The origins of historical consciousness

Historical consciousness and literacy

Karl Jaspers argued in 1949 that prehistory is not yet history, as it lacks a factual knowledge of historic events, written documents, and an awareness of its own origins. Jaspers was convinced that during prehistory, due to the lack of written documents, the past was necessarily unknown (1949: 49-50; cf. Kirchner 1951: 84 ). In the same year, the ancient historian Joseph Vogt stated similarly that the invention of writing did not only provide historians with proper sources, but also started 'history' itself. Prehistory was, for Vogt, the childhood of humanity, and only when people learned to write did they leave a state of naïvety and gain a higher form of historical consciousness (Vogt 1949: 7, 11-12).

In a similar vein, these authors as well as others argued that until the dawn of the ancient civilisations, people's knowledge of the distant past was vague and dependent on speculation and myth (e.g. Jaspers 1949: 53; Toulmin and Goodfield 1965: 23; Butterfield 1981: 17-22). They believed that in prehistoric societies (as well as in illiterate societies of the present) people lived entirely in the present and did not care about their actual past; these people allegedly had (or have) a concept of time which is either cyclical or simply a backwards extension of the present (Schott 1968: 166-7; Goody 1991: 39-40; Müller 1998).

In this view, written documents are conditional for historical consciousness, and such consciousness thus emerges for the first time in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and develops further in ancient Greece. Within this mode of thinking, it is only consequential that John van Seters equates 'history' and 'accounts of the past' explicitly with history writing (Seters 1983: chapter 1).

Historical consciousness as distinctive cultural identity

In contrast, Horst Kirchner argued in the 1950s (1951; 1954) that the single cultural achievement of writing should not be overrated: prehistory is the earliest part of history and not its predecessor. This argument gained support from ethnographic studies of scriptless societies which did nevertheless possess a historical consciousness (Schott 1968). The notion of historical consciousness thus needs to be separated from literacy and written documents. Hermann Müller-Karpe argued accordingly (1982: 5; my translation, link added):

"If we define historical consciousness in general as a human community's consciousness of its historicity and history, that is a conscious knowledge of its existence as one that has emerged, and of its identity vis-à-vis other, neighbouring or more remote communities, and a task, resulting from this perspective, for its present and future, then it is obvious ... that historical consciousness or consciousness of historicity as such did not develop for the first time in advanced civilisations and was not restricted to them."

According to Müller-Karpe's definition, historical consciousness requires an awareness of being part of a community with its own distinctive traditions (see also Assmann 1988: 103). He argued that such an awareness developed gradually and it must already have been partially present among the earliest humans—even though the evidence for that is always indirect and very limited. For the Neolithic, Müller-Karpe assumed more developed forms of group identity, and thus historical consciousness, which is reflected in the archaeological record by long-term fortified settlements and distinctive cultural traditions (1982: 8). In the Bronze Age, Müller-Karpe saw the development of the first Geschichtsräume (historical regions), for instance the culture of the Nordic Bronze Age in the area of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (1982: 10).

The problem with this account is the very narrow definition of historical consciousness which is taken from a tradition of historical scholarship which has, by now, been superseded. In recent years, historians and others have emphasised that 'historical consciousness' is much more than merely a strong feeling of belonging to a particular culture with its own ancient traditions. Jörn Rüsen defined historical consciousness in close relation to his concept of history culture: to him, historical consciousness comprises anything processing experiences of time into orientations for everyday life (Rüsen 1994).

Historical consciousness as a sense of history

Horst Kirchner made in 1954 an important distinction between 'historical consciousness' and 'sense of history'. While Kirchner restricted the former to certain societies from the 18th century onwards, he saw the latter as a universal human phenomenon. Archaeologically, such a sense of history could be inferred from various cultural phenomena. Kirchner argued that any continuous tradition, for example in the types of palaeolithic stone tools, are necessarily dependent on a pre-scientific awareness of what had been before. He also suspected that ancient objects found while tilling fields must have made people think about the past. In addition, Kirchner pointed to agriculture, fruit-growing, and the building of fortifications, which all imply long-term planning for future years and may thus indicate a similarly long perspective of the past (1954: 10-3). Kirchner put particular emphasis on cult traditions and cult sites because to him they seemed to be the most likely candidates to survive over long time periods and keep memories of the distant past alive (1954: 10-11; see also Bradley 1991). He also thought it possible that the memory of particular events or persons in the past could accurately survive over long time periods, for example in the cases of migrations of people from one region to another and genealogies of rulers (1954: 13-20).

However, Kirchner restricted much of his discussion to instances of an accurate memory of the past. This is underlined by his statement that the most important weakness of the earliest examples of a sense of history was the lack of even the most elementary chronology which could have reminded people of the actual sequence of events (Kirchner 1954: 20; see also Schott 1968: 195-6). Thus, Kirchner also used a too narrow definition for a phenomenon which is yet broader: an awareness of the past in the present.

Awareness of the past in past presents

Paul Tacon argued (1994: 126) that early rock art in Australia demonstrates that already the first peoples had a clear sense of time, including an awareness of both past and future. It is quite possible that an awareness of the past in past presents goes back to the time when the oldest human artefacts were rediscovered by our distant ancestors. Chris Gosden and Gary Lock made a similar argument (1998) that all prehistoric societies oriented their actions in the present with either a genealogical or a mythical past in mind. In their discussion they focus on Bronze and Iron age reuses of locales in the landscape that had been used continuously or discontinuously, thus pointing to a significance of the ancestors and mythical beings respectively (see also Artelius 2000; Pryor 2001: chapter 5).

