Friday, January 28, 2011

The Real Indiana Jones and the Dust Left Behind

If you have been to Berlin since reunification (or, I suppose, before World War II), I can only hope you made a visit to Museuminsel (Museum Island) in the middle of the River Spree. As its name suggests, it is a small island hosting several wonderful museums.

The Pergamon Museum – one of those institutions crowded onto Museuminsel – is showing off a large collection of restored artifacts that had been discovered in the Middle East a century ago by a sort-of real Indiana Jones, reports The Local, an English-language news site about Germany. Max von Oppenheim was a German diplomat who found a number of amazing treasures in two Syrian archeological digs, one before World War I and the second in the late 1920s. He was a diplomat who gave up his career in the foreign service to finance his own archeological investigations in the Middle East.

The artifacts were brought to Berlin and housed in a museum von Oppenheim set up himself, where the items that weren't destroyed in Allied bombing in World War II were nonetheless heavily damaged. Wooden pieces were, of course, completely obliterated. A combination of super-high heat from fires followed by cold water from the fire-fighting crew caused many of the stone statues to simply explode. Now, after a painstaking reconstruction process that must have been like assembling a puzzle when you're unsure if you even have all of the pieces, the results are being displayed at the Pergamon.

On one of my visits to Berlin in early 2001, I got to spend some time at the Pergmanon and other museums on the island. There was still a lot of reconstructive surgery going on with the buildings (see photo below, showing one of the museums on Museuminsel), but there was more than enough for me to take in and appreciate.

As for von Oppenheim, The Local reports that he "died a broken man in 1946." Unhappy deaths seem to have been par for the course for Germany's Indiana Joneses. There was another German explorer who might have a stronger claim to having been a real-life Indy. His name was Otto Rahn, and after a swashbuckling life of exploration and adventure, he died a mysterious death, believed to either have been killed by Nazis who no longer had any use for him or killed in the course of a religious ritual. His tale is told in a 1990 issue of Starlog magazine, for those who are interested.

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