Secondary burials in the mounds of megaliths

Secondary burials in much older tombs occur in many archaeological contexts, including ancient Greece and later prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (see also Ohlhaver 1937: 226-229; Thäte 1993; 1996; Sopp 1999). In previous research in my study area, especially in excavation reports, megaliths have exclusively been studied as graves of the Neolithic. Evidence for later burials, when it was noticed, was listed in the reports, but was in most cases perceived as a 'disturbance' of the Neolithic layers. A good example is provided by the report about Alt Stassow in which Ewald Schuldt goes on about the destructions of two megaliths from Slavic secondary burials (Schuldt 1973a). Typical is Ewald Schuldt's statement (1972: 82; my translation):

"The most obvious destructions at megaliths originated from secondary burials of the late Slavic period."

In this work, I consider secondary burials as a genuine later reception of megaliths. Even though they may have altered what was there before, secondary burials are also positive ways of expressing a particular meaning of an ancient site and thus worth to be studied in their own right (see also Sopp 1999).

I will not discuss here the very common burials by people of the Globular Amphora (Kugelamphoren) culture, which often led to the destruction or removal of the primary burials of the Funnel Beaker (Trichter[rand]becher, or TRB) culture, because they appear to be the last contributors to a continuing tradition of burying in megaliths, and make no reference to a distant past. Schuldt interpreted the filling of the grave chambers with earth as sign for the ending of this tradition, and he points out that wherever burials by the Kugelamphorenkultur are present, they were put there before the filling of the chambers (Schuldt 1972a: 75-79, 84-89, table C). The first truly 'secondary' burials in megaliths, i.e. occurring after the filling of the chamber, date from the Single Grave (Einzelgrab) culture of the late Neolithic (Schuldt 1972a: 79-82, table C; Jacobs 1991: 17 and map 5). The only exception are several cases on Rügen, including Lancken-Granitz and Burtevitz, where early Bronze Age burials were found on the floor of the original chamber, or early Bronze Age material was found in the filling of the chambers, indicating a continuation of the Neolithic burial tradition until the early Bronze Age (Schuldt 1972: 86). In order to study megaliths as timemarks which point to a distant past from which there are not normally many continuities to the present, I have restricted my interest in this work to phenomena from later prehistory and after; I will thus not deal with these earlier secondary burials. Having said this, it is ironic that the custom of placing secondary burials in older mounds shows itself a considerable continuity over later prehistoric periods, even if not at individual sites (see Thäte 1993: 2 and passim; Sopp 1999).

Based on studying the records of all known megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, secondary burials from the Late Bronze Age or later occurred in 6% (30) of all well documented and in 17% (24) of all recently excavated megaliths, together containing evidence for up to 84 buried individuals. All periods are represented, although there are clearly fewer from the Roman Iron Age and there is none from the Early German Period (see graphics).

The following megaliths contained secondary burials:

Only in Alt Stassow, Wilsen, and Twietfort were secondary burials found in more than one neighbouring megalith. It may be particularly significant that only megaliths in Burtevitz (191) and Nipmerow (340), and possibly in Garvsmühlen contained secondary burials from more than one period. Carla Antonaccio explained (1995: 141, 252f.) a pattern from ancient Greece, where it is similarly exceptional that Bronze Age tombs contained more than one later secondary burial, with the assumption that secondary burials as well as tomb cults were short-term kinship-related practices of individual families. In any case, such practices, though known at all times, were extraordinary rather than normal.

It is also interesting to observe that secondary burials occur especially frequently on Rügen where 7 out of 20 excavated megaliths (35%) produced altogether evidence for up to 32 secondarily buried individuals, of which up to 30 were from the Slavic period alone (see graphics above; cf. Rennebach 1986: 74). This could be explained by the facts that Rügen was both a stronghold of Slavic civilisation and covered with megaliths like no other part of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, thus especially inviting later inhabitants to adopt them culturally. On Rügen there are also numerous Slavic burial mounds.

Since it is quite likely that these numbers are distorted by the destruction and bad preservation of many mounds as well as by research gaps in certain regions, a far higher number of secondary burials must originally have been placed in the mounds of megaliths.

Regarding the representation of different periods, a roughly similar percentage of megaliths contained secondary burials from the later Bronze Age, the pre-Roman Iron Age, and the Slavic period, while there are significantly fewer from the Roman Iron Age and there is none from the early German period. In absolute numbers of individuals buried secondarily in megaliths, a much larger proportion dates to the later Bronze Age and, mainly, the Slavic period, but this is mainly due to the 14 contemporary secondary burials in one megalith in Twietfort (613), and up to 21 in one megalith in Dummertevitz (199).

Interpreting secondary burials in ancient mounds

There are many different possible interpretations why secondary burials were placed in older mounds—whether these were different types of megaliths or indeed Bronze Age barrows (Just 1956; Hollnagel 1962: 142-3; Schoknecht 1986). One reason may be that it was simply convenient to use an already existing mound, without knowing or giving significance to the fact that it already contained one or more previous burials (Wetzel 1979: 154). If not the mounds themselves were important, perhaps people wanted to avoid building another sacred monument on precious land valuable for cultivation (Scull and Harding 1990: 25). But this could not explain why later prehistoric graves or whole cemeteries were sometimes located not directly on megaliths but on perfectly good land near megaliths, e.g. in Nadelitz (320, 321), Perdöhl (558), Rothenmoor (716, 717), Rubkow, Dargun, Dishley (900), Schwanbeck (914), Stuer (1046), and Zislow (1060, 1061).

