Megaliths as boundary markers

During their life-histories, megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern have sometimes been used to mark land boundaries: timemarks became used as spacemarks.

Peter Goeßler (1940: 46, 52; 1938: 38f.) stressed the important role of symbolic landmarks for the definition and continuing acceptance of borders between different communities of people. As the oldest evidence for burial mounds serving as boundary markers, Goeßler cited the role of various tumuli in the landscape around Troia; in Homer's Iliad burial mounds signify at various occasions liminal lands surrounding the scenes of action (e.g. 10, 414-5; 11, 166; 20, 151). Similar cases are reported in Germany for the 8th century AD and later (Goeßler 1940: 46-53). Other cases were megaliths were used as boundary markers are known from Brittany and Galicia, while in England barrows served the same function (Ellis Davidson 1950: 173-4; Greenhalgh 1989: 27; Martinón-Torres and Casal 2000; Pryor 2001: 160-5). Where ancient tumuli were not available, often new mounds were built as border markers (Sippel 1980: 139-40).

The oldest evidence in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is a document from 1174 which describes the borders of the monastery of Dargun as running "in quosdam tumulos, qui slavice dicuntur trigorke, antiquorum sepulchra". The boundaries of several other monasteries of the 12th and 13th centuries are likewise described as running along ancient burial mounds (see Lisch 1837: 11–14; Sippel 1980: 142f.). This function of ancient mounds was probably one important reason for their preservation.

In 1922, the antiquarian Robert Beltz published a series of boundary stones with various carvings, among them a wheel which looks surprising like the 'wheel-shaped crosses' that can sometimes be found with cup-marks on the cap-stones of megaliths. Some of these crosses on megaliths may therefore also have marked boundaries.

Many megaliths and other prehistoric burial mounds are still today situated at the edges of parish areas, as Lisch observed already in 1837 (p. 13). Here are some more examples from my study area (maps based on Sprockhoff 1967 and Ortsakte Schwanbeck):

This could be the case because

  1. Megaliths were, for whatever reason, built exclusively along the margins of territories which have more or less remained the same since prehistoric times;
  2. Megaliths were built all over the area of modern parishes but survived physical threats, for some reason, best along their margins;
  3. Megaliths served during later ages as symbolic boundary markers, and modern parish boundaries were thus deliberately defined with reference to the ancient mounds.

As to options (1) and (3), there are a number of possible reasons why graves could be located far away from settlements and close to community boundaries (Thäte 1993: chapter 4.5):

Option (3) assumes that for these reasons some populations may have deliberately decided to live in areas as far away as possible from the ancient burial mounds, which could at the same time be used for symbolising the boundaries of their land and were thus preserved. Francis Pryor (2001: 162)  referred to ancient barrows in a later landscape as  "spiritual 'electric fences'", assuming that "with the ancestors to guard and watch over the boundaries, nobody would attempt to trespass." 

In other cases, options (1) and (2) may, in different ways, also have contributed to the pattern we observe today.


Beltz, Robert (1922) Grenzsteine bei Schwerin. Mecklenburg 17, 40-41.

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.

Goeßler, Peter (1940) Von Grenzen der Frühzeit, ihren Zeichen und ihrem Nachleben. Das Rechtswahrzeichen (Beiträge zur Rechtsgeschichte und rechtlichen Volkskunde) 2, 46-55.

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

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

Martinón-Torres, Marcos and Antón R. Casal (2000) Aspectos historiográficos del megalitismo Gallego: de la documentación medieval al siglo XIX. In: V. Oliveira Jorge (ed.) Actas do 3.° Congresso de Arqueologia Peninsular, vol. III: Neolitização e Megalitismo da Península Ibérica, pp. 303-19. Porto: ADECAP.

Pryor, Francis (2001) Seahenge. New Discoveries in Prehistoric Britain. London: HarperCollins.

Sippel, Klaus (1980) Die Kenntnis vorgeschichtlicher Hügelgräber im Mittelalter. Germania 58, 137-146.

Sprockhoff, Ernst (1967) Atlas der Megalithgräber Deutschlands. Part Two: Mecklenburg—Brandenburg—Pommern. Bonn: Habelt.

Thäte, Eva (1993) Die Orientierung frühgeschichtlicher Bestattungen an älteren Denkmälern im sächsisch-angelsächsischen Raum. Unpublished M.A. thesis, Universität Münster.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 17 August 2001