Cup-marks on megaliths

'Cup-marks' are simple, roughly hemispherical depressions of about 2–10 cm diameter and up to 3 cm depth on the surface of many megaliths and on a number of separate 'cup-marked stones'. Cup-marks often appear in groups which can consist of more than one hundred marks on a single stone: there are e.g. 122 cup-marks on a cap-stone in Qualitz, and more than 167 cup-marks on a cap-stone in Mankmoos (711). Ewald Schuldt argued that most cup-marks, although often heavily eroded by weathering, do not appear to have been pecked but must have been drilled into the stone. Regarding the single cup-marked stones, he suspected that at least some of them may originate from destroyed megaliths, as it clearly is the case at Hamberge e.g. (Schuldt 1972a: 90-1). Interestingly, cup-marked stones do generally not appear outside the distribution areas of megaliths and correspond in fact with the distribution area of the dolmen (Sprockhoff 1938: 140; Schoknecht 1973: 9 and map 5).
Cup-marks and, occasionally (especially in Kreis Bad Doberan), engraved wheel-shaped crosses were identified, sometimes in great numbers, on 79 megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, while altogether 28 have got cup-marked stones in their neighbourhood (i.e. in the same parish; cf. Kalms 1970; 1971; Schuldt 1972a: 89-90, table B).

Dating cup-marks

It is crucial for interpreting cup-marks on megaliths to know when they were put in the stone: were they made before, contemporaneously, shortly after, or a long time after the megalith was build?

There is not much evidence in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern that cup-marks are older than the megalith in its present arrangement, and that older and possibly significant stones subsequently were re-used in the megalith, similar to practices which are, for instance, known from the British Isles during the Bronze Age (Burgess 1989-90; Bradley 1992; 1997: 138-48). Only in Teterow (1099) a previously cup-marked stone may have been used in a megalith (Ortsakte, note from 1935).

Uwe Kalms stated (1970: 4) that cup-marks on megaliths were contemporaneous with the building of the megaliths, but he did not give any reasons for this opinion. Richard Bradley (1997: 57–65) argued convincingly for a similarly early age of rock art in Atlantic Europe, but things may have been very different along the southern shores of the Baltic Sea where comparable rock art is missing too. Only in the case of the megalith at Forst Tarnow (477), which was probably in 1821 still covered by its primary mound, there is no doubt that the more than 68 cup-marks found on one cap-stone date to the Neolithic (Hollnagel 1969: 113 and fig. 88).

In Schuldt's view, the cup-marks are definitely later than the building and the primary use of the megaliths by people of the Trichterbecherkultur (TRB culture) in the late Early and Middle Neolithic. They could therefore date to any period from the Einzelgrabkultur (Single Grave culture) of the the late Neolithic to the pre-Roman Iron Age or indeed later. Schuldt (1972a: 90-1) discusses the following evidence (with some additions by me):
 

  1. At least 71% (61) of all cup-marks recorded are located on the cap-stones of megaliths (see graphics right). This fits well to the well-rehersed observation that the amount of earth or stones around the megaliths suggests that, in most cases, for a very long time only the cap-stones remained accessible (Beltz 1899: 81; 1901: 124; Becker 1935: 116; Hollnagel 1970b: 91-2). Where cup-marks were found on other stones, these were invariably megaliths that had lost their cover fairly early on (Schuldt 1985: 110). Where megaliths had been completely covered by earth this was in several cases due to Bronze Age mounds, e.g. in Dummertevitz and Burtevitz (191), where no cup-marks were found. The megalith of Bollbrücke, where a cap-stone with cup-marks was found covered by a Bronze Age mound, is an exception (Beltz 1883a). Cup-marks have virtually never been discovered on stones which were still covered by the primary mound.
     
  2. Cup-marks on side-stones of megaliths appear exclusively at places which were not covered up by the cap-stones. But since the chambers were originally covered with earth at least as high as the upper edges of the side-stones, these cup-marks must date well after the end of the primary use of the megaliths, after considerable erosion has had an effect.
     
