The Bersu’s are probably my favourite archaeology couple for a whole suite of reasons. Anyone who has been witness to me talking about the Bersus will attest to my geeky love of them. Gerhard Bersu was a Jewish German and an up-and-coming archaeologist prior to Hitler’s rise to power. During WWI he served in the Office for the Protection of Monuments and Collections in Germany. In 1931 he became the Director of the German Archaeological Institute at Frankfurt-am-Main. And in 1935 he was removed from his post by the Nazi party. He was forced to retire from his job in 1937 and he and his wife, Maria immigrated to Britain.
Bersu was a well-known archaeologist at the time and was able to pull on his connections in Britain to become quickly integrated into British archaeology. Between 1938-9 he excavated the Iron Age settlement site of Little Woodbury in Wiltshire in England at the invitation of the Prehistoric Society. In Germany Bersu had been developing his excavation techniques that were quite different to those being used in Britain at the time. At the time of the excavations at Little Woodbury relatively little was known about the Iron Age in Britain – indeed many people considered the pre-Roman occupants of Britain to be living in muddy holes like caveman! Whilst Bersu was not the first to excavate a roundhouse his specific excavation technique allowed a new understanding of these sites to develop.
At the outbreak of World War II the Bersus were sent to be interned on the Isle of Man. Initially Gerhard and Maria were interned separately in male and female camps but later they were moved into the married camp in Port St Mary. Given Bersu’s notoriety as an archaeologist the staff at the Manx Museum were well aware of who he was and worked hard to convince the authorities that he should be allowed to excavate on the island. Bersu had a background in geology as well as archaeology and he was initially granted permission to go around the island prospecting for manganese to help the war effort – in reality Gerhard was busy looking for archaeological sites. With time the museum staff were able to convince the authorities that Bersu should be allowed to excavate.
During World War II Bersu excavated two Iron Age sites on the island – Ballacagen and Ballanorris. As well as the Viking boat burial at Balladoole. After the end of the war the Bersus decided to remain on the Isle of Man and went on to excavate at Ballateare and Cronk Mooar. It is through these excavations that I came into contact with Bersu – firstly because the site of Ballateare is one of the key burial sites from the Late Neolithic on the island and secondly, because I was lucky enough to work on the re-excavations at Ballacagen an Ballanorris run by the Centre for Manx Studies.
The role of Maria Bersu in the excavations is not clear, as with many women archaeologists at the time, her work is not acknowledged in the publications associated with these digs. However, we are relatively confident that she produced many of the illustrations of the excavations and that she was an experienced fieldworker in her own right.
The work of the Bersus on the island is fascinating. They played a key role in shaping and changing our understanding of the Iron Age. More importantly, for the round mounds project they excavated both Late Neolithic and Bronze Age burials as part of their work at Ballateare and Balladoole respectively. Bersu’s work at Balladoole primarily focused on the Viking Boat burial but he also uncovered three burials that we think date to the Bronze Age. We were recently able to unpick which of the many remains from Balladoole we think are the Bronze Age ones (labelling of skeletal remains in the 1940s was not as systematic as we would like). Michelle will be returning to the Isle of Man in the autumn to examine these bones and we are excited to find out what we can learn about them!