Arabic handbook of astrological magic: there is no Antiquities Collection without classical archaeology, or at best, in name only.

The book is available via the web shop of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Image credits:
1. The building of the Antikensammlung in Berlin. Photo: Johannes Laurentius (See:
2. The new entrance wing of the Museum, the James-Simon-Galerie. (Source:
3. Terracotta pinax with mourning women. Exekias, third quarter of the 6th century BC. Berlin, Antikensammlung, inv. no. F 1813. Photo: Johannes Laurentius >>
4. Base of an Etruscan funerary monument with banquet scene, last quarter of the sixth century BC. Berlin, Antikensammlung, inv. no. Sk 1222. Photo: Johannes Laurentius >>
5. Enthroned goddess from Tarentum, second quarter of the 5th century BC. Berlin, Antikensammlung, inv. no. Sk 1761. Photo: Johannes Laurentius >>
6. Tondo with the portrait of the Severus family, late 2nd – early 3rd centuries AD. Berlin, Antikensammlung, inv. no. 31329. Photo: Johannes Laurentius >>

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