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The collection of the Prussia-Museum, considered lost forever, is rising like the fairy-tale Phoenix from ashes.
by Alexander VALUYEV, senior researcher, Kaliningrad Regional Historical Art Museum, Konstantin SKVORTSOV, researcher at the same museum, and Vladimir KULAKOV, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), Archeology Institute, RAS
Many know about the Amber Room that disappeared from Catherine the Great's Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (outside St. Petersburg) during the Great Patriotic War. Search for it is under way in Austria, Germany, Poland, on the Baltic Sea bed... But in the conscience of our contemporaries, the fate of this unique work of art of the 18th century is inseparably linked with former East Prussia where the nazis removed it. However, very few know that along with the renowned room, invaluable Prussian relics remained in the Royal Castle of Konigsberg (Kaliningrad since 1946). Their collection of an estimated 250,000 pieces comprised the museum's archeology exhibits officially kept in two castle wings since November 27, 1925. It was earlier believed that up to 80 percent of them had been irretrievably lost at the end of World War II, causing irreparable damage to European culture. And yet...
Concerned over the fate of the national cultural values moved away to the Reich during occupation, the Soviet government organized a search for them right after the capture of Konigsberg (1945). Professor Alexander Bryusov, who led a special search commission, managed to retrieve quite a few applied art monuments from the Royal Castle ruins. Among them-the archeology exhibits, part of which has remained in Kaliningrad. In 1950, the local ethnographic museum bought over 90 items from Boris Neimark and Arseny Maximov, who found them in the ruins of the castle's southern and western wings. Soon after the war, a small part of the Prussia-Museum finds (mainly ceramic vessels) was discovered on the territory of Poland and is now displayed at the Varmi and Mazur Museum (the town of Olzstyn). Then, in the time of "perestroika" the news surfaced that even back in 1943, some museum treasures were evacuated from the Royal Castle to the West and are now kept at the Protohistory museum in Berlin. These finds have been gradually restored and corresponding data have entered into scientific use through media. However, the fate of the exhibition on display in the six halls on the castle's ground floor remained dim the longest; it included "standard" exhibits, known to every European archeologist. It was believed that this "Prussian Atlantis" allegedly disappeared forever.
But let us try to trace its fate in those years. At the height of the war when British bombers reduced Konigsberg's historical center to ruins on August 26-29, 1944, the question of museum evacuation came up. Attempts were made to move separate show-cases away from the devastated castle, but the collapsing old walls made prompt evacuation impossible. It was only at the start of the last year of war that the local administration managed to protect the Prussian rarities from danger.
Director of the Department of Relics of the former imperial province of East Prussia Dr. Wolfgang La Bom made this known to one of the leading Polish archeologists Ezhi Antonevicz in a letter in 1959. And in 1967-1969, museum curator Viktor Strokin found in the castle ruins boxes with the detailed lists of the exhibits buried for decades along with their German army escort under the rubble from collapsed vaults. Later, war veteran I. Alchakov reported that in one of the basement rooms of the King Friedrich Wilhelm III fort in 1946 he saw stone implements and objects of bone and bronze packed in boxes. According to postwar Kaliningrad residents V. Ivanov and L. Titov, there were "ancient coins, spearheads, stones with labels,"... "splinters of amber items, figures of animals in silver and bronze, ceramic bowls and vases" in the fort barracks. All this information was carefully collected by researcher of the fates of lost cultural values Avenir Ovsyanov.
The light of hope that the amber land's lost historic treasures could be recovered flickered only at the end of the 20th century. In the last two years, various objects tied in with the archeology of former East Prussia have begun to appear on Kaliningrad's antique market. Among them-items of stone, bone, bronze, and silver. Some relics, according to eyewitnesses, had inventory numbers and, judging by their description, are comparable with various exhibits from the Prussia-Museum collections. Many of the finds are known by intact museum catalogues and scientific publications.
Having learned that art collectors held Prussia-Museum items, Kaliningrad historical art curators had to disguise themselves as detectives for a while since to trace the relics back to their acquisition source was not simple at all. They only had bits and pieces of information that the archeological treasures came from one of the 15 forts, which made up the system of Konigsberg's fortifications before 1945. So, they had to turn for help to the local scientific production center for the protection and use of history and culture monuments (NPTs), which has the fortifications on its balance sheet. They expected to find the fort where unsanctioned excavation was under way. However, such work proved to be carried out at all the forts where access was free. Yet another proof of the discovery of Prussia-Museum relics by "black diggers" was the transfer to the historical art museum by a Kaliningrad antique shop assistant of archeological collections, purchased from "unknown persons."
