Re-using the stones of megaliths

In their long life-histories, the stones of megaliths have often been removed and used for new purposes. Such physical use of their stones is an extreme form of desecrating a burial, and it has sometimes been taken to be the contrary to an appreciation of the value of ancient monuments. Alan Wace argued regarding the reuse of older remains in ancient Greece and Italy (1949: 34):

"Had the Greeks and Roman possessed any real feeling for antiquity they would never have re-used so many monuments or architectural members in later buildings."

But the re-use of older structures for new purposes can also be considered as a particular appreciation and valuation of monuments. Such re-uses may be based on a rather pragmatic 'feeling for antiquity', or on the desire to make particular political statements in the present by using 'spolia' from older structures (Greenhalgh 1989; Raff 1995).

The following account refers to my study area only, but the stones of megaliths have been re-used in very similar ways elsewhere too (see e.g. Liebers 1986: 80f.).

Breaking-up megaliths

It is important to remember that megaliths are built of stone because they were designed to be permanent. It is not an easy task to break up the stones, as not only stone-robbers but also archaeologists know from personal experience. Here referring to the megalith in Loppin, Kreis Waren, Ulrich Schoknecht wrote with untranslatable wit (note from 23.3.1983, in Ortsakte): "Dem Grab selbst ist so leicht nicht beizukommen, da nach altväterart aus Stein errichtet."

Breaking-up stones is therefore not only a particular skill but also a process that requires a specific mind-set and motivation in order to make it worth it. As Christopher Hoffman put it (1999: 103): "Breaking is as much about technological practice, politics, and world views as is making.".

There are various techniques for breaking up the large stones out of which 'mega-liths' consist. The most basic method is based on the fact that stones burst in fire (Leube 1969: 19). An alternative method, of which traces can sometimes still be found on large erratics, included the use of wedges. Wooden wedges and wet moss were put into 10 cm deep notches that had been picked in before; sometimes hot water was additionally poured over the moss. From the water the wood expanded, and caused the stone to burst over night (Becker 1939: 127). Wedge notches can e.g. still be seen on megaliths in Krakow (294), Kreis Rügen, and in Domsühl (626), Kreis Parchim, on two stones in Boitin, Kreis Bützow, where they date to at least the early 19th century (Lisch 1837: 165), and on the back of the war memorial in Swantow, Kreis Rügen (see image right).

Later, long grooves were chiselled into the stones, into which wedge-shaped metal plates were fitted. Iron wedges could then be used to drive these plates into the stone and split it according to the structure of the rock (Schmidt 1980: 100). This was intended, but never completed at several megaliths, where the grooves can still clearly be seen, e.g. on the Opferstein in Quoltitz and on the Ziegensteine in Dummertevitz, both Kreis Rügen. Notches from the use of iron wedges can also still be seen at a megalith in Friedrichsruhe (635), Kreis Parchim (see image left).

Most recently, stones were broken up using gunpowder which was poured into 30-50cm deep boreholes (Schmidt 1980: 100). Such boreholes can be found today on megaliths in Gaarzerhof (5), Kreis Bad Doberan, Lancken-Granitz (301), Kreis Rügen, Forst Tarnow (477), Kreis Bützow, and Pennewitt, Kreis Sternberg.

It is a possibility that during activities in connection with the removal of stones, later finds from different periods may have found their way into megaliths, either as contemporary rubbish, or as contamination of subsequent filling material.

There is no clear evidence that megaliths have been destroyed and their stones re-used in later prehistory, although it is obvious in some cases that stones were missing early on. In Nobbin, the cap-stone of a burial chamber appears to have been missing in the pre-Roman Iron Age, and might well have already been used for another purpose. On the British Isles (decorated) stones of Neolithic monuments were used during the Bronze and Iron Age for entirely practical reasons in secondary contexts (Burgess 1989-90).

