Exploring. Culture. Treasures.

Stepping into the past always opens up paths: knowing the past better opens up a fuller understanding of the present and enables planning for the future. Bamberg researchers in archaeology, heritage conservation studies, Oriental studies, European ethnology and art history work together collegially in a unique interdisciplinary network.
They explore, document and preserve a wealth of humanity’s tangible and intangible cultural assets. There is much to do the UNESCO World Heritage city of Bamberg itself, but Bamberg scholars also often pack up their cameras, scanners, UV lamps and sketchpads and work all over the world.


Short lines of communication

“Could you just take a quick look at this?”
These words often stand at the beginning of stories of great things. Uttered in the corridors of the Institute for Archaeology, Heritage Conservation Studies and Art History (IADK), they frequently spark an enthusiastic response. “We rented a car once and went to France for five days. We came back with two projects and an outline plan for a new degree programme.” Professor Stephan Albrecht, who holds the Chair in Medieval Art History in Bamberg, values the easy, direct communication with fellow researchers that is possible at the University of Bamberg.

“Could you just take a look at this?”,
Albrecht asked his colleague Thomas Eißing, the Director of the Laboratory for Dendrochronology – and Eißing promptly joined him on a trip to Paderborn to take a closer look at wooden Gothic sculptures there.
The sculptures were surveyed and dated, a doctoral thesis was written, and the conceptualisation of a major exhibition of Gothic art was altered as a result.

“Might we just take a look?”,
Albrecht asked Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, director of the Musée de Cluny in Paris – and received permission to examine a famous statue of Adam with equipment including UV lamps and X-ray machines together with his colleague Rainer Drewello, professor of Materials and Preservation Science.

The statue of Adam stood in a niche in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

The statue is untypical, as Adam is not depicted with the apple that is usually included as an allusion to the fall of man. But the Bamberg researchers discovered that the statue does indeed refer to Adam’s expulsion from paradise: in the relevant passage from the Bible, an angel appears to Adam to announce his expulsion as Adam listens, and in this statue, Adam’s arm position can be interpreted as a gesture indicating that Adam is receiving a message. An examination of the statue with UV light revealed that it had previously been completely disassembled and reassembled (see the “Before/After graphic). By using 3D scanning, the Bamberg research team was also able to identify the niche in Notre Dame Cathedral where the statue must originally have stood.


If you come up with questions all by yourself, you always end up asking the same questions.

Professor Stephan Albrecht

Working directly with cultural treasures is a central focus. Questions are formulated from the perspective of the humanities and then investigated using methods from both the humanities and the natural sciences. “Some ideas lead only to dead ends”, Albrecht says, “but often we are indeed on to something and have a new discovery or a new narrative about an object or a process to show for it in the end. These quests motivate us, and that never stops.” What typically happens in Bamberg, then, is that several professors from different disciplines end up standing on scaffolding together and rounding off one another’s expertise perfectly.

The project Medieval Portals as Places of Transformation can serve as a paradigmatic illustration of this. Six prominent portals in churches in Germany, France and Austria were examined. In Bamberg, the project looked at the magnificent Portal of Mercy at Bamberg Cathedral. The results are promising; heritage conservation expert Rainer Drewello is now able to describe the original colours and decoration of the portal much more precisely and to say how it has been altered over time. “To begin with, my question was: What is original about the portal? And what do we see today that has nothing at all to do with how it used to look originally?”

The same research project helped Stefan Breitling, an architect and professor of Building Archaeology, to gain a fuller understanding of how a building site was organised around 1200 CE. He was even able to trace what mistakes were made, for example during the erection of scaffolding, and thus how some cracks in the cathedral’s fabric arose that cause some concern today. “They built very quickly, they had good preliminary plans and pattern books – responsibilities for the work were distributed to a much greater extent than has previously been assumed, and it was a collective endeavour.” The art historian Stephan Albrecht can confirm this appraisal from the perspective of his own discipline, since it appears that the sculptures of figures on the portal were created in series. They were not the work of a single master, and this lends weight to the idea that long-held conceptions about artistic genius and single master builders with sole responsibility need to be revised. Some of the portal's sculptures were even installed in an unfinished state when money ran out in the middle of one specific work phase.