The artifacts (basically, small fragments of previously whole items) numbered a total of 3,000, and their origin date ranges from the Stone Age to the late Middle Ages. The transferred things included-flint tools, various bronze items (buckles, hasps, belt points, pendants, etc), glass and paste beads of the Roman time, bits and pieces of ceramic vessels, equestrian gear, etc. A number of finds had museum marking. All this inspired more active searches for the place where antiques are really "stockpiled".
In the long run, the enthusiasts' efforts were crowned with success: during the inspection of Fort No. 3, at the entrance to one of its armored enclosures several Prussian stirrups of 11- 12th centuries were discovered. Further search discovered rooms with a layer of garbage left over from former "masters". This moderm cultural layer, dug over again, still contained archeology objects. The historical art museum researchers, who had taken part in the Baltic archeological expedition for many years, formed a group to collect the remnants of old museum collections. The group included Svetlana Koval, Konstantin and Nikolai Skvortsovs, Nikolai Tselovalnik, Olga Khorzhevskaya, Yevgeny Kalashnikov. Alexander Valuyev led the team. Taking part in this work were NPTs researchers Andrei Martynyuk and Avenir Ovsyanov since the latter leads the cultural values search department, which coordinated work on Fort No. 3 by keeping in touch with the authorities and media.
At the first stage, they carefully removed post-war layers, containing items, from the inner rooms of armored enclosures. They sifted rock through big and small sieves, then sorted out the discovered
objects, scrupulously selecting all archeology finds up to a tiny fragment. They processed over three tons of rock by hand outdoors at very low sub-zero temperatures. In conclusion, they inspected all the fort premises that might have contained museum collection remains. If needed, rock from them was also sifted through and examined. In premises, they "sounded out" the underground space and piers by a metal detector.
As a result, more than 20,000 archeology objects were collected. Regrettably, most of them were in a fragmentary state-they were damaged most likely after the war. However, the possibility of losses through the bombardment of Konigsberg's downtown on August 26-29 should not be discarded either. Today, it is possible to imagine the way traveled by the finds from the Royal Castle in the January days of 1945. Put in wooden boxes, whole items could have been mixed with the splinters in which part of the museum exhibits turned as a result of the bombing. The boxes were placed in Fort No. 3 armored emplacements, chosen for them as a temporary shelter against the war. However, events in spring 1945- Konigsberg's blockade and its assault by Soviet troops-made it a permanent refuge. Of course, something could have vanished in the postwar decades in the course of army units' redeployment there, even through the transformation of the fort into "a closed" site actually saved quite a lot of Prussian historical rarities. Soviet army servicemen repeatedly moved the boxes with exhibits, mixed with all kinds of garbage and ashes, from one armored emplacement to another. However, (may be because, as the Russian saying goes, the soldiers did not take garbage outside), a number of artifacts, repeatedly cited in scientific literature, were identified during the first sorting out in December 1999 already. RAS Archeology Institute researchers were invited first to restore and then "decipher" the saved rarities. They carried out essential photo-fixation of the finds from the King Friedrich Wilhelm III fort. Fifty-five former Prussia-Museum collection items, intact on perimeter, and 118 splinters had been collected in Moscow by January 8, 2000. They included the rarities discovered in the castle ruins by A. Maximov, B. Neimark and V. Strokin, and items moved by former East Prussia residents to the West in 1945-1947. In all, 2,053 whole and broken pieces were identified. 8.2 percent proved to be artifacts.
Unique for national science, this work allowed to return to the world cultural community some of our treasures, considered to have vanished forever in the World War II conflagration. The finds from the King Friedrich Wilhelm III fort, which have directly and figuratively risen from ashes, represent no real value for collectors today; however, they are invaluable for science.
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Alexander VALUYEV, Konstantin SKVORTSOV, Vladimir KULAKOV, TREASURES FROM ASHES // London: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 10.09.2018. URL: https://libmonster.com/m/articles/view/TREASURES-FROM-ASHES (date of access: 06.10.2022).
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