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Culture 2000

European Union


Spessart goes Europe
The Historic Landscape Characterisation of a German Upland Region


The Archaeological Spessart Project (ASP) is a “ bottom-up” initiative, which started in 1994. Initially only concerned with very traditional archaeological research in an area, which was scientifically neglected for a long time, the project continually shifted its focus towards a holistic approach to understanding this cultural landscape. In 1998 a “Spessart GIS” was initiated to establish a modern approach of collecting and processing data on this landscape. Practical experience led to a form of Historical Landscape Characterisation (HLC), without being defined as such at the time. It became clear that we had to start analysis from the perspective of the present landscape, even though we aimed at describing the history of a landscape and how it changed through time. We also understood, that traditional archaeological approaches of mapping dots and lines (findings, sites, historic roads) had to be adjusted to the landscape scale for us to define and describe whole areas and the complete landscape. Thus, important features of HLC were implemented in the Spessart GIS. It was, however, contact with colleagues from English Heritage, which allowed bundling joint experiences within a wider discussion on the aims and philosophy of HLC. This discussion became a major focus of the European partner project initiated by the ASP, Pathways to Cultural Landscapes (PCL), which achieved funding from the EU for a 3-year campaign. This paper shall highlight some of the experiences gained from the discussions to date and the importance of networking and international exchange for studying, understanding and communicating the values of cultural landscapes.

The author wishes to give a German perspective on HLC, but it is important to stress, that it is exactly that - one German perspective, not the German perspective. It would be impossible to give a general German perspective, not in the least due to the federal structure of heritage management in Germany and the very different approaches used in individual federal states (the Länder). One should also mention that for studying cultural landscapes HLC and the use of GIS is not very wide spread in German heritage management, although there are several individual project currently in progress e.g. in the Rhineland or the Black Forest. However, no schemes comparable to the nation wide campaigns for HLC by English Heritage, in Scotland or Wales presently exist. As a “bottom-up” initiative, ASP has links with local and regional heritage management, as well as local governments, but started its work more from a scientific the applied perspective concerning planning and developing needs. As a non-profit association or charity, ASP is not directly involved in planning processes, but can take influence on decision through discussion and persuasion. The ASP perspective is therefore not representative but highly subjective. By and large, ASP was probably more strongly influenced from networking with partners all over Europe than most specifically German approaches.

Short description of the Spessart area

The Spessart is a large upland region dominated by woodland. Together with the Odenwald and the Rhön, this mountainous region forms the northern border of Southern-Germany. To the south of the Spessart we find the river Main, which separates the Spessart from the Odenwald in the west. Giving direct access to the Rhine valley, the river Main offers a strategically important shipping route, which may already have been used in the Neolithic age.; the same is probably true for other ways of access to the Rhine-valley. One of these is still used today by the A 3, Germany´s most frequented highway.

The Spessart was first settled at the beginning of the Neolithic period. Human impact has altered this landscape frequently from a forested area to pasture and arable land back to forest. Especially the 19th and the first half of the 20th century were times of poverty, thus creating an image of a neglected landscape without history.

Today the Spessart is a highly interesting landscape - but only after the second look. It is a region with two major problems: its administrative structure and its image. Let us start with the administrative structure. Today the Spessart is divided between five districts, but none of these is a pure “Spessart district”. They all include fractions of the Spessart, but much larger and more densely populated areas outside of it. Thus, the Spessart is not the main concern of any of the districts. More important still, the Spessart comprises areas of two different German federal states: the larger, southern part belongs to Bavaria, the smaller, northern part to Hesse. To understand the importance if this border, one must understand federal system in Germany. The states are very autonomous, a right, which is especially valued in the “Free state of Bavaria”. Most of all, culture, by constitution, is an affair of the “Länder”, the federal states. Thus 16 different laws on the cultural heritage exist, while even more public structures deal with it. This situation provides difficulties when trying to define a common picture of the Spessart region. Research on both sides of the border has followed different aspects, as early as 1814 / 1815, when the German states were formed as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars. But obstacles even arise at the most basic technical level, making it virtually impossible to bring together the maps produced by the state heritage managements in the two federal states. They use different scale, projection and even a different standard meridian. You can try as you like, but you cannot cut and paste the maps and “simply” form one for the complete region.

