An Academic Narrative

Behind every work there is a story. Often, the story can better explain why a work looks the way it does than can any formal academic argument. The present work started as a Doctoral thesis. So here is its much abbreviated story.

Choosing the topic

I have been fascinated by what monuments mean to people ever since my Hamburg M.A. thesis of 1993, in which I investigated empirically the contemporaneous meanings of three selected megaliths and menhirs in Germany. Having come to Lampeter later the same year, I wrote a second M.A. thesis also about the various meanings of megaliths, but this time focussing on the theoretical background of Radical Constructivism and Reception Theory as well as on prehistoric and historic case-studies. As I had to make a decision about my Ph.D. research topic early in 1994, this topic seemed to be interesting and promising to pursue further. I chose later prehistory as a time period, since I was mainly interested in working with evidence of material culture. In excluding earlier periods as well as the Medieval age, I hoped to avoid dealing with possible continuities of burial traditions and ancestor cults during the Neolithic up until the early Bronze Age on the one hand, and with the quite complex problem of using written sources in arguments about historic periods on the other.

Since I started my work in 1994, the basic theme proved feasible and has stayed virtually the same; however, I modified my exact line of argument on several occasions. These changes are reflected in various outlines and abstracts which I wrote at different points in time. Although empirical detail has a certain irresistible attraction to me (as well as a considerable rhetorical power), the theoretical aspects of my work, such as thoughts about past and present, have always (and perhaps over the years increasingly) been more important to me than the details of the archaeology of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern provided an almost ideal study area, not only because of the excellent state of research on megaliths there (largely due to the work of Ewald Schuldt), but also because I felt very attracted to the beautiful coastal landscape. My research in the area was greatly helped by virtually all the local archaeologists, who patiently answered my questions and gave further suggestions. On several occasions, however, one senior archaeologist tried effectively to stop my research (I don't know why). This seemed at first to threaten the entire project, but as time went on, this person's activities proved to be less critical for my work than I had feared.

Finding material to work with

One of my biggest challenges from the start was to find enough relevant material evidence on which to build a larger argument. I was already confident after having looked at the regional literature in the library of the Institute of Archaeology in London, and undertaking an explorative visit to the sites and monuments record (Ortsaktenarchiv) of the Landesamt für Bodendenkmalpflege in Lübstorf, both early in 1995.  I became entirely convinced of the feasibility of my project during an extended visit of the study area during the summer of 1995. After just over two weeks of concentrated work with the records, I provided the basis for my later analysis by documenting on specially designed forms, the evidence for later prehistoric receptions at almost 1200 megaliths. That summer, I also visited several libraries and photocopied many relevant texts, which were not otherwise available to me at Lampeter. During a second visit to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the late summer of 1996 I visited even more sites, consulted libraries again and discussed various issues with local archaeologists. I closed gaps in my reading by using the very efficient interlibrary loan service at Lampeter, spending two weeks in the libraries of Cambridge and in the British Library in March 1996, and consulting the British Library for another few days in September 1997.

Interpreting the evidence in wider terms

On the basis of the promising evidence I had collected, and the associated archaeological literature I had read, it was always clear that for interesting interpretations I would need exciting ideas, rather than additional evidence or access to even more archaeological literature. My interest was, after all, first and foremost in the meanings of ancient monuments, and not in any particular archaeological period or area. I decided early on to combine my archaeological work with references to various other related themes and topics. Later prehistory would be supplemented by evidence from later historic periods as well from the present. The actual receptions of megaliths, which I could see in the record, would be put in the context of wider meanings of monuments. Ancient monuments and conceptions of the past in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern would be associated with completely different archaeological and anthropological contexts.

All this was to be put into practice by using hypermedia technology. My original application document and further discussions about my plan to submit my work on the Internet, and then on CD-Rom, led me to think more about the characteristics and significance of hypermedia links in the text. As a consequence, the idea of making sense by making connections became more and more important to me, and developed perhaps into one of the most important arguments of my work. Originally, I constructed the thesis on many small cards each representing one 'page'; they were ordered by a systematic number code but this was more a way of structuring my writing process than a hidden linear structure in my argument!

Coming up with results

What I now present is colourful, diverse, empirically rich and (hopefully) intellectually stimulating. I have produced a work that takes a decisively interpretive approach and rejects the metaphor of the law court, according to which the task of the archaeologist is to establish the truth about the past, or to construct a story plausible beyond reasonable doubt, in order for the judge or jury to reach a verdict about what actually happened (Shanks 1992: 54–56). What really happened in the past does not matter much to me. This work is not about the past, but rather about certain parts of the present, although it deals with the past and refers to archaeological evidence. I hope to show that there are a great number of possible meanings of ancient monuments, and that we can reach interpretations and make sense of something by making connections. Perhaps more importantly, I hope to demonstrate in my work that past and present are united and cannot be separated from each other. In saying this I do not argue that different archaeological and historical contexts could not be distinguished from one another. My point is much broader: the past is only meaningful within the particular history culture and as a contribution to the cultural memory of each present. I do not know if there could be a present without a past (except perhaps for small babies and some animals as well as in certain medical conditions?), but there can certainly be no past without a present.

Ancient monuments in our landscapes intrigue me. Perhaps this is the beauty of my approach, and of my work: people in later prehistory and today, including myself, find themselves in very much the same situation. They make sense in one way or another of the ancient monuments they come across in the landscape. The object of study in this work is, therefore, also the studying subject, and the results of my study describe its approach too.


Literature

Shanks, Michael (1992) Experiencing the Past. On the Character of Archaeology. London: Routledge.

© Cornelius Holtorf