Imitations of ancient burial mounds

There are numerous barrows in the landscape of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, from different ages. The earliest ones are those containing megaliths. Even though the custom of erecting barrows for burials is widespread throughout prehistory, both in time and in space, it is conceivable that the barrows erected in the Bronze Age, in the Iron Age and in the Slavic period gained some of their cultural meaning from their similarity with the earlier mounds, which are in some cases very close by. It seems clear that many megaliths have been visible for a long time after they had been built. Their appearance could thus have been imitated later on as a deliberate archaism. Alternatively, some megaliths were later covered by an additional layer of earth, probably in connection with secondary burials from the Bronze Age, e.g. in Boldebuck, in Twietfort (Becker 1935: 115-6; Rennebach 1974: 122-5), in Dummertevitz and in Burtevitz (Schuldt 1972a: 149-51; 1972b: 124), and thus became physically converted into contemporary tumuli.

As a result, it can be difficult to distinguish a Bronze Age barrow from a mound containing a megalith. Not only the earliest antiquarians and map-makers were often not clear about the precise content and age of a mound—and sometimes used the terms "Hünengrab" (giant's grave, usually referring to megaliths) and "Grabhügel" (barrow, usually Bronze Age) interchangeably; even modern archaeologists can find it difficult to keep the two types of graves apart. In Nipmerow, Günter Rennebach was surprised to discover a megalithic grave when he expected to excavate a Bronze Age barrow (Rennebach 1986: 39-40; see already Virchow 1886: 628). This effect may have been quite deliberate, if Bronze Age people tried to imitate earlier mounds. In a group of nine barrows in Twietfort the most western mound (1) contained a megalith as well as 14 Bronze Age urn burials, while the other eight (2-9) were built in the Bronze Age but did not contain any burials (Rennebach 1974: 136-55). It appears as if all that mattered during the Bronze Age was the linking of burials, and barrows that looked like burials, with an older monument.

Barrows in Twietfort (after Rennebach 1974: 137)

In Waren, a group of four barrows included one ordinary Bronze Age barrow, which also contained a Slavic secondary burial. A second mound did not contain any finds, while another turned out to be a Neolithic stone cist with a Bronze Age burial and barrow on top, and a third mound had been built as a grave during the pre-Roman Iron Age (Schoknecht 1986). A similar surprise was provided by five mounds in Zislow, Kreis Röbel, of which three turned out to be Neolithic, one was a natural hill which was later used during the pre-Roman Iron Age and in the Slavic period, and only one mound was in fact from the Bronze Age (Schoknecht 1991). Svend Hansen suspected that many Danish mounds, too, have been mis-classified as belonging to the Bronze Age, when in fact they contain megaliths from the Neolithic (1993: 16).

It is well-known that the Slavs erected burial mounds too (Warnke 1982: 196-7). Since Slavic burial mounds are generally smaller than mounds containing megaliths and are often surrounded by rectangular stone settings, they are usually not difficult to tell apart by archaeologists (Lampe 1975: 326; Wetzel 1979: 129). However these differences are not always obvious, which is only partly due to bad preservation. Willi Lampe speculated therefore that many known but undisturbed small barrows may in fact not contain Bronze Age (or Neolithic) but Slavic burials (Lampe 1975: 326). In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, groups of Slavic burial mounds are known from Forst Werder (Stubnitz), Kreis Rügen; Ralswiek, Kreis Rügen; Pulitz, Kreis Rügen; Forst Friedrichsthal, Kreis Wolgast; Neppermin, Kreis Wolgast; Menzlin, Kreis Anklam; Sülten, Kreis Malchin (or only secondary burials?); Löcknitz, Kreis Pasewalk (after Wetzel 1979: figure 27, 153-4) as well as from Lancken-Granitz, Kreis Rügen (Warnke 1982: 197). Sometimes they occur in areas where Neolithic burial mounds or Bronze Age barrows are also common, e.g. on eastern Rügen.

Occasionally, it appears as if old monuments attracted newer ones, and all were then (re-)designed to look indistinguishable.
image of two barrows in the forest
Burial mounds in the forest near Lübstorf, Kr. Schwerin: Neolithic? Bronze Age? Iron Age? Slavic?

