War and Potterware. A Ukrainian Archaeologist at the Altes Museum
Lesezeit 7 Minuten
When the war broke out, Ukrainian archaeologist Iryna Chechulina fled from Kiev to Berlin. She now continues her research on ancient ceramics at the Altes Museum – but in her home country, her cultural heritage is under massive threat.
You are participating in a scholarship for scientists who had to flee from Ukraine at the Altes Museum now – what exactly are you doing there?
There is a collection of black-glazed pottery, mainly from the ancient Greek region of Attica, around the city of Athens, but also from other regions, which has not been researched before. My main task is to analyze it, to find dating information and determine the typology of the pieces and to actually find out whether it is from the Attica region or not. The first step in this process is to draw the pieces by hand, then I transfer the drawings to an Illustrator program and write a full catalogue with all information for other scholars to read.
Have you been interested in the collection of the Altes Museum before you came to Germany?
I defended my thesis recently in December and my main topic was actually Attic black-glazed pottery, but from Pontic Olbia in Ukraine. However, the materials are pretty much the same because there was already pottery exported all around the known world from Athens and the Attica region in ancient times. So, I already worked with pottery before and of course I knew about the extensive collection in the museum in Berlin, but I did not know that huge parts of this collection were previously unexamined. I am thankful for the opportunity to work with these objects.
Did you come to Germany immediately after the war started on February 24th?
I stayed in Kyiv for two or three weeks after the conflict escalated and it was pretty bad during this time. When a friend of mine decided to leave, they just took me with them. We came to Berlin because there was a place to stay for us. But all of my family are still in Kyiv and thank God they’re alright now.
How did you learn about the scholar program of the SPK when you came to Berlin?
To be honest, I just took a chance and wrote to the Altes Museum and told them who I am and what I am working on. Luckily, Martin Maischberger, the deputy director of the Museum, answered me right away and told me that they were interested in my work and could help me out. We met shortly after and it all worked out.
How is the working environment and how is working with the collection at Altes Museum for you now?
It is brilliant. I’m so glad to work with such material. We have similar material at home in Ukraine, in the Northern Black Sea region, so I have seen it before. But lots of the pottery from there is fragmented and in pieces, while here in Berlin we have wonderful intact pieces, beautiful wall shapes, that I can touch and work with. I only knew such shapes from pictures or from visiting museums, but now being able to work on them is great. Also, I’d like to say that I am very grateful that in these hard times for me and my country I have opportunity to work directly on my specialty. Its’s great step in my archaeological career and I am very happy that my work can be helpful and useful for Altes Museum as well. So, I really appreciate my work there in such a wonderful collective.
Have you been able to draw new conclusions yet, while working here in Berlin?
My work is a contribution to record the collection. For example, some of the pots were bought in the 19th century have not been published yet. So, when I help publish these objects and collections, it is good for my scientific work, but also for the museum. And I can sense that some of the pieces are really unique, there are very interesting stamps on the external ornaments for example.
I talked to some scientists from the Altes Museum before, and they had a big cooperative pottery-project with Russian colleagues. They expressed regret that the work of many years has been destroyed by the war, since all projects with Russian institutions are put on hold indefinitely. How do you think about this?
I’ve heard about it and I understand that it is very sad to lose all the progress that had been made in these projects for years. I also understand that scientists from Russia are suffering from the consequences of this conflict as well and that they are not personally responsible for the actions of their government. On the other hand, they are working for government institutions and I think it is the right thing to freeze these projects and not continue the cooperation in this current situation.
Do you believe that culture, science and arts will be able to rebuild bridges between peoples and help overcome the difficulties in the future?
It is very complicated. From my point oof view, all Russians are involved in this, whether they support the government or not. They pay taxes and many of the people in science and arts are working in governmental institutions. So, there is involvement and it is very difficult for me to think of reconciliation, while Russians are still in Ukraine and are taking our cultural heritage from our museums to Russia. And these objects will be brought to the very museums that were involved in the cooperation project that you mentioned. As you see, there is serious damage inflicted on our cultural heritage, and the region where I used to work, near Mykolaiv City on the Northern Black Sea coast, is strongly affected by all this.
In ancient times, there were huge Greek cities like Olbia in this region. Now, the whole area, including the archaeological sites, is under heavy bombardment by missiles and artillery. It is being destroyed and people are dying as well in this moment. And the museums in the affected areas are also being destroyed or looted. We want to save as much of the cultural heritage as possible, but our government doesn’t have enough resources and of course they prioritize the rescue of people. And we know for certain, that in regions that are under Russian occupation, museums are emptied. Precious objects like the famous Scythian gold are brought out of Ukraine and will be displayed in Russian museums. It all reminds of the last century, of Soviet times, when it was normal that everything of importance or value was taken to Moscow or Saint Petersburg. They still do that today. So, it is all very complicated and I don’t really know what to do and how to help.
On the political stage, there is a lot of talk about how the West can support Ukraine with weapons and money. How do you think Western museums and Western cultural institutions could help Ukraine to preserve its heritage?
Lots of countries are already helping to save our heritage. For example, we have lots of colleagues in Poland and polish museums have created a foundation to help our national heritage, in collaboration with our Ukrainian colleagues. They are raising money and provide material help to secure the collections of museums in Ukraine. This is only one of many examples, there is a lot going on in terms of support and we appreciate it.
Coming back to you and your focus – what will be the next steps for you in your work? What are your plans for the immediate future?
Right now, there is still some time left to finish this scholarship and there is a possibility to continue the work at the Altes Museum afterwards, because what I’m doing right now, is a first step for this collection. It would be very good if we could continue and eventually publish our findings, because until now, only figurative pottery with great iconography has been published. This was the main focus in the scientific world in the past, because people were only interested in bright and colourful pottery. It would be sensible to publish a new catalogue with all the pottery. Besides that, I am also writing a monograph for my thesis right now. So, there is a lot to do for me.