"I am still constantly learning, especially from my doctoral students"

Interview with our new honorary doctor, Svend Hansen

Svend Hansen is one of the last people in European archaeology who has such a widespread interest: a researcher and an inquiring mind, who stays up-to-date with the findings of art history, ethnology, classical philology, historiography, philosophy, and sociology, and creatively combines them to understand the world of prehistory. He unites a scientific community that extends beyond the borders of Europe, connecting our country through his work. ELTE's new honorary doctor was interviewed by Gábor Szabó, head of the Department of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology at ELTE, about his career.

How did your scientific interest develop? Why did you choose prehistoric archaeology as your profession?

Latin and Greek in school, family trips to France and Italy, where we visited many archaeological sites, and then my first excavation experiences at 14–15 years old—perhaps that's how it started. When dealing with, prehistoric archaeology, I was not as limited in time and space as in other periods of archaeology and that was important and attractive to me.

Who were the archaeologists at the different stages of your career who had a significant impact on your thinking?

Initially, my doctoral supervisor, Professor Bernhard Hänsel in Berlin, had the most influentce, followed by Professor Harald Hauptmann in Heidelberg and Professor Volker Pingel in Bochum. These three had

very different approaches to archaeology, but I tried to take the best from each.

Hänsel and Hauptmann had the unique ability to develop convincing and colorful narratives from the sites and finds they studied. Hänsel's research focused on the Bronze Age in the Carpathian Basin and Greece, with significant excavations in these areas (e.g., the Bronze Age tell settlement of Mošorin-Feudvar in Serbia or the settlement of Kastanas in Northern Greece). Hauptmann focused on Anatolia, researching Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in the region. He is associated with the discovery of previously unknown, now world-famous, monumental Neolithic cult buildings in Southeastern Anatolia. Pingel, who worked on the Iberian Peninsula, mainly dealt with the Bronze Age and early Iron Age— prehistoric goldsmithing in the region among other things —was skeptical of the narratives characteristic of the other two researchers' thinking and questioned many previously assumed certainties.

In later years, I learned incredibly lot amount a Hungarian-born archaeologist with a charming personality, Erzsébet Ruttkay. She was a 1956 emigrant, living in Vienna, and I met her during my research related to my habilitation thesis at the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), where she worked as a leading archaeologist. She had immense knowledge but was above all a master of details, which was fundamental in my then research area, the study of Neolithic small plastics. Once, in an illustration, I edited the drawings of figurines from the Neolithic pottery culture into the same image with a much later so-called corded ware type piece, which upset her greatly. You mustn't show such different things together, she said, because there is a completely different concept and cultural background between the two objects.

The truth is, I am still constantly learning: partly from my numerous colleagues but especially from my doctoral students, who sometimes deal with topics I would have liked to research myself.

Throughout your scientific career, you have shown a broad and colorful research interest in both time and theme. Among other things, you have dealt with Bronze Age ritual deposition, Neolithic art, and the archaeology of innovations. What motivated these topic choices?

I became deeply interested in Bronze Age deposition practices when I had to study the treasures of southeastern France and Switzerland in a seminar by Professor Hänsel at university. As a result of this intensive and experiential research work,

I was able to discover regular patterns in the deposition activities,

which Hänsel immediately understood and accepted. This topic and the related questions captivated me for a long time.

Subsequently, I needed a completely different research topic, not only because of the habilitation rules but also to learn something new. After my doctoral dissertation, I received the travel scholarship from the German Archaeological Institute, allowing me to spend a year traveling around the Mediterranean, visiting archaeological sites and museums. After my travels, I chose Neolithic small plastics and human representations—they formed the topic of my habilitation thesis.

In researching innovations, I focused on examining those technical processes whose origins and developments we can only accurately reconstruct and describe now, after the so-called third radiocarbon revolution. Before the use of tree-ring calibrated radiocarbon dating, researchers could only make estimates for dating prehistoric periods (especially the Neolithic). The generally accepted opinion was that all innovations originated from the advanced civilizations of the Near East and Egypt, but new chronological data have made it clear that metalworking and megalithic construction

began as early as the 5th millennium BCE, nearly 2000 years earlier.

We now interpret the development and spread of technical innovations in the context of knowledge transfer between the Near East and Europe. Understanding what knowledge was available, when, and where is a fundamental question in all social archaeological research.

Your new research area as the leader of an ERC project is the prehistoric archaeology of the Caucasus region. Why did you choose this topic, and what results have you achieved in this work so far?

The Caucasus Mountains and their immediate surroundings are a region in prehistory where many innovations were born. These include probably the domestication of the horse and the development of arsenical bronze technology, but also winemaking, the spread of the wheel, and its propagation are linked to this area. We want to understand in detail the emergence, spread, and transmission of these early innovations from the finds in the area.