The King's Grave of Seddin, built in the later Bronze Age, contained a burial chamber which reminded Albert Kiekebusch (1928: 15-6) of Mycenaean tholos-graves. But it could also have been inspired by the interior architecture of local passage graves from the Neolithic. Imitations of prehistoric monuments are also known from other regions and contexts.

What may lie behind the imitation of earlier monuments in later ages? Some people will argue that such supposed references to older monuments are in fact coincidences: certain geographical conditions, such as hilltops or road-side locations, may have been the real reasons why burials, which happened to look vaguely similar, were placed at the same places in different times (e.g. Ament 1975: 86). Other people will say that certain locations were chosen because of a long-living (or revived) continuity of religiously motivated burial customs (e.g. Warnke 1982: 198). In both cases, the antiquity of the older mounds as such would not have been very important to the builders of the later mounds.

But it could also be argued that such later monuments represent a particular material culture narrative, in direct response to the old mounds. Imitating ancient mounds can be seen as a phenomenon closely related to secondary burials. The later barrows are actively drawing on the earlier monuments in order to continue or contrast a 'story' begun by these ancient mounds. For these narratives, it would have been important to preserve, and to some extent also to study (Hingley 1996: 241f.), the older monuments concerned. Their antiquity and possibly also their function as burial places had to remain known and visible to later generations, in order to keep the story comprehensible.

A story about continuing traditions from the distant past, in which the old monuments were build, up to the contemporary present may have been about the identity of the people buried as well of those burying their dead here, emphasising an either fictitious or de facto long-term continuity of a lineage or other social group (Garwood 1991: 15–17; 26). The barrows of recent and distant ancestors being located next to each other in the landscape may have 'said': "we are all part of one community; its present-day representatives are the direct descendants of the people who were first buried here" (Hingley 1996: 241). The awareness of such an identity, true or imagined, may either have been shared by a whole community or lineage, or have been limited to an ethnically distinct or a socially privileged group of people (cf. Herfert 1965: 196; Wetzel 1979: 154).

If a continuing story was in fact invented, this may reflect deliberate attempts to gain power or prestige by manipulating genealogies or inventing ancient traditions. Claims of the living could have been legitimatised by associating them with (certain) distant ancestors, whether through secondary burials or through new and similarly looking graves in the neighbourhood (cf. Fleming 1973: 188–190; Hedeager 1993). A contrast in kind between the two types of mounds would thus have been known by some, but at the same time tried to be concealed and hidden to a wider audience. Richard Bradley argued convincingly (1987), how genealogies and origin myths can at times be constructed to support the political interests of a social elite. This can also work the other way around. Erecting similar mounds next to old ones may have been a way of expressing resistance, e.g. by making a symphatetic statement about the past, when the dominant social group would emphasise contrasts with the past. Such material statements of resistance may have been significant during the Christianisation of Europe (see Ament 1975: 90–93). In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Slavs had to defend themselves over centuries against the expanding German Empire which tried to force its rule and the Christian religion onto them. One expression of this resistance was to build burial mounds:

"burial mounds primarily expressed opposition to the new Christian ideology of the Frankish empire ... Through their link with the prehistoric era, the construction of Medieval burial mounds articulated the opposition of pagans to a changing ideological world and promoted their own interest by actively using the past." (Van de Noort 1993: 72)

But the story told by mound building may also have been about natural orders and cosmologies which have to be followed by human being of all times. These orders may have found their reflection in certain architectural and spatial necessities of how to build a grave and where to bury the dead, or at least certain dead.

Alternatively, a focus on older monuments may reflect a directly perceived contrast between past and present. Later barrows in the neighbourhood of older ones could then be explained by a feeling of nostalgia for a by-gone age. People in later prehistory may simply have admired the monumental ancient remains in the landscape and let them inspire their own grave architecture in order to re-live, to some extent, their heritage. The later barrows were then meant as deliberate anachronisms in the landscape, which tried to simulate the mounds of the past. Or they were parodies of the earlier mounds, designed to make fun of these relics from an age which is so distant and remote—material culture caricatures. The empty barrows of Twietfort can then be interpreted as material culture 'puns' which ridicule the one truly old mound and thus underline a fundamentally changed social reality.


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 10 July 2001