Traditions of burial rites

One later prehistoric reference to ancient mounds is the custom of placing secondary burials in them. Another such reference is the practice of erecting similarly looking burial mounds for their dead. The later prehistoric custom of surrounding graves with stone-settings can also be seen in connection with similar traditions of earlier ages.
[Image] Not only Neolithic stone cists (Nilius 1979), but also megalithic mounds were often surrounded by a circle of stones as feature of their original lay-out (Schuldt 1972: 65-69, Table A+B). A fine example is provided in Forst Everstorf (image left). Rectangular stone-settings around megaliths are widespread too, e.g. in Barkvieren (image right). [Image]

As Bannkreise, i.e. specially consecrated areas from which evil forces were banned, they may have served the same cosmological aims as stone settings around megalithic mounds. But whether these stone circles effectively really functioned as Bannkreise or whether they were there entirely for practical reasons to prevent a gradual erosion of the mound (Keiling 1987: 22), people knew that traditionally burial mounds ought to be surrounded by stone circles, as could be seen at so many older mounds.

This may have been a reason which was entirely sufficient to keep building stone settings around burials in later ages, e.g. around the later Bronze Age barrow of Seddin (Kiekebusch 1928: 12). Another later Bronze Age barrow surrounded by a stone circle, in Groß Upahl, Kreis Güstrow, was even built directly on top of a Neolithic grave (see image right; Just 1962). Generally speaking, stone circles around barrows are a very common feature of the Bronze Age, not only in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Reinbacher 1963; Schoknecht 1964: 102f. and note 16, p. 124; Keiling 1973: 89-91; Schoknecht 1991: 71).

Barrow 16 in Groß Upahl, Kreis Güstrow. Adapted from Just 1962: Fig. 23.

In Hohensee, Kreis Wolgast, a circle of seven meter diameter, formed by head-size stones, surrounded twenty-eight urn graves of the pre-Roman Iron Age. Interestingly, the same place had also served as a burial site in the Bronze Age, but then apparently without involving a stone circle (Reinecke 1992). In Mankmoos, Kreis Sternberg, a huge stone cairn, surrounded by a circle of large stones, contained about thirty contemporary urn burials from the pre-Roman Iron Age. It is significant for my argument about the intended similarity with older mounds that the site was first found by Ewald Schuldt when he was looking for megaliths in the area (Keiling 1973).

Moreover, there are numerous peculiar stone circles in North and Northeast Germany as well as in Poland which consist of fairly large erratics and are associated with burials from the Iron Age (Sahlström 1942; Leube 1979). These structures are known as "Steintänze" (stone dances)—the name either referring to ancient or perhaps more recent rituals taking place here, or to associated folklore of dancing parties which were transformed into stone (Becker 1939: 127-129). Some of these stone circles have been interpreted as astronomical observatories, the best known example being the stone dance of Boitin, Kreis Bützow. Similar stone circles with burials, dating from the early pre-Roman Iron Age until the Viking period, are found in great numbers in Sweden where they are called "domarringarna", i.e. circles of the judges, as well as in southern Norway (Sahlström 1943; Jaanusson 1967; Bergström 1979/80; Hyenstrand 1984: 73–78, 217f.; Tysdal c.1984; Artelius 1993). Julius Becker argued that the tradition of burials involving stone structures in Northeast Germany discontinued in the late Neolithic and that the impetus to revive this tradition and build stone circles in the pre-Roman Iron Age must have come from Scandinavia, but this idea has been rejected by K.E.Sahlström who favoured an origin in northern Italy (Becker 1939: 133; Sahlström 1942: 130-133). Leube made the important point that the stone dances could also be due to entirely local developments and ought to be seen in relation with Neolithic megaliths and Bronze Age barrows in the area, which both also involved circular stone settings (Leube 1979: 10–12; cf. Becker 1939: 131). For Josef Röder these stone circles were in fact circles of menhirs and thus refer back to another prehistoric tradition which was, however, not associated with burials (Röder 1949: 32f.). Interestingly in this context, Leube noted that not all later prehistoric stone circles were associated with burials (Leube 1979: 13).

