The idea of progress

'Progress' is a central category of modern historical consciousness since the 19th century (see Rüsen 1987). A progressive development of cultures over time was indeed one of the founding insights of both archaeology and history. Influenced by contemporary evolutionary thinking, archaeologists have frequently based their accounts of human prehistory on the idea of an advancement from primitive beginnings (Trigger 1989). Underlying this was a linear notion of time with which a sequential development could be conceptualised. It is thus no surprise that the early archaeologists (and those following in the same antiquarian tradition) were obsessed with establishing typologies and chronologies, which could provide a framework for studying historical development and progress (Vinsrygg 1988: 8).

According to this view of progress over time, our modern civilisation emerged at the end of a history of continuous progress. Historical progress implies change and continuous improvement over time (Shils 1981: 2–5). As a consequence, the people who built megaliths are considered to be primitive and backward. Never mind the impressive monuments, their culture was still relatively poorly developed in contrast to our own modern culture—which thus gains additional legitimation from the comparison (Lowenthal 1985: 41; Trigger 1989: 117).

A similar sense of progress may have been shared by people in later prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern when they saw ancient monuments in the landscape. Perhaps they felt terribly superior to those who built these rude monuments. Even though modern evolutionary thinking must have been foreign to later prehistoric populations, they are still likely to have been able to contrast a time of 'back-then' with one of 'here-now'. A rough concept of progress (as opposed to nostalgia) may well have been in the back of some people's minds when they came across ancient objects or re-used ancient sites for secondary burials.

Where historical progress is supposedly obvious too, is in the history of archaeology. It is, for some, a story of continually improving our knowledge about the past through studying the evidence available (Trigger 1989: chapter 10; cf. Himmelmann 1976: 188–190). This is one of the reasons why ancient sites are preserved in the present: as study objects for future generations of archaeologists (Kiesow 1982: 172).


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

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

Lowenthal, David (1985) The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rüsen, Jörn (1987) Fortschritt. Geschichtsdidaktische Überlegungen zur Fragwürdigkeit einer historischen Kategorie. Geschichte lernen 1 (December), 8–12.

Shils, Edward (1981) Tradition. London: Faber and Faber.

Trigger, Bruce H. (1989) A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vinsrygg, Synnøve (1988) Archaeology—As If People Mattered. A Discussion of Humanistic Archaeology. Norwegian Archaeological Review 21 (1), 1–12.

© Cornelius Holtorf