The founding of the ASP

Theses problems became very obvious when in 1994 an initiative was formed, to develop the Spessart region across the political borders. Local and regional administrations, public, private and economic institutions worked together to form the “Bayerisch-Hessisches Spessartprojekt” (the Bavarian-Hessian Spessart Project). In September 1994 a working group “archaeology” was brought to life. For the first time archaeologists from state management, local museums and universities in the region met on a regular basis to exchange information and experiences and define common goals for the future. But the basis of information was poor. One reason was the lack of interest in heritage management on all administrative levels. Today the Spessart is a densely forested area and therefore the threat to potential archaeological monuments was estimated as being low. Given the degree of destruction of archaeological monuments in the urban centres as well as areas of industrialised agriculture, the Spessart was a resort of law degree development. The few resources had to be directed to other areas, systematic investigation could not take place here. The second reason points out the second great problem of the Spessart: its image. In the 19th, and for a good part of the 20th century as well, the Spessart was a poor region, like most upland regions in Europe. The image of poverty initiates an image of lacking history, or at least any history of interest.

The lack of information and the small number of archaeologists interested in the Spessart forced the working group to look for colleagues in neighbouring disciplines, who might contribute to the few existing shreds of information. In fact, it turned out that geographers, geologists and biologists had been much more interested in the Spessart then archaeologists and that they had found a lot of evidence for a much more vivid and interesting past of this region than was generally assumed. Often they had difficulties to interpret their data, as the common archaeological literature described the region as dull and of little interest. So the discussion between archaeologists, historians and natural scientists came as a revelation to all, and the picture of the Spessart changed dramatically for those, who participated in this dialogue. When in autumn 1995, after a great congress on the Spessart, the working group for archaeology decided to formulate a follow-up project, the newly founded Archaeological Spessart Project (ASP) was multidisciplinary in its whole conception. However, dominated by archaeologists, the goals formulated were quite traditional, like combining existing data in a common (computerised) system and initiating some research to compensate missing links that came from different interests in the Bavarian and Hessian part of the Spessart in the last century. Nevertheless, there was also consensus that to gain a better understanding the perspective should be on the landscape as a whole, and not just certain groups of monuments and that the public must be integrated in the discussion. The group of volunteers managed by the district archaeologists of Gelnhausen set the example by playing an important role in all questions of future research.

Spessart goes Europe

All these intentions were merely academic at the time, since no project could be undertaken without money, and money proved difficult to raise. This only changed when the ASP came into contact with a small group of mostly Scandinavian organisations, which were just starting a co-operation on cultural landscapes. The contact was established at the final congress of the Council of Europe´s Bronze Age Campaign in Berlin in 1997. Finally the City Museums of Odense (Denmark), Rogaland County Council (Norway), the National Board of Antiquities (Estonia), the ASP (Germany) and Föreningen Bronstid (Sweden) came together to form European Cultural Paths (ECP), a project on the Bronze Age landscape, managed by the Swedish partner. ECP successfully applied for a two years funding by the RAPHAEL programme of the European Commission, Directorate X, for 1998-1999. The EU money made all the difference for the ASP; it worked as a door opener to local and regional administrations and to local and regional business. But the European co-operation also changed the structure and intentions of ASP. New ways of thinking and different perspectives influenced ASP: the approach to the cultural landscape became more holistic, archaeology less dominant, public awareness more important and a primary focus was laid on aspects of landscape management.

The co-operation within ECP has been extremely successful. The ASP had started a number of co-operations with universities and research institutes beforehand, namely the Universities of Würzburg and Frankfurt, the Technical University of Berlin and, most important, the Research Institute Senckenberg. In 1998 a project was started together with the University Frankfurt by Dr. Thorsten Westphal to produce a standard dendro-chronology of the Spessart. In the meantime literally/virtually thousands of samples have been measured. Oak and beach can be traced back well into prehistoric periods. The immigration of spruce and pine in more recent times was also investigated. The dendro-chronological profiles are not only important for dating wood, but also provide a unique data basis for climatic research. In 1999 a scientist was employed full-time by the ASP for the first time; Dr. Gerrit Himmelsbach is still responsible for all the public work of the ASP and is in charge of the cultural paths. In the beginning only a few cultural paths were planned, but these quickly developed into a planned network covering most of the Spessart area. Every path has its own theme, devoted to transport and trade in the early modern period: Bavarian kings´ hunting parties , agriculture and foresting, mining, glass production, Iron Age hill forts, medieval castle sites and so on. They all consider and present both local characteristics and the whole picture of the cultural landscape.

