Cultural Memory

Cultural Memory is a concept introduced to the archaeological disciplines by Jan Assmann (1988a; 1988b; 1992: espec. 22). Assmann defines cultural memory as the "outer dimension of human memory" (1992: 19), embracing two different concepts: "memory culture" (Erinnerungskultur) and "reference to the past" (Vergangenheitsbezug). Memory culture is the way a society ensures cultural continuity by preserving, with the help of cultural mnemonics, its collective knowledge from one generation to the next, rendering it possible for later generations to reconstruct their cultural identity. References to the past, on the other hand, reassure the members of a society of their collective identity and supply them with an awareness of their unity and singularity in time and space—i.e. an historical consciousness—by creating a shared past (Assmann 1992: 30-34; see also 1996: 26f., 31). These two concepts may or may not coincide.

Slightly less ambiguously than Assmann, I use the term 'cultural memory' exclusively to denote the collective understandings, or constructions, of the distant past, as they are held by people in a given social and historical context (see also Holtorf 1996). Such 'retrospective memory' manifests itself in history culture and can involve rituals and ceremonies at special occasions such as commemoration days, and at special places such as ancient monuments, which function as timemarks and sites of memory (Assmann 1992: 56–9; see also Connerton 1989). Cultural memory is the past created in a society at certain sites and occasions, whether in ancient Mesopotamia (Jonker 1995: 30, 175–180, and passim) or during the festivities of '1,000 years Mecklenburg'. Cultural memory is not about giving testimony of past events, as accurately and truthful as possible, nor is it necessarily about ensuring cultural continuity: it is about making meaningful statements about the past in a given cultural context of the present (see also Borofsky 1987: 144f.; Friedman 1992: 853–856; Niethammer 1993: 45f.; Shanks 1996: 180). The concept of cultural memory thus corresponds to studies of other forms of memory in society, which have shown how even personal recollections by individuals, concerning the (fairly recent) past of their own lifetime, do not support the view that memory is a simple storage place for information which can be retrieved later on, but suggest that in memory the past is actively constructed depending on certain social and mental conditions. This cannot be better expressed than in the words of John Elsner (1994: 226):

"What matters ... is not that [a particular account of the past] be correct by our standards or anyone else's, but that it be convincing to the particular group of individuals ... for whom it serves as an explanation of the world they inhabit. ... [W]hat matters about any particular version of history is that it be meaningful to the collective subjectivities and self-identities of the specific group which it addresses. In other words, we are not concerned with 'real facts' or even a coherent methodology, but rather with the consensus of assumptions and prejudices shared by the historian ... and his audience".

Individuals learn their collective memories through socialisation, but they retain the freedom to break out of it and offer alternative views of the past which may themselves later become part of this collective memory. As interpretations of the past constantly change, so do cultural memories. Consequently, ancient monuments too were not always understood in the same way, but would have been interpreted quite differently during their long 'life-histories'. The changing meanings of ancient monuments can be studied in terms of a 'reception history' of monuments, which does not make a fundamental distinction between history and memory. Such a reception history may deal with evidence from any period, starting directly after the building of the particular monument, and can contribute to an understanding of the role of heritage and the meanings of 'the past' in the past. Over time, ancient monuments have been interpreted in the light of different values and meanings, which we must seek to understand rather than judge against our own modern-day values.

Recently, Assmann spoke of "mnemohistory" in relation to the past-as-it-is-remembered. He also stated that "Mnemohistory is reception theory applied to history", that the "proper way of dealing with the working of cultural memory is mnemohistory"  and that "Mnemohistory investigates the history of cultural memory" (1997: 9, 14, 15). His new approach therefore describes well my own ambitions.

In this work I am concerned with meanings of the past and ancient monuments that were very different from our own: expressions of cultural memory in another age.


Assmann, Jan (1988a) Kollektives Gedächtnis und kulturelle Identität. In: J.Assmann and T.Hölscher (eds) Kultur und Gedächtnis, pp. 9-19. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

Assmann, Jan (1988b) Stein und Zeit. Das »monumentale« Gedächtnis der altägyptischen Kultur. In: J.Assmann and T.Hölscher (eds) Kultur und Gedächtnis, pp. 87-114. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

Assmann, Jan (1992) Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen. München: Beck.

Assmann, Jan (1996) Ägypten. Eine Sinngeschichte. München: Hanser.

Assmann, Jan (1997) Moses the Egyptian. The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press.

Borofsky, Robert (1987) Making history. Pukapukan and anthropological construction of knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Connerton, Paul (1989) How societies remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elsner, John (1994) From the pyramids to Pausanias and Piglet: monuments, travel and writing. In: S.Goldhill and R.Osborne (eds) Art and text in ancient Greek culture, pp. 224-254. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friedman, Jonathan (1992) The Past in the Future: History and the Politics of Identity. American Anthropologist 94 (4), 837-859.

Holtorf, Cornelius J. (1996) Towards a Chronology of Megaliths: Understanding Monumental Time and Cultural Memory. Journal of European Archaeology 4, 119-152.

Jonker, Gerdien (1995) The Topography of Remembrance. The Dead, Tradition and Collective Memory in Mesopotamia. Leiden etc.: Brill.

Niethammer, Lutz (1993) Die postmoderne Herausforderung: Geschichte als Gedächtnis im Zeitalter der Wissenschaft. In: W.Küttler, J.Rüsen, and E.Schulin (eds) Geschichtsdiskurs, vol. 1: Grundlagen und Methoden der Historiographiegeschichte, pp. 31-49. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.

Shanks, Michael (1996) Classical Archaeology of Greece. Experiences of the discipline. London: Routledge.

© Cornelius Holtorf