Preserving prehistoric times in a little school museum

Foto: Jaroslav Smrž

In Panorama today, we turn the hands of time back to the days of the mammoth hunters some 25,000 years ago. The country's biggest prehistoric burial grounds are found in Moravia - at Pavlov, Dolni Vestonice and Predmosti - and are among the most important archaeological sites in Europe.

The director of the Moravian Museum in Brno Petr Suler:

"We should realise that the culture of the civilization of that time was unique - it is of unexpected quality. Valuable artefacts came out of the highly organised way of life and society that was characterised by the fact that it was in contact with the outside world. The community lived at the crossroads of trade routes and hunting paths. We were one of the most dynamic and sophisticated civilisations in Europe, not to mention the world at the time."

In Predmosti, on the outskirts of the North Moravian town of Prerov, archaeologists began unearthing mammoth bones as early as the second half of the 16th century. Today the terrain is almost ruined mainly due to the mining of soil deposits used to make bricks, and construction work.

But in the basement of the Jan Amos Komensky School in Predmosti, a little prehistoric museum preserves the time when herds of mammoths passed through the region. I passed by the school during the winter holidays, where director Vladimir Peska was kind enough to give me a tour of the museum...

Vladimir Peska
"One of my predecessors - a former school director - had a collection that remained here after he left, so we decided to expand it. Thanks to the joint efforts of our students and teachers we have glass cases with examples of the various things that have been found here. We have tusks, a bone from a mammoth toe, and a copy of the famous prehistoric Venus of Predmosti. It's a sculpture of a woman but unlike that found in Vestonice, which has a rather loose form, this one is geometric. Then we have various claws or tools with which the people hunted or processed the wildlife that they caught."

When you enter the museum, you come across a life-size figure of a prehistoric hunter sitting at a fire. Two more figures have been commissioned, so he should soon be joined by a wife and child. The prehistoric period is one of the most popular subjects at the school, mainly thanks to the famous Czech illustrator and painter of prehistoric life Zdenek Burian. Some students have even undergone training themselves to become guides at their little museum. According to Mr Peska, the recent theories that Burian's paintings may not be as precise as originally thought is not having an impact on students:

"I must admit that I like his paintings very much. But the view I have been hearing recently from experts is that what Zdenek Burian depicted was not fact. But thanks to him, interest in prehistoric life soared and continues to be strong."

In prehistoric times, many animals migrated through today's Moravia and it has been scientifically proven that people and mammoths lived together, and that the mammoths served as sources of food:

"We do not know in what way the mammoths were hunted down. Originally, we thought that hunters dug a pit and waited for the mammoths to fall in it before they hit them repeatedly until they died. Today scientists think that the prehistoric hunters had a different strategy. The mammoths migrated along this path and the weakest were lured away from the herd and then beaten to death. But one cannot be a hundred percent sure that this theory is correct either. But we do know that the mammoth was the basic source of food at the time, and its parts were used as clothing and to build shelters."

The greatest excavations in the Predmosti area were undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s.

Archeological trail in Predmosti
"The question scientists first tried to answer was whether this was solely a mammoth burial ground or a place where people used to hunt the mammoths down. The fact is that the amount of bones found, especially tusks, was high. According to old written accounts, there were wagons and wagons full of bones that were being taken away and processed. They were then ground and used as manure. But the site was damaged extensively by all the excavations, and now all that is being found are remnants of examples of prehistoric life. The biggest discovery so far has been a mass grave with 19 bodies dating to a period some 25,000 years ago."

The grave was unearthed by archaeologist Karel Jaroslav Maska in 1894. Scientists discovered that the bodies were unique examples of human development; somewhere between Homo Neanderthalis and Homo Sapiens. The name given to them therefore, was Homo Predmostensis.