I follow a broadly similar line of argument in this work. Like Richard Bradley, I study monuments as places where people were made aware of the past, and where a (sometimes invented) past was created or confirmed in people's lives. New roles and meanings were given to ancient monuments such as megaliths and to other ancient objects, from the very beginning of their existence, throughout their long lives in later prehistory and history, and up until the present day. It was partly their antiquity which made these monuments and objects meaningful for later generations. Constituting "the visible presence of 'known history'", they invited "'historical' forms of cultural reckoning" even in pre-literate societies (Garwood 1991: 17). Evžen Neustupný made a link between megalithic graves and historical consciousness, and places the origin of the idea of the past in the 5th millennium BC (1998: 69). For Klavs Randsborg, megaliths are "evidence of a historical instinct" because they imply a cult of ancestors (1999: 186).

In order to avoid unnecessary reductions, I have decided not to use the terms 'historical consciousness' and 'sense of history' myself, and instead to use only the broader term 'history culture', which incorporates all cultural references to the past. I focus on the various roles of the past, as they are reflected in distinctive cultural memories and in different phenomena of history culture, some of which are easily visible archaeologically (cf. Bernbeck 1996).


Artelius, Tore (2000) The Framework of Pagan Identity. 'Time' in the Southern Scandinavian Late Iron Age. In: H. Karlsson (ed.) It's about Time. The Concept of Time in Archaeology, pp. 1-27. Göteborg: Bricoleur Press.

Assmann, Jan (1988) 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.

Bernbeck, Reinhard (1996) Ton, Steine, Permanenz. Erfahrungsraum und Erwartungshorizont in archäologischen Hinterlassenschaften des Alten Orients. In: H-J.Gehrke and A.Möller (eds) Vergangenheit und Lebenswelt. Soziale Kommunikation, Traditionsbildung und historisches Bewußtsein, pp. 79-107. Tübingen: Narr.

Bradley, Richard (1991) Ritual, time and history. World Archaeology 23(2), 209-219.

Butterfield, Herbert (1981) The Origins of History. London: Methuen.

Garwood, Paul (1991) Ritual Tradition and the Reconstitution of Society. In: P.Garwood, D.Jennings, R.Skeates and J.Toms (eds) Sacred and Profane. Proceedings of a Conference on Archaeology, Ritual and Religion, Oxford 1989, pp. 10-32. Oxford University Committee for Archaeology Monograph 32. Oxford: Institute of Archaeology.

Goody, Jack (1991) Time: Social Organization. In: D.L.Sills (ed.) International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences 16, pp. 30-42. New York: Macmillan.

Gosden, Chris and Gary Lock (1998) Prehistoric histories. World Archaeology 30, 2-12.

Jaspers, Karl (1949) Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. München: Piper & Co. (English edition: 1953, The Origin and Goal of History. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.)

Kirchner, Horst (1951) Vorgeschichte als Geschichte. Die Welt als Geschichte 11, 83-96.

Kirchner, Horst (1954) Über das Verhältnis des schriftlosen frühgeschichtlichen Menschen zu seiner Geschichte. Sociologus N.F.4, 9-22 (with an English summary entitled "The Attitude of Prehistoric Man towards his History").

Müller, Klaus (1998) Prähistorisches Geschichtsbewußtsein. Versuch einer ethnologischen Strukturbestimmung. In: J.Rüsen, M.Gottlob and A.Mittag (eds) Die Vielfalt der Kulturen (Erinnerung, Geschichte, Identität 4), pp. 269-295. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Müller-Karpe, Hermann (1982) Zu Frühformen des Geschichtlichkeitsbewußtseins. In: H.Müller-Karpe (ed.) Archäologie und Geschichtsbewußtsein, pp. 5-11. Kolloquien zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Archäologie 3. München: Beck.

Neustupný, Evžen (1998) Otherness in Prehistoric Times. In: L.Larssn and B.Stjernquist (eds) The World-View of Prehistoric Man. Konferenser 40, pp. 65-71. Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien.

Pryor, Francis (2001) Seahenge. New Discoveries in Prehistoric Britain. London: HarperCollins.

Randsborg, Klavs (1999) Impressions of the Past. Early Material History in Scandinavia. Acta Archaeologica 70, 1999, 185-194. Abbreviated version published in 2000 as "The Past in the Present in the Past." Copenhagen University: Archaeological Notes 3-2000.

Rüsen, Jörn (1994) Was ist Geschichtsbewußtsein? Theoretische Überlegungen und heuristische Hinweise [1991]. In: J.Rüsen, Historische Orientierung, pp. 3-24. Köln etc.: Böhlau.

Schott, Rüdiger (1968) Das Geschichtsbewußtsein schriftloser Völker. Archiv für Begriffgeschichte 12, 166-205.

Seters, John van (1983) In Search of History. Historiography in the ancient world and the origins of Biblical history. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Tacon, Paul S.C. (1994) Socialising landscapes: the long-term implications of signs, symbols and marks on the land. Archaeology in Oceania 29, 117-129.

Toulmin, Stephen and June Goodfield (1965) The Discovery of Time. London: Hutchinson.

Vogt, Joseph (1949) Geschichte und Vorgeschichte. Historisches Jahrbuch 62/69, 1-12.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 22 October 2001