Later finds near the mounds of megaliths

As a result of studying the records of all known megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, I can say that it is not unusual to find later prehistoric sites near megaliths, i.e. within an (arbitrarily defined) radius of 500 metres. Among the well documented megaliths later prehistoric finds were found near 278 (59%) of them. If we only look at those megaliths excavated since 1945, such finds were made in 75 (52%) of all (see graphics below). It is hardly surprising that there is not a huge difference between both categories, as the excavations did not normally include much work in the neighbourhood of the sites. Virtually all finds near megaliths are the result of normal chance finds and rescue excavations. It can therefore be expected that the number of such finds around megaliths will increase as time goes on. In a densely populated area you do not expect to find many areas without any later traces. This is confirmed in very well studied parishes such as Dishley and Schwanbeck, Kreis Neubrandenburg.

Among the various periods the Slavic Period is by far the strongest, with almost four times as many finds as from the late Bronze Age and about twice as many as from each of the other periods (see graphics above). This may reflect the general expansion of land occupation and the increase in population size during the Slavic Period (cf. Lange et al. 1986: 148-9). But during all periods, many megaliths are likely to have been clearly visible and people cannot simply have ignored them completely, especially when they lived close by. I argue that these monuments played a role in their history culture.

In the parishes of Groß Zastrow and Pustow (Kreis Demmin), a Slavic settlement place was found at approximately the centre of almost a complete circle of 600-800m radius on which about a dozen megaliths are located, with even more a little further away (see figure right; based on Ortsakten and Sprockhoff 1967). Provided the settlement was surrounded by open fields, these ancient mounds must have been visible on the horizon at all times. Although several of these megaliths were excavated, none produced any later finds, nor are further finds recorded in their neighbourhood — apart from one cup-marked stone. Megaliths such as these must nevertheless have been of significance to people who lived parts of their lives, and buried some of their dead, so close to them.

In particular, it is not unusual to find a close spatial association between later prehistoric burials and earlier graves (Schoknecht 1977: 143-6; cf. Thäte 1996). But there are also many single finds such as pot sherds near megaliths as much as there is evidence for somewhat longer occupation and settlement, e.g. rubbish pits or hearths.

As case-studies, here are two slide shows which will show you a series of distribution maps of finds from different periods near megaliths in two areas. The images will change automatically every 10 seconds, and you will end up on pages which give you more information about each area.

  1. the area around Gaarz, Kreis Bad Doberan,
  2. the area around Lancken-Granitz/Burtevitz, Kreis Rügen.

There are many possible meanings which people in later prehistory and history may have connected with the ancient mounds of megaliths. But there is no necessity to assume a continuity in the use and perception of such mounds since their construction (Evans 1985: 88-9). These places are likely to have become associated with the distant past, even without cultural continuity. This could also explain later finds in the ancient mounds themselves as well as the practice of secondary burials.

There is more and more evidence now in different European regions for various forms of re-appreciating places with prehistoric monuments during later periods (see e.g. Van de Noort 1993; Antonaccio 1995; Thäte 1996; Holtorf 1997). It has become fashionable to emphasise political purposes for doing so. By directly referring to ancient sites through activities and buildings nearby, traditions may be invented and genealogies fabricated, in order for certain people's causes to gain weight in struggles over prestige, inheritance, political power or territory (Bradley 1987: 10, 14-5; Scull and Harding 1990: 24-5; Garwood 1991: 15-7; 26; Fontijn 1996: 80-1). During the early period of Christianisation e.g., it may have been a powerful political (and religious) statement by those resisting Christianity to bury their dead near or around prehistoric mounds (Van de Noort 1993). This could also account for the imitation of prehistoric barrows in later ages.

Moreover, people who lived in the immediate neighbourhood of megaliths may have brought a great deal of respect to such ancient sites. Perhaps they sensed the particular aura of ancient finds or monuments in the landscape: as authentic remains from a distant past, which let people literally see, touch and feel prehistory. Some people may also have drawn on megaliths in order to create or strengthen a collective identity, or they may occasionally have felt nostalgia for times gone by (Evans 1985: 89). Perhaps ancient monuments also featured in entertaining adventure stories which adults told their children, while looking at them from a distance. Adults may have philosophised about eternity, the age of humanity, the speed of history, and the transience of individuals and entire cultures, when they contemplated melancholically about these ancient mounds. There may also have been powerful cosmological reasons why the neighbourhood of ancient burial sites was essential for those burying the dead of later generations; these sites indicated where the deads' domiciles were situated (Thäte 1996: 114).


Literature

Antonaccio, Carla M. (1995) An Archaeology of Ancestors. Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Early Greece. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Bradley, Richard (1987) Time regained: the creation of continuity. Journal of the British Archaeological Association 140, 1-17.

Evans, Christopher (1985) Tradition and the cultural landscape: an archaeology of place. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 4(1), 80-94.

Fontijn, David (1996) Socializing Landscape. Second thoughts about the cultural biography of urnfields. Archaeological Dialogues 3, 77-87.

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.

Holtorf, Cornelius J. (1997) Christian Landscapes of Pagan Monuments. A Radical Constructivist Perspective. In: G.Nash (ed.) Semiotics of Landscape: Archaeology of Mind, pp. 80-8. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 661. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Lange, Elsbeth, Lebrecht Jeschke and Hans Dieter Knapp (1986) Die Landschaftsgeschichte der Insel Rügen seit dem Spätglazial. Two Parts. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

Schoknecht, Ulrich (1977) Menzlin: ein frühgeschichtlicher Handelsplatz an der Peene. Beiträge zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte der Bezirke Rostock, Schwerin und Neubrandenburg, vol. 10. Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften.

Scull, C.J. and Anthony F.Harding (1990) Two early Medieval cemeteries at Milfield, Northumberland. Durham Archaeological Journal 6, 1-29.

Sprockhoff, Ernst (1967) Atlas der Megalithgräber Deutschlands. Part Two: Mecklenburg—Brandenburg—Pommern. Bonn: Habelt.

Thäte, Eva (1996) Alte Denkmäler und frühgeschichtliche Bestattungen: Ein sächsisch-angelsächsischer Totenbrauch und seine Kontinuität. Eine vergleichende Studie. Archäologische Informationen 19/1&2, 105-16.

Van de Noort, Robert (1993) The context of Early Medieval barrows in western Europe. Antiquity 67, 66-73.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 22 April 2003