Earlier artefacts at later prehistoric sites

It is not unusual to find artefacts such as broken pots and stone tools, which were already then ancient, at later prehistoric sites in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern or elsewhere in central Europe (Mildenberger 1969; Reitinger 1976; Mehling 1998; for Britain see Evans 1897: 143-5; Stone 1951; Adkins and Adkins 1985). Even if only a few people may have suspected that they were significantly older than their contemporary world and originated in the distant past, the circumstances in which they were discovered and used, or discarded, by such people can be considered a form of later prehistoric history culture.

Among archaeologists such finds have only rarely been taken seriously as valuable evidence in their own right. For instance, a seminal article by Gerhard Mildenberger on a range of later uses of prehistoric objects is entitled "Displaced finds. A contribution to the source criticism of finds" (1969; my translation). All Mildenberger hoped to achieve with his great collection of 'life-histories' of artefacts is making people more aware of possible secondary displacements of single finds, and thus encourage critical reflections about possible biases of the evidence for the distribution areas of particular archaeological cultures. This narrow scope of his interest is most regrettable (similar Adkins and Adkins 1985: 69-70; Merrifield 1987: 9-16; but compare: Carelli 1997: 393, 408-9; Greenhalgh 1989).

One of the more common type of earlier finds at later prehistoric sites are Neolithic stone axes. Mildenberger suspected that they were found on the fields then, much as today and subsequently travelled as valued objects (Mildenberger 1969: 8; see also Reitinger 1976: 536; Carelli 1997: 411). In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern such stone axes (or substantial fragments of them) were found, e.g.,

In all these cases it seems unlikely that stone-axes ended up by coincidence in the precise locations where they were found. It appears that they were deliberately put there, but why?

The interpretation of such finds has sometimes been based on well-known classical, medieval and modern interpretations of stone-axes as 'thunderbolts' originating from the sky and containing magical powers. Stone-axes have been used in Europe as well as in Asia as amulets or 'lucky charms', healing remedies, or for the protection of buildings against lightning, thus protecting people's lives and livelihood (King 1868; Evans 1897: chapter 3; Barner 1957; Mildenberger 1969: 3-15; Reitinger 1976; Heidelk-Schacht 1983; Geupel 1987; Wollf 1995: 206-10). Samuel Butler's 17th century poem Hudibras consequently says (Part II, Canto III, 291-2):

Chase evil spirits away by dint
Of sickle, horse-shoe, hollow-flint.

Likewise, as recently as at the beginning of the German-French War in 1870, conscripted soldiers rushed into pharmacies buying thunderbolts to protect them against bullets (Jacobsen 1890). Even in 1988, two stone-axes could be seen at one gable near the apex of the roof of a farm building in Rothemühl, Kreis Ueckermünde (Ortsakte, note from 16.5.1988).

It has been argued that these ritual uses of stone-axes represent a survival in folk memory from much earlier uses of similar objects in cult (e.g. Blinkenberg 1911; Stone 1951), but this assumption is not necessary in order to explain the evidence (Bradley 1990: chapter 2; Carelli 1997: 414-5).

Another interpretation of the later uses of stone-axes is that some people identified stone-axes as artefacts of previous generations of human beings, and used them for making political or social statements. Stone tools of the (own?) ancestors, which had been collected, studied and preserved for some time, were deposited by people at special times and in special places. This act of deposition may have expressed socially their descent and/or personal identity, given people additional political authority, or their actions and decisions more legitimacy. Ancient stone-axes may also have been appreciated for their physical qualities and aura within a later religious context, and used in certain rituals. Otto Kunkel reported about a stone-axe found on top of the covering stone of a Late Hallstatt burial near Mainzlar an der Lumda. He speculated whether it may have been put there in order to keep the ghost of the dead inside, who would otherwise risk injury at the sharp edge (Kunkel 1921: 33-4, fig. on p.38). Other examples of Neolithic stone-axes in Hallstatt period burials are known elsewhere from Germany as well as from Austria (Reitinger 1976: 526). Individual 'life-histories' of prehistoric objects show a wide range of particular motives why prehistoric finds can be given significance and meaning in later ages and up to the present day (Mildenberger 1969).

Other types of earlier finds in later prehistoric contexts in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern include

In some cases it may be that the older finds were of no particular significance in later prehistoric contexts, and ended up by coincidence where they were found, e.g. when earth containing ancient artefacts was moved during agricultural or building activities (Kirchner 1954: 10; Lampe 1975: 321-2). It is fairly common that later settlements were built at places where earlier people had settled before, e.g. in Menzlin (Schoknecht 1977). Whether this reflects a conscious decision to return to a location which had previously been settled, e.g. based on knowledge contained in old legends and folklore or gained from surface finds, or whether this was due to other factors such as particularly advantageous natural conditions of the location, is not of key importance: what matters is that people in later ages came across earlier finds around their very homes (e.g. Schoknecht 1977: 142-3).

Some of the ancient finds in later contexts are likely to have been left close to where they had been found. They may still have been recognised as old, and been appreciated for their age value by later prehistoric people. Perhaps it was a good feeling to know that a particular place provided traces of earlier occupations, whether this created just some nostalgia or formed part of the identity of people and places (cf. Chapman 1997: 38). Earlier finds suddenly turning up during building work may have prompted people to reflect on their ancestors and their own transience, or they may just have found it an interesting fact to be further investigated, or it simply provided some entertainment.

The argument must be different where prehistoric objects obviously served as later grave goods, e.g. in Ralswiek and Nipmerow, Kreis Rügen. Here a conscious decision was taken to collect, keep, and then re-use ancient objects in connection with funerary rituals. Paul Garwood speculated (1991: 22) that in fact

"many of the materials used in rituals may ... have been of the past, appropriated interpretively and incorporated in ritual performances and deposits, creating 'culturally-embedded' patterns of chronological distortion that may be extremely difficult for the archaeologist to unravel."

Many of the motivations discussed above in relation to Neolithic stone axes found in later contexts may apply for such behaviour as well. It is well known that in early written documents pots were believed to be natural phenomena, which grew in the ground and possessed special powers (Wollf 1995: 196-9).


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 22 April 2003