Later Prehistory in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

This work is not written with the intention of contributing to a 'cultural history' of later prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. I am not concerned with reconstructing the cultural and historical context of this period (see for that, Sopp 1999). Instead, I am interpreting ancient monuments in the context of my interest in certain theoretical issues, my understanding of the discipline of archaeology, and my own experiences of the monuments and their records. The brief discussion of the 'archaeological context' that follows should be seen as one of many connections that can be made when interpreting the meanings of ancient monuments in later prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. For the purpose of this work, I have chosen to put more emphasis on other kinds of connections than that, as while equally important, I found them, personally, more exciting and more innovative for the archaeology of monuments in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

My reference to later prehistory in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the title of this work does not express my special interest in the cultural history of this particular period and area. I chose this area for its megaliths and the promising state of research about them. I chose the period entirely for thematic and methodological reasons. My interest in the distant past led me to focus on periods no earlier than the later Bronze Age, from which time there is unlikely to be any true continuity of tradition since the building of the monuments (see also Bradley 1981: 24). My main interest in archaeologically visible receptions of monuments led me to focus on those periods from which there is such evidence, while I also wanted to avoid unfamiliar and complex discussions surrounding the use of Medieval written sources. Thus, I decided to include the Slavic Period in the analysis, but (for most purposes) do not discuss the following Early German Period. The term 'later prehistory' is slightly misleading as I  use it to include the protohistoric Slavic period, but I prefer this small incorrectness to the awkward expression of 'later prehistory and protohistory'.

Later prehistory in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has traditionally been divided into the following pre- and proto-historic periods: the later Bronze Age, the pre-Roman Iron Age, the Roman Iron Age (including the Migration Period), and the Slavic Period. Given the culture-historical emphasis on archaeological research in central Europe, it is not surprising that these periods are often also discussed within the wider framework of Germanic tribes (Germanen) up until approx. AD 600, and of Slavic tribes thereafter (see Krüger 1986; 1988; Hermann 1985). Subsequently, the Early German (frühdeutscher) State comes into being at around AD 1200. (Note the difference in German between Germanen and Deutsche, which correspond to the different English words for the Germanic tribes, or "Teutons", and the "Germans".)

The later Bronze Age

In some cases, such as Burtevitz and Lancken-Granitz, megaliths were in continual use until the early Bronze Age. I have therefore chosen to start my own analysis with the late Bronze Age (from approx. 1200 cal. BC). Culture-historically speaking, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the Bronze Age forms part of the archaeological unit of the Nordischer Kreis, but is influenced by the southern archaeological cultures of the Tumulus and Urnfield Cultures (Keiling 1988: 8-10, 31).

In funerary traditions, cremation superseded inhumation, and in addition to burial mounds, which were still being built, flat grave cemeteries became acceptable, especially in northern areas. These cemeteries were positioned close to contemporary settlements and were often used over long time periods up until the end of the Bronze Age or until the pre-Roman Iron Age. Settlements in the North were also occupied continuously for longer time periods than before, and are now clearly visible archaeologically, in contrast to earlier periods. A certain intensification of agricultural production in this period seems to have corresponded to an increase of population in this area. Further inland some very rich burial mounds can be associated with socially privileged groups of people. But since settlement sites were not found near the cemeteries in this area, these people may have been partly nomads who were predominantly engaged in animal husbandry and maintaining trade lines with the South. The control of imported goods, such as precious metal objects, may have made individuals wealthy and powerful (Keiling 1982: 24-7; 1988: 31-8; see also Horst 1988).

The Pre-Roman Iron Age

The Pre-Roman Iron Age started around 600 BC and lasted until the Romans become important in central Europe around 1 BC/AD. West Mecklenburg formed part of the Jastorf culture in a narrow sense, while the rest of the country was occupied by other Germanic tribes which have been described as belonging to the Jastorf culture in the wider sense. Of some importance became influences from the Hallstatt culture and later the Celtic La Téne culture in central Europe, but there were also contacts with southern Scandinavia (Reinecke 1991). In funerary traditions, flat grave cemeteries with cremations remained the dominant burial custom, although small mounds and burials in stone circles, e.g. in Boitin, are also found. Some cemeteries were in use continuously either since the late Bronze Age or until the Roman Iron Age, which may indicate a long-term continuity of population over this time period. The sedentary farmers of the North appear to have expanded their production and increase regional differentiations in their material culture, while the nomad-traders decreased in number. A lack of imported bronze may have been a factor in the increased local production of iron (Keiling 1982: 28-34; 1988; Voigt 1988; see also Krüger 1988: passim).

Cemetery evidence suggests that western Mecklenburg, in particular, was densely populated with between 75,000 and 125,000 inhabitants. But from the 3rd century BC onwards, the population appears to have decreased, possibly in connection with the historically documented migrations of the Cimbri and Teutones. During the last three decades BC wide areas of western Mecklenburg were virtually uninhabited, while central Mecklenburg and north-eastern Vorpommern had very low population densities. Stable populations throughout the whole country were re-established during the first century AD (Keiling 1982: 35–37).