Re-using the stones

The purposes for which stones from megaliths were used as building material include

The systematic destruction of megaliths

Of particular impact on megaliths was the building of cobbled roads and bridges during the 19th and early 20th centuries (Leube 1969; Hennies 1990). In 1824, a major programme was begun during which all major towns were connected with each other and with towns beyond Mecklenburg, through a network of cobbled roads built according to the principles of the Scotsman MacAdam (Schack 1825). By 1906 2,141 km of new roads had been built (Hennies 1992). The building of this road network was considered a patriotic task and the population was asked to supply the builders with stones (Schack 1825: 6f.). But Grand Duke Friedrich Franz I was also prepared to pay a small fee for stones, which the local population collected from their fields. This led to many Steinschläger (stone-breakers) making a living from supplying the government with stones. Obviously, megaliths proved especially lucrative stone supplies. One example is the megalith of Wozinkel, Kreis Parchim, which was destroyed in 1867 in order to gain stones for the road leading from Parchim to Sternberg. Likewise, the management of the estate in Zarnewanz, Kreis Rostock, decided in 1911 to break up a megalith (142) and use the stones for road-building. The antiquarian Friedrich Lisch was however present and investigated the finds during work in progress (Lisch 1869). In Friedrichsruhe, Kreis Parchim, an incident in 1912 involved the removal of several stones from the enclosure of a megalith for road-building purposes.
Old cobbled road near Lancken-Granitz (1996)

In one case in Moltow, Kreis Wismar, however, stone-robbing led to the discovery of a megalith hidden underneath a pile of stones cleared from the fields.

In the early 19th century the increasing destruction of megaliths for clearing fields and for other purposes, such as road-building, led to the first attempts of monument preservation by law (Leube 1969: 19; cf. Brühl 1835).

In current road building (as in Goldberg, Kreis Lübz, see image right from 1995) similar stone material is still used, but the stones are not taken from megaliths any longer.


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

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

Brühl, Graf (1835) Instruction für die beim Chausseebau beschäftigten Beamten in Beziehung auf die in der Erde sich findenden Alterthümer heidnischer Vorzeit. Reprinted in Baltische Studien 4(1), 1837, 1-6.

Burgess, Colin (1989-90) The Chronology of Cup-and-Ring Marks in Britain and Ireland. Northern Archaeology 10, 21-26.

Friedrich Franz (1834–1844) Wegeordnung, vom 29. Juni 1824. In: Sammlung aller für das Großherzogthum Mecklenburg-Schwerin gültigen Landes-Gesetze von den ältesten Zeiten bis zu Ende des Jahres 1834, pp. 263-267. Wismar: Schmidt & v.Cossel.

Greenhalgh, Michael (1989) The survival of Roman antiquities in the Middle Ages. London: Duckworth & Co.

Haas, Alfred (1913) Mönchguter Altertümer aus vorgeschichtlicher Zeit. Mannus 5, 235-248.

Hennies, Wolfram (1990) Steine am Wegrand. Chausseesteine der Westprignitzer Kreischaussee. Prignitzer Heimat 8, 27-29.

Hennies, Wolfram (1992) Achtspännig durch tiefen Sand. Vor 170 Jahren begann der Bau von Kunststraßen in Mecklenburg. Mecklenburg Magazin (Regionalbeilage der Schweriner Volkszeitung und der Norddeutschen Neuesten Nachrichten) no. 22 (30 October 1992), 13.

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.

Leube, Achim (1969) Warum verschwanden unsere 'Hünengräber'? Arbeitsmaterialien des Bezirksfachausschusses für Ur- und Frühgeschichte (Deutscher Kulturbund, Bezirksleitung Rostock) 3, 18-22.

Liebers, Claudia (1986) Neolithische Megalithgräber in Volksglauben und Volksleben. Frankfurt/M. etc.: Lang.

Lisch, G. C. Friedrich (1837) Friderico-Francisceum oder Grossherzogliche Alterthümersammlung aus der altgermanischen und slavischen Zeit Mecklenburgs zu Ludwigslust. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.

Lisch, Friedrich (1868) Hünengrab von Wozinkel. Mecklenburgische Jahrbücher 33, 118-119.

Raff, Thomas (1995) Spolia – Building Material or Bearer of Meaning? Daidalos 58 (Dec 1995), 64-72.

Schack, J.W. von (1825) Über den Chausseebau in Mecklenburg. Beilage zum 28sten Stücke des officiellen Wochenblattes, 23.7.1825, 1-7.

Schmidt, Harry (1980) Die größten Findlinge Rügens. Rügenjahrbuch 1980, 96-101.

Temme, J.D.H. (1840) Die Volkssagen von Pommern und Rügen. Berlin: Nicolaische Buchhandlung.

Wace, A.J.B. (1949) The Greeks and Romans as Archaeologists. Bulletin de la Société Royale d'Archéologie d'Alexandrie 38, 21-35.

Wackenroder, E.H. (1730) Altes und Neues Rügen. Greifswald: Löffler.

© Cornelius Holtorf