The distant past

The distant past, or ancient past, is the past beyond individual memory, and beyond the memory of other contemporaneous individuals. According to Jan Assmann (1992: 48-56), the decisive borderline between recent 'communicative memory' (cf. social memory) and distant 'cultural memory' lies approximately 80 years, or 3-4 generations, back in time. In a famous study about oral tradition in Africa, Jan Vansina emphasised a similar division between a recent and a distant past (Vansina 1985: 23-4, 168-9). He showed that in scriptless societies there is usually what he calls a 'floating gap' in the orally transmitted knowledge about the past (1985: 24):

"Historical consciousness works only two registers: time of origin and recent times. Because the limit one reaches in time reckoning moves with the passage of generations, I have called the gap a floating gap."

Both Jan Vansina and Jan Assmann made the additional point that in the cultural memory of a society there is in fact no real gap: mythical origins and recent past follow each other seamlessly. While the (often mythical) first origins and the most recent past of a society are culturally well known, accounts of the times in-between those two extremes are often very limited (see also Schott 1968: esp. 172, 175, 195; Zonabend 1984: 2-4; Minicuci 1995; Müller 1998). The complex present is opposed to a simple distant past in which things came into being. In scriptless societies, knowledge about events in the distant past is only in very exceptional circumstances handed down accurately to the present: cases known include natural events, genealogies, and certain 'historical' events (Bell and Walker 1992: 132; Schott 1968: 173-4; Schnapp 1996: 22-4).

Studies in oral history show that in Western societies too, 'living memory' of the past, transmitted directly between individuals, does not reach further back in time than a maximum of 80 years. Everything earlier than that is within the realms of history and archaeology, and has to be learned consciously by a new generation of people, whether in school, from (grand-)parents, books or through other media. This is obvious in a comparison between the memories of World Wars I and II: while the latter is still very much 'alive' in our cultural memory and present in the minds of time witnesses, the former may not be forgotten, but has definitely become much more remote over the last few decades.

The distant past carries particular weight within the history culture of each present, because what happened in it is removed from the sphere of the everyday, and is a particularly crucial part of the collective memory of a society (Dihle 1988; Bickel 1994; Holtorf 1995). The image of the distant past is not normally negotiable between individuals, but constitutes a shared possession of a group of people about their beginning and origin, thus partly defining the group's identity. This group can be humanity as a whole, searching for its very beginnings in the earliest prehistoric periods (cf. Jaspers 1949: 53-4, 64-5), or a smaller community of people such as the inhabitants of a particular region (Reuter 1994). When the distant past is seen as part of natural history or showing the natural order of a particular group of people (or indeed of all humanity), it additionally acquires an ideological meaning (Dihle 1988: 152).

Ancient monuments can be understood as timemarks, which refer people back to the distant past. They possess age value and prompt us to associate and connect with them notions and ideas about the distant past. But ancient monuments can also themselves 'feed back' into understandings of the distant past. Often, oral traditions and folklore about the past developed around ancient monuments after their original meanings had long been forgotten (Vansina 1985: 157; Röhrich 1992). Such feedback processes from ancient monuments to understandings of the distant past occur today as much as they did during the 1st millennium BC in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, and why not in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern?

The ascription of a monument to the distant past does not necessarily increase the significance of ancient monuments in a particular society. It can also make them less important, as they may appear to belong to an age so far removed that it is no longer of any relevance to the present. The consequences can be a loss of aura and increasing cases of desecration, which may consequently lead to special efforts of preservation by archaeologists and like-minded people, in attempts to re-establish the monuments as places significant for the history culture and cultural memory of that society.

In this work, I am concerned with how people in later prehistory made sense of ancient monuments which they encountered in the landscape they lived in. I am interested in timemarks and cultural memory in later prehistory, or the distant past in the distant past. Even if some oral traditions in later prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern did actually reach far back into the past (cf. Kirchner 1954), perhaps even into the Neolithic, this fact would not have been recognisable by the people of the time; it would not have prevented a variety of legitimate meanings being attributed to these monuments by different people. Since I take the view that past and present are firmly connected with each other and cannot be separated, any attempt to distinguish an 'actual' past from 'imaginary' pasts is meaningless. Any distant past can only exist as part of a present.


In an interesting recent paper, Ingela Bergman rejects that the notion of the distant past is in fact a universal phenomenon. Drawing on examples for the (non-existent) role of ancient remains in relation to Sami concepts of the past, Bergman argues (2006: 157) that the distant past is a culturally specific notion drawing on certain "ideological, social and economic structures" and specific modes of time-reckoning. Having said that, the same paper also shows that ancient remains in the landscape are in fact described by a Sami informant as "very, very old" and that there is a strong presence of a 'mythical past' in the surrounding landscape (Bergman 2006: 154, 157-8). So although the Sami may once not have had a sense of chronology or long-term genealogy, they nevertheless had some notion of a distant past...


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 11 January 2007