Later finds in the mounds of megaliths

After studying the records of all megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, I was surprised to learn that 46 (10%) of all well documented megaliths, and an astonishing 41 (28%) of all those excavated since 1945 have produced later prehistoric and historic finds, including secondary burials (see graphics below). If all megaliths had been excavated, an overall proportion of just under one third could be expected to contain later finds.

Among these finds, all later prehistoric (and early historical) periods are represented, although the Pre-Roman Iron Age and the Slavic Period can together account for more than half of all finds (see graphics). Interestingly, these later finds were discovered both within the mounds as well as within the chambers themselves. Christopher Evans (1985: 88) noted with reference to British material that "[o]ften the presence of such later pottery is either not interpreted or else dismissed as artifactual 'background noise'."

This is equally true for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Clearly, better interpretations are needed in order to make sense of this evidence. Some sherds can be explained as remains of the urns of further secondary burials the other traces of which have entirely disappeared. But often the sherds are too few, or they are only single pieces, and they cannot therefore be interpreted as the remains of a complete burial urn. Similarly, later prehistoric finds, which do not clearly stem from later burial urns, were also found in some Bronze Age barrows, e.g. in Waren (Schoknecht 1986: 206-7).

Looking beyond my study area, the phenomenon of later prehistoric finds in megaliths is not unique. In Sweden, finds from the Roman Iron Age were made in Neolithic stone cists/dolmen (Arne 1919). Similarly, Iron Age material was found in megalithic burial chambers on the Scottish islands in the Atlantic, and some megaliths there were even re-used as (parts of) houses and souterrains (Hingley 1996; MacKie 1998). Chambered long barrows in England are also known to contain occasional finds from the first millennium BC and indeed the Roman period (Darvill 2004: 225-9). In ancient Greece and Roman Britain too, new uses were found for ancient monuments, and traces were found accordingly. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, there is evidence that the megalith of Nobbin on Rügen was used as occupational site by Slavic people, who partly destroyed the grave chamber and left sherds of their pottery as well as an arabic coin.

But why did later finds in so many cases end up in megalithic mounds? They could have been moved here, when existing burial mounds were enlarged using earth containing such items. Peter Goeßler suspects that the 'Hohmichele', a tumulus of the Hallstatt culture in Southwest Germany, was later enlarged as expression of the political power of the ruler, using earth taken from other burial mounds which contained earlier pottery sherds (Goeßler 1938: 30). But such processes are not known from later prehistoric and historic Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In some cases, later finds may have found their way into mounds when megaliths were destroyed and stones removed for new uses, as Achim Leube and Ewald Schuldt suspected for as early as the 13th century (Leube 1969: 18; Schuldt 1969: 25), or during archaeological investigations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is what Adolf Hollnagel suggested with reference to objects from different ages found in a megalithic chamber at Forst Everstorf (Hollnagel 1970: 92).

The relatively high frequency of later finds cannot, in my opinion, exclusively be explained by accidental deposits during work carried out by later builders, stone-robbers, treasure-hunters, antiquarians, or archaeologists, especially since more than half of these finds were—in the eyes of the excavators—obviously or possibly connected with secondary burials. What these finds therefore seem to indicate is human presence and activity during later periods at a fairly large number of megaliths, probably going together with some form of special meaning of these sites (cf. Hingley 1996; MacKie 1998; Chapman 1997).

Pottery may have been deliberately deposited at megaliths. The motivations for this could have been very diverse. Perhaps, broken pottery, old or new, was dumped here in later prehistory together with other rubbish, indicating a view of ancient burial mounds as desecrated rubbish disposal sites. This is known to have occurred in historic times. Adolf Hollnagel stated (1971) that in Groß Zastrow (767, 769) 19th century material was dumped into robbed chambers along with stones and other debris collected on the surrounding fields.

But later finds in megaliths could also reflect more positive values which megaliths acquired during their long life-histories. Günter Rennebach speculated that scattering broken pots may have been a part of later ritual sacrifices on burial mounds which were of special cosmological significance to these people (Rennebach 1974: 150). In Crickley Hill in England, there is evidence that people during the Roman period drew deep holes into a prehistoric long mound and dropped a brooch and coins, perhaps as offerings. A similar act may also explain how a 17th century AD iron knife could turn up inside the same mound (Selkirk 1993: 503; cf. Darvill 2004: 228).

The sherds found in megaliths can also be explained as remains of pots that had broken here accidentally, over a long time period and in different circumstances. Tim Darvill (2004: 227) argued that Romano-British material found in Neolithic chambered long barrows could be explained as "casual losses and placed deposits that might be explained in terms of casual visits, outdoor adventures and picnics, perhaps prompted by curiosity and local folklore." In a similar vein, later prehistoric people may have been attracted to ancient monuments because they felt nostalgic or because they were curious and started studying these mounds in some more detail. Whether from coincidental discoveries of human bones or artifacts, or from deliberate investigations, some people could have suspected that such mounds contained ancient objects and were in fact old graves (Hingley 1996: 242). Subsequently they may have attempted to find out more about these sites and the objects associated with them. In any case, it is clear that no assumption of any cultural continuity from the Neolithic is necessary to make sense of the evidence (contra MacKie 1998).

Perhaps children played here too and, in a spirit of juvenile adventure, could have found pleasure in exploring these strange mounds containing huge stones and sometimes human bones. Additional motivations to spend time at megaliths may have been a desire by early entertainers to perform at mysterious places like these, or to make statements about your own social and historical identity (see Chapman 1997: 40). Moreover, displaying interest and affiliation with apparent ancient burials could also have been used to legitimatise claims to power or territory with an apparent backing from the ancestors (see Bradley 1987; but cf. Whitley 2002). Finally, timemarks in the landscape may have attracted some individuals to come and philosophise. The occasional dropping of pottery during peoples' activities such as these could at least partly account for the later finds made.

But people may not only have come to megaliths, left traces and remains, and then disappeared again, but they may also have taken with them certain objects or earth, whether as powerful tokens or simply as souvenirs. It is obviously difficult to prove that something was deliberately removed from a megalith, when we cannot know what was there originally and when so much has disappeared over the centuries due to other factors anyway. The amount of pottery sherds found in megalithic mounds can be taken as a clue for people repeatedly spending time at these places and not just passing by. This interpretation is further supported by finds and features from later ages which were discovered in the direct neighbourhood of megaliths.


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 22 August 2006