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Transfer of Human Remains

The project has given two skulls from the "Alexander-Ecker-Sammlung" (Alexander Ecker Collection) to the University of Freiburg

Freiburg, Jul 23, 2019

Transfer of Human Remains

At the Freiburg University Archives, Heiko Wegmann (right) gives Dieter Speck the box containing both skulls from the Alexander Ecker Collection. Photo: Harald Neumann

The project has given two human skulls from the Alexander Ecker Collection to the University Archives of the University of Freiburg for further research. The skulls and lower jaws that belong to them were – just a few days after the transfer of human skulls to an Australian delegation in Stuttgart – anonymously left at informationszentrum 3. welt (iz3w) in April 2019. The box in which they were packaged was addressed to the University of Freiburg social scientist, Dr. Heiko Wegmann, the director of the project. The labeling of the items with, among other things, certain pairs of numbers, led Wegmann to conclude that they had at one time been part of the university's anthropological collection named for Alexander Ecker. This supposition was confirmed by University Archive Director Prof. Dr. Dieter Speck after he had been sent and viewed photographs of the skulls. The university will now investigate if the skulls originated from former colonial territories as their labeling suggests. If this is confirmed, repatriation of the human remains will be initiated immediately. In April, Wegmann had contacted the Australian government program for the repatriation of historic human remains. It is already in touch with the University of Freiburg regarding this issue.

The results of Wegmann's initial research into the labels on the skulls agree with the information from the data bank of the Freiburg University Archives. The records indicate that they were likely obtained in the second half of the 19th Century on commission from the Godeffroy company of Hamburg. In addition to tropical products, the firm also traded in ethnographic articles and human remains. The data show that one of the skulls could be that of an Aboriginal Australian and brought back to Germany by travelers on a research expedition, perhaps by Amalie Dietrich (1821-1891) or Eduard Dämel (1822-1900). In 1866-1867, Dietrich – working on a Godeffroy commission – had been staying in precisely the location designated on the skull. Whether the skull was obtained through grave robbing or in an even more disturbing way remains unclear. According to its label, the second skull comes from "Pleasant Island" in the Pacific Ocean. Known today as Nauru, it was colonized by the German Empire between 1888 and 1919. It's likely that both skulls were sold to painter and collector Gabriel von Max (1840-1915) in 1885 and came to the Alexander Ecker Collection in 1936. But for unexplained reasons the skulls disappeared from there prior to the year 2000, when the collection was assigned to the University Archives.

The University of Freiburg already returned eight skulls of Aboriginal Australians to Australia in April 2019 and fourteen to a delegation from what is today the territory of Namibia in March 2014. The university has yet to have any experience or contact with Nauru. The project and the university are calling upon private owners of human remains that likely originated from formerly colonized territories to get in touch with the appropriate authorities and be prepared to make available all the information they have on these objects. In questions of restitution, the university is always prepared to work with the corresponding authorities in the countries of origin. 


Prof. Dr. Dieter Speck
University Archives
University of Freiburg
Tel. 0761/203-3851

Dr. Heiko Wegmann im iz3w e.V.
Tel. 0761/74003 (iz3w)