The reception history of monuments

Archaeologists have frequently applied approaches from literary theory to the interpretation of prehistoric finds and monuments. Likewise, literary 'reception theory' can be applied to archaeology (for a longer argument see Holtorf 1995; forthcoming).

Reception theory in archaeology

Reception theory is not a unified body of theory but represents a rather large field of discussion in literary theory which developed from the late 1960s onwards, with a peak around the year 1980. I cannot go into details of the various and complex discussions among reception theorists here (see Warning 1975; Grimm 1975; 1977; Link 1980; Suleiman 1980; Tompkins 1980; Holub 1984; Wünsch 1984). But there are a few general convictions shared by most academics working within reception theory that can be spelled out.

Most importantly, the emphasis is on the reader rather than on the author. According to reception theory, the readers' receptions of a text are completely independent from the author's original intentions or the literary critics' interpretations of the text. The meaning of a text is defined by its readers' receptions: readers, not authors, make meaning (Crosman 1980). According to reception theory, there is thus not a single pre-determined 'adequate' reception of a given text on which literary theory needs to focus. Instead, all actual receptions in the past and the present are valid as such, and their particular characteristics become the objects of study for a 'reception history' (Rezeptionsgeschichte). Hence, there is also no primacy of an academically gained 'interpretation' as opposed to mere cultural 'receptions'; in fact these categories cannot be distinguished from each other, since every interpretation implies a reception while every reception includes an interpretation.

Different types of readers can be distinguished:

  1. the imagined reader: the author's assumption of the actual reader,
  2. the intended reader: the author's conception of the implicit reader,
  3. the explicit reader: the fictitious reader who is addressed in the actual text,
  4. the implicit reader: the reader as determined by the character of the text,
  5. the ideal reader: the most competent reader for a given text,
  6. the actual reader (like you when you read this!),
  7. the archereader: an archetypical abstraction from a number of actual readers.

These types divide into three groups: the author's perception of the reader (1+2), the reader contained in the text (3-5), and the actual reader (6+7). Reception theory has mainly focussed on the two last groups under the headings of 'reception aesthetics' (Rezeptionsästhetik, after Wolfgang Iser) and 'reception history' (Rezeptionsgeschichte, after Hans Robert Jauß). Reception aesthetics deals primarily with language and is concerned with the question of how meaning is created by the reader through the reading process of a text. Reception history studies readers and their reception of texts in biographical, sociological and historical contexts.

Reception theory can be used, in principle, as an approach for all the humanities, if their objects of study are seen as texts, and it has already been applied in art history (Meyer 1988; Kemp 1992), musicology (Rösing 1983), history (Thompson 1993), egyptology (Assmann 1997) as well as literary history. Reception theory can also be applied to archaeology in general, and to ancient monuments in particular. Instead of 'readers', however, it is better to talk of 'recipients' in an archaeological context.

What do the different types of readers (recipients), which reception theory supplies, mean in the context of archaeological monuments?

  1. the imagined recipient: the builders' assumption of the actual recipient,
  2. the intended recipient: the builders' conception of the implicit recipient,
  3. the explicit recipient: the recipient who is addressed in the actual monument,
  4. the implicit recipient: the recipient as determined by the character of the monument,
  5. the ideal recipient: the most competent recipient for a given monument,
  6. the actual recipient (for example us, when we visit monuments),
  7. the archerecipient: an archetypical abstraction from a number of actual recipients.

What has been investigated by traditional archaeological research concerns mainly the intentions of the builders and the original 'functioning' of the monuments themselves. It is curious that the builders' perceptions of the monuments' future recipients (1+2) have been largely ignored, even though monuments are likely to have been built with prospective memories, for and about future recipients, in mind. The difference between imagined and intended recipients may be hard to infer from the finished monument, but it should nevertheless be kept in mind when interpreting the intentions of the monument's builders.

A reception aesthetics of monuments would attempt to understand the relations between the monument's formal characteristics and the meanings associated with it in later receptions (3-5). An explicit recipient may not be found in a scriptless context but the implicit recipient is clearly of some importance. The monumental nature of megaliths and their obvious association (as timemarks) with ancestors/age/the ancient, determine, to some extent, their meanings in later receptions. Ancient monuments such as megaliths are, by their very form, material, and context, objects that draw attention and stimulate the mind to think, even if only about how to deal with them. At the same time, monuments are bold statements about the land, the past, and about transcendentality—in whatever concrete shape this may manifest itself. Ideal recipients clearly can appreciate this.

