Often, a particular aura is sensed by people when they come across ancient finds or monuments in the landscape. For Walter Benjamin (1992: 214f.), the author of the Passagenwerk, aura is due to the authenticity of the unique original and necessarily lacking in any reproduction. Such aura is closely related to what Stephen Greenblatt has called 'wonder' (1990: 170; cf. Korff 1992):

"By wonder I mean the power of the object ... to stop the viewer in his [or her] tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention."

However, aura and wonder can be manipulated. When aura and wonder are felt, our senses are not always right about the authenticity of an object (see Holtorf forthcoming). But what does authenticity mean anyway? The authenticity we desire can refer to different things (Lowenthal 1992): are we going to be content with appreciating the authenticity of the original materials? Should it not rather be the authenticity of the original contexts? Or perhaps the authenticity of the original aims?

The aura and wonder of ancient monuments

Inspite of these more theoretical difficulties, megaliths are in practice often perceived as authentic remains from a mysterious and distant past. They are seen as real timemarks with age-value, enabling people to see, touch and feel prehistory (Lipe 1984: 4; cf. Williams 1990). That is why they are treasured by some, become 'denk-mals' and are preserved. Aura and wonder were felt by travellers and antiquarians at ancient monuments, much as it is part of the modern tourist experience and an aspect of many other receptions of ancient monuments in later prehistory, history, and the present-day. Rudolf Baier enthused in 1904 (p. 15; my translation) about the

"mostly high towered and widely visible constructions assembled from massive blocks of rock. They evoke in the observer sensations of the miraculous and the mysterious and lend this island of the Baltic Sea [Rügen, CH] its peculiar character... Where have they gone, these witnesses of a past of several thousand years, which were once admired by members of today's generation...?"

Likewise, Fritz Richter-Elsner experienced at the megalith of Quitzerow in 1924 "a shudder from time immemorial" (cited after Ortsakte, my translation), while Albert Kiekebusch reported what group members felt when he led them to the King's Grave of Seddin (1928: 43; links added):

"Der Erfolg war immer derselbe. Geheimnisvolle Schauer der Vergangenheit umwehen an diesem durch Alter und Sage geweihten Platze jeden, der vom Tagesgetriebe unserer Zeit sich einmal zurückzieht zu sinnender Betrachtung."

"The result was always the same. At this place, consecrated by age and folklore, mysterious shivers of the past surround everyone who withdraws from the daily business of our age into pensive contemplation." (my translation)

More generally, it has been said (Shils 1981: 70) that

"[t]o be in contact with something old is in some ways like being in contact with sacred things like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Stations of the Cross which are sacred in themselves; these also have the sacral character of ancient things."

The sensation at ancient monuments appears to be somewhat similar to that felt by people when the comet Hale-Bopp appeared on our night sky during the spring of 1997, while I was working on this page. In an Interview on CNN, David Kaplan of Newsweek, said:

"there's a romance to looking at something no human eyes have seen for 4,200 years. 4,200 years ago the Roman and Greek Empires were but a thing of the future. The great Pyramids were new. It's something that connects us, if you will, to past generations, to past history." (aired 17.3.1997, cited after the CNN transcript)

A similar aura may have been experienced by later generations of Egyptians vis-à-vis the pyramids and by Greeks vis-à-vis Mycenaean tombs. In carefully stage-managed landscape parks in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and in paintings by Caspar David Friedrich you can sometimes almost see the aura of prehistoric sites.

People in later prehistory who lived in the immediate neighbourhood of megaliths may have sensed their aura and experienced their wonder; as a result they would have brought a great deal of respect to such ancient sites and appreciated their 'sanctity of place' (Chapman 1997; see also Ohlhaver 1937: 213f., 227; Goeßler 1938). This valuation of megaliths could well be reflected in secondary burials as well as in cup-marks added to ancient monuments. Moreover, their continued material preservation and possibly that of associated folklore may have been due to the perceived aura of monuments.

Respect and the duty to preserve

Friedrich Lisch spoke of megaliths as "monuments commanding reverence" (1837: 133; my translation). The state archaeologist Heinrich Reifferscheid had "strong reservations" against unnecessary digging, because he believed (1931: 183f.; my translation, link added) that:

"every exposure of burial sites constitutes an interference with the funerary cult of our ancestors, but at the same time also a destruction for all times."

A similar attitude is revealed in a letter which Ulrich Will wrote to the authorities of Rügen on 22.1961, complaining about the state in which he found the "Herzogsgrab" in Forst Mönchgut (in Ortsakte Forst Mönchgut):

"I believe that we have every reason to take care of these historic and social testimonies to our people, and treat them with respect—even though they stem from a past social age. The treatment of the grave by allegedly official institutions leaves me with an impression, where I cannot help feeling a sense of desecration." (my translation, link added)

Today we still feel inhibitions about removing graves, and in Lancken-Granitz even bouquets of flowers have been left at megaliths: this is also shown in a drawing by Henry Büttner (reproduced in Beier 1991: 6). There may well have been a similar aura associated with 'sacred' places in the later prehistoric and historic past too (Röder 1949: 426; Kirchner 1954: 12; Williams 1990: 224f., 283, 304). Smaller and less 'sacred' ancient objects may also have been kept, appreciated and re-used for particular purposes, due to their special aura as messengers from the past.


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© Cornelius Holtorf