The boundaries of disciplines become blurred during the research process: an art historian may need to think like a chemist, an architect like a philosopher or a heritage conservation specialist like a historian. Combining interdisciplinary expertise from the humanities, engineering and materials sciences results in research achievements that far surpass what the individual disciplines could achieve alone. Working in such a network makes tackling major international projects possible and enables the biographies of buildings to be seen in a holistic fashion.

Technologies and Processes for Preserving Cultural Heritage

Modern sensor technology, imaging techniques like 3D scanning, photogrammetry, multispectral imaging, 3D printing and transporting information interactively via virtual reality: the future of preserving cultural heritage will – also – be digital.

With the new Chair for Digital Technologies in Heritage Conservation held by Professor Mona Hess and a master's degree programme in the field, Bamberg is a pioneer in the development and testing of innovative technologies and processes. The university’s computer science disciplines are also not far away, and their doors are open, too. The Digital Humanities, Social and Human Sciences is a research focus area for colleagues from the Faculty of Information Systems and Applied Computer Science. Work on techniques and programmes to address issues in cultural heritage conservation is a part of this. “Could you just take a look at this?” is a sentence that also echoes through the offices and corridors of the field of applied computer science.

Experimental Archaeology

Experimental archaeology takes an approach far removed from digital high-tech solutions. It is pursued in the tranquil town of Bärnau, right on the border between Germany and Czechia. Buttons used to be made here and exported around the world, but today Bärnau is home to a history park and the ArchaeoCentrum bayern-böhmen linked to it, a joint Bavarian-Bohemian archaeology project. The history park is the largest open-air archaeological museum in Germany and boasts a specific highlight: the buildings illustrate different periods during the Middle Ages and have all been constructed in exactly the manner that would have been used at the time according to what we now know. “Not a single nail here has come from a DIY superstore,” says archaeologist Stefan Wolters, director and initiator of the history park.

Visitors here experience medieval times as they really looked and felt. And that has very little to do with colourful medieval markets or the fantasy Middle Ages of the role-playing scene. The University of Bamberg, in cooperation with two Czech universities, has recently embarked on a mammoth ArchaeoCentrum project: reconstructing an imperial staging post from the time of Charles IV in the grounds of the history park. Construction will probably be ongoing for 20 years: oxen will haul the hand-hewn stones from a dedicated quarry to the building site, craftspeople in medieval dress will work the wood and stone without machines, and only medieval techniques will be used. As a travelling emperor had to be made comfortable, an entire palas needed to be erected along with a chapel and a shelter for the animals. The work is all being painstakingly documented, and this is where modern technology comes into play again.

The idea is that visitors will gain hands-on experience of archaeology and learn to understand history.

Professor Ingolf Ericsson

Bamberg archaeologist Professor Ingolf Ericsson, the former Chair of Medieval and Post Medieval-Archaeology, fulfilled a deeply held wish with the establishment of the ArchaeoCentrum shortly before his retirement. His successor, Professor Rainer Schreg, will continue the project, together with Stefan Wolters directly on site, and they will undertake the next steps together with the project partners. Students and researchers from beyond the participating universities are also involved in this unique experiment: let the building begin.

The ArchaeoCentrum bayern-böhmen matches and reflects the profile of the University of Bamberg at multiple levels: it affirms the university’s interest in research with a regional background, it is an international project supported by EU structural funds, it is a sustainable long-term project and, finally, it is a project strengthening one of the “smaller” disciplines, in this case medieval and post-medieval archaeology.

