Antiquarians and archaeologists have studied the megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern since the 19th century, but of particular importance became two scholars of this century. From the 1930s onwards, Ernst Sprockhoff undertook a systematic survey of megaliths in northern central Europe, as part of which two volumes about Mecklenburg-Vorpommern were published (Sprockhoff 1967; cf. 1938). The most comprehensive study of megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern was the result of a major research project undertaken from 1964 until 1972 by the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Schwerin, and directed by Ewald Schuldt (Schuldt 1972; cf. Knöll 1975). In connection with this project was also the doctoral dissertation by Ingeborg Nilius (1971) on the Neolithic in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern at the time of the Trichter[rand]becher (TRB, = funnel-necked beaker) culture (ca. 4000-2800 cal. BC). A good introduction to the state of knowledge about the Neolithic in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is provided in a museum catalogue by Horst Keiling (1986). For a recent overview of the TRB culture in general see the monumental work by Magdalena Midgley (1992). The brief résumé that follows is based on all these accounts.
Following Nilius (1971: 11) I call megaliths all those Neolithic burials which are erected (more or less) on the surface of the earth and involve large stones (curiously, Schuldt never positively defined megaliths in his 1972 monograph, although he indicates that they must be made of large stones and be large overall [p.13]). Problematic cases for Nilius' definition are on the one hand the stone cists dug into the earth and often not containing very large stones, and on the other hand the earthen long mounds without chambers which have only the appearance of megaliths (Nilius 1971: 15-24; Schuldt 1972: 13, 31). Schuldt nevertheless included both types in his Table A which thus included 31 long mounds without chamber and 96 stone cists (figures from Schuldt 1972: 16-7). Since I have worked with Schuldt's list as a basis, both long mounds without chambers and stone cists are also included in my own analysis. However, since my study area excludes those areas which are not now part of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, only 44 stone cists out of Schuldt's 96 remain relevant (the others are in the former districts of Pasewalk, Prenzlau and Strasburg and now belong to Brandenburg).
While Ewald Schuldt (1972) listed 1,145 megaliths (of which ninety-seven are now in the state of Brandenburg and were not taken into account in my study), I could now find evidence for 1,193 megaliths in the present state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern alone. Taking into account the evidence of how many megaliths have been destroyed over the years, the number of all megaliths originally built in the area might have been up to 5,000. This figure is hardly too large, as evidence from Denmark suggests that there approximately 25,000 megaliths were built between 3700 and 3200 BC (Ebbesen 1985: 54).
Among the 1,193 megaliths, 475 (40%) are documented well enough in the records to be studied for associated later receptions. An astonishingly large number of 144 (12%) have been excavated since 1945 and documented according to modern standards, mostly by Ewald Schuldt and his colleagues during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Virtually all the excavations were published rapidly and in great detail in the annual year-books Bodendenkmalpflege in Mecklenburg and in addition there is Ewald Schuldt's summarising monograph (1972).
There is no clear-cut pattern where megaliths are located in relation to altitude and landscape relief. They can be found on top of hills as well as at their feet, or in the low lands. But since the landscape is flat overall and even in the more hilly regions of the western and southern parts of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern there are hardly any rapid changes in the morphology, the positioning of megaliths in relation to altitude may have been of little concern. Generally, all megaliths are well visible from the surrounding area, wherever they are located. However, many megaliths seem to be close to water, whether it is rivers, the Baltic sea or the ground water level (Nilius 1971: 11). Even though the stones used did probably not come from very far away (Gehl 1972), this curious fact may have to do more than anything else with the greater ease of transporting the stones over water or downhill than of dragging them on the land and especially uphill. The orientation of megaliths varies considerably, but many entrances face south (Schuldt 1972: 70-1).
Megaliths exist in most parts of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Schuldt defined
nine centres in which megaliths occur in particular densities (1972: 15 and
map 1+2). These are
Map based on Schuldt (1972: map 1+2)
Schuldt also argued that particular types of megaliths are more common in certain areas rather than in others (see below).
