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‘Geheimzinnigheid is zijn fort’ Assien Bohmers (archeoloog), 1912-1988

Assien Bohmers (archeoloog), 1912-1988
PhD ceremony:Mr A.H. (Arnold) Carmiggelt
When:November 07, 2019
Supervisor:prof. dr. K. van Berkel
Where:Academy building RUG

Controversial archaeologist Bohmers had no part in Vermaning forgeries

Assien Bohmers (1912-1988), a controversial Dutch archaeologist, was the subject of many rumours. He was said to have been involved in the notorious Vermaning Affair, an archaeological forgery case in the northern region of the Netherlands. It was also alleged that he had collaborated with the Nazis during the war. Arnold Carmiggelt will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen (UG) on 7 November for his biography of this archaeologist, entitled ‘Geheimzinnigheid is zijn fort’ (Secrecy is his fortress). The results of Carmiggelt’s research portray Bohmers as a knowledgeable and innovative archaeologist, but also as a self-centred opportunist who endeavoured to shroud his affairs from the public gaze. However, Carmiggelt argues that Bohmers was never actually a member of the SS. He also contends that Bohmers had no part in the forgeries at the centre of the Vermaning case.

In 1937, Bohmers travelled to Germany to take up a position as an archaeologist for the Ahnenerbe, a scientific think-tank run by the SS. In 1941, the German occupation authorities arranged for him to be awarded a position as private lecturer at the University of Groningen’s Biological Archaeological Institute (BAI). Following the liberation, the Dutch authorities launched an investigation into Bohmers’ wartime career. In those chaotic times, however, it was very difficult to obtain information. As a result, the authorities had no grounds for prosecution. Yet Carmiggelt maintains that Bohmers would undoubtedly have been tried for collaboration if a full record of his wartime activities had been available at that time. For instance, in May 1940 he contacted Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, and offered to act as political adviser to the Germans in Friesland.

In 1947, the renowned archaeologist Albert van Giffen appointed Bohmers to the BAI as a specialist in the Palaeolithic Period. He proved to be an able archaeologist, pioneering the use of lacquer profiles and descriptive statistics. In 1965, he was suspended for the possession of an illegal weapon. Shortly before that, he had visited Tjerk Vermaning, to view the spectacular Neanderthal stone tools that the amateur archaeologist had unearthed. Ten years later, ‘the Vermaning stones’ were exposed as forgeries. To this day, Prof. Tjalling Waterbolk (who succeeded Van Giffen as Professor-Director of the BAI) is convinced that Bohmers was behind these forgeries. Carmiggelt, however, asserts that Bohmers had absolutely no part in this affair.

In the course of his research, Carmiggelt has drawn on many hitherto unknown sources. In addition to describing Bohmers’ life and scientific work, he also explores the archaeologist’s political ambitions and the semi-secret networks he maintained during and after the war. He dwells on Bohmers’ collaboration within the Frisian Movement, his work for the Ahnenerbe, and his contacts with the mysterious group surrounding the charismatic Friedrich Hielscher. Carmiggelt discusses Bohmers’ philosophical beliefs, in which the latter projects the course of evolution into a distant future – something that is still surprisingly relevant today. In dealing with this material, he confronts the reader with questions about science, society and moral integrity that transcend the domain of archaeology.

“In a sense, this is an ‘everyman’s tale’. It shows how the choices someone makes when they are young can resonate throughout the rest of their life, and how people deal with an uncomfortable past,” says Carmiggelt. “Rumours and hearsay about people can spread like wildfire. Bohmers’ refusal to come clean about his wartime dealings with the Nazis triggered a wave of persistent rumours.”

Carmiggelt is Head of the City of Rotterdam Archaeological Service (BOOR). A commercial edition of the dissertation will be published by Eburon.