Studying monuments often results from coincidental discoveries. Once it is known that something unusual may be hidden under the ground, or under large stones, people become curious to learn more about these sites and interested in gaining additional information about the past (Schörken 1981: 28-30). It was this historical value which gave meaning to ancient monuments and generated the interest of early travellers as well as that of many antiquarians and archaeologists. Albert Kiekebusch commented with reference to the Neolithic stone cist cemetery of Wollschow, now in Brandenburg (1931: 44; my translation, link added):

"Since these burials were placed in many cases on small, but very flat and often hardly noticeable, hills, and since their cap-stones sometimes rose, at least partly, above the old grass surface, they have certainly attracted the attention of later generations, even in ancient times. Curiosity and thirst for knowledge have then destroyed a lot..."

Archaeologists are often seen and see themselves as 'detectives' of (pre-)history (see Gründel and Ziegert 1983; Schneider 1985; Shanks 1992: 53-4). Like puzzlers, they focus on the 'traces' and 'clues' of their material, in order to (re-)construct the larger picture: what really happened at a site in the past. Archaeologists are, in this very common view, the experts who tell other people the 'facts' about what went on in the past at ancient monuments, e.g. on information boards (Shanks and Tilley 1992: 22-3; see also Traxler 1983).

Information-board at the megalith of Neu Gaarz (18), Kreis Bad Doberan (1995)

In the past, many such information boards were made of cast-iron, and the message they seemed to be whispering was put by John Piper (1948: 96) into the following words:

"This is an object of interest. This notice board, placed where it is, proves that we, the authorities, do not regard it as an object of especial beauty, otherwise we would not have defaced the view. Do not scratch your name, or deface the stonework; we do not mind ugly lettering--yours or our own--but you will be destroying a part of the historic English Heritage."

Other people, who were not scholars, have often been just as curious and developed their own knowledge, often as folklore, about these sites. Both academic and non-academic knowledge about the past and its remains form part of contemporaneous history culture and contribute to our cultural memory; there is a certain symmetry between history and memory. One example for the complicated theories which individuals have come up with in order to 'explain' monuments is the field of archaeoastronomy. My own research is of course based on studying monuments too.

To some extent, studying always includes some excitement, but it is also considered a very serious business contributing to the progress of the sciences. It is the prospect of possible future study which is often mentioned as an argument for preserving archaeological sites in the present (e.g. Verordnung... 1954: preamble; Kiesow 1982: 44-5; Cleere 1989: 9-10; Reichstein 1993; Darvill 1994). Ewald Schuldt wrote at the beginning of his megaliths project (1966: 8; my translation):

"It shall here be emphasised explicitly that we do not intend to investigate completely untouched burial sites; their number is not large and we would like to preserve such objects for later generations of scholars."

It is quite possible that accidental finds of prehistoric objects at ancient monuments or elsewhere motivated also later prehistoric people to further investigate their origin, much as comparable events seem to have motivated Nabonidus in ancient Mesopotamia, Khaemwese in ancient Egypt and Pausanias in Roman Greece. From this perspective,  the exploration of older monuments was more than simply grave-robbing (Williams 1998: 97), and the story of archaeology starts with the first civilisations of the ancient world (Schnapp 1996).

Such attempts to find out more about ancient finds and monuments could be considered as a form of prehistoric archaeological research (cf. Hingley 1996: 242). It may explain later prehistoric finds directly at or in the neighbourhood of monuments, and it could have paved the way not only for subsequent secondary burials in ancient mounds, but also for the (re-)invention of certain traditions and imitations of ancient customs.


Cleere, Henry (1989) Introduction: the rationale of archaeological heritage management. In: H.Cleere (ed.) Archaeological Heritage Management in the Modern World, pp. 1-19. London: Unwin Hyman.

Darvill, Timothy (1994) Value Systems and the Archaeological Resource. International Journal of Heritage Studies 1 (1), 52-64.

Gründel, Armin and Helmut Ziegert (1983) Archäologie und Kriminalistik. Ziele und Wege der Erkenntnisgewinnung. Archäologische Informationen 5, 175-192.

Hingley, Richard (1996) Ancestors and identity in the later prehistory of Atlantic Scotland: the reuse and reinvention of Neolithic monuments and material culture. World Archaeology 28 (2), 231-243.

Kiekebusch, Albert (1931) Ein Blockkammerfriedhof bei Wollschow (Uckermark). Mainzer Zeitschrift 26, 43-46.

Kiesow, Gottfried (1982) Einführung in die Denkmalpflege. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Piper, John (1948) Pleasing Decay. In: J. Piper, Buildings and Prospects, pp. 89-116. Westminster: The Architectural Press.

Reichstein, Joachim (1993) Forschung: Ziel der Archäologischen Denkmalpflege? In: Verband der Landesarchäologen in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ed.) Archäologische Denkmalpflege und Forschung, pp. 15-21. Weimar: Thüringisches Landesamt für Archäologische Denkmalpflege.

Schnapp, Alain (1996) The Discovery of the Past. The Origins of Archaeology [1993]. London: British Museum Press.

Schneider, Lambert (1985) Pfade zu uns selbst? Archäologie und Spurensicherung. Kunst + Unterricht. Zeitschrift für Kunstpädagogik 90, February 1985, 8-14.

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

Schuldt, Ewald (1966) Neue Ausgrabungen zur Erforschung der jüngeren Steinzeit in Mecklenburg. Bodendenkmalpflege in Mecklenburg, Jahrbuch 1965, 7-8.

Shanks, Michael (1992) Experiencing the Past. On the character of archaeology. London: Routledge.

Shanks, Michael and Christopher Tilley (1992) Re-Constructing Archaeology. Second edition. London: Routledge.

Traxler, Hans (1983) Die Wahrheit über Hänsel und Gretel [1963]. Reinbek: Rowohlt.

Verordnung zum Schutze und zur Erhaltung der ur- und frühgeschichtlichen Bodenaltertümer vom 28.Mai 1954. Gesetzblatt der DDR 54, 1954, 547. (also published in U.Schoknecht (1973) Die staatlich geschützten Bodendenkmäler des Bezirkes Neubrandenburg, pp. 16–20. Schwerin: Museum für Ur- und Frühgeschichte.)

Williams, Howard (1998) Monuments and the past in early Anglo-Saxon England. World Archaeology 30, 90-108.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 17 January 2002