Abstract: "Lakedwelling Fever": The History of Swiss Neolithic Collections in US Museums


The largely unsystematic retrieval of thousands of objects from wetland sites in Switzerland between the 1850s and the beginning of the First World War was accompanied by the sale and exchange of a significant percentage of this archaeological patrimony, much of which ended up in museums and collections outside Switzerland. This case study is representative of the development of a global system of archaeological and museological ethics but it also has a unique and interesting history in its own right. Primary as well as secondary sources are used to outline and analyze the social history of the phenomenon of the lake-dwelling diaspora and its impact on the transformation of archaeology into a profession dedicated to research and public education. The mid-19th century discovery of amazingly well-preserved organic material in Neolithic Lake Dwelling sites in Switzerland set off a feeding frenzy among museums worldwide, all of which were interested in obtaining specimens for their own collections. One site in particular, at Robenhausen near Zürich, was famous for its textiles and botanical remains, and its collections are found today in several major US museums, including the Smithsonian, Harvard's Peabody Museum, the Field Museum in Chicago and the Milwaukee Public Museum. This talk will present the story of the Robenhausen diaspora as a proxy for a period in US museum collecting during which ties to Europe were still strong, interest in European prehistory was high and World War I was on the distant horizon. Museums like the MPM, whose early records are entirely in German, are a particularly good example of the gradual process of separation from the Old Country that can be traced in the collections histories of 19th century natural history museums in the US.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Menotti, F. (ed.) 2004. Living on the Lake in Prehistoric Europe: 150 Years of Lake-Dwelling Research. London and New York: Routledge.

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