  3. In Stuer (1046) and Dwasieden (215), cup-marks were found on the top-sides of fallen stones from the stone-circle surrounding the mounds (Hollnagel 1970a: 114 and fig. 89; Schuldt 1972: fig. 119). In Forst Poggendorf (65), cup-marks appear on the lateral edge of the cap-stone, which stood out after the whole stone had fallen into the chamber. Moreover, at the same megalith, cup-marks were also drilled into the top-side of the side-stone on which the cap-stone had previously rested (Schuldt 1971a: 111-2 and figs. 92-4, 97). In terms of its chronological implications, this resembles the situation at Pustow (792) where, during the pre-Roman Iron Age, a stone cist containing an urn was placed on top of a cap-stone which had fallen into the chamber (Schuldt 1971b). These cases suggest activities at and manipulations of disused megaliths, indicating a considerable time lapse since the megaliths' primary use.

It may be significant that e.g. in Waren (Seeblänken), Tuchheim, Kreis Genthin, and Bütow, Kreis Röbel (fragments of) cup-marked stones are associated with Bronze Age burials or cult practices (Schoknecht 1986: 213). It has also been noted that cup-marked stones appear very often directly at, or in the neighbourhood, of barrows which are mostly suspected to date to the Bronze Age (Schoknecht 1986: 214-5). Moreover, some cup-marks (e.g. in Blengow) are associated with wheel-shaped crosses (Radkreuze) that have their closest parallels in bronze cult objects and associated rock carvings from the Bronze Age (Schuldt 1985: 110; Schacht 1995: 142-4). Similar wheel-shaped crosses were, however, also used as markings on the bottom of Slavic pots as well as on various other Slavic objects (Schuldt 1985: 110). Moreover, they can also be found carved on stones serving as modern border markers (Beltz 1922).

Schuldt mentioned the following cases where cup-marks appear in Bronze Age or Iron Age contexts (1972a: 91; see also Reinbacher 1963: grave A 260). A stone with six cup-marks was used as the covering stone of a later Bronze Age urn burial in Groß Raden, Kreis Sternberg. Another cup-marked stone was found in the Bronze Age barrow of Vietlübbe, Kreis Lübz. In Bollbrücke, cup-marks appeared on a cap-stone underneath a mound which is likely to have been erected in connection with a secondary burial from the later Bronze Age (Beltz 1883a; 1883b). Near Marnitz, Kreis Parchim, is a field of about two hundred stone cairns which contained pottery from the pre-Roman Iron Age. Within these cairns, eight large cup-marked stones were found with cup-marks identical to those on megaliths. In all these cases the question remains, however, whether older cup-marked stone were only re-used and re-interpreted in new contexts (cf. the discussion in Burgess 1989-90 and in Bradley 1993: 42f., 92f.).

Obviously cup-marks could have been drilled in much later ages too. It is known that in historic periods, cup-marks on megaliths and menhirs were made, and used, in connection with fertility cults (Kirchner 1955: 650f., 659). Only during the most recent past cup-marks are unlikely to have been drilled into megaliths in large numbers, as most of them show evidence of heavy weathering.

I take it that the cup-marks found on megaliths are likely to be from different ages after the primary use of the sites, and that some of the cup-marks have been drilled in, or re-interpreted, during later prehistoric periods. Similar arguments for a long tradition of adding cup-marks to megaliths have recently made for megaliths in Scandinavia (e.g. Gustavsson 1996; Deborah Shepherd, e-mail to ARCH-THEORY on 2.8.1996).

The more interesting question than the exact dating is however, why should people bother about cup-marks in ancient monuments from the distant past?

Interpreting cup-marks on megaliths

Cup-marks, if they do indeed date to later periods, are expressions of history culture. Ignoring the possibility that cup-marks are entirely due to natural degradation processes of stones, or caused by certain plants or bacteria, a cup-mark on a megalith presupposes a meaningful interpretation of this megalith. It was obviously considered to be the right place for either taking out finely ground stone material or adding a cup-mark to the surface of the stone, or both at the same time. In any case, the aura of the stone itself is likely to have been decisive.

