Identity

In the history of research, many archaeologists, both professional and amateur, became very attached to their work and, for them, archaeological research and study, as well as portable antiquities themselves formed a significant part of their individual identities (see e.g. Gottwald 1991; cf. Shanks 1992: 130f.; Lowenthal 1985: 43f.). One obituary of Ewald Schuldt stated for instance (Keiling 1988: 84; my translation):

"He was linked very closely to archaeological research, heritage management and museums, and his occupation was for him a necessity of life."

Whatever their profession or goals in life, most individuals draw on the recent past of one or two generations when defining themselves, e.g. as sons or daughters of their parents, or as members of a particular generation. Remembering the past is very significant ant in the socialisation of individuals and contributes decisively to the formation of their identities (Berger and Luckmann 1980: part III). Collective identities often refer to the heritage of a distant past (Siegel 1985: chapter 2.1). Sites of memory (see image right) and other references to the past can support and enhance the cultural identities of groups, on a local, regional, national, supranational or even global level (see Clark 1960: chapter 8; Schörken 1981: chapter 4; Lowenthal 1985: 41-46; Friedman 1992; Kristiansen 1993: 13-28; Ashworth 1994; Trotzig 1995; Kohl and Fawcett 1995; Graves-Brown et al. 1996; Atkinson et al. 1996; Dietler 1998).The past can also form an important part of certain social identities of people within a society: the histories and traditions of the working classes or of royal families have become a key part of their modern identities. The underlying reasoning is usually that "long memories can make great people" (Montalembert, cited in Lowenthal 1985: 393).

Hermann Lübbe has argued that the past has become more important as a source of reassurance and identity as our everyday world changes at ever faster rates, causing alienation and a search for compensating factors (Lübbe 1977). But collective identities have surely always been important, and contained already before our modern age references to timemarks in the landscape, e.g. in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece.

"Attachment to the homeland is a common human emotion. Its strength varies among different cultures and historical periods. ... A homeland has its landmarks, which may be features of high visibility and public significance, such as monuments, shrines, a hallowed battlefield or cemetery. These visible signs serve to enhance a people's sense of identity; they encourage awareness of and loyalty to place." (Tuan 1977: 158f.)

Ancient burial monuments, beyond being landmarks, can thus acquire a meaning closely associated with people's identities. The collective vision of a shared origin and identical forefathers and foremothers, linked to ancient traditions, monuments and graves, can be the most important thing which all members of a community share, and about which they are collectively proud in their social memories (see Lehmann 1910: 1; Hingley 1996; Artelius 2000). Ancient burial monuments can therefore be crucial for the unity of a group of people. They seem to stand outside the flow of daily events and are symbols of stability in an ever changing world. One could therefore say: "He who controls the past controls who we are" (Middleton and Edwards 1990: 10). This is why megaliths, as timemarks, do not only link the present with the distant past, but also with the distant future.

It is one explanation for the drilling of cup-marks in the cap-stones of megaliths during later prehistory that by leaving their (cup-)marks on a well visible symbol for the shared identity of their community, certain individuals wanted to make a public statement about who they were themselves, and who their ancestors had been. Moreover, like modern graffiti, cup-marks could also have been the result of a private, even secret act of connecting oneself forever with a public monument (see Lowenthal 1985: 331f.; cf. Hoffmann 1994). Some individuals may have carried the stone dust produced constantly with them, reminding them of the heritage and origin of the community to which they belonged: their roots. Group identities and a perhaps slightly nostalgic attachment to a homeland or a familiar cosmology may also have been expressed by putting secondary burials into ancient mounds, imitating them for their own burials, or continuing certain traditions (cf. Hedeager 1993). Later finds made at megaliths or in their neighbourhood as well as ancient objects being re-used can similarly be taken as evidence for activities through which the identity of either individuals or whole groups were connected with the distant past (cf. Blake 1997).

In later ages, ancient monuments were chosen as meeting places, e.g. for court sessions or political bodies, probably because they were linked so closely with the identity of the community. The ability to symbolise national identity can explain the importance of prehistoric monuments for Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich as well as the obviously deliberate visual and material references to megaliths in many war memorials. Similar references to the national past in relation to ancient monuments are frequently found in the journals and works of early travellers and antiquarians. Robert Beltz wrote in 1923 about megaliths (p. 135a; my translation):

"they are a treasure of our country, and we must be proud of them. Moreover, their quiet and impressive language of the distant past talks so powerfully to us."

Archaeological sites and monuments formed a part not only of history cultures and cultural memories in different societies, but of many generations' of people very understandings of themselves.


In a challenging paper entitled "Is 'identity' a useful cross-cultural concept?", Richard Handler recently argued that the concept of 'identity' is in fact peculiar to the modern Western world and should thus not be applied to other contexts (such as later prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern!). Handler states (1994: 30):

"Groups are not bounded objects in the natural world. Rather, 'they' are symbolic processes that emerge and dissolve in particular contexts of action. Groups do not have essential identies; indeed they ought not to be defined as things at all. For any imaginable social group -- defined in terms of nationality, class, locality, or gender -- there is no definitive way to specify 'who we are', for 'who we are' is a communicative process that includes many voices and varying degrees of understanding and, importantly, misunderstanding."

Handler's point is that Western notions of collectivity, which underlie our use of the concept of 'identity' are grounded in a very particular, Western concept of personal identity which is absent in many other cultural contexts. He concludes (1994: 33)

"Thus, it seems to me that if other cultures imagine personhood and human activity in terms other than those that we use, we should not expect them to rely on Western individualistic assumptions in describing social collectivities."

This argument sits awkward with my earlier argument on this page!


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© Cornelius Holtorf