Dr Tilman Lenssen-Erz

  • 17 January 2024

On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 1st, 2023, we knew his early bulletin No. 13 would be the most devastating one, and with a crushing weight on many’s hearts, as we clicked on the attached PDF. Although Dr Honey Badger prepared us with updates on his treatment and progress of his recovery over the last two years when he was diagnosed with cancer, it sadly took his life on November 10th, 2023, in Cologne, Germany. How, one thought could I possibly pay tribute to this great man’s life with a few boiled-down paragraphs? The devastation, coupled with immense grief, took over for weeks and during the festive season until one found the courage to try. Tilman was so much to many: a dear friend, a family man, a colleague, a mentor, an intellect, an exceptionally talented researcher, and one of the pioneers and leading international archaeologists who dedicated his professional service to Namibia’s archaeological heritage and museum sector. Yes, his scientific work and resume in general are insanely impressive in Namibia, but we believe he’ll be remembered more for the qualities that define who he was as an honest human being.

Dr Tilman Lenssen-Erz was the Head of the African Archaeology Archive Cologne, a large-scale digitising project on the prehistory and history of the environment of northeastern and southwestern Africa, and the Head of Rock Art Research and Research Associate at African Archaeology at the University of Cologne. He was equally a member of the Heinrich-Barth-Institute in cooperation with the University of Cologne, co-director of TiC—Tracking in Caves, co-director of IKAi—Indigenous Knowledge and Archaeoinformatics, and co-director of Modellierung prähistorischen Jagdverhaltens, as well as the director of the Brandberg/Daureb Database. Tilman has worked as an archaeologist since 1989 and has led various archaeological excavations, supervised sites, and conducted research on various excavations in Germany, Tunisia, Egypt, and Namibia. He received his PhD in prehistory on Brandberg rock art at the University of Frankfurt in 1997. Prior to that, Tilman received his master’s degree in African Studies, Prehistory, Phonetics, and History of Religion at the University of Marburg. Tilman had a broad background in Namibia’s, Germany's, Tunisia's, and Egyptian archaeology from prehistory to the Late Stone period. His special fields of interest included the ecology of rock art, landscape archaeology, textual archaeology, gender and rock art, aesthetics in rock art, and digital archiving. This, in addition to workshops and training in community-based cultural resource management in Namibia and Botswana, focuses on rock art.

Tilman was a brilliant man. However, when brilliance is packaged in a human being along with humility, kindness, generosity, resilience, and a wicked sense of humour, then you really have someone special. He did not judge people but stood up against injustices and ill intentions. Instead, he was understanding, sincere, supportive, empathetic, and nurtured where he saw potential. Tilman’s successful career gave him the platform to share his exemplary character with many people, particularly prehistoric rock art researchers across the globe, many local communities, and in particular, descendants of hunter-gatherers in Botswana, Namibia, and Australia. He exchanged many friendships with different people across cultures, inspired and engaged generations of archaeology university students, informed and educated countless readers of his publications over decades, and had professional colleagues throughout his life.

In Namibia, he took a different research approach, working solely and directly with Namibia’s museums and heritage institutions, the Archives, and involved UNAM under various archaeology research projects funded by “The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation, DFG)” over the last three decades. He was particularly fond of working with and directly involving local communities in his research projects. From archaeological field-based rock art surveys to archaeological excavations, interpretations, and analysis to using AI tracks in caves with descendants of hunter-gatherers. Tate Angula Shipahu and Ephraim Matteus from Uis, who initially intensely worked with Harald Pager from 1977 until his death in 1985 on the Brandberg mountain and later with Tilman, will tell you who Tilman was. Furthermore, Ui Kxunta, Thui Thao, and Tsamkxao Ciqae, the Ju/'honasi indigenous hunters and trackers from Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Tsumkwe, who worked with Tilman and his team from 2013 to date in Uibasen and Doro!nawas Conservancies in Kunene region, whose research project combines archaeology with indigenous knowledge and provides an in-depth analysis of prehistoric human tracks mainly in the ice age caves of France, must be deeply saddened by his passing.

I personally met Tilman and his wife, Marie-Therez Erz, in Windhoek for the first time in 2006, when I was an undergraduate student at UNAM. They took me under their mentorship programme to Botswana while preparing the archaeology training seminar for local community guides and researchers at Tsodilo World Heritage Site. From thereon, Tilman became a mentor, a wonderful friend, and a colleague until his passing. He nurtured my professional career from undergraduate degrees to mentoring my PhD studies in Europe, which helped me become an archaeologist. One can't begin to describe all the ways that he influenced my life and career, so I will simply say that his passing has left a void that will never be filled. I’m grateful that Tilman had so many productive years in his incredible career, and we are thankful for the opportunity and honour of knowing and working jointly with him in Namibia. We hope that Marie Therez, their daughters, their grandchildren, and the rest of his family will find strength and support in knowing that Tilman will always live in the memories of the many, many people that he has known and influenced.