Erika Nagel (1985: 23) found that people of the Kugelamphorenkultur used all types of megaliths for their own burials. Jörn Jacobs argued however that the selection of particular types of megaliths for secondary burials by the Einzelgrabkultur is likely to have been coincidental and not due to a particular typological preference (Jacobs 1991: 17). I would make the same claim for later secondary burials, mainly because the precise architecture of an ancient grave within a mound would, at any rate, have been difficult to determine during later prehistory. It is also unclear why architectural details, beyond the pure size of the mound, could possibly be significant in the context of secondary burials. Leslie Grinsell put it this way, although with reference to Wessex (1958: 289):

"The pagan Saxons frequently buried their dead intrusively in earlier barrows and other earthworks. As long as they got rid of their dead it was of no consequence whether they pushed them into long barrows (...), bowl-barrows (...), bell-barrows (...), disc-barrows (...), the Neolithic long mound within Maiden Castle, or even the Romano-British enclosure known as Oliver's Battery above Winchester."

Eva Thäte suspected that it was mainly elevated locations as such which attracted later burials, and that previous burial sites nearby were of secondary importance. She observed that in lower Saxony some later prehistoric burials were even put into Wurten (artificial coastside mounds), sand dunes and other elevations resembling ancient mounds (1993: 31-32, 107). In England too, Anglo-Saxon cemeteries occasionally focus upon, or reuse, natural features that resemble old monuments (Williams 1997: 11, 13-4). Günther Rennebach thought that several secondary burials from the pre-Roman Iron Age in a megalith at Twietfort (614) had been placed into 'the shelter of large stones' and that this 'exposed position' might indicate a special social status of the buried, perhaps that of 'a chief's family' (Rennebach 1975: 190). It seems obvious to me, however, that not all these secondary burials can coincidentally have been placed in older monuments, i.e. without being aware of the fact that they constituted artificial sites from the past. I suspect that it was significant for later generations of people to bury some of their dead in ancient burial mounds. This does not necessarily mean, however, that we must assume a continuous tradition of burial at these places since the Neolithic (cf. Deppe 1983/4: 28; Schoknecht 1986: 219). As timemarks in the landscape, megaliths almost invited people of later ages to rediscover, reinterpret and reuse them.

Whether through chance finds or through deliberate investigations at some of these mounds, (certain) later prehistoric people may have been able to recognise certain mounds as being ancient, just as this skill was and is highly developed among many archaeologists, antiquarians and amateurs of recent times. Such mounds had age-value and thus a distinctive aura around them. People may have felt a need to counteract certain forces emanating from these old burials by burying their own dead in the same mounds, without actually destroying the old burials themselves (similar strategies were adopted later in order to christianise pagan monuments). Or perhaps the dead could best be honoured by placing later burials next to their graves (Thäte 1996). Also feasible is an interpretation that the location of ancient burial mounds was seen as the natural realm of the dead, or rather certain dead, so that later religious cosmologies incorporated these sites into a meaningful interpretation of the landscape and the whole world (Ohlhaver 1937: 226; Thäte 1993: 114; 1996: 114). It may have been religiously advantageous or socially prestigious to bury the dead in or near ancient burial sites (Kirchner 1954: 12; Kossack 1974: 11, 20; Thäte 1993: chapter 5.2; 1996: 111). One ancestor's grave could in this way have attracted further burials. This may, for instance, have been the case in Dummertevitz where at least 9 and perhaps as many as 20 Slavic burial urns were placed in relation to key architectural features of the Neolithic grave chamber which were obviously known to the burying people (see image below; Schuldt 1972b: 149; 1973b).

Slavic burials (blue) on the megalith of Dummertevitz, Kreis Rügen. From Schuldt 1973b: Fig. 127.

By depositing burials in the mounds of ancient graves, certain people may have claimed the individuals buried here originally as their own ancestors. During public funerary or ancestor ceremonies at re-used ancient mounds these people could have made statements about who they were, e.g. as members of particular lineages (their identities; cf. Jennbert 1993), and/or about the right with which they claimed a particular belief, territory, power, or other potentially disputed resources (their legitimations; cf. Thomas 1991: 40). Ian Hodder proposed the concept of material culture narratives with which people told stories about themselves. By referring to older burial mounds with their own burials, a narrative either about social continuity or about social change may have been told. On the one hand, it might thus have become important to preserve ancient mounds as meaningful elements for a narrative told in the present, perhaps in connection with associated oral traditions. Burying the dead in ancient mounds may, for instance, have provided an ideal form of expressing resistance to the new Christian belief, or alternatively of ensuring that a deceased Christian would in death still be protected by the pagan gods (Thäte 1993: chapter 6.2; 1996: 114). In some cases, on the other hand, megaliths were nearly completed destroyed when room was made for later burials, as was the case in Alt Stassow (Schuldt 1973a: 40). Entire chapters of a possible narrative were thus lost, whether by accident or because they were found irrelevant for the story that really mattered.

There is no evidence to suggest that either of these various interpretations provides the single answer which could explain in every case why later prehistoric people positioned secondary burials in ancient mounds. The circumstances between graves can differ quite a lot. They are from various ages and thus from different cultural contexts. In each period, the majority of the dead were deposited elsewhere, while most megaliths remained untouched. Secondary burials are very much the exception and may have been the result of very special circumstances. Moreover, a single mound may have meant different things to different people, already at the time of the secondary burials itself.

In my view, it is reasonable to assume that the interpretations suggested are all valid and can account for different sites, or for the same sites in different contexts and at different times. It is not my task here to reduce complexity.


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 10 July 2002