The oldest megaliths in MecklenburgVorpommern date, according to associated TRB pottery serving as grave goods, to phase C of the Early Neolithic. But most megaliths belong to the early Middle Neolithic (Schuldt 1972: 92-6, 106). Contemporary 14C-Dates are still rare in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern but one existing date and dates from neighbouring regions seem to indicate a beginning of the TRB culture in the early 4th millennium BC (Midgley 1992: 220-1). All megaliths were probably erected during a very short time period lasting from the late Early Neolithic until the early Middle Neolithic (Schuldt 1976: 58); quite possibly they were built within a time period of only about two centuries, or by as few as seven generations (Keiling 1986: 39).
Following Sprockhoff in general terms, though not in all details, Schuldt distinguished between the following six different types of megaliths, of which the last two are not strictly megaliths (Schuldt 1972: 10-13, 19-31; Keiling 1986: 43-9; cf. Nilius 1971: 12-17; Midgley 1992: 420-4):
Schuldt found also that specific types
of megaliths seem to be characteristic for certain regions and indicate to
him the settlement areas of different groups of people with distinct burial
rites (Schuldt 1972: 97-106 and maps 3-9; Midgley 1992: 469):
The large stones used to build megaliths are erratics from the last Ice Age. Cap-stones often weigh more than 10 tonnes (Schuldt 1972: 37). In Forst Everstorf, one megalith (incl. the stone enclosure of the long mound) used 77 erratics with a combined volume of ca. 70m3 of rock (Gehl 1972: 109). The architectural details and the building process of megaliths have been described in detail by Ewald Schuldt (1972: 32-71), Otto Gehl (1972), and Erika Nagel (1985a).
Regarding their primary function, the durability and permanence of monuments can be taken as indicators for a concern of their builders with a prospective future. Overall, it seems clear that megaliths (even long mounds without chambers) were built as graves of people associated with the TRB culture. Detailed observations of the evidence even allow inferences about specific burial rites (see Schuldt 1972: 71-5; Midgley 1992: chapter 9; Beier 1992: 430-4). Megaliths often contained bones which were disarticulated and belonged to up to 20 individuals. This indicates either that they were not primary burial places but served as ossuaria from the beginning, or that they were used as collective graves where later buried bodies disturbed earlier ones (Raddatz 1979; Knöll 1980; Midgley 1992: 445; Veit 1993). Quite possibly, not every member of TRB society was buried in megaliths, as there are also flat graves known from the same time (Nilius 1971: 24-7; but see Midgley 1992: 409-10).
Whether megaliths had other functions besides being graves has not often been discussed in relation to the megaliths of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (but see Beier 1992: 434; Veit 1993: 35-41). Clearly, prospective memories which are not religiously but for example socially or politically motivated should also be considered.
After their construction, the megaliths were for several centuries used for burials of the TRB culture. Later on, people associated with the (only partly contemporary) Kugelamphoren (Globular Amphora) culture (ca. 3100-2700 cal. BC) frequently removed previous skeletons and demolished older grave goods in order to create room for their own burials (Schuldt 1972: 75-9; Nagel 1985b: 21-4). These re-uses of megaliths were executed with such a thoroughness and to such an extent that in fact very few megaliths burials have been found which contained undisturbed TRB burials (see Schuldt 1972: table C).
During the period of the late Neolithic Single Grave culture (ca. 2800-2300 cal. BC) several megalithic tombs were again used for burying the dead. By now the chambers of most megaliths had been filled with earth and the new burials, which were always found near the top of the chamber, had to be deposited by 'breaking in' from either one side or the top. But in some cases, namely on Rügen (for example in Burtevitz and Lancken-Granitz), it was not until the early Bronze Age, that the ancient graves ceased to be used as burial places and were formally closed by filling the chambers with earth (Schuldt 1972: 79-82, 84-9; Jacobs 1991: 30).
After this closing, the long lives of megaliths had only completed their first phase. Evidence has been found for various receptions of megaliths during later prehistory, history and in the present.
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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 26 March 2003