Timemarks

Ancient monuments are often appreciated for their age value. They make the distant past visible in the landscape, and as long as they have existed they have thus been given ever new meanings and have gained ever new cultural significance. In his research about prehistoric Eastern Hungary, John Chapman found that ancient monuments in the landscape such as tells, flat urn cemeteries (possibly with grave markers), and kurgans, but also flat occupational sites, provided visible links from the present to the distant world of the ancestors. In analogy to landmarks, he therefore called such monuments 'timemarks' (Chapman 1997; see also Walsh 1992: 152). Such timemarks referred to a distinctive time in the past when a particular event or process, which may have been central in contemporary cultural memory, was said to have taken place. Chapman argues that timemarks, which provide prominent and long-living links to the past, can be crucial to later inhabitants, whether indigenous or not, in order to establish social identity and legitimatise claims to the land or to the rule over it (see also Evans 1985; Hughes 1995). He suggests (1997: 37) that

"there is much ideological potential in assuming the role of descendants to an unrelated group's ancestors, thereby legitimating the 'new' foundation. Thus old sites can return to life, rather like the ancestral spirits of the deceased, to restart the cycle of occupation, dis-use and re-occupation".

Similarly, Richard Bradley, among others, argued that Neolithic monuments, in their later histories, became reference points for new agendas and meanings. Nigel Spencer suggested likewise that monumental tombs and other buildings from the Bronze Age became highly significant for later populations in Messenia in ancient Greece (1995). A similar argument can be made for ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient monuments become culturally significant as timemarks because of their 'resonance' in the mind of the recipient (Greenblatt 1990: 170):
"By resonance I mean the power of the object ... to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which as metaphor or more simply as metonymy it may be taken by a viewer to stand."
Megaliths as timemarks in Gnewitz (100, 101, 104), Kreis Rostock (1995)

Megaliths, where they occurred and remained recognisable as ancient monuments, often possessed such cultural resonance. In different ages of their 'lives', megaliths functioned as timemarks, becoming focal points for different societies' history cultures.

For the Sami, on the other hand, even though the past is important in the landscape they inhabit, ancient remains do not apparently function as mnemonic devices (Bergman 2006). This is a cautionary tale and warning for jumping to conclusions about the role of megaliths as timemarks in societies long dead, when in fact such a role is nothing but an interpretive possibility.


Literature

Bergman, Ingela (2006) Indigenous Time, Colonial History: Sami Conceptions of Time and Ancestry and the Role of Relics in Cultural Reproduction. Norwegian Archaeological Review 39, 151-61.

Chapman, John (1997) Places as timemarks—the social construction of prehistoric landscapes in Eastern Hungary. In G.Nash (ed.) Semiotics of Landscape: Archaeology of Mind, pp. 31–45. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 661. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Evans, Christopher (1985) Tradition and the cultural landscape: an archaeology of place. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 4(1), 80–94.

Greenblatt, Stephen J. (1990) Resonance and Wonder. In: S.Greenblatt, Learning to Curse. Essays in Early Modern Culture, pp. 161–183. New York and London: Routledge.

Hughes, Peter (1995) Ruins of Time: Estranging History and Ethnology in the Enlightenment and After. In: D.O.Hughes and T.R.Trautmann (eds) Time. Histories and Ethnologies, pp. 269–290. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Spencer, Nigel (1995) Heroic time: monuments and the past in Messenia, Southwest Greece. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 14(3), 277–292.

Walsh, Kevin (1992) The Representation of the Past. Museums and heritage in the post-modern world. London: Routledge.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 11 January 2007