The contemporary meanings of megaliths

In previous research I have studied the contemporary meanings of megaliths in three German case-studies using an anthropological methodology (see Holtorf 1992; 1993a; 1993b; 1994; 1995; forthcoming)

Many megaliths are impressive and evocative features of the past in the landscape. But the fact that most of them happen to have been built several millennia before our time is only a minor detail of their present being and neither terribly exciting nor particularly important. It can be argued that what matters is how they are understood today. Megaliths are places to visit and to spend time at; they are educational as well as mystical; their images appear in leaflets, on postcards, and in a variety of types of books. The sites of megaliths are enjoyed by some, avoided by others, and kept 'in order' by others again. I have been interested for several years in how people make megaliths intelligible and how they make sense, and use, of them. Archaeology is, and always has been, just one way of creating intelligibility of the past in our present.

I have discerned fourteen different kinds of meanings which are given to megaliths today. They can also be applied to the present-day receptions of megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern which I present in the present work.

Monumentality is likely to have been very important to the megaliths' builders who must have had distinctive prospective memories in mind. Significantly, antiquarians and archaeologists called these monuments 'megaliths' (large stones), or 'menhirs' (long stones). Non-academics too tend to be impressed by the sheer size of megaliths and the huge weight of the stones used. The outstanding visibility and dominant position of the large stones in the landscape is often also what attracts people to go and look at megaliths.

Detail-Information. Archaeologists are all aware of the degree to which prehistoric monuments are considered as remains containing information about processes and events which took place in the distant past. From this viewpoint, they need to studied and investigated. In this work, I also present a lot of evidence and more or less detailed information: this is certainly expected in an archaeological study based on a Ph.D. thesis.

Commerce. Archaeology and megaliths, as part of 'our' heritage, have proven to be popular among tourists and potentially very profitable. Nowadays, ancient monuments are important as locational factors for the economy of the whole area in which they are situated.

Social Order. The various receptions of monuments are in many ways mirrors of the present. Interpretations of megaliths are often connected with contemporary assumptions, associations, and analogies, are subject to changing policies, fashions, and ideas, all of which are partly dependent on the current social order. The events of '1,000 years Mecklenburg' in 1995, during which reference was also made to prehistory, were first and foremost a celebration of a region in the new, united Germany.
The monument itself has also to be in order, which means that it must be tidy and well looked after. Monument legislation can be enforced by the police. The visitor's interpretation of the monument has to be in order too: if it is opposed to what the experts say, it is often dismissed as 'fringe' (e.g. archaeoastronomy).

Remembrance. Monuments, as memorials, also remind (mostly local) people of events that have taken place there many years ago, or are believed to have taken place there.

Identities. To many people a relationship with the past is crucial for their own identity. Since prehistoric monuments, such as megaliths, represent an enormous time depth they can serve as emotional foci for individual and collective identities, which are supposedly timeless.

Aesthetics. A lot of people come to see megaliths because they enjoy the scenery and the aesthetics of the ancient site. This can also inspire artists.

Reflections. The monument's antiquity tends to make people think also in philosophical terms.

Adventures. People visit monuments in their leisure time and what they seek is pleasure and a change, through exotic curiosities and strange wonders. That is precisely what megaliths can offer: they are very huge, very old, and very strange. And very popular with children. Another kind of adventurous archaeology is the idea of archaeology as an adventurous endeavour.

Aura. Megaliths are authentic and sacred witnesses of bygone times. People appreciate the aura of such monuments.

Magical Powers of Nature. Prehistoric monuments are occasionally seen as places where sacred forces of the cosmos or of nature, or 'earth mysteries', can be experienced. A number of people can prove the existence of force fields of the earth by direct experience, e.g. by using divining rods. Many people are attracted by a magical mystery which surrounds prehistoric monuments.

Ideologies. Certain qualities which are ascribed to the past or to monuments are 'ideological' in the sense that they are held firmly while legitimating particular social and political claims or interests. By referring to a very distant and original human past, many monuments and archaeology in general have a certain 'ideological' potential. Receptions of archaeological monuments can involve ideologies by implying a certain natural way of how to deal with the past and with human beings.

Nostalgia. If the past is seen in a very positive light and the Neolithic, for instance, seems more attractive to live in than the present, the attitude is one of nostalgia.

Progress. The notion of prehistoric primitivity implies that the course of human (pre-)history is a course of steady advancement and continuous progress, at the end of which our modern civilization emerged. The human beings who built the monuments are considered to be backward and poorly developed culturally, because they did not have so many inventions yet. Progress is also supposedly obvious in the history of archaeology.

In this work, I use a modified list of meanings which draws on this earlier work of mine.


Holtorf, Cornelius (1992) Der Stein. Eine Dokumentation über den Menhir von Tübingen-Weilheim. Tübingen: self published.

Holtorf, Cornelius (1993a) Bodendenkmäler und ihre heutige Bedeutung: zur Rezeption von Megalithbauten. Unpublished M.A. thesis, Universität Hamburg.

Holtorf, Cornelius J. (1993b) Bodendenkmäler und ihre heutige Bedeutung: zur Rezeption von Megalithbauten. [Abstract of the M.A. thesis] Archäologische Informationen 16(2), 331-333.

Holtorf, Cornelius J. (1994) Die heutigen Bedeutungen des Gollensteins von Blieskastel. Für eine empirische Rezeptionsforschung der Archäologie. Saarpfalz 1994(4), 11-21.

Holtorf, Cornelius J. (1995) Vergangenheit, die nicht vergeht: Das vorgeschichtliche Hünengrab von Waabs(-Karlsminde), Kreis Rendsburg-Eckernförde, und seine heutigen Bedeutungen. Archäologische Nachrichten aus Schleswig-Holstein 6, 135-149.

Holtorf, Cornelius J. (forthcoming) Landscapes of Monuments as Landscapes of the Mind. The Contemporary Meanings of Megalithic Monuments. In: J.Nordbladh (ed.) Megaliths and Landscape. Göteborg.

© Cornelius Holtorf