A scratched hint of old ties stokes national outrage in Europe

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Lanni, Czech Republic – In a region engulfed in longstanding conflict between competing ethnic and linguistic groups, archaeologists in the Czech Republic have discovered something unusual in these turbulent parts: evidence that peoples who had closed in in hostility for much of the modern era had persisted in past centuries .

A few meters from a Czech army pill box built as a defense against Nazi Germany, archaeologists have discovered a cattle bone they say bore inscriptions from the 6th century indicating that different peoples speaking different languages ​​mixed and exchanged ideas at the time.

Perhaps the discovery was appropriate for such a divided region, as it sparked an angry quarrel between academics and archaeologists, nationalists and Europeans, over what it all meant.

Jerry Machak, head of the Department of Archeology at Masaryk University, said that the bony part, which was identified through DNA analysis and carbon dating comes from the rib of a cow that lived about 1,400 years ago, was found in a Slavic settlement in 2017. The Czech city of Brno. But in what was considered a major discovery, a team of scientists led by Dr. Mashachik recently concluded that the bone bears a rune from the sixth century, a writing system developed by the early Germans.

“It shows that they were trying to communicate with each other and not just quarreling the whole time,” said Dr. Mashachik.

It is unclear whether the runes were engraved by a person of Germanic origin living side by side with the Slavs or inscribed by Slavs known as Germanic runes. (The Slavs did not have their writing system until three centuries later.)

Either way, Dr. Machak said, they are indicating that the different peoples who used to live in what is now the eastern corner of the Czech Republic known as Moravia interacted in ways previously unknown.

“It’s very symbolic that we found it near this thing,” said Dr. Machak, referring to the mossy military fortress left over from World War II, when Germany invaded the Slavic lands that Hitler viewed as “less than human.”

Although dedicated to uncovering the distant past, archeology has long been a field fraught with very current concerns. The nationalists of the nineteenth century, the Nazis, and the Soviet communists abused it to justify and promote their causes.

“Like everything else in Central Europe, this is not just an academic debate,” said Patrick Gehry, a researcher in medieval history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Slavs and every aspect of Slavic prehistory. “

Since the past and the present are so intertwined, the discovered rune bone in Laney sparked an emotional controversy, with some nationalist Czechs denouncing it as an attempt to undermine national identity in the service of the European Union, a project founded on the idea that Europeans should and could coexist. Even one of the team members who identified the marks as German runes received death threats.

Stanislav Jahoda, a self-proclaimed patriot, wrote in a message on the Internet: “If we Czechs have a culture, we should never say that we have it from the Germans, but it must be said that we possess it despite the Germans.” Discussion hosted by one of the leading Czech newspapers. Others dismiss the archaeological excavation as an EU propaganda project to counter widespread Czech hostility. (A survey last year found that 57 percent of Czechs believe that EU membership damages their country’s identity.)

Outside the Czech Republic, anger spread to foreign scholars rejecting the possibility that the Slavs wrote anything before two Greek monks, Cyril and Methodius, arrived in Moravia in the 9th century and established a writing system that later evolved into the script known as Cyrillic. . Various forms of Cyrillic are now used in Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Serbia.

The idea that the early Slavs could have used Germanic runes upsets the view of the sharp split between the two cultures, a split that has fostered nationalist sentiments on both sides – in Germany and the Slavic countries – since the nineteenth century. Runes have been seen to be particularly poisonous in Slavic lands since World War II, when Nazi paramilitary forces, SS, used stylized runes as their insignia.

“The long animosity between the Slavs and the Germanic peoples leaves some very eager to insist that the Slavic culture owes nothing to the Germanic culture and that there can be no admixture or contact between the early Germanic populations of the region and the later Slavs,” Professor Gehry said.

In a recent interview with Bulgarian state television, Anna Maria Tutomanova, an academic in the Department of Cyril and Methodius Studies of Sophia University, denounced the Czech archaeologists as impostors. She said, “At first I was angry, but then I found it funny.”

She said the runes are “Germanic,” adding that the Slavic people could not have used them to write anything before they got their alphabet thanks to the monks.

Western scholars generally believe that Czech archaeologists correctly identified fissures on the bones as runes, but some question whether the people who lived in the area in the 6th century were Slavs.

Professor Gehry said: “The origin and spread of the Slavs remains one of the great mysteries of the first millennium.”

Until recently, the consensus view was that the early Slavs moved to Central Europe from an indigenous homeland farther east in the middle of the first millennium AD and conquered vast swaths of land once inhabited by Germanic tribes, who migrated elsewhere after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Florin Corta, professor of history and archeology at the University of Florida, said that “there can be no doubt” that the marks on Lani’s bone are Germanic runes and that this constitutes “a very important discovery”. But he questioned the Masaryk University team’s opinion that the people who lived in Laney when the bone was cut were Slavs who had migrated to the area. He said it was more likely that they were locals who spoke and wrote a Germanic language.

Long and often bitter arguments about the origins of people now called Slavs due to their common linguistic roots were complicated by the fact that Slavic scholars, since the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, tried to connect the early Slavs to them. Their own homelands and present their country as the true home of Slavic culture.

“This is a problem for our identity,” said Dr. Mashajik. “Every society needs myths about its beginnings and likes to consider itself unique.”

When the Lanai bone was first discovered in July 2017, it attracted little attention. “It was nothing special, just another ancient bone,” recalls Peter Dressler, the Czech researcher who supervised the excavation.

But later, a graduate student in archeology, Alina Salamova, noticed unusual scratches on her, prompting three years of investigation that last February led to a groundbreaking discovery. An article by Czech, Austrian, Swiss and Australian scholars in the Journal of Archeology.

The scratching, according to the Masaryk University team, turned out to be runic letters, an ancient alphabet that was used by Germanic tribes before the Latin script was adopted.

Inscribed on the bone are six of the last eight runes of a 24-letter alphabet known as the Old Futhark, which is the oldest runic alphabet used by Germanic tribes during the first half of the first millennium AD.

Unlike the Germanic tribes, who used runes as early as the 1st century AD, speakers of Slavic languages ​​in places like Moravia, the site of the early Slavic political system known as Great Moravia, were not believed to have had a written language until the 9th century.

“Suddenly, due to an archaeological discovery, the situation looks different,” said Dr. Mashachik. “We see that people from the beginning were in contact, and that the Slavs used the runes” that the early Germans had developed, or at least they had contact with them.

He also added that the Slavs also used or mixed with people who used Germanic runes long before the arrival of the Greek monks who created Cyrillic, disturbing a firm conviction over the centuries that Slavic culture developed separately from the culture of the Germanic peoples and is based on its unique alphabet.

This was a major factor in the hype in the Masaryk University group results.

Zuzana Hoffmanova, a member of the Brno team that analyzes ancient DNA, said she recently received an anonymous letter condemning her and fellow researchers who are working on an engraved sixth-century bone as traitors worthy of killing.

She lamented, “Archaeological information can sometimes be misunderstood by people in search of ethnic purity.”

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