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Imagery: Cultic communication (and: Legacy of Karl Hauck)

Dr. Alexandra Pesch

Religion and ritual are of fundamental significance as elements that create community and bind society together. The resulting interaction between people arising from, for example, major, supra-regional cultic celebrations in time with the seasons or smaller, private offering rituals, constitutes as ‘cultic communication’ a significant aspect of all communication across the North Sea and Baltic regions during the 1st millennium AD.


Unfortunately, the largely non-literate cultures of Germania have left no detailed records relating to this to provide a basis for historical research. Similarly, the Classical or Medieval documentary sources of neighbouring cultures do not possess a suitably reliable background. Nevertheless, it is possible through the use of interdisciplinary methods, at least to some degree, to decode several core elements of the personal, public and normative rituals of the Germanic peoples.

Research into Germanic imagery plays a prominent role in this as the latter represents the authentic expression of Germanic culture. Ornaments, symbols, figurative and scenic depictions are to be found, displaying characteristic attributes of a motif-related and stylistic nature, on almost all types of artefacts intended for use. In this material, the uniformity of the imagery is discernable over wide geographic areas. The situation can only be explained through a consensus, a common identity of creator and user. In this way, the Germanic cultures of the 1st millennium AD constitute a tangible ‘image culture’ – in a deliberate contrast to the ‘book cultures’ of Classical and Christian traditions.


At its peak, the typical art of the 5th to 8th century AD is referred to as ‘animal style’.  However, in the preceding epochs following the birth of Christ, and for some time into the Roman period, it is possible to define specific elements of Germanic art. The fact that it was not regional themes, such as portraits of individual rulers, which were depicted in these images, but that the same motives and techniques were employed supra-regionally, can be explained in terms of the mythological context and representation. The images represent codes and symbols from the world of gods, the belief in the Ases with their main god Odin; as ‘images of wellbeing’ these would bring people happiness and ward off ill fortune.


Consequently, central research areas constitute objects bearing Germanic animal-style images, including gold bracteates from the Migration period. In addition, there are the later Gotlandic picture stones, culminating with Viking Age jewellery. Throughout all periods, influences from the South, especially from Christian sources, will be investigated in the prevailing imagery with respect both to similarities and differences. The reconstruction of networks relating to pre-urban central places is also crucial to an understanding of these societies which communicated by images, as these provided the basis for the conception and production of these images. New insights gained through international dialogue and debate with scholars in neighbouring disciplines will be discussed and published. Academic specialist reports and publications will also be produced within the framework of the project.

The legacy of Karl Hauck

In 2007, the academic estate of the internationally renowned Early Medievalist Karl Hauck (1916–2007) came into the possession of Dr A. Pesch and today it is stored at the ZBSA.

Karl HauckKarl Hauck was one to the most innovative, productive and influential historians of the 20th century. As a professor at the University of Erlangen (1950–1959), and Director of the prestigious Institute for Early Medieval Studies that he founded at the University of Münster (1959–1982), he was engaged in various subject areas within the field of research bridging Germanic paganism and Christian Europe. Numerous of his works on medieval annals, about semantics and on the understanding of Germanic imagery were ground-breaking.


Especially with regard to the latter subject, Karl Hauck introduced a research area which previously had only rarely been seriously considered. Since the 1980s, he had been engaged in the systematic description, publication and interpretation of golden bracteates from the Migration period – resulting in almost 70 published individual studies and a large catalogue ‘Die Goldbrakteaten der Völkerwanderungszeit’ (Gold Bracteates of the Migration Period) in seven volumes. Throughout his work, interdisciplinary collaboration was always a particular concern. He worked consistently and closely together with researchers from other disciplines, especially archaeologists, runologists, scholars of Scandinavian studies and theologians.


Above all else, his estate includes files of records relating to his iconographic catalogue of the gold bracteates, such as slides, photographs and drawings. Of particular significance is his extensive scientific correspondence with numerous experts, both national and international. Furthermore, sketchbooks and note books are preserved which originate predominantly from a time when it was not yet possible to photocopy. Finally, a number of, as yet unpublished, manuscripts and drafts crown the material. In order to analyse the total estate, a database has been set up which, by way of keywords, makes it possible to access, analyse and make specific use of all the documents.


The first projects utilising the data are taking place in parallel with the registration work. At the forefront stands research into the Gotlandic picture stones championed by Hauck in the 1950s. With the aid of the, at that time, ultra-modern latex casts, Hauck succeeded in rendering visible the fine lines on the picture stones. These lines derive partly from drawings incised in the still soft stone, on the basis of which the motives were subsequently chiselled out, partly perhaps also from non-executed and painted-over sketches; still others served as guide lines for the coloured painting of surfaces. Hauck also thought he could identify large previously unnoticed picture elements. Unfortunately, it was not possible in this way to photograph, and thereby illustrate objectively, all the features visible under changing light conditions at the same time. Consequently, Hauck only produced preliminary publications of his findings and then abandoned the whole project. In the meantime, the latex casts have also been lost. It is now only possible to reconstruct some of the identified picture details on the basis of the slides surviving in his estate.

Bildstein Detail

However, these show many picture stones in a completely different light and this phenomenon is now being investigated by Dr Sigmund Oehrl in a joint project. The famous richness of detail seen on the picture stones is being examined using modern methods (computer scanning) and then correlated with Hauck’s observations.

Within the framework of the processing of the estate, reprinting of several of Hauck’s works will be sought, as well as the publishing of some of his previously unpublished manuscripts. This will, in particular, take place in co-operation with Prof. Dr Wilhelm Heizmann (München) and Dr Morten Axboe (Copenhagen).

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