One of our most exciting new results is that, in collaboration with scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, we have been able to prove from the examination of dental calculus of prehistoric populations here that people in the region have regularly consumed and produced fermented dairy products, such as cheese, since the 5th millennium BCE. Dairy production and processing based on sheep and cattle are very important technological processes: among other things, they are a prerequisite for mobile steppe pastoralism and later nomadism.

Unfortunately, the Russian attack on Ukraine abruptly ended this research, at least in the Russian North Caucasus. Fortunately, we can continue our work in Georgia, where we are working at a settlement that existed around 3600 BCE.

As the head of the Eurasian Department of the German Archaeological Institute, you travel a lot, visit many scientific workshops, and meet many different people, giving you an overview of current archaeological research and ideologies from Beijing to Berlin. What do you think are the most interesting topics and trends in this field today?

When I started my university studies in 1980, prehistoric archaeology was quite different from today. A usable chronology only emerged after the precision of radiocarbon dating was established, which is an indispensable foundation for archaeological research. This was a truly decisive paradigm shift, as it allowed for more accurate dating of archaeological finds, eliminating the need for estimates after the earlier three-period system established by Thomsen.

The close relationship between archaeology and the natural sciences—particularly molecular biology today—continues to provide new data that shape current archaeological narratives. A characteristic example of this is the recent proof of the first plague epidemics: it has been found that the appearance and spread of this disease in the 4th-3rd millennium BCE had a significant impact on the demography and economy of certain areas in Eurasia.

One of the most interesting archaeological discoveries for me in recent years was presented last winter at the World Archaeological Forum in Shanghai. There, a research project in the Brazilian rainforest was introduced, where LIDAR research (Light Detection and Ranging) revealed massive structures, suddenly giving the history of the region a completely new perspective. This shows that

archaeological research in many parts of the world is just beginning,

and we can expect many exciting discoveries. Meanwhile, significant results are also expected in Europe, but here we need to deepen archaeological research.

How do you see Hungarian prehistoric archaeological research from a German perspective? Does it have any distinctive, unique character from the outside?

Personally, I learned a lot about excavating prehistoric settlements from Professor Pál Raczky (ELTE Faculty of Humanities), who visited me several times when I was working at the Neolithic site of Pietrele in Romania. Hungarian prehistoric research certainly has its own style, but the methods and main questions are the same throughout Central Europe, although the research narratives are undoubtedly influenced by the histories of the Hungarians, Germans, Romanians, and other communities living here. For me, Central Europe extends from Strasbourg/Frankfurt to Brașov. This was also the scene of the third wave of Neolithization...


anyone who wants to understand for example the Bronze Age in Northern Europe, must look at the Carpathian Basin,

from where all important impulses came at that time.

Which archaeological discoveries of recent years do you consider emblematic and have had the most significant impact on your imagination?

I think one of the most important discoveries of the last 40 years is the understanding of the visual world of the pre-ceramic Neolithic in Southeastern Anatolia. In this context, Göbekli Tepe and the new excavations at Karahan Tepe should be mentioned, where monumental buildings and stelae and pillars with unique representations have been found.

The spread of polished jade/jadeite axes, indicating a specific network of connections in Western Europe dating to the turn of the 5th and 4th millennia BCE, is also an important discovery for understanding the complexity of European prehistory. We know its Central-Eastern European counterpart, where early large copper axes delineate a similar network of connections. These suggest that the regions of Europe were much more interconnected than previously thought.

Do you think archaeology can help us understand our own time and navigate the modern world better?

Archaeology reveals many long-term "longue durée" phenomena,

through which we can understand how slow development really is. Such phenomena include deposition or the hiding of treasures. The offering, dedication, or sacrifice of valuable objects began in the Neolithic period, and this custom can still be traced in some elements today. The idea of relationships with imaginary powers, spirits, and gods through gift exchange is still alive in Catholic or Orthodox votive offerings, when gratefulness for the help of the deity, for example, during a journey or birth, is expressed through objects placed in the church.

If you had the opportunity to travel back in time to a prehistoric site, which one would it be and what situation would you observe?

I don't think I would like to take advantage of such an opportunity: I'm afraid I would glimpse into immense misery and pain during such a "journey."

What significant - non-professional - reading experiences have you had recently?

I highly recommend the recent novel "In the Shadow of Two Summers" (Im Schatten zweier Sommer) by the German author Jan Koneffke, which tells the story of the famous, idiosyncratic writer Joseph Roth's (fictional) love in pre-war 1914 Vienna and his Parisian exile in the 1930s. Currently, I'm reading the book "Radical Universalism Beyond Identity" by the Israeli philosopher Omri Boehm.