Megaliths as court and thing sites

It is well recorded for many sites in Europe that ancient burial mounds and megaliths were used as legal court sites in historic periods (Ohlhaver 1937: 246-254; Ellis Davidson 1950: 175; Meier 1950; Schirnig 1979: 8). A place of the past was seen as very appropriate for deciding about the future (Goeßler 1938: 39):

"Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft des Volkes treten miteinander in Verbindung, wenn an dem Platz, wo der Ahn auf ererbtem Besitze und in die mystischen Urkräfte der Erde eingebettet liegt, die Sippe zu Beratung und Verehrung zusammenkommt und so erst recht Tote und Lebende die wahre und ewige Sippengemeinschaft bilden."

"The past, present and future of a people meet, when in the same place where the ancestor lies on inherited property, buried into the mystical powers of the earth, the clan assembles for consultation and worship; the dead and the living in this way form the true and eternal community of the clan." (my translation)

The use of ancient burial mounds as 'Things', where court was held, law dispensed and all public affairs were decided, is especially well documented in early medieval Scandinavia and may go back even to prehistoric times (Wildte 1926, 1928; Neergard 1902). Many old Nordic sagas and poems allude to the custom of sitting on a 'howe' as expression of the power of the king. This custom was certainly connected with a legitimating effect of sitting on the elevated, sacred grave of a former ruler; a place, which is likely to have been surrounded not only with an assembled audience, but also with a special aura (Lehmann 1910; Ellis 1943: 105-111).

In Sweden, the term 'domarringar' for stone-circles still refers to their old function as judicial sites (Wildte 1926: 213-217; Becker 1939: 129; Sahlström 1942: 134; Ohlhaver 1937: 247). 'Tynwald Hill' on the Isle of Man is an old Viking thing site where laws were made; it is still today the place where every year on July 5th the Manx government proclaims the new laws (Kniveton 1994: 2f.).

In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, court sites at ancient monuments are recorded for an unspecified location near the centre of Rügen (Borlase 1897, after Meier 1950: 3; Bergen?) and for the stone circles from the pre-Roman Iron Age in Lenzen (Lähnwitz), Kreis Sternberg and in Klopzow, Kreis Neustrelitz (Becker 1939: 128f.; Meier 1950: 5).

John Meier argued that the function of ancient burial mounds as cult and court sites remained the same from prehistory until well into the Medieval age. For Meier (1950: 1), there was a continuous folk tradition of cultic and legal activities at ancient burials, which were surrounded by a circular borderline (Bannkreis). This circle defined symbolically, and protected, a consecrated space, from which special energies emanate, and was, due to its links to the ancestors, of special cosmological significance (cf. Wildte 1928):

"Die tragende Idee beim vorgeschichtlichen Grabe bleibt von der Steinzeit her bis in das frühe Mittelalter und die folgenden Jahrhunderte unverändert: das Ahnengrab mit seinem Heil- und Machtschatz, meist geschützt vom Bannkreis heiliger Steine, aber über diese hinausstrahlend und Kraftströme entsendend auf die an ihm ihre Verehrung bezeugenden Nachkommen, ein Mittelpunkt von Kult und Recht, die im letzten Grunde ja auch ... identisch sind." (Meier 1950: 19; cf. Lehmann 1910: 14f.)

This link of judicial sites with the distant prehistoric past may also be reflected in the architecture and function of the Gorsedd Circles in Wales, which play a special role in initiation ceremonies of the Gorsedd of Bards.

In 1930s Germany, the National Socialists propagated a 'thing' movement, which made some references to the Germanic thing places. These new thing festivals were meant to be associated with the (Germanic) past and were often located in the open landscape, directly at or near a site of claimed special (pre-)historical significance. However, as community festivals for everyone, they encompassed many forms of cultural performances and there was nothing specifically judicial about them (Taylor 1974: 210–218; Stommer 1985). One such thing site can still be visited in Bergen, Kreis Rügen. Its ground plan was apparently inspired by the form of prehistoric long barrows, and like megaliths it included large erratics in its architecture (Stommer 1985: 206f.). Today, the site is used as an open-air theatre and nothing seems to remind the on-looker of its past (see image from 1996 above).


Becker, Julius (1939) Steintänze und Steinkreise. Mecklenburg 34, 123-133.

Ellis, Hilda Roderick (1943) The Road to Hel. A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. Cambridge: Cambrige University Press.

Ellis Davidson, Hilda R. (1950) The Hill of the Dragon. Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds in Literature and Archaeology. Folk-lore 61, 169-185.

Goeßler, Peter (1938) Grabhügel und Dingplatz. In: Festgabe für Karl Bohnenberger. Beiträge zur Geschichte, Literatur und Sprachkunde vornehmlich Württembergs, pp. 15-39. Tübingen: Mohr.

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Ohlhaver, Horst (1937) Großsteingräber und Grabhügel in Glauben und Brauch. Mannus 29, 192-255.

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Schirnig, Heinz (1979) Einführung. In: H.Schirnig (ed.) Großsteingräber in Niedersachsen, pp. 1-26. Hildesheim: Lax.

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Taylor, Robert R. (1974) The Word in Stone. The Role of Architecture in the National Socialist Ideology. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press.

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Wildte, Fridolf (1928) Scandinavian Thing-steads. Antiquity 2, 328-336.

© Cornelius Holtorf