Dark Heritage

Just to make sure we are thinking about the same thing: I am not talking about the movie Dark Heritage, but about the sub-field of Cultural Heritage and Cultural Heritage Management which is concerned with those parts of the past which have a negative connotation: the inquisition, war or genocide, to name just a few. The term “dark heritage” is relatively young; the principle, however, is old: the recognition (or assignment) of an importance of sites and monuments to remind of negative aspects of the past.

In my job at the State Office for Cultural Heritage in Baden-Württemberg, south-western Germany, I am using high-resolution digital elevation models based on airborne LIDAR to map everything that may be archaeology. In many cases, the decision what is archaeology (and hence potentially worth protecting as cultural heritage) is quite simple: Burial mounds and enclosures from the Bronze Age and Iron Age, the Roman Limes, medieval field systems, castles or mining traces are often easily recognized. Most people will agree that these are archaeological features and that they are in some way part of our cultural heritage.

After mapping a few thousand features, I started to come across clusters of holes of uniform shape and size, generally near cities. Realizing that these are World War II bomb craters sent a bit of a chill down my spine. A few months later, I was pondering numerous mounds along the Rhine. These are often associated with narrow, sometimes zigzagging ditches: bunkers and trenches of Germany’s World War II Siegfried Line (“Westwall”).

World War II bomb craters near Stuttgart

A segment of the Siegfried Line in south-western Germany showing a bunker (B), bomb craters (C) and trenches (T).

Is this archaeology? Clearly yes, if archaeology is understood as “the study of human activity in the past”. But is it also cultural heritage? According to the definition provided by Wikipedia, yes. Just like burial mounds or castles, these things are “intangible attributes […] inherited from the past”, and they can be used “for the benefit of future generations” (if these future generations care). For many people, it takes a moment to switch gears, to begin seeing archaeology as something which does not necessarily have to be hundreds or thousands of years old. It can be even more difficult to see bomb craters, bunkers and trenches as “cultural heritage”, because traces of war and destruction are not what we generally view as “culture”.

Since 2005, the Siegfried Line in Baden-Württemberg is protected as a historical monument. Not because it is particularly beautiful, but because it is a part of our “dark” heritage. After pondering this a little while, I realized that the definition of a site or monument as “dark” heritage depends on context, appropriation and attribution: The remnants of the Siegfried Line can be used to commemorate the victims of the war on all – or just on one – side. They could also be used to celebrate the winners of the war or to glorify or kitschify Nazi Germany.

Such attributions can change over time, and such changes happen at all different scales, from the personal to the global: I remember that, as a teenager, I enjoyed visiting castles because of the mighty fortifications and all those cannons. This summer, we went to the Königstein fortress in Saxony to enjoy the view from the plateau. We ended up staying outside the fortress – that day, I just didn’t feel like visiting a monument to militarism. Monday morning, I will go back to the office to map a few more kilometres of the Siegfried Line – in the back of my head a monument to the insanity of war and the human suffering on all sides.


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