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LMU’s hidden nooks

Records of time past

Munich, 02/21/2014

Much of the material held by the Bavarian State Collections in Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy and the State Mineralogical Collection is stored in the LMU building on Theresienstrasse. The specimens offer unique glimpses of world history.

On arrival in the repository of the Bavarian State Collections in Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy, the latest acquisitions are thoroughly washed and carefully dried.
Picture gallery: Records of time past

“Now that is clearly an animal bone, probably from a bovid,” says Dr. George McGlynn, as he sorts through fragments of cremated bone – the excavated remains of a human body that was interred in Roman times. His schooled fingers can distinguish the smooth surface of the cattle bone from the rougher texture of the human bones. The latter are indented with fine striations and, in this particular case, they show the typical signs of a pathological condition referred to as periostitis. “One needs lots of training and years of experience before one can identify and classify skeletal remains like these,” says the American anthropologist, who is a member of the research staff at the State Collections in Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy in Munich. The skeletal remains he is examining come from a Roman burial ground that was discovered in the vicinity of Günzburg. These bones – some burnt, others untouched by fire – and countless others belong to the mass of material now in storage in the basement of No. 41 Theresienstrasse, which belongs to LMU. Packed in boxes that are stacked on long ranks of shelves, the assemblage includes remains that date from thousands of years ago – a huge ossuary, and yet only a small part of the entire collection. “We make use of several different temporary storage spaces,” says Professor Gisela Grupe.

Getting bones to speak...
We persuade bones to give up their secrets. This is how LMU anthropologist Grupe, Director of the State Collection, describes the goal of the work done here. “Our investigations extend back to the period around 10,000 years ago, when humans began to settle in permanent habitations, which were associated with cemeteries,” she says. The remains found in these burial grounds can help to answer many questions. How did people live in those far-off times? What did they eat? What did they die of? What was the climate like, and how did humans alter their environment? Answers may be found in the isotopic ratios of the elements preserved in their bones, for example. Various analytical methods enable the researchers to measure these, and the results provide significant insights into the history of human cultures. As Gisela Gruppe explains, in this field, specialists in natural sciences and cultural studies cooperate closely: “For we are interested not only in the physical changes that accompanied the transition to a settled way of life, but also in the alterations in mentality and social interaction that it brought with it.” For instance, in the Ofnet Caves near Nördlingen, one finds only the skulls of the dead. Some of them were shattered before burial, but all were interred facing in the same direction. Why? Obviously, these practices have some ritual significance which, however, has yet to be explained. These skulls have been carefully reassembled and are among the material stored here – as witnesses to a crucial era in human history.

...stones too
The bones are not alone in the basement. In addition to the animal remains, minerals from the Mineralogical State Collection Munich (MSM) are in storage here. – And these stones have stories of their own to tell. Well over100,000 specimens are kept here. They range from a chunk of Mars to meteorites from even further away that were found near Neuschwanstein, from solid silver, to the precious metals gold and platinum. But the most impressive object is a large, unworked emerald deposit from Russia, which was once part of the mineralogical collection put together by Maximilian von Leuchtenberg, who was State Director of Mines in Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. “The Leuchtenberg Collection consists mainly of specimens from Russia, and it forms a significant component of our holdings,” says Dr. Rupert Hochleitner, Principal Curator and Deputy Director of the MSM. Specimens that were found in Bavaria itself form the State Collection’s second major thematic focus.

“We collect mineralogical specimens, we study them, document their properties and conserve them, and we carry out scientific research on them,” Hochleitner explains. “For minerals are storehouses of information to which we do not yet have access,” he says, with reference to the possibility that new methods of interrogating these materials may in the future reveal potential uses for crystals of which we have no inkling as yet.

The Kingdom of Crystals
And while this work goes on in the basement, on the ground floor immediately above it is the Munich Crystals Museum, which is open to the public. The specimens on show in the current exhibition on “Symmetry” are all selected from the museum’s own holdings, and they include the Leuchtenberg Emerald mentioned above. “We also receive many specimens as gifts,” says Hochleitner, pointing to a weighty geode on the floor, which was donated by a private collector. “And we send specimens to laboratories all over the world for further investigation.” Although, according to Rupert Hochleitner, the MSM’s collection is a comparatively small one, its holdings are nevertheless of great interest to laboratories and other museums around the world. Recent loans have gone to institutions in Israel, the US and New Zealand.

The Museum plays a major role in bringing the State Collection for Mineralogy to the attention of the general public, but the researchers also organize events for children as well as offering further-education courses in geology for geography teachers. – Like all the other State Collections, this one is a treasury of knowledge.

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