Art history, heritage conservation studies or European ethnology – viewed in isolation, each of these Bamberg disciplines playing a role in the protection and preservation of cultural heritage could be regarded as “small”. But taken together, they represent one of the university’s four major research focus areas. They are in no danger of being dropped, as has happened elsewhere, and are, on the contrary, being progressively expanded. What they explore and discover in their research is essential for our actions in the present and our expectations of the future. Humanity’s rich cultural heritage tells us about where we have come from and who we are. But it is threatened in some contexts – not least for exactly this reason – and its preservation and documentation are all the more important in this light.

Threatened Cultural Monuments

Both tangible and intangible cultural assets face many threats. Sometimes it is simply the ravages of time that make conservation measures necessary – or at least documentation where conservation is impossible. Sometimes economic interests throw up difficulties, as when planned construction measures threaten whatever is in their path, and sometimes it is simply the spirit of the times that dismisses a traditional custom or ritual as outmoded. Researchers are often compelled to work quite quickly. Professor Rainer Schreg, for instance, is currently seeking to document old village churches in southern Serbia before they are demolished and replaced by new buildings. The new churches are not necessarily being erected for religious reasons; prestige and self-representation often play a role.

This historical amnesia has unfortunate consequences, as the old churches reveal much about the settlement history of these areas from antiquity to modern times and a wealth of detail about former and current religious practice. A race against time: Professor Rainer Schreg and his team want to document the churches at least by photographic means in a way that allows the creation of digital 3D models using the structure from motion (SfM) method. This, supplemented by aerial photographs of the surrounding topography, is the only way to document many of the churches and church ruins quickly. If this endeavour succeeds, it will become possible to look beyond individual buildings to examine an entire cultural landscape.

A threatened culture of remembrance in Syria

Wars and terror still endanger our heritage gravely to this day. Professor Michaela Konrad, Chair for Archaeology of the Roman Provinces in Bamberg, has experienced this directly in Syria. Numerous monuments have already been damaged or destroyed in the civil war that has been ongoing since 2011. Today, Syria is often mentioned only in the context of a singular story of terror, destruction and suffering, but Michaela Konrad has very different pictures of Syria in her mind. She sees a place that was an important cultural and economic transit zone not only as a Roman province, but also well before Roman times, a place marked by open encounters between cultures, by innovations, and by flourishing trade and cultural exchange links. “The ancient Mesopotamian empires already had extensive political and cultural connections and the Phoenicians already started the process that was extended further in Roman times of expanding these into a complex long-distance trading system with its own settlements serving commerce.” The oldest known alphabetic script was created in the ancient port city of Ugarit on the west coast of Syria, and six UNESCO World Heritage Sites are located within the territory of today’s Syrian Arab Republic. All of these sites have been on the "red list" of threatened UNESCO World Heritage sites since 2013 and archaeological investigations in the field in Syria have not been possible for quite some time.



Work on cultural heritage is one of the keys to Syria’s future.

Professor Michaela Konrad

But it is not only the stone remains of the past that need to be explored and preserved; customs and rites, cultural practices and everyday actions that strengthen identities and shape concepts such as home or origin also matter. Since 2003, UNESCO has recognised cultural practices as intangible cultural heritage. Professor Heidrun Alzheimer, Chair for European Ethnology in Bamberg, serves on the expert panel for intangible cultural heritage in Bavaria. The first German phenomena to be included on the international “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” were cooperative societies, falconry, organ building and organ music. Recognition of intangible cultural heritage is intended not as a tool for ranking and assigning value to heritage but as a means of supporting bearers of cultural heritage with their efforts to preserve their traditions.


Intangible Cultural Heritage

But how can something constantly in flux be preserved: lives being lived, activities, customs, and rituals? The glass cabinets outside Heidrun Alzheimer’s office show current research projects at the Chair of European Ethnology. They examine both tangible and intangible cultural assets: everyday culture, fashion, the socio-cultural transformation of the Nuremberg district of Gostenhof from a rough neighbourhood to a trendy residential area with rising rents, the culture of Christmas mangers in a European comparison. Some projects deal with visible and tangible heritage and others with fluid phenomena.