When the EU funding ended in 1999 the partners decided to continue networking and to launch a set of follow-up projects at the final meeting in Odense. One of these is the Northern Bronze Age Road, co-ordinated by the Norwegian partner; Pathways to Cultural Landscapes (PCL), a project on the study, communication and management of marginal landscapes, headed by the ASP is another. After Odense a preliminary meeting was organised in Aschaffenburg (Germany) in December 1999 and another meeting in Kilkenny (Ireland) at the beginning of 2000. As a result 12 sample landscapes from 10 European countries were congregated together to create the basis for PCL. The PCL partners come from the Czech Republic (Práchensko), Denmark (Funen), England (Bowland Forest / Lune Valley), Estonia (Kaali), Finland (Untamala), Germany (Albersorf and Spessart), Ireland (Dowris), Italy (Paneveggio / Vanoi), Sweden (Bjäre and Halland) and Wales (Arfon). The organisations participating range from charities and non-profit institutes, over local and regional museums, district administrations, state heritage management authorities to universities, research institutes and an academy of science. Thus, they represent a variety of organisations dealing with the cultural landscapes as manifold as the sample landscapes themselves. In PCL the diversity of cultural landscapes in Europe is well-presented, ranging from coastal regions to high alpine areas, including wetlands, dry lands, marches, bogs, heather, pasture, arable land and woodland.

The Spessart GIS and Pathways to Cultural Landscapes

In 2000, the staff team working for the ASP was expanded with the employment of the physical geographer Jürgen Jung, who works in the Research Station for Central European Highlands of the Research Institute Senckenberg, in the middle of the Spessart. He is developing a Spessart-GIS. This is a very powerful tool for collecting information about archaeological sites and monuments, geology, biology, agriculture and foresting, historic documents and maps etc within the region. The GIS allows combining this highly structured database in an unlimited number of ways, producing highly informative maps, allowing the modelling of the cultural landscape in time and even 3D animations. But most important, it brings together the data of the whole Spessart region unanimously. In its complexity and the size of its sample area it is quite unique in Germany.

At the end of the year 2000, the Directorate General granted 3 years of funding to the ASP as part of the PCL project within the European Culture 2000 Programme of the EU Commission. After some initial turmoil and reassigning the leading partnership from the city of Aschaffenburg to the commune of Albersdorf, the project proceeded extremely well, with the ASP accomplishing its organisational tasks in an exemplary manner. A project co-ordinator was employed; Mr. Harald Rosmanitz M.A. set up his co-ordination office in the city of Lohr in the Spessart. Since then a multilingual internet platform has been constructed, two general meetings were held in England and Italy, a number of staff exchanges took place between partner organisations, an exhibition on the sample landscapes has been initiated and exchange and co-operation between the partners has flourished. After the first project year all partners could present very positive results on the local level, with a lot of fascinating research, GIS work and popular publications.

The ASP profited greatly when in 2001, Sabine Hoffmann M.A. was employed to develop a local museum in Frammersbach, mainly dedicated to the famous teamsters of Frammersbach, who transported goods from Nuremberg to Antwerp in early modern times. The fate of this group also gives a good example of the problems the region experienced in the 19th century. When new technologies arose, the teamsters of Frammersbach and their horse driven carts were left unemployed; the badly paid home textile production served as a weak economic surrogate. It was in these times, that the Spessart attained and was doomed by its image of poverty.

All things considered, it was once again the co--operation within a European network that proved most important for the success of the project: tools and strategies of landscape study, GIS mapping and Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) were vividly and controversially discussed ; different intentions and traditions lead to very different perspectives. Nevertheless a number of common points and goals emerged as well. The discussion also sharpened the view on our own approaches and altered them in many ways.

HLC and the European discussion

GIS and HLC are the heart and core of contemporary landscape study and have therefore also been the main focus of PCL in its first year. The necessity for a European forum to discuss the aims, goals, methodology and philosophy of HLC and the study of cultural landscapes in general was the key factor behind the new European project on cultural landscapes and an important argument for its implementation, an argument well approved by the EU and the international committee of experts evaluating the applications.

Like many other areas of the human sciences, the research of cultural landscapes is also facing new challenges. The archaeology of cultural landscapes is still a young discipline, working with new methods and sources. So the experiences with these methods and tools are still very different. The goal of this project is to find common solutions and to foster a better understanding of different approaches. Primarily we want to define our ideas. We have to ensure, that we use a common language and speak of the same things. This will also help to disseminate interesting results from these studies to a wide public. (Adapted excerpt from the PCL Application)

Cultural landscapes like the Spessart reflect the cultural diversity of Europe and are an important element of Europe´s natural and cultural heritage. Like all landscapes selected for this project the Spessart suffers an image of poverty; this region is often not perceived as a cultural landscape at all. The European project will improve the image of these landscapes and raise the interest of the local population. The project will also be an important contribution to a more European approach of the cultural landscapes in science. It will advertise the cultural heritage of the selected regions simultaneously, while the European co-operation should raise the interest in cultural landscapes in general.