Megaliths may well have been known as ancient tombs at later times; this can account for later prehistoric secondary burials in the mounds of megaliths. Since many cup-marked stones are found on or near megaliths as well as, even more often, at or near later barrows, Ulrich Schoknecht argued for their close connection with ancient burial cults (1986: 214-5). Many cup-marks are unsuitable to catch blood from sacrifices or contain food or drink offerings, but some may well have served for such practical purposes in rituals, as has often been argued (e.g. Becker 1935: 116; Schacht 1995: 144; cf. Schuldt 1972a: 91). The antiquarian Robert Beltz interpreted a layer of ashes and a cup-marked cap-stone found inside a Bronze Age mound covering the megalith of Bollbrücke as an indication for "a kind of hero-cult" which Bronze Age people conducted on a sacred site of the ancestors (1883a: 327). He also imagined vividly how the blood of sacrificed human beings run into the cups of the very same cap-stone (Beltz 1883b):

"Setzte sich Jemand in die Vertiefung und beugte den Kopf herab, so lag Kopf und Hals auf den Schalen, und es bleibe der Phantasie überlassen, sich auszumalen, wie in grauer Vorzeit der Priester hier mit seinem Feuersteinmesser, dem im Osten aufsteigenden Sonnengotte zu Ehren, das Blut aus der durchschnittenen Kehle des Opfers in die geheimnisvollen Schalen rinnen ließ, deren düstere Symbolik wohl für ewig dunkel bleiben wird."

"If someone sat down in the hollow and bent their head, the head and neck would lie on the cups, and it is left to the imagination to picture how here in the dim past a priest with his flint knife, honouring the sun-god who emerged in the East, would have let the blood from the cut throat of the victim run into the mystical cups, the gloomy symbolism of which may well remain in the dark forever." (my translation)

Some of the most prominent cup-marked stones are still today known as 'sacrificial stones' (Opfersteine) in local folklore. These offering stones may, possibly in later ages, have witnessed similar cultic acts as those megaliths which show similar cup-marks and are likewise known as Opferstein or Opfertisch (Sprockhoff 1938: 139-41). However, large erratics and megaliths without cup-marks have been known as sacrificial stones or altars, too.

Cup-marked stone in Zislow, Kreis Stuer (1995)

In other cases, cup-marks on graves or stones nearby might have been signifiers of larger cosmological interrelations between monuments, living people, the landscape, the gods and the ancestors (see e.g. Bradley 1993: 62, 129 and passim; 1997: chapter 10 and passim; Tilley 1994). Interestingly, cup-marks can also be found on re-used ancient stones as well as on the new brick walls of Medieval churches. A little bag filled with stone fragments or powder taken from the grave of an ancestor or another holy place may have lent support in an argument, served as a talisman, or provided a key ingredience of certain medicines or meals (cf. Brast 1982; Ouzman 2001: 251). In the Medieval period, pulverized material from ancient stone-axes, too, was used as a cure of diseases.

Drilling a cup-mark into a stone which is part of, or associated with, an ancient burial, and possibly subsequently re-using the stone material gained, can also have been important in other ways. By leaving 'their' marks on a symbol of the shared identity of the whole community, certain individuals may have wanted to make a public statement about who they were themselves, and who their ancestors had been. Some individuals may have carried the stone dust gained with them constantly, reminding them of the heritage and origin of the community to which they belonged or simply linking them to a potent place (Ouzman 2001: 250-1). The drilling of cup-marks may also have helped in legitimating certain doings or claims through a direct material reference to an ancient monument and burial place. Cup-marks could thus enhance the social significance of stones and ancient graves as (time)marks in the landscape.

Or were cup-marks seen as a way to desecrate or mutilate a site which was perceived in purely negative terms, of whatever kind? Some cup-marks can, of course, also be interpreted as the result of entertaining activities by children or people who got bored at certain times, e.g. shepherds.

Providing a megalith, or a stone in its neighbourhood, with cup-marks can be a way of appropriating the monument for one's own needs, in a variety of ways. In my view, it is reasonable to assume that the interpretations suggested are all valid and can account for different, or the same, cup-marks at, or near, megaliths in different contexts and at different times.


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 14 November 2001