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In memoriam Hanns J. Prem (1941-2014)

The world of pre-Columbian studies lost a towering scholar, dedicated teacher and a fine friend when Hanns J. Prem passed away on October 8, 2014, in Geneva, Switzerland, at age 73. Hanns Jürgen Prem was one of the most productive and influential scholars in pre-Columbian studies, a field called “Altamerikanistik” in Germany. Although he had very pronounced research interests in Aztec civilization before and after the Conquest and in the archaeology of the Northern Maya Lowlands, his academic contributions include several books and publications about North and South American archaeology and ethnohistory as well. His contributions to the field, however, go much beyond research projects and the writing of publications. More than anybody else among his German speaking colleagues, Hanns has tried to institute the field of Altamerikanistik in the academic landscape and to secure its future in economically challenging times. As a teacher, Hanns shaped the academic career of many students and young scientists who are now actively engaged in many fields of pre-Columbian archaeology, in Museums and research institutions.

Hanns was born in Vienna, Austria, on January 18, 1941. After finishing his Austrian Matura degree that would enable him to go to the university, he entered the Free University of Berlin in 1959 and began his studies with Ethnology, pre-Columbian Studies and Prehistory as well as Physical Anthropology. After only two years he changed to the University of Hamburg because he wanted to pursue his new interest in pre-Columbian writing systems and colonial texts, two subject matters which in these times were in the focus of research and teaching of Günter Zimmermann. Zimmermann had a small group of students, which also included Berthold Riese, Eike Hinz, Ortwin Smailus, Ulrich Köhler and Peter Tschohl, all of which later became professors in ethnology, cultural anthropology or pre-Columbian studies at different German Universities. Although Hanns’ initial interest was in Maya hieroglyphic writing, he soon became aware that a new and productive approach to Maya hieroglyphs would need a profound linguistic training. In conversation with Günter Zimmermann, he changed the focus of interest to central Mexican writing systems and to Aztec sources of the early colonial period. His Ph.D. dissertation “Die Namenshieroglyphen der Matricula von Huexotzingo” was supervised by Zimmermann and combined Hanns’ interests in writing systems and Aztec studies. His dissertation was soon followed by two seminal review articles on the ancient writing systems of Mesoamerica (“Calendrics and Writing in Mesoamerica”, 1971, and “A Tentative Classification of Non-Mayan Inscriptions”, 1973). Both articles are still frequently cited and have laid the ground for many subsequent studies about the writing systems of Teotihuacan, Cacaxtla, Xochicalco and others. Here, Hanns tried to distinguish different writing traditions in Mesoamerica, a phonetic writing and a kind of writing for which he used the term “narrative pictography”. These two articles were published when, immediately after the defense of his dissertation, Hanns became research assistant at the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg of Erhard Schlesier and entered the German-Mexican Puebla-Tlaxcala project, a large and long term interdisciplinary research project financed by the German Science Foundation. His participation as ethnohistorian of this project lasted for 13 years and produced a series of publications, focusing on land tenure, post-conquest demographical processes and the rural economy of the Huejotzingo region. One of the members of the Puebla-Tlaxcala Project was Peter Schmidt, archaeologist of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mérida, Yucatán, with whom Hanns maintained a lifelong friendship. In the same project Hanns also met Ursula Dyckerhoff, who was only employed for two years in the project, and who had just finished her dissertation about the work of Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc. Ursel and Hanns married in 1978, but had conducted joint research projects since 1971, which had led to a series of co-authored publications.

Only a year after Hanns became assistant of Erhard Schlesier in Hamburg, he decided to move to Munich, where he received an assistant professorship that went along with his first major teaching obligations. The years in Munich were highly productive and Hanns was able to write several articles about Aztec society and land tenure. However, his research interest broadened to include issues related to the economic base of Teotihuacan and the chronology of Central Mexico. Issues relating to Central Mexican chronology, the disagreements between Spanish colonial sources, native calendrical traditions and archaeologically established chronologies continued to be one of Hanns’ principal research interests until his death. His bibliography lists several publications in journals such as Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl and Mexicon about particular chronological problems or pre-hispanic calendars and their correlation with the Christian. The 30 years of research about Central Mexican calendars and chronologies finally merged into a book “Manual de la Antigua cronología Mexicana”, published in 2008.

In 1977, Hanns also received his state doctorate (Habilitation) under Helmut Straube in Munich with the book „Milpa und Hacienda: indianischer und spanischer Landbesitz im Becken des Alto Atoyac, Puebla, Mexiko (1520-1650)”. In 1981, still in Munich, Hanns became one of the two principal editors of Mexicon, together with Berthold Riese, who was the founding editor of the journal in 1979. After his Habilitation, Hanns continued for six more years in Munich before he was appointed full professor in the University of Göttingen in 1983. Here, Hanns taught Mesoamerican studies and general ethnology within a Department of Anthropology, which had a regional focus on Southeast Asia, Oceania and Africa. A fortunate turn of events was his appointment as the chair of the Seminar für Völkerkunde (Department of Cultural Anthropology) at the University of Bonn, his final academic destination. The Seminar für Völkerkunde in Bonn, established in 1948 by Hermann Trimborn and continued by Udo Oberem had a strong regional focus on the Andes. Udo Oberem, a great ethnohistorian and Inka specialist had died suddenly in 1986. After his death, the position had remained vacant for two years until Hanns Prem was elected as the new chair. In the same year, a second professorship at Bonn was created which was taken by Berthold Riese. With Berthold Riese and Hanns Prem, the Seminar für Völkerkunde saw considerable changes. The regional focus shifted from the Andes to Mesoamerica, the Seminar changed its name from Seminar für Völkerkunde to Institut für Völkerkunde and later to Abteilung für Altamerikanistik (Department for the Anthropology of the Americas), to make the focus on the pre-Columbian Americas more obvious, and furthermore, Hanns moved the seat of the institute from the limited space in the old main building to a new spacious building in the north of the city.