To take just a few of many prominent examples from throughout his career in Namibia, Tilman’s immense contribution, innovative and enduring research have made a significant impact on the discipline, archaeological heritage landscape, and museum sector as he professionally guided, encouraged, supported, and made it possible to develop key operational frameworks and develop holistic and community-centred archaeological research projects, including the archaeological surveys on Brandberg Mountain between 1989 and 2006 with Tate Angula Shipahu and Ephraim Matteus in the compilation and editing of the six volumes of Harald Pager’s work on the Brandberg mountain entitled “The Rock Paintings of the Upper Brandberg” published in Köln by Heinrich-Barth-Institut in 1998. Today, these monograms are still the world’s largest series ever produced at an archaeological site. This was followed by Tilman’s conceptualization and realisation of the permanent exhibition called “Rock Art in Namibia” in the National Museum of Namibia in 1998, which aimed to acknowledge the supplementary role of local community members who personally, logistically, symbolically, and technically immensely assisted Harald Pager to locate and document the rock art of Brandberg, which oversaw at least 900 rock art sites discovered mainly by these local men from Amis Gorge, Hungorob Gorge, Southern Gorges, Umuab and Karoab Gorges, Naib Gorges, Circus, and Dom Gorges, housing around 43,000 individual rock painting figures. The exhibition was the first of its kind to ever showcase images and moments from the part of their lives when they worked on the legacy and fostered the myth within Namibian rock art. In 2009, Tilman also secured funding from the Jutta-Vogel-Stiftung towards rock art survey management in Dome Gorge, Upper Brandberg, which oversaw the documentation of a unique site containing paintings and engravings on the same geology. In 2010 and 2011, further funding from the Jutta-Vogel-Stiftung was sought by Tilman in the publications of “Daureb, a highland on the desert fringe: reconnaissance and development of cultural heritage,” as well as the training and qualification of female guides at Brandberg Mountain. Perhaps the biggest project that has benefited Namibia to date is the funding from the DFG in 2012 for the development of the African Archaeology Archive in Cologne, which aimed at digitising the archives and making documentation of all archaeological sites in Namibia, Botswana, Sudan, Egypt, Chad, Algeria, and Libya available there and making it available in the form of a database. On this database, Namibia’s inventory stood at 19055 archaeological sites documented.

And more recently, from 2013 to date, Tilman has also secured funding from the DFG for the “Tracking in Caves project." The project combines archaeology with indigenous knowledge to obtain an in-depth analysis of prehistoric human tracks, mainly in the ice age caves of France. Here, three San-Namibian men and indigenous trackers from the Ju/'honasi community in Tsumkwe travelled to France to work along with Andreas Pastoors and Tilman Lenssen-Erz to investigate human tracks in Niaux, Pech Merle, Fontanet, and, with higher intensity, in Aldène and Tuc d'Audoubert sites in France. The Namibian trackers not only augmented the number of ancient recognised footprints, but they were also able to make in almost all instances clear statements as to the sex, age class, and way of movement of the prehistoric cave visitors. Therefore, between 2015 and 2018, this collaborative project culminated in a documentary of the San Men’s work alongside the archaeologists, which was presented at a number of conferences in Namibia, Germany, and France. Since 2018, this project has intensified research into prehistoric human tracks with indigenous ichnologists through field research in Namibia and France. But most importantly, Tilman’s empirical research approach to prehistoric rock studies through an established methodological framework for landscape archaeology by scientifically studying rock art in contexts through pragmatic data collections has given the current generation of archaeology researchers perspectives on understanding space and resources around rock art sites across the globe. It is for this reason that, to many of us, Tilman was a brilliant researcher. He shared so much of himself with all those who were privileged to know him well. And Tilman absolutely adored her family and was inseparable from his beloved Marie Therese's, who accompanied him in many field research projects as she is a great photographer. He always spoke so tenderly and proudly of his children and his grandchildren.

Tilman will be sorely missed by all who knew him. We extend our sincere condolences to his wife, Marie Therez, and their children and grandchildren. On behalf of his Namibian community,


Dr Alma Nankela

2nd January 2024

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