When setting up the application one aim was to involve partners from as many different regions with distinct scientific and cultural backgrounds as possible, but also to involve different organisations, which deal with the cultural landscape at different levels. This proved especially important during the project. Seen from a German perspective for example, the Anglo-Irish area seems to be quite monolithic in its scientific tradition and very different e.g. from German approaches, especially concerning archaeological aspect. On the other hand the German background seems to be quite closely linked to the Scandinavian region, whereas discussions between the English and Welsh partners revealed very distinct and different approaches to HLC and its underlying philosophy. Also within the Scandinavian partners quite different approaches became visible. HLC and the way it is carried out very much depend on the goals formulated, and it is extremely dependent on the scale, at which it is studied. Scale is more than a mere quantity, it is a factor of quality.

If HLC is to be carried out at a large scale, covering complete countries(?) at once and done with the aim of characterising a complete country, like England, it has to be restricted to a very basic approach. Such a “desktop” based method, employs existing maps and archival material with only little or no fieldwork done within the region. On the other hand a characterisation of a very small area can be based on a variety of sources, including field work and field surveys carried out especially for this project. The difference in methodology makes it difficult to compare results. Therefore the project in Lancashire, a county where HLC was finished quite recently, is dedicated to a small part of the county, where the characterisation at the smaller scales, which is done in much greater detail shall be compared to the characterisation derived by the large scale project; the possibilities to link the results shall be explored.

But not only scale makes a major difference. The aim of HLC obviously influences both methods and results. If the primary aim is to produce a tool for future planning decisions, the interest will focus on the present state of the landscape and its character. If the project is driven by a more scientific interest, like modelling the change of a specific landscape through time and understanding the human impact on landscape change or even climatic change, the historical shaping process of the landscape will be much more important. The type of organisation doing the research also has a great influence. “Bottom-up” approaches, like that used within ASP, which have to work with volunteers and raise interest of local politics and economy to find funding, are forced to do their work in close relation to the local population. They must to involve local people in their work and have to interest them in this work. Therefore, they are more likely to appreciate the special perspective of local people to their own landscape and how they characterise their landscape, than may be the case in “top-down” projects, which are undertaken by big research institutes.

Neither of these approaches must be exclusive or used only alone. In fact there are many common features to any study of cultural landscapes and HLC, which cannot be neglected: they always have to start with the actual, recent, modern landscape, even when one is mainly interested in the history of the landscape; even when studying a specific period of the past only, to get “down” to these vanished landscapes one has to start with the present landscape. So an HLC only interested in the character of the present landscape, which is dedicated to future change and future planning decisions, will nevertheless be a perfect starting platform for any research dedicated to past landscape development. A study of a whole landscape must lead to the characterisation of the area under study and should not be reduced to simply mapping dots and lines, as described earlier. The classical find spots, sites and archaeological / historical features like roads, boundaries, field walls or hedges are nevertheless a valuable source for characterising the landscape and exploring its history. Of course, they are often very subjective sources, as their density, quality or even the time from which they originate is highly dependent on the interests and working capacity of past and present researchers. Field surveys are labour intensive, time consuming and expensive, and are thus, generally only possible in small, well chosen areas.

Different types of sources of varying quality present one of the greatest obstacles for achieving comparable results. Modern technique can help to overcome this problem. The most important tool for HLC, for gathering and processing data, is the computer based GIS. Although GIS is a very powerful tool to produce maps, it is primarily a database system with which, a highly structured database can be processed in a multitude of ways. If one follows some basic rules of scientific work, like clearly stating the sources for specific information, it is easy to produce single source maps, regardless of how diverse the sources of the data filed may be. Comparability is thereby easily achieved.

Understanding the potential of GIS and a broad minded perspective of HLC, its philosophy and purpose, can serve a basis for interaction between partners individually following very different approaches. What has been achieved in PCL so far, and hopefully will continue and grow during the rest of the project time, can be a model for future interaction and co-operation. While individual approaches are respected and pursued, they do not stand isolated but within a network of exchange and communication. A good example for this was the first staff exchange within PCL between the Swedish partner in Bjäre and the English partner in Lancashire. The aim was to help the Swedish partner to overcome some problems in setting up their own GIS system and HLC strategy. The exchange proved to be extremely successful and the Swedish solution was not simply a copy of the English approach. Instead, the experiences gained in Lancashire helped in formulating a solution, tailored to the needs and aims of the Swedish project.