In Alzheimer’s role as an expert on intangible cultural heritage, she often immerses herself in new forms of cultural expression. Traditions passed on orally such as popular songs, fairy tales and legends, traditional craft techniques such as lace-making, basket weaving, button-making, and resist block printing in combination with indigo blue dying, performing arts such as flamenco or choral singing, festivals and customs from “A” for Ansingen (“singing in”) to “Z” for Zoiglkultur (the culture of brewing Zoigl beer in communal breweries) and, finally, traditional knowledge about nature and the universe passed down through the ages on topics like Alpine farming, medicinal herbs, or traditional midwifery.

Heidrun Alzheimer places particular emphasis on one aspect of these traditions: protecting and preserving traditions does not mean conserving them in their current state but allowing them to continue to evolve and change; this is often misunderstood. Being included on cultural heritage lists focuses attention on communities and is not infrequently accompanied by a strong uptick in interest from tourists and the media which can facilitate the preservation of cultural practices but can also lead to a loss of authenticity and, especially in small communities, create excessive pressures on local inhabitants.

Our intention is to make solidly researched information available that can support the continuation of cultural activities and phenomena.

Professor Heidrun Alzheimer

Relevance for Society

The intense interest of the general public in archaeology and archaeological finds was reflected in the enormous success of the recent exhibition in the Gropius Bau in Berlin, Bewegte Zeiten (“Restless Times”), that showed archaeological finds from the last 20 years including the famous Nebra Sky Disc. But enthusiasm for archaeological finds has not led to archaeologists themselves being held in high regard; they are often denigrated as treasure hunters seeking riches, fame and sensationalism. It is forgotten at times that archaeologists are first and foremost scholars who generate knowledge from their research. “My discipline needs to think harder about the messages and narratives it can and must convey to society credibly”, Rainer Schreg comments. With this in mind, he has maintained his own research blog, Archaeologik, for years now and uses it as a platform to present principles and theories underlying this research discipline, and to counteract prejudices and misunderstandings by supplying clear information.

Like the other disciplines concerned with safeguarding cultural heritage, archaeology does not operate in an ivory tower but forms part of discourses in politics, business and tourism. Analysing the human past and human culture contributes decisively to our understanding of human society today – the chains of causation stretch back into the mists of time. But defining what culture is, what it is to belong to a homeland, to have an identity – answers to such questions are today once again being proffered by populists peddling emotionally powerful narratives with little scholarly substance and scarcely a basis in fact. This is a game played with emotions, half-truths and fake news. In this context, especially, the scholarly disciplines that study culture are challenged to supply narratives that not only reflect scholarship of substance but that can also catch the attention of the public. Narratives that show the human past and human culture in its complexity shed light on relationships and their contexts and dampen negative emotions. This is the context in which every research-based form of safeguarding cultural heritage has a political dimension for Rainer Schreg: these safeguarding efforts are not undertaken in a vacuum but emerge from and are supported by society. For research to wield influence, research and researchers must first become visible, and Rainer Schreg values the communication channels opened up by social media and uses them to introduce theses, projects and examples to the public.

It's not about finding something, but about finding something out – making discoveries about our past, our present and ourselves.

Professor Rainer Schreg


The diversity of work to safeguard cultural heritage undertaken by Bamberg researchers is visible in their projects. Bamberg researchers have been and continue to be active all over the world – while also not neglecting the world heritage on their own doorstep. From Cathedral Hill in Bamberg via Paris to an excavation site in Iran – the walls separating epochs stand close together and the past seems close enough to touch.


This multimedia feature presents the University of Bamberg’s Analysis and Preservation of Cultural Heritage research focus area.

Editing: Samira Rosenbaum
Writing: Dr. Martin Beyer
Video: Christian Beyer
Translation: Sarah Swift

Has your curiosity been piqued? You may wish to check out our multimedia features on other Bamberg research focus areas!

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