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Loofs-Wissowa, Helmut (1927–2018)

by John Crocker

from Life Celebrations: ANU Obituaries 2000-2021 (ed. by James Fox), Australian National University

Helmut Loofs-Wissowa, by Robin Edwards,

Helmut Loofs-Wissowa, by Robin Edwards,

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-756

Helmut H.E. Loofs-Wissowa was born on the 25 September 1927 in Halle, Germany (the birthplace of G.F. Händel), and grew up in Leipzig (the city of J.S. Bach). He died in Canberra, Australia, on 11 August 2018, just before his 91st birthday.

Helmut Loofs-Wissowa was educated at St Thomas School, Leipzig. While in Year 12, aged 17, Helmut was drafted into the German Army as an officer cadet in January 1945, together with his fellow students, and sent off to the Eastern Front on foot to fight the advancing Russians. At the cessation of hostilities in May 1945, Helmut made his way back to Leipzig, Eastern Germany. Leipzig became part of the Russian zone soon after. Leipzig schools reopened in 1946 and Helmut finished high school studies in that year. Because there was no university entrance for the bourgeoisie under the Soviet system, Helmut, from a middle-class family, had no chance of a university education in Leipzig.

In 1948, Helmut joined the French Foreign Legion and served in Indochina through the First Indochina War until 1954, serving generally in staff functions and as a war correspondent for the Army newspaper. He also combined his considerable drawing skills with his sharp sense of humour by drawing cartoons for the newspaper. While in this role he managed to avoid going to Dien Bien Phu just prior to the Viet Minh siege, which ended the war. He left Indochina and the Legion in 1954, the year that France withdrew from Indochina. He declined the chance of a military career in favour of an academic life.

He chose to go to Karlsruhe, West Germany, where his sister still lived, with the intention to begin his tertiary studies in Germany, for which he was qualified by his German matriculation. He opted for Tübingen University, the cultural centre of the French zone of Germany, renowned for its prehistoric archaeology course, and began his studies while still on leave from the Army. At Tübingen he studied ancient oriental languages and scripts, including cuneiform, hieroglyphs and Sanskrit, as well as archaeology and prehistory. While still in Tübingen he was unexpectedly granted a scholarship to study in France by the French Ambassador to Germany, François-Poncet. This enabled him to continue his studies from the following year in Paris. Between 1955 and 1957, he studied at the Ecole des Langues Orientales, the Sorbonne, and at the Institut d’Ethnologie (Musée de l’homme), specialising in anthropology, archaeology, etc.

George Coedès was professor at the Ecole des Langues Orientales at the time. Helmut graduated and received the Diplôme from the Ecole (equivalent to a Bachelor of Asian Studies at ANU). He studied Cambodian (major), Vietnamese, Classical Malay, geography, history and archaeology. He supplemented his income by painting and selling picture postcards of Paris to tourists.

On graduation, Helmut took a one-year break before commencing his doctoral studies. As part of a small French expedition, he went to Chilean Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego to investigate the origin of the ‘Indians’ there, and to make a documentary film. Some of his finds of stone tools from kitchen middens—surprisingly similar to those from northwestern Tasmania—are now in the Berne Historical Museum. He also wrote a book about the expedition.

With a German Government scholarship, Helmut then studied for his PhD at Berne and Fribourg universities (Institute Anthropos), Switzerland, which he obtained in 1960 with a thesis on practices in connection with fertility rites and the megalithic complex among the mountain tribes in southeastern Indochina.

At the suggestion of Professor George Coedès, he applied for, and eventually was appointed to, the Foundation Lectureship in Oriental Civilisations at the newly founded Faculty of Oriental (later Asian) Studies at ANU in May 1961.

Helmut commenced teaching about Oriental civilisations at a time when Asia was just a place on the way from Australia to Europe, and Australian students had little grasp of its geography and history. His lectures had to assume no prior knowledge of Asia among his students. In 1964 he was promoted to Senior Lecturer in Asian Civilisations at ANU.

In 1966, in addition to his normal teaching and research duties, Helmut took part in a major archaeological dig in Thailand. In association with Professor William Watson of London University, Helmut co-led the Thai–British Archaeological Expedition to carry out excavations at the prehistoric site of Khok Charoen, Chai Badan district, Lopburi Province, central Thailand, between 1966 and 1970. This major Neolithic burial ground (c. 3,500–4,000 years old) produced many burials with complete pottery vessels, stone adzes and body ornaments placed with the dead. He returned from the digs with a mass of physical pottery finds to study and document at a later time. Both Helmut and Professor Watson published papers on the findings at the time, but the full report on the dig would have to wait for some years.

Helmut was promoted to a Readership at ANU in 1970, and in 1976 became involved in a scientific controversy about the date at which bronze was first used by mankind in Eurasia. Bronze had been accepted as dated in China to the 2nd millennium BCE, almost two millennia later than Pakistan and Mesopotamia, but finds in Non Nok Tha, northeastern Thailand, including a few bronze items, were at that time dated surprisingly to the 3rd millennium BCE. Publications by others in 1967 therefore implied that bronze casting was first invented in Thailand. This early dating of bronze was later made even older through finds at Ban Chiang, northeast Thailand, where painted pots in association with bronze were dated in 1969 to the 5th millennium BCE, or 7,000 years ago. This incredible finding was highly publicised in the popular press throughout the world in 1972. In 1973, another Thai–US study of the Ban Chiang material revised the dating of the bronze artefacts, a socketed spearhead, to 3,600 BCE, yet still older than the oldest bronze from China, Pakistan or Mesopotamia. This revised date was also widely publicised, including in Time magazine in 1976.

