Denk-mal

Another meaning of megaliths can be that of a 'Denk-mal', a mysterious monument that inspires people to think about the deep philosophical questions associated with the beginnings of humanity in prehistory (Jaspers 1949: 52). Perceiving monuments as timemarks with age-value and a distinctive aura, while recognizing that they are older than anyone can remember, can stimulate people to philosophise not only about the distant past and the relationship between past and present, but also about eternity, the age of humanity, the speed of history, the transience of individuals, the achievements of whole cultures, and what these monuments may see in the future—us, for instance (cf. Schörken 1981: 20–23; Lowenthal 1985: 173–182). Volney wrote in 1800 (cited after Hughes 1995: 284):

"Often I met with ancient monuments, wrecks of temples, palaces and fortresses, columns, aqueducts and tombs; and this spectacle led me to meditate on times past, and filled my mind with serious and profound contemplations."

Such melancholic appreciations of ancient monuments can easily acquire a political significance when ruins are taken as evidence of former glory, or as fetishes for a social nostalgia (Hughes 1995). Many ancient monuments are also 'Erinnerungsgegenstände' (memorial objects; see Kuntz 1990): foci of social memory, inspiring older people to reflect back on what happened at a place during their own childhood and youth.
New denk-mals have sometimes been erected in landscape parks such as Burg Schlitz.

Experiencing monuments as denk-mal was a motivation for early travellers, as much as it is one for modern tourists, to visit and mention them in their letters and journals (cf. Himmelmann 1976). Still today, people are stimulated at such sites to think about the largest philosophical questions, and perhaps this is one reason for the popularity of archaeoastronomical interpretations of megaliths among non-archaeologists.

Seeing ancient objects as denk-mals may explain not only why people spent time at ancient monuments in later prehistory (and lost items at or near them), but also why they were interested in, and kept, ancient objects which they had found elsewhere. Things which were perceived as ancient and foreign must, first and foremost, have made people think (Kirchner 1954: 10).


Literature

Himmelmann, Nikolaus (1976) Utopische Vergangenheit. Archäologie und moderne Kultur. Berlin: Gebr. Mann.

Hughes, Peter (1995) Ruins of Time: Estranging History and Ethnology in the Enlightenment and After. In: D.O.Hughes and T.R.Trautmann (eds) Time. Histories and Ethnologies, pp. 269–290. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jaspers, Karl (1949) Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. München: Piper & Co. (English edition: 1953, The Origin and Goal of History. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.)

Kirchner, Horst (1954) Über das Verhältnis des schriftlosen frühgeschichtlichen Menschen zu seiner Geschichte. Sociologus N.F.4, 9–22 (with an English summary entitled "The Attitude of Prehistoric Man towards his History").

Kuntz, Andreas (1990) Erinnerungsgegenstände. Ein Diskussionsbeitrag zur volkskundlichen Erforschung rezenter Sachkultur. Ethnologia Europaea 20, 61–80.

Lowenthal, David (1985) The past is a foreign country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schörken, Rolf (1981) Geschichte in der Alltagswelt: wie uns Geschichte begegnet und was wir mit ihr machen. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

© Cornelius Holtorf