Mary Helms (1998) has demonstrated clearly how drawing on the past, tradition and 'the ancestors' can contribute to the legitimation of political ideologies, social orders, and other concrete interests.

One way of doing this is by emphasising differences from the past, thus stressing progress and advancement from supposedly primitive beginnings. An alternative and much more common historical argument emphasises the continuation or reconstruction of the conditions of an idealised past (Calließ 1985 with further literature). Positive references to antiquity, which often involve references to past material culture, can reassure present-day identities and support particular social and political values. It can therefore be said that "Denkmalpflege ist Meinungspflege": to preserve historical monuments is to preserve certain opinions (Krüger, after Siegel 1985: 112-6). The mechanics and significance of this role of the past in the present have become a common place in the literature and these discussions need not be repeated here (see e.g. Plumb 1969; Keller 1977: chapters 5+7; Berger and Luckmann 1980: part II; Schörken 1981: chapter 4; Silberman 1989; Schudson 1989; Kohl and Fawcett 1995).

Such legitimation is also one of the main functions of accounts of the distant past in the cultural memory of different societies, whether they are ancient or modern, literate or illiterate societies (Schott 1968: 184-6; 1990; Peel 1984). Good examples from the ancient world are provided by the uses of the distant past in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece. An obvious example from the history of archaeology in Germany is the appropriation of prehistory and prehistoric monuments for ideological and political purposes during the period of the National Socialist government 1933–1945 (see Arnold and Haßmann 1995). National Socialist doctrines determined the only official version of prehistory (Frick 1934), which was also taught in schools and universities and used in popular accounts of ancient monuments, presenting them as remains from the Germanic past (e.g. Auerswald 1937; Becker 1939). It must have looked to some as if archaeological monuments themselves would naturally suggest a National Socialist interpretation of the past, which perhaps let the contemporary political regime and ideology gain in legitimacy. A similar strategy, although with different political aims, may later have been attempted by the government of the socialist German Democratic Republic 1949–1990 (see e.g. Schlette 1966). Legitimising a political position is also one of the roles of barrows and megaliths in paintings by Caspar David Friedrich.

In the Neolithic megaliths may have been built with the intention of using the buried ancestors in the future for legitimatising disputed claims by referring to certain ancient norms or timeless conditions, whether they concerned the ownership of land and resources (Chapman 1981) or social hierarchies (Shanks and Tilley 1982). Both Richard Bradley and John Chapman argued that ancient monuments might have played important roles within larger power struggles in later prehistory and history. Bradley interpreted deliberate architectural references to past monuments as legitimation attempts of political elites concerned with inventing 'fictitious genealogies' and establishing an imagined long-term continuity of their power. Where written documents exist, such invented genealogies can be studied in considerable detail, e.g. in ancient Mesopotamia (Jonker 1995: chapter 8).

John Chapman interpreted ancient monuments as timemarks which are reappropriated and given political meanings by later generations (Chapman 1997). They have indeed been preserved in, and made part of many different history cultures over the ages, in which they played various social and political roles. Secondary burials in ancient barrows, for instance, may have been a convenient method for inventing genealogies on which claims for political power or ideological supremacy could be based. Similar political or ideological intentions may also have led to activities which can account for cup-marks on megaliths or in their neighbourhood, for later prehistoric finds at or near ancient monuments, for the re-use of building material or objects from earlier periods, for the imitation of ancient monuments, and for the revival of traditions. All these activities can be seen as appropriations of the past in order to legitimatise concrete political or ideological interests of different kinds (cf. Blake 1997; Williams 1998; Driscoll 1998).


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 17 January 2002