Desecration and destruction

Desecration and sometimes vandalism are often the consequence of a loss of any other meaning of ancient monuments (see Bradley 1981; Fowler 1992: 71f.). Most often, desecration and destruction show disrespect and a lack of perceived aura. Peter Fowler noted (1992: 72): "The use of ancient monuments as public toilets is clearly one of their main purposes nowadays, in practice if not in intent."

Ancient sites and monuments can appear as nothing valuable in themselves and only 'in the way' for something else. John Chapman reported that in 1991 barrows in eastern Hungary were destroyed, because "many plainsfolk so loved the view of an unbroken flatness that any deviation from horizontality was offensive to their eyes and they would do their utmost to erase it" (1997: 31).

Sometimes the desecration or even destruction of monuments occurs in complete ignorance of the presence of the ancient site. But a monument can also be deliberately demolished in opposition to other meanings and practices, e.g. in a deliberate act of de-legitimation or as an attempt to manipulate a certain material culture narrative (Siegel 1985: 114f.). Christopher Hoffman argued in an interesting paper that

"[b]reaking made things can invoke a wide range of social metaphors, some of them constructive in the sense that they reinforce some social norm or structure, others, acts of social deconstruction that question or critique." (1999: 106)

In the past, both treasure-hunters and stone robbers demolished ancient sites, farmers cleared their fields from stones, and soldiers used megaliths as shelter and gun positions. Today, tourists and playing children as well as archaeologists s or other people investigating ancient monuments do in fact often partly destroy them, too. Several megaliths have been removed with the permission of the archaeological authorities in order to allow for field melioration or to make room for economically important development. The megalith in Cramon, for instance, was demolished on 16.9.74 for an intensive cattle-rearing plant.

A neglected megalith in Domsühl (624), Kreis Parchim (1995)

In certain circumstances ancient tombs may intentionally have been demolished or used as rubbish tips, which would provide another explanation for the later prehistoric finds found at them or in their neighbourhood. Adding secondary burials and cup-marks to a megalith can also be seen as deliberate attempts to desecrate the site. In other circumstances, monuments may have been completely removed (cf. Hansen 1933). If this happened a long time ago, the chances are that those monuments are the ones we do not know about today.

In the exceptional case of Rügen, we can however estimate the degree of destruction over the last one and a half centuries due to the map of the antiquarian Friedrich von Hagenow. His map from 1829 includes altogether 1869 known prehistoric graves, of which 229 are megaliths, 1239 are barrows and 401 are urn cemeteries (Baier 1904: 7–15). In 1991, Willi Lampe counted no more than 51 megaliths and 561 barrows left on Rügen (Lampe 1991: 6). Such evidence allows estimations of the original number of megaliths built in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern as a whole.

Ewald Schuldt and his collaborators took the evidence for later prehistoric, historic and modern receptions of megaliths almost exclusively as destruction and disturbance of the original Neolithic layers. This is reflected in both text and drawings of the documentations of the megaliths in Gnewitz (104), Kreis Rostock (Schuldt 1967: 37 and fig. 23) and Wilsen (544), Kreis Güstrow (Wetzel 1966: 92, 95 and fig. 70). Even though, in the best antiquarian tradition, all later evidence has usually been painstakingly recorded, even in publication, the finds were not always kept, e.g. in Wilsen (543), Kreis Güstrow (Wetzel 1966: 103). In this work, I take such 'disturbances' as something worth studying on its own merit. Destruction and vandalism too are part of the history culture of different ages and constitute testimony to "the enduring power of field monuments" (Fleming 1987: 200; cf. Evans 1985: 86). An electronically created graffiti on the web-pages of the Theorie-AG seems to make, or at least imply, the same point:


Baier, Rudolf (1904) Vorgeschichtliche Gräber auf Rügen und in Neuvorpommern. Aufzeichnungen Friedrich von Hagenows aus dessen hinterlassenen Papieren. Greifswald: Julius Abel.

Beltz, Robert (1930) Zum Steintanz von Boitin. Rostocker Anzeiger no. 280, 30.11.1930, 6.Beiblatt.

Bradley, Richard (1981) From ritual to romance: ceremonial enclosures and hill-forts. In: G.Guilbert (ed.) Hill-Fort Studies. Essays for A.H.A.Hogg, pp. 20–27. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Chapman, John (1997) Places as timemarks—the social construction of prehistoric landscapes in Eastern Hungary. In G.Nash (ed.) Semiotics of Landscape: Archaeology of Mind, pp. 31–45. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 661. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Evans, Christopher (1985) Tradition and the cultural landscape: an archaeology of place. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 4 (1), 80–94.

Fleming, Andrew (1987) Coaxial field systems: some questions of time and space. Antiquity 61, 188–202.

Fowler, Peter (1992) The Past in Contemporary Society: then, now. London: Routledge.

Hansen, W. (1933) Zur Verbreitung der Riesensteingräber in Norddeutschland. Mannus 25(4), 337–352.

Hoffman, Christopher R. (1999) Intentional Damage as Technological Agency: Breaking Metals in Late Prehistoric Mallorca, Spain. In: M-A. Dobres and C. R. Hoffman (eds) The Social Dynamics of Technology, pp. 103–123. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Lampe, Willi (1991) Geschichte der archäologischen Forschung und Bodendenkmalpflege im Nordostteil Mecklenburg-Vorpommerns. Mitteilungen zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte für Ostmecklenburg und Vorpommern 38, 4–8.

Schuldt, Ewald (1967) Die erweiterten Dolmen von Gnewitz, Kreis Rostock. Bodenkmalpflege in Mecklenburg, Jahrbuch 1966, 29–45.

Siegel, Michael (1985) Denkmalpflege als öffentliche Aufgabe: eine ökonomische, institutionelle und historische Untersuchung. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Wetzel, Günter (1966) Zwei Großsteingräber von Wilsen, Kreis Güstrow. Bodenkmalpflege in Mecklenburg, Jahrbuch 1965, 79–104.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 7 May 2002