During his tenure in Göttingen, Hanns already had developed his interest in the archaeology of Northwest Yucatan. Together with his friends and colleagues Edward Kurjack, George F. Andrews, Karl Herbert Mayer and Peter Schmidt, he and his wife Ursula had conducted an archaeological survey in the Mexican states of Yucatan and Campeche (1982-1989) in the footsteps of the German-Austrian explorer Teobert Maler. The principal idea of this survey was to relocate the sites which were discovered and documented by Teobert Maler in his by then still unpublished archaeological legacy kept in the Ibero-American Institute in Berlin. Many of these archaeological sites have been discovered and photographed by Maler but since then have never been visited by archaeologists. By relocating these sites, Hanns wanted to lay the foundation for the edition of Maler’s manuscripts and photos. The survey project not only resulted in many publications on the architecture and archaeology of Northwest Yucatan, but finally also in the edition of the massive volume “Peninsula Yucatan”. The many years Hanns spent slogging through the thorny woods of Campeche and Yucatan, naturally led to many questions about the chronology and development of urban centers in the Puuc and Chenes regions. In 1991, Hanns therefore started a long term archaeological project in the site of Xkipche southwest of Uxmal which was funded by the German Science Foundation. The project lasted for twelve years and saw the participation of many colleagues from the United States and Mexico. One of the principal goals of the project was to establish a reliable chronology for the Puuc region, based on ceramic stratigraphy and architectural construction sequences. As a result of this work, a stratigraphically well-founded periodization was developed for the time from about 500 BC. to about 1050 AD. Parallel to the excavation, the entire archaeological site (about 70 ha) has been mapped. In order to contextualize the results of the Xkipche project and to discuss issues of chronology, settlement patterns and architectural sequencing, Hanns organized two “Maler conferences” in Bonn, semi-public international conferences about the archaeology of Northwestern Yucatan. These week long encounters left sufficient time for long and controversial discussions, winding finally up in a tavern in the vineyards south of Bonn. The results of the 1990 and the 2000 Maler conferences were published in two volumes, the second of which already was a co-edition with Mexico’s INAH.

During his tenure in Bonn, Hanns had successfully established formal agreements of cooperation with Mexican research institutions, first of all with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia and the department in Bonn. These cooperations were created in order to facilitate the academic exchange, to provide a formal framework for future archaeological initiatives in Mexico, and also to stabilize pre-Columbian studies in Germany within a fast changing academic world, where financial cuts regularly threaten to extinguish small and exotic departments. During his Bonn years, Hanns was very concerned to save the department from suffering the same fate which has eliminated pre-Columbian studies in Hamburg and Berlin. He was very successful in defending Bonn as the principal place for pre-Columbian studies in Germany.

Hanns was a great teacher. He urged us constantly to apply strict self-criticism and to avoid inaccurate arguments and reckless assumptions that could not be based on solid data. Therefore, Hanns’ contributions to the archaeology of the Americas lies not so much in developing new theoretical approaches, but in the deconstruction of theories and shaky assumptions. Many of his publications deal with theories and historical reconstructions that have become firmly established in the Anthropology of the Americas. He analyzed these theories critically, unmasking their lack of solid foundations. These very foundations Hanns intended to create in his research, for example, in regard to the chronology of Northwest Yucatan, or in regard to the reconstruction of Central Mexican calendar systems. Under Hanns’ supervision, one would learn the critical reading of sources, such as Colonial Aztec sources, but also contemporary scientific texts, which Hanns read with the same skepticism as the chronicles of Aztec nobles. I still remember the last article which Hanns and I had written together for an archaeology magazine. The article was supposed to present some highlights of archaeological research in the Andes and Mesoamerica. The work on the manuscript proved to be extremely difficult because I could easily become enthusiastic about new approaches and ideas, but Hanns faced all the highlights of research which I proposed with great skepticism.

In 2001 Hanns was diagnosed with cancer and for this reason retired from active service at the university prematurely. Just three years later his wife Ursula died. Although Hanns carried these heavy blows with great self-control and dignity, it was obvious for all his friends and companions that the foundation of his life was deeply shaken. Therefore we all were very happy when Hanns announced that he had found a new life partner and wife in Lakshmi Rauschenbach. Through the marriage with Lakshmi, Hanns' center of life now moved from Bonn to Geneva. In his new home, he wrote further essays and books, he pursued plans to issue a series of Xkipché publications and to edit a biography of the pioneer explorer Teobert Maler, which his British colleague Ian Graham could not finish. In addition, he undertook an enormous step to strengthening pre-Columbian studies in Germany by creating the "Deutsche Altamerikastiftung" which, based on the assets of his first wife Ursula, promotes research projects in all fields of the Anthropology of the Americas.

Hanns Prem will be greatly missed. He was a gentleman of the old school, but could be as happy as a child when he finally found a remote archaeological site in the bush of Yucatan. He had a fine sense of humor with which he often made his friends laugh. Hanns was a most reliable colleague, a mentor and teacher par excellence and a warm-hearted friend. Hanns will live on as one of Mesoamerica’s greatest scholars and indelible personalities. Que te vaya bién!

Nikolai Grube, Juni 2015