The egyptologist Georg Steindorff: A heritage in letters and its scientific exploration

View the Steindorff letters

The self-reflexion of a discipline is always a reflection of the consciousness of the timedependence of scientific research too. The possibility of a substantiated description of historical science cultures stands and falls admittedly with suitable, sufficient explicit and complex source-situations. Archive documents are not of interest because of their anecdotal statement, the quality always depends much more on the possibility of a many-sided view, which allows a control of the studies.

These aspects obtain outstanding importance, if biographies with a good situation of proofs bridge big breaks of history. Hardly one biography of an Egyptologist in the 19. – 20. Century is documented and suitable to reflect the field of Egyptology from the height of the German Empire, trough the 1. World War and the German Revolution, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi-era and the 2. World War to reorganisation of the post-war period under the sign of redemocratisation of the western societies and is thereby comprehensible in varying roles in a multitude of archives with different characters like the one of Georg Steindorff.

Georg Steindorff is born in 1861 in the Duchy of Anhalt to a Jewish family of the middle class in Dessau. He evolves into a typical representative of the dynamic pioneers in the time of the Second Industrial Revolution in the German Empire and maintains friendly contact with the royal family of Saxony. For a membership in the First World War he is already too old. In the Weimar Republic he gains, thanks to his role in Egyptology as publisher of the most important professional journal, the Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde (ZÄS), and thanks to his close connection with the doyen of German Egyptology, Adolf Erman, an inviolable position in the Saxon Academy of Sciences, the central management of the German Archeological Institute and the University of Leipzig, of which he is principal in 1923/24. Steindorff already converted to Protestantism during his studies in the 80ies of the 19. Century, but due to his Jewish origin he soon comes to the fore of the national-socialist race ideology. After the employment ban in 1934 and other following repressions, he emigrates to the USA in 1939.

Steindorffs diaries and letters always make, besides scientific questions, the political processes in Germany and Europe a subject of discussion. Immediately after the end of the war the contact by letter to plenty of academic carriers of responsibility in Egyptology in Germany reinstates. The international recognized, now 84 year-old Scientist becomes an active commentator of the Nazi-dictatorship and the entanglement of individual exponents. At the same time he carefully observes from distance the development of his old domain and academy in the soviet-occupied zone and the just founded GDR until his death in summer of 1951.

Steindorffs curriculum vitae is an impressive example for the way of a member of the emancipated Jewish middle class, who managed his way to the top of the institutions with his engagement, talent and enthusiasm and of whom is no getting around in Egyptology in time before and between the two World Wars. His active lecturing activities, also in front of notinternal audiences, today appear as almost modern. With the single-minded construction of also this very day’s biggest academic teaching-collection at a German university he provided importance to the science-location Leipzig, out of the German borders. The same applies for his directional role in conflicts of his generation about the primacy of the egyptological methodology and the theory-charged concepts of the 1920ies and 30ies, whose effects are disappeared from the awareness today, although they significantly characterized Egyptology in the post-war time.

The importance of this personality is especially documented with his complex heritage of letters. The research and publication in ARACHNE was made possible by the donation of the private correspondence of Georg Steindorff by his grandson Thomas Hemer to the Leipzig University. Therefore, he owes the biggest debt of gratitude. The bundle of archival documents includes more than 6000 single sheets of the years 1884-1951. The research was made within the project "Wissenshintergründe und Forschungstransfer am Beispiel des Ägyptologen Georg Steindorff" from 2013 – 2015 with support from the German Research Foundation. The publication of the results will appear in 2016: Susanne Voss und Dietrich Raue (Hgg.), Wissenshintergründe und Forschungstransfer am
Beispiel des Ägyptologen Georg Steindorff, Beihefte der Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 3, Berlin: De Gruyter 2016.

They represent a first step of development, in which contributed, besides the publishers, Alexandra Cappel, Thomas Gertzen and Kerstin Seidel. To put the archive online to ARACHNE shall enable a broad circle of a scientifically interested audience to work out more research focuses.

Susanne Voss – Dietrich Raue