The actual recipients of monuments (6+7) have interpreted them in many different ways depending on the specific context. Since these actual receptions had actual consequences, some of which resulted in archaeological evidence, there is no reason why archaeologists cannot concern themselves with the 'life-histories' of monuments. John Barrett (1993: 238) reminded us, although with reference to Roman inscriptions, that

"all uses of an inscription, from its carving, erection, the references and modifications made to it, and its removal and reincorporation into some other place, can be regarded as readings in the broadest sense because all such actions must have involved an interpretation of the material."

This can also be applied to monuments: all their later receptions reflect particular interpretations.

To my knowledge, so far no attempts have been made to determine archerecipients or other regularities among the recipients of monuments.

Towards a reception history of monuments

Hans Robert Jauß, one of the main proponents of reception theory, proposed in 1967 to treat literary history as reception history (Rezeptionsgeschichte). Literary history, Jauß argued, ought not to be based on 'literary facts' of the production process or on formal properties of written works. Instead, emphasis should be put on the changing receptions of a text by different readers at different times, including the receptions by the authors themselves and literary critics (Jauß 1970: 171, see also 217f.). Transferring Jauß' argument to archaeology we should look more closely at the reception history of archaeological 'texts' rather than at the history of their production or at their formal characteristics alone: once the idea to build a monument was born, what did it mean to the recipients of contemporary and later generations? It has recently been argued that reception histories of archaeological monuments are indeed a major desideratum in current archaeological research (Seidenspinner 1993).

Monuments represent a variety of constantly changing meanings, determined by the light in which they are seen. People receive these monuments in the landscape by constructing an 'imaginary world' around them, just like readers of a text construct an 'imaginary universe' during the process of reading (Todorov 1980). These imaginary worlds are determined by the implicit aesthetic characteristics of the given texts as much as by the contexts of the actual receptions. People in different ages 'constructed' monuments in their receptions in a way that made sense then, as part of distinctive 'imaginary worlds'—much as archaeologists and others do today. In the perspective of such an archaeological reception history, monuments such as megaliths are thus not merely of the Neolithic, when they were first built, but in fact of most periods ever since they were built, including the present (see my database of megalith receptions in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern!).

This corresponds to, and supplements, recent studies in archaeology which emphasise the importance of different 'readers' and multiple interpretations of (pre-)historic monuments rather than single 'authors' and their original intentions (e.g. Hodder 1988; Olsen 1990; Tilley 1991; Burström et al. 1996; see also Beard 1991; Goldhill and Osborne 1994). We are all but readers and recipients. It is thus unhelpful to classify different receptions of ancient monuments according to how much they agree or disagree with what academic archaeologists nowadays happen to find important about them. However, this position was not shared by the archaeologist Ewald Schuldt who dismissed out of hand approaches different from his own, and tried to prevent alternative interpretations of the past and ancient monuments. In a letter to an amateur archaeologist who had suggested to him a different way of interpreting a megalith, Schuldt wrote on 2.6.1986 (cited after Ortsakte Nobbin):

"Für mich und alle anderen Forscher, die sich ernsthaft mit diesen großartigen Denkmalen befaßt haben, ist sicher, daß sie im 3.Jt.v.Z. von der ältesten Bauernbevölkerung unseres Landes als letzte Ruhestätte für ihre Toten errichtet wurden. Das ist tausendfach bewiesen. Allen anderen sonst noch in diesen Monumenten gesehenen Funktionen betrachte ich als reine Spekulationen, über die zu reden für mich vertane Zeit ist."

"For me and all other scholars who have seriously investigated these great monuments, it is certain that they were built during the 3rd millennium BC by the earliest farming population of our country as a final resting place for their dead. This has been proven a thousand times over. I consider all other functions proposed for these monuments as pure speculations, and talking about them is a waste of time to me." (my translation)

My intention in this work is to contribute to a tentative reception history of monuments. This may also shed some light on their reception aesthetics. But the most important implication of my argument is that, whether we like it or not, the reception history of archaeological monuments will always continue, and keep some if not all monuments socially and personally relevant in many ways, within ever new history cultures. As archaeologists we cannot change this, and nor should we want to. Rather we should be studying such receptions, in order to reconnect Archaeology with its 'mnemohistory' (cf. Assmann 1997: 22).


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© Cornelius Holtorf