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Scratched suspicion of old ties sparks national furies in Europe

LANY, Czech Republic – In a region long disputed by rival ethnic and linguistic groups, archaeologists in the Czech Republic have discovered something unusual in these turbulent regions: evidence that peoples locked in hostility for much of the modern era have come together over the centuries.

A few meters from a Czech army pillbox built to defend against Nazi Germany, archaeologists have discovered a cattle bone which they say bears inscriptions dating from the 6th century which suggest that different peoples speaking different languages mingled and exchanging ideas at that time.

Perhaps fitting for such a turbulent region, the find sparked a furious brawl among academics and archaeologists, nationalists and Europhiles, over what it all means.

The bone fragment, identified by DNA analysis and carbon dating as coming from the rib of a cow that lived around 1,400 years ago, was found in a Slavic colony in 2017, said Jiri Machacek, head of the department. archeology of Masaryk University in the Czech city of Brno. But in what is considered a major discovery, a team of researchers led by Dr. Machacek recently concluded that the bone bore sixth-century runes, a writing system developed by the early Germans.

“It shows that they were trying to communicate with each other and that they weren’t fighting all the time,” Dr Machacek said.

It is not known whether the runes were inscribed by someone of Germanic descent living alongside Slavs or engraved by a Slav who was familiar with Germanic runes. (The Slavs did not have their own writing system until three centuries later.)

Either way, Dr Machacek said, they indicate that different peoples who lived in what is now an eastern corner of the Czech Republic known as Moravia interacted in ways previously unknown.

“It’s very symbolic that we found it so close to this thing,” said Dr Machacek, pointing to the moss-covered military blockhouse left over from World War II when Germany conquered Slavic lands from which Hitler considered the people to be “subhumans”.

Although doomed to unearth the distant past, archeology has long been a field loaded with very current concerns. Nineteenth-century nationalists, Nazis and Soviet Communists all abused it to justify and promote their causes.

“Like everything else in Central Europe, this is not just an academic debate,” said Patrick J. Geary, a medieval history scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. the Slavs and all aspects of Slavic prehistory.

Because the past and the present are so intertwined, the runic bone discovered at Lany has sparked heated debate, with some Czech nationalists denouncing it as an effort to undermine national identity in the service of the European Union, a project based on the idea that Europeans must and can get along. One of the team that identified the marks as German runes even received death threats.

“If we Czechs have a culture, we must never say that we have it from the Germans, but we must say that we have it in spite of the Germans,” wrote Stanislav Jahoda, self-proclaimed patriot, in an online article. . discussion moderated by a leading Czech newspaper. Others have dismissed the archaeological dig as a European Union propaganda project to counter widespread Czech hostility. (A survey last year found that 57% of Czechs believe that joining the EU destroys their country’s identity.)

Anger has spread beyond the Czech Republic to foreign scholars who reject the possibility that the Slavs wrote anything before two Greek monks, Cyril and Methodius, arrived in Moravia in the ninth century and created a writing system that later developed into the writing known as Cyrillic. . Variants of Cyrillic are now used in Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia.

The idea that the early Slavs could have used Germanic runes upsets the vision of a strong dichotomy between the two cultures, a split that has underpinned nationalist passions on both sides – in Germany and in the Slavic countries – since the 19th century. century. Runes have been considered particularly poisonous in Slavic lands since World War II, when the Nazi paramilitary force, the SS, used stylized runes as a badge.

“The long animosity between the Slavs and the Germanic peoples leaves some quite anxious to insist on the fact that the Slavic culture owed nothing to the Germanic culture and that there could have been no mixing or contact between the Germanic population. earlier in the region and subsequent Slavs, ”he added. Geary said.

In a recent interview with Bulgarian public television, Anna-Maria Totomanova, scholar at the Department of Cyril and Method Studies at Sofia University, denounced Czech archaeologists as charlatans. “At first I was angry, but then I found it laughable,” she said.

The runes, she says, “are Germanic,” adding that it was not possible that a Slavic people would have used them to write anything until they had their own alphabet thanks to the monks.

Western scholars generally believe that Czech archaeologists correctly identified the incisions on the bone as runes, but some question whether the inhabitants of the region in the sixth century were Slavs.

“The origins and spread of the Slavs remains one of the great mysteries of the first millennium,” said Professor Geary.

The consensus until recently was that the first Slavs settled in Central Europe from an original homeland further east in the mid-first millennium and recaptured large swathes of land previously inhabited by Germanic tribes. , who emigrated elsewhere after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Florin Curta, professor of history and archeology at the University of Florida, said there is “no doubt” that the markings on Lany’s bone are Germanic runes and that this is a “very important ”. But he questioned the Masaryk University team’s opinion that the people who were living in Lany when the bone was incised were Slavs who had migrated to the area. It is more likely, he said, that these were locals who spoke and wrote a Germanic language.

Long and often bitter disputes over the origins of the people now called Slavs because of their common linguistic roots have been complicated by the fact that Slavic scholars have, since the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, often tried to link the early Slavs to their own homelands and present their own countries as the true homeland of Slavic culture.

“It’s a problem for our identity,” said Dr Machacek. “Every company needs myths about its beginnings and likes to think of itself as special.”

When Lany’s bone was first unearthed in July 2017, it received little attention. “It was nothing special, just another old bone,” recalls Petr Dressler, a Czech scholar who oversaw the excavation.

Later, however, graduate archeology student Alena Slamova noticed unusual scratches, which sparked three years of investigation that led to a groundbreaking article last February by Czech, Austrian, Swiss and Australian researchers. in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The scratching, according to the team at Masaryk University, turned out to be runic lettering, an ancient alphabet that was used by Germanic tribes before the adoption of the Latin script.

On the bone are six of the last eight runes of a 24-letter alphabet known as Old Futhark, the oldest runic alphabet used by Germanic tribes during the first half of the first millennium.

Unlike the Germanic tribes, who used runic lettering as early as the first century, speakers of Slavic languages ​​in places like Moravia, the site of an ancient Slavic regime known as Great Moravia, were not believed to have had a language written before the ninth century.

“Suddenly, because of an archaeological find, the situation looks different,” said Dr Machacek. “We see that from the start people were connected, that the Slavs used runes” developed by the early Germans, or at least had contact with them.

The fact that the Slavs also used or mixed with people who used Germanic runes long before the arrival of the Greek monks who created Cyrillic, he added, upsets a belief rooted over centuries that the Slavic culture developed separately from that of the Germanic peoples and is based on its unique alphabet.

It was a major factor in the outcry that greeted the findings of the Masaryk University group.

Zuzana Hofmanova, a member of the Brno team that analyzes ancient DNA, said she recently received an anonymous message denouncing her and her fellow 6th century bone researchers as traitors who deserved to ‘to be killed.

“Archaeological information can sometimes be misinterpreted by people seeking ethnic purity,” she lamented.

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