Archaeological excavation records of Gerhard Bersu

Scope and Content

The content consists of correspondence, field notes, log books, reports (draft & final), transcripts for publications, site plans, maps, photographs (including aerial photos), monochrome prints, glass negative plates, sketches (freehand and measured) and x-rays documenting various Manx archaeological excavations and small finds. Sites excavated by Bersu includes Ballacagan (A&B), Ballanorris, Chapel Hill (Balladoole), The Cashtal (Ballagawne), Ballateare, Cronk Mooar, Garwick (Lonan), Hango Hill, Knock y Doonee, Peel Castle, The Vollan Fort (Ramsey) and Slieau Chiarn (geological survey). Other material includes a booklet on Peel Castle and various newspaper cuttings on the excavations.

Administrative / Biographical History

Gerhard Bersu (1889-1964), German archaeologist, was the son of a Jewish manufacturer and was born at Jauer (modern day Jawor, Poland) in Silesia. From a young age Bersu showed a keen interest in archaeology and in 1907 was appointed an assistant in the ‘Römerschanz’ (near Potsdam) excavations, conducted by the distinguished German archaeologist Carl Schuchhardt (1859-1943). Alongside his archaeology studies Bersu also studied geology, conducting many geological surveys and archaeological excavations throughout Europe. By his early 20s Bersu was considered to be one of the leading German excavators of his day and was known for his sense of observation and exact documentation of each archaeological site.

During the First World War Bersu was appointed officer for the protection of Monuments and Collections in occupied France and Belgium. After 1918 he was involved in subsequent peace negotiations, working for German Armistice and Peace Delegations to arrange the return of cultural property. In 1924 Bersu accepted a position in Frankfurt at the Roman-Germanic-Commission, a sub-organisation of the German Archaeological Institute. By 1928 Bersu became the Institute’s Second Director and in 1931 was First Director. Under Bersu’s leadership the Institute became a centre where archaeology scholars met and discussed the theoretical and practical issues surrounding their field. Bersu was married to Maria (1902-1987), a native of Frankfurt and a Doctor (PhD) in the Theory of Art, with a particular interest in the Germanic-Roman period.

In 1933 Germany came under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Anti-semitic education legislation was introduced, which led to the dismissal of many Jewish teachers, professors and education officials. Bersu’s Jewish origins thus saw his removal from his institution in 1935 and demoted to an officer for excavations in Berlin. By 1937 Bersu was instructed to retire indefinitely. Bersu and wife Maria therefore moved to Britain where they had received an invitation by the Prehistoric Society to conduct an archaeological dig at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Bersu’s work introduced continental methods of excavation to Britain and allowed a new interpretation of prehistoric sites. The outbreak of the Second World War saw Bersu and his wife (as German citizens) interned as ‘enemy aliens’ on the Isle of Man. During their confinement (in the married camp at Port St Mary) English archaeologist Eleanor Megaw (1911-1977) and temporary director for the Manx Museum, decided to utilise Bersu’s excellent skills as an archaeologist. From 1941 onwards as series of excavations were conducted with Maria surveying and documenting the initial site and Gerhard directing the dig (under armed guard). Many important discoveries were made such as the houses at Ballacagan, Ballanorris and Ronaldsway and the Viking ship burial at Chapel Hill, Balladoole. After the war Gerhard and Maria extended their excavation work on the Island and other parts of the British Isles; other sites included the rath at Lissue, Northern Ireland and the concentric circles at Llwyndu Bach, North Wales.

In 1947 Bersu accepted a teaching position at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, remaining on the staff until 1950. In 1950 Bersu returned to Germany and took up his previous directorship post at the German Archaeological Institute. Returning to Frankfurt the Bersus were temporarily accommodated by Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-1974), novelist and poet and her husband Guido Kaschnitz von Weinberg (1890-1958), archaeologist and art historian. Destroyed by the war, the Institute was rebuilt by Bersu and one of his last acts before retiring was reopening the new building in 1956. Bersu had been an Honorary Fellow at the Society of Antiquaries since 1933 and in 1962 he was awarded the Gold Medal, the highest honour an archaeologist can receive in recognition of his distinguished service to the science.

In 1964 Gerhard Bersu died in Magdeburg while attending a meeting of the Section of Prehistory and Early History of the German Academy of Sciences. He is regarded as one of the great German archaeologists of the twentieth century and in 2004 the Gerhard-Bersu-Scholarship was established by Pro Archaeologia Saxoniae. The scholarship is awarded to intellectually gifted scholars who want to embark on academic research about the archaeology of Saxony, Lower Silesia and Bohemia.

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Archivist's Note

The biographical information was gathered from MS 09865's deposit file and Connery Chappell’s Island of Barbed Wire: The remarkable story of World War Two Internment on the Isle of Man (2005: 97-98).

Fonds-level description created by Eleanor Williams (MNH Project Archivist), May 2016.

Related Material

Related material held by Manx National Heritage includes numerous archaeological, library, archival, maps & plans, natural history and photographic resources on Bersu's Manx excavations.

An item of interest held by Manx National Heritage includes Gerhard Bersu's Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries, London, 1962. Reference number: 2013-0009.