However, in 1976, Helmut presented a paper in Mexico reporting dating of the Ban Chiang pottery by the ANU to the 2nd century BCE; a significant revision and indicative of the subjective nature of some of the dating methods involved. Nevertheless the date of 3,600 BCE continued to be quite widely accepted. Eventually, further data from new sites showed that many of the bronzes claimed to be extremely old were not securely connected with the charcoal used to provide the carbon dates. Human burial turned out to be a major factor in disturbing soil layers, and in disturbing ancient charcoal into much younger contexts. Finally, in 1983, a further review of the data showed that many of the bronzes claimed to be extremely old were associated with a Ban Chiang pottery style from the 2nd millennium BCE, and so much younger. Helmut presented the whole story in 1986 in a paper entitled ‘The rise and fall of early bronze in Thailand’ to the XXXII Congress for Asian and South African Studies in Hamburg, later published in the proceedings. A retraction of the earlier, more dramatic dating was published, but in an obscure journal of limited readership.

In addition to these research activities in Neolithic and Bronze Age Thailand, Helmut also published on nephrite ear ornaments in Vietnam and the Philippines, on large stone megalithic monuments in Southeast Asia, and on the massive bronze kettledrums (‘Dong Son’ drums) made in southern China and northern Vietnam around 2,000 years ago.

During his career, Helmut was involved in various international bodies, including the International Round Table of Experts on the preservation of the Angkor monuments in 1990, and section convenor for two international conferences on archaeology. In 1989, he was appointed as Visiting Directeur d’Etudes, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

In the mid-1970s, Helmut persuaded the National Library of Australia to purchase the library of the late Professor George Coedès. It is now a central element in the library’s Asian collection.

In 1992 Helmut retired formally from University life, but not from studies.

In 1993 Helmut was awarded the position of Commandeur des Palmes Académiques by the French Ministry of Education. Helmut also retained his links with the French community in Canberra, assisting the cultural attaché of the French Embassy, Albert Salon, in designing and supervising the construction of the Alliance Française centre in Turner, ACT, and being involved in the Anciens Combattants group of French ex-servicemen, in various roles, including president. He continued this association up until his death.

Once retired, Helmut had the time to work on the report of the finds from the 1966–70 Khok Charoen (Hill of Prosperity) excavations. This involved several streams of activities, including the reassembly of about 150 burial pots from sherds by his wife Sigrid, work carried out in various spare spaces around the ANU campus; drawing the pots in proper archaeological illustration form, together with about 270 pots from another related site; drawing all of the other finds from the excavations and burials; describing all of the pots; analysing all of the data; and finally assembling all of the material into a written report to be published by British Archaeological Report (BAR), Oxford. After many years of work and revisions and inclusion of other material, the Hill of Prosperity report was finally published by BAR in February 2017. The finished book contained about 450 pages and hundreds of illustrations.

While this work was proceeding, a book of his paintings and drawings from his service in Vietnam was self-published in 2009, entitled A Peaceful Legionnaire.

With the Hill of Prosperity report in print, Helmut set about working on a structured catalogue of all the pots and decorated sherds found at Khok Charoen, utilising drawings prepared for the Hill of Prosperity report, but presented in a different sequence. This project was done in association with John Crocker, editor of the above two books. Work progressed well, despite Helmut being distracted by health issues in early 2018, and was at the stage of a late draft, with only a few pages of text to be completed, when Helmut’s health suddenly deteriorated rapidly and he died on 11 August 2018. A draft of the catalogue was submitted to BAR for consideration in July 2018, was accepted for publication in October 2018, and published in 2019 as The Pottery of Khok Charoen, Thailand: An Illustrated, Structured Catalogue of Prehistoric Ceramic.

It will be seen from the above that Helmut never retired, and his scientific work was only brought to a halt by his sad death; he had other projects in mind and was yet to attack them. One of these was his ongoing interest in the tracking down and identification of rarer hominid life forms, to which he had devoted much time and research.

Apart from his devotion to his work and his very high and meticulous standards of scientific effort, due possibly to his early German and French training, Helmut is remembered as a man of great charm, learning and a rich sense of humour, and as a man of great humanity; his devotion to his students, particularly the more mature ones is well known and several saw him as a personal friend. Helmut may be seen as one of a small group of academics who entered the field later in life with a rich personal experience behind them and a more mature view of the world, as well as a European tradition of scholarship. This could only have occurred with a group of individuals who had undergone rich and varied wartime and post-war experiences, a situation unlikely to be repeated.

Helmut is survived by his wife, Sigrid, his son, Jean-Jacques, his daughter, Mona, and grandchildren, Zachary, Ulrike, Oskar and Adelynde.

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Citation details

John Crocker, 'Loofs-Wissowa, Helmut (1927–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 March 2023.

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