From HLC to sustainable management

Although the ASP started with the main goal of understanding and describing the history of the cultural landscape of the Spessart area, it also became involved in questions of planning, developing and managing the landscape. First ideas on fostering cultural tourism developed along with strategies to involve as many local people as possible in the study and communication of the cultural landscape, raising interest by presenting economic potential. Providing solutions for sustainable management became more important during the progress of the project, although the only way to communicate them is still by talking to decision makers and convincing them at local forums and seminars. Another reason for this increased involvement in management questions was the success of the cultural paths, originally laid out to give local people access to the archive of their landscape, to make the hidden features of past human activities more visible and perceptible.

The cultural paths created by the ASP are built in close co-operation with local historical societies, the Spessartbund (a regional walking/hiking society with a great number of members), the state heritage management and environment management, local governments, forest directories and many other organisations. The paths are dedicated to special themes typical for the chosen region: e.g. traffic and transport in Frammersbach, hunting parties of the royal Bavarian court in Bischbrunn or mining in Biebergemünd. To date, seven cultural paths are finished and open to the public, another 30 are planned for the next years. Presently 12 paths are under construction. For each path a concept of maintaining and communicating the path has been created with local organisations. A training programme for guides is developed together with relevant institutions like regional economic societies, tourist organisations and secondary schools.

To raise awareness of the cultural landscapes special actions are undertaken, like the „Kunst-Rasen“ (Art-Lawn), a project where artists produced works of art in local factories using the materials processed in those enterprises. The works of art reflected the cultural landscape and were shown at the royal hunting lodge Rohrbrunn, the park of Bad Orb, the castle gardens of Aschaffenburg and during the „Regional Days“ in Gelnhausen. Some of the objects are on display at hotels in the region with considerable success.

It may be a typical German aspect, but the great variety of actions organised by the ASP raised suspicion among many colleagues. The question arose, whether or not it is still an “archaeological” project, if there is any archaeology in the project at all? Although some excavations and traditional field surveys did take place, they are not a dominant feature in this colourful project. The holistic approach gives no preference to any single discipline. To quote one of the famous fathers of German archaeology, Rudolf Virchow, “archaeology is about the history of man through his artefacts and traces of his actions, therefore it includes all human sciences, history, philosophy, anthropology, medicine and all natural sciences alike.” In this sense, the ASP is essentially an archaeological project. Still some traditional funding programmes refused to accept it, on the basis that it includes too many aspects, which are not archaeological or scientific at all.

The strict division between cultural heritage management and environmental / ecological heritage management and the distinction between archaeological heritage and built heritage seems to be a German speciality. Although from a German perspective the co-operation between these departments in Lancashire for example looks quite exceptional, similar situations are well known to many of our partners. Cultural landscapes have been studied by architects, landscape architects and others, sometimes from a purely ecological perspective and without realising that it was a study on cultural landscapes. Bringing together all these players in the field of cultural landscapes is a great task, offering archaeologists who accept this chore a chance to go back to the roots of archaeology: understanding the human being and his interaction with his environment with all available tools. Man has used all means at his disposal to form his environment to his own needs - not always successfully of course, and often with unwanted side effects.

Some of these side effects, like climatic change, make the study of cultural landscapes and their history so interesting and maybe even vital well beyond the borders of archaeology. Some partners in PCL for example have been asked, if it would be possible, to calculate models of future developments from the models of past landscape change. It might be overestimating archaeological evidence, but it brings archaeology into the middle of one of the most important public discussions of our time.


HLC can be seen as just another method of managing the cultural heritage or studying its past. However, it also incorporates some totally new aspects, which change our perspective of archaeology. It deals with whole landscapes in a holistic way, it is multidisciplinary by definition and it describes the landscape by the way it was used and shaped by humans. Most of all, it is always and primarily concerned with the actually present landscape, the landscape existing now and today. As opposed to many excavation based studies it is impossible to strip the top layers and directly go down to the “interesting” historic features in HLC. A landscape can only be understood by characterising its present state and then exploring its past, step by step. Fixing and mapping dots and lines, archaeological finds and sites must not remain the sole focus when studying landscapes. All the space in between these sites is important as well, being of course, the space in which man has lived and interacted with his environment.

Although HLC can be used in very different ways, regional scientific and cultural traditions strongly influence the work of scientists; the basic common features are so strong and established, that they overcome traditional borders and limitations. So HLC and the study of Cultural Landscapes in general can bring archaeology into the 21st century and make it a central human science for the future. Thus great potential still lies within us, to be exploited a long way ahead of us.

design: Kai M. Wurm
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