After the Iron Age, burials surrounded by stone-settings were built again during the Slavic Period. Now stones surrounded the grave in the shape of a ship, e.g. in Menzlin, Kreis Anklam (Schoknecht 1977; Keiling 1989). Even though this is a tradition firmly linked with Viking culture in general, and it has been argued that Menzlin was a Viking burial site (Keiling 1989: 82), it may well be that associations with prehistoric burial traditions played a role, too (Becker 1939: 133; Röder 1949: 34). The same goes for Slavic burials with rectangular stone settings, which also occur in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (see e.g. Lampe 1975: 317-318, 326).

It is important to note, however that Bannkreise could also look completely differently: there is evidence on several later prehistoric grave-fields in Mecklenburg that similar circles were formed not with stones but with objects made from organic materials which have now decayed (A.Reinecke 25.7.1996, pers. comm.). In these cases, a reference to the (old) idea of an encircled, sacred site is much more plausible than one to the architecture of specific old sites.

The concept of tradition

A tradition does not reflect an actual continuity from the past, but an assumed continuity. Traditions are believed to be old. In the words of Jan Vansina, "traditions are memories of memories" (1985: 160). But even when ancient memories are remembered or imagined in a consciously constructive act and become part of invented traditions, these traditions do not therefore become unreal, false, or without appeal and power. In the early 19th century, the tradition of building stone-circles was re-invented for the Gorsedd circles which still today form part of the annual National Eisteddfod of Wales. In later prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the ancient tradition of stone-circles surrounding places connected with burials was remembered from visible mnemonics of the past in the landscape, and continued. Whether this tradition was actually 'continuous' or 'invented' is less important than the likelihood that a reference to known ancient monuments was intended, or at least also observed at the time itself.

Remembering memories of the significance of stone circles around burials was greatly helped by the fact that ancient stone circles around burials, such as megaliths, were still visible. People in later ages may have become curious and studied those old features which they came across in the landscape. They may have considered it worthwhile to preserve some of these ancient sites as timemarks for their own societies with their own traditions.

But why should people of later ages care about continuing, or re-inventing archaic traditions of material culture? Hermann Ament suggested for Merovingian barrows of western Germany, which were surrounded by a circular ditch, that they indicate the degree to which the prehistoric heritage was passed on to protohistoric populations by ancient burial mounds which had remained visible (Ament 1975: 87; my translation):

"Without being able to prove a gap-less continuity of tradition, it appears that the conviction never disappeared, that a circular ditch and a mound could lend a burial site dignity and monumentality".

In my own perspective, the assumption of true continuity from prehistory appears unnecessary. But it is an interesting point that there may have been aesthetic principles of monumentality and a desire to create a dignifying aura around burial sites which led to the deployment of a feature of ancient grave architecture.

Ian Hodder has argued that material culture can tell narratives. By using stone circles in the Iron Age or later, people may have wanted to tell a story about themselves, emphasising either continuity or change. Traditions quoting the past, on one level, suggest cultural continuity from a distant past. An awareness of historical continuity and direct links to the ancestors can be crucial for the identity of people in presents with uncertain futures. It may therefore have been important for people's social identities to display inspirations from the past and show commitment to traditional values in the architecture of their graves. Moreover, the way things were in the past may also have been associated with the order of how things ought to be at all times. Maintaining traditions could have been of cosmological significance for people, because these traditions expressed a 'natural' way of doing things, wanted by the gods or other spiritual entities. Stone-settings surrounding burial mounds may have signified the border between the world of the living and that of the dead. Such reasoning is of course liable to have been employed also for political and ideological purposes. It may have been in the interest of some people to ensure the continuity of certain traditions from the past, e.g. special high status burials, supporting their own causes, social status or political power. Alternatively, by using a well-known architectural element in a new context ironically, as nothing more than a cliché, a powerful statement about social change and progress could have been made, emphasising the independence of the present from the past. There may also be a nostalgic element why people looked back to the past and tried to continue, or recreate, by deliberate archaisms, some of their heritage.


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 10 July 2001