The Roman Iron Age

The Roman Iron Age (approx. AD 1 to 600) was largely contemporary with the age of the Roman Emperors (also included is here the subsequent Migration Period). Mecklenburg-Vorpommern was never reached by the expanding Roman Empire, but most of the period is nevertheless characterised by the conflicts further west and south between various Germanic tribes and the Roman army. The Lombard tribe (Langobarden), that settled until the early 5th century AD at the south-western borders of Mecklenburg along the lower river Elbe, considered themselves allies of the Romans (Keiling 1984: 3-15; Leube 1986a).

After some tribes had migrated southwards from the 2nd century AD onwards, large parts of eastern Mecklenburg and Vorpommern again appear not to have been very densely populated (Lange et al. 1986: 143); possibly, people were motivated to leave by a deterioration of living conditions in their settlement areas, and attracted by the wealth of the Roman Empire. The princely graves of the aristocracy as well as urn cemeteries from this period containing Roman imports as grave goods, which probably had arrived via Denmark, may reflect this attraction. Despite the small remaining population, there was a continuity of burial customs and cemeteries during this period. Evidence for continuous occupation and agriculture, as well as surviving pre-Slavic place and river names indicate some degree of continuity also into the Slavic period (Leube 1986b; 1988; Schultze 1986).

The Slavic Period

Slavs moved into the area of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern from the second half of the 6th century AD onwards. The Obodriten tribe occupied the west of the country, while the Wilzen occupied the east, and the Ranen settled on Rügen. Slavic settlers built new settlements, increased the overall area of arable fields through substantial clearances, and intensified animal husbandry and agricultural production (Lange et al. 1986: 144-50). Many field and place names are still reminders today of the Slavic period. All over this region the Slavs built more than 200 castles (Burgen, Burgwälle) which were not only politically and militarily, but also economically, and culturally of great importance. These castles, apart from providing shelter for the farming population in times of military threat, could be the residences of the nobility as well as political and religious centres. They also attracted craftspeople and traders. One such castle has been excavated and reconstructed at Groß Raden. Also of considerable importance for the economy of Slavic society were harbours and trade centres along the Baltic Sea as well as at some rivers further inland, e.g. in Menzlin, Kreis Anklam, in Ralswiek and in Arkona, both in Kreis Rügen (Keiling 1984: 16-21; Herrmann 1985: chapters I-V). As a result of the economic upswing it is estimated that from 800 to 1200 the population increased approximately eightfold (Keiling 1984: 21).

From the 10th century AD onwards, the political and military pressure exercised by the Frankish, and later by the feudal German empire in the west, became more and more threatening. There was also a religious conflict between Christian Franks and the Slavs who worshipped their own deities. While the king of the Obodriten had already converted to Christianity in AD 931, his people were not forced to be converted before AD 1147. In AD 1160 the state of the Obodriten lost its independence and became part of the German duchy of Saxonia (Herzogtum Sachsen). During the second half of the 12th century AD, the German East expansion and forceful Christianization succeeded in defeating the Slavic rule and religion in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Keiling 1984: 21-6; Herrmann 1985: chapters IV.7, VI-VII). The conflict between the two religions is reflected not only in various written documents, but also in the different burial customs followed at different times. Burial customs do not always conform to what is expected by the dominant ideology, but sometimes subvert it by following distinctively non-Christian traditions, such as cremation and the use of Bannkreise, as well as by re-use or imitation of pagan mounds, thereby telling political narratives through material cultural (cf. Warnke 1982: 198).

The significance of the Slavs in the history of central and eastern Europe has been the topic of a heated academic discussion between scholars from Western and Eastern Europe since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, with highly political overtones on both sides (see Herrmann 1985: 3-5, 66, 441-2). The role of the Slavs and the Germanic tribes, respectively, was frequently seen as crucial to modern identities and the legitimation of political rule in both East and West. Research about the Slavic period was also considered of great importance in the GDR and therefore pursued with considerable effort from which all can benefit now (e.g. Herrmann 1985 passim).

The Early German Period

At places in this work I make reference also to the Early German Period (approx. AD 1200 to 1400), although this period is already part of the Medieval Age from which many written sources are known. Following the conquest of the Slavic states in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern by the German empire, this period is characterised by immigrating German farmers and a slow assimilation of Slavs and Germans. Agricultural production was further intensified. At the same time, new villages and towns developed, and feudal lords and knights built many defensive mottes and fortified farmsteads (Keiling 1984: 27; Herrmann 1985: chapters VII-VIII.1).

Wolf Karge has written a brief overview of the complete history of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (in German). For a splendid fictional account of Mecklenburg's earliest history, written in the regional dialect (Plattdeutsch), see Fritz Reuter's De Urgeschicht von Meckelnborg (1994).


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 10 July 2002