The life-histories of monuments

Things, like humans, can be considered to have lives (see Shanks 1998 with further literature). Things are made somewhere; they often do something, and some move from place to place; their meanings and functions can change in different contexts, and as time goes on they age; eventually most things die, and whatever is left of them is discarded in a final resting place where it gradually disintegrates. Things can reach very different ages, from a few minutes to many millennia, but once dead only very few are brought back and given new meanings in a new life (cf. Thompson 1979; Shils 1981: 63–89; Eggers 1986: 258–270).

Accounts of things' life-histories are 'biographies' of things. As with people, biographies of things can have different emphases and adopt different perspectives (see e.g. the distinctive interpretive approaches of Cullen 1995, Thomas 1996: chapter 3, Tilley 1996: chapter 6, Jones 2002: chapters 5-7, and Holtorf 1998). Igor Kopytoff proposed some general guidelines on how to write the biography of a thing (1986: 66f.):

"In doing the biography of a thing, one would ask questions similar to those one asks about people: What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its 'status' and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What had been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? What are the recognized 'ages' or periods in the thing's 'life', and what are the cultural markers for them? How does the thing's use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?" (Kopytoff 1986: 66f.)

Recent examples for biographies of things include Jessica Rawson's study of long-living Chinese bronze vessels (1993) and Mats Burström's investigations about the life-histories of picture-stones on Gotland (1996a). Landscapes, too, are multitemporal and have got life-histories (see Ingold 1993; Pryor 1995; Roymans 1995). Such biographies have a lot in common with reception histories, and differ mainly in their metaphoric. 'Reception' implies a finished thing which is understood by an audience, while 'biographies' refer to a long-term state of becoming and developing.

I see this work as a contribution to the biography of megaliths, using Mecklenburg-Vorpommern as my study area. Until now, archaeologists have mainly focussed on the birth and early childhood of megaliths, as well as on how to dissect and preserve their corpses. Richard Bradley has however pointed out that the continuous (re-)interpretations of prehistoric monuments are part of the very 'logic of monument building' (1993). It is only unfortunate that he chose the term 'afterlife' for denoting the history of megaliths during later periods, for it may be the afterlife of their builders but it is not that of the monuments themselves. In many cases, monuments built during the Neolithic had long and exciting lives for centuries and millennia to come (Daniel 1972; Michell 1982; Holtorf 1996, 1998), and some are still very much alive even now (Holtorf 1995). Some recent examples for long-term biographies of prehistoric monuments include Mats Burström's investigations of various prehistoric monuments in Sweden (1993; 1996b), Mark Patton's work on the story of the megalith of La Hogue Bie on Jersey (1996), and Emma Blake's research on 'four millennia of becoming' of Sardinia's nuraghi (1998). The monument of Stonehenge is exceptional also in that it has already had several biographers, among them Christopher Chippindale (1994) and Barbara Bender (1993).

Tracing the life-histories of prehistoric monuments means asking how subsequent societies dealt with relics of the past as "cargo to the present" (Dening 1996: 43, 46). During their lives, they featured prominently in various subsequent cultural memories and played important roles in the history cultures of different societies: ancient monuments acted as visible timemarks in the landscape, referring people back to the distant past and prompting them to treat them in particular ways. (Biographies of monuments are of course also expressions of our own history culture and may contribute to our own cultural memory.)

In my research, I have chosen to focus mainly on the period of later prehistory. In order to better understand this particular period in the context of the whole life-history of monuments, I make frequently links to their life in earlier and later periods as well as in the present. My account is supplemented by references to the life of various other ancient monuments.

Individual megaliths with interesting life-stories in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern include those in

The future lives of megaliths

Although megaliths are sometimes treated like dead in our society, it is a mistake to see them as such. Whatever we do with megaliths in the present, e.g. study them, excavate them, restore them, erect an information board and a bench next to them, is a contribution of contemporary history culture to the monuments' present and future lives. Archaeological excavation and heritage management are our ways of dealing with ancient monuments in our own life-world. Archaeologists are the managers of the distant past in present society. There is no sense in assuming that we could somehow re-design ancient monuments as they were in the Neolithic or preserve monuments from acquiring new, or losing old, meanings in the future: we can neither make past millennia undone, nor prevent future years from happening. The lives of prehistoric monuments keep moving on. Whatever we choose to do with megaliths simply happens to them during a phase in their lives. This is how monuments have experienced many subsequent generations of people. Monuments may have lives and behave in many ways like a virus (Cullen 1995) or people (Shanks 1998), but like a virus and unlike human beings, they neither deserve sympathy, nor do they have rights. To avoid misunderstandings, I am not saying that anything goes as far as monuments are concerned. Quite the opposite: we carry full responsibility for all our actions. Whether we are archaeologists or not, we have to justify our actions to society, respect its norms and political will, and face its laws. Some monuments will necessarily 'die' over the years and give way to new uses of their stones and their locations. But others will flourish.

As Igor Kopytoff has argued about the life-histories of things, it all depends on how the biographical possibilities of monuments are realised in different periods, what people in each situation consider to be an ideal career for monuments, and what is thought to be the adequate reaction should they reach the (temporary?) end of their usefulness. There is no reason to become sentimental about this: after all, we also give 'birth' to new monuments, not only in heritage parks, but also through the more ambitious architecture of our times.


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© Cornelius Holtorf