Prospective Memory

While it is customary to see megaliths as monuments from the past, I argue that they can also be seen as monuments for the future (for an earlier version of the same argument see Holtorf 1996: 120-3). What makes monuments 'monumental' is their permanence and scale, their constant visibility:

"a monument can be defined as a cluster of intentional results, made concrete in the form of an artificial product which is visible though space and which maintains this visibility through time" (Criado 1995: 199).

Monuments therefore 'alter the earth', forever (Bradley 1993).

Our word 'monument' (which is the same in most European languages) derives from the Latin "monimentum", meaning "reminder". In the Roman world, inscribed monuments guaranteed the memory of events of lasting significance, such as treaties and acts. But there were also more personal monuments by individuals who saw aspects of their own identity threatened by public oblivion and thus erected public reminders of their loyalty and patriotism, of the public offices which they had held, or of their military victories and triumphs (Woolf 1996; Wiseman 1985; Barrett 1993). Similarly, the Greeks distinguished between 'human time' and 'monumental time' (Foxhall 1995). While human time refers to a time-span of three or four generations and is normally expressed as a kinship relationship, monumental time is truly permanent and connected with posterity and the realm of the divine Gods. Lin Foxhall argued that Greek citizens were very interested in achieving fame for posterity. Poetry, drama, historiography, sculpture and architecture are all to be seen as the Greeks' attempts to create memories-to-be; they were meant to act as signifiers which trigger off the words of humans, in which truly permanent memories reside. Likewise, the Greeks built grave monuments in order to achieve for their dead perpetual remembrance: the dead did not become ancestors but monuments themselves (Humphreys 1980: 269-70). In Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, burial mounds function as permanent reminders of the glory of heroes (e.g. Iliad VII, 85ff.; Odyssey 11, 76; 24, 80; cf. Andronikos 1968: W33-4). This function has been directly transferred to Bronze Age tumuli in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern by Robert Beltz (1899: 41), who called the earlier Bronze Age the 'Heroic Age of Mecklenburg'. The same function of burial mounds is, by the way, also hinted at in the Beowulf Song from approximately the 8th century AD (43, 3156ff.). If such monuments were thus meant as 'cultural mnemonics', what matters is the message they wanted to preserve for the future. This message can be described as 'prospective memory' (Assmann 1992: 169): an aspect of the 'past present' was encoded in a form that was hoped to have an effect on a 'future past', e.g. our own 'present past'. Another good example for such prospective memories are 19th and 20th century war memorials (see image right) and other commemorative monuments (Shils 1981: 72-3; Riegl 1982: 21, 38).

According to Aleida Assmann (1991), monuments are that part of culture which is stage-managing itself: they want to be seen, preserved and remembered by contemporary and later generations. The monument is an erected sign which encodes a message in a permanent way for communicating with people that are (possibly) millennia away: a monument is what is designed to survive the present and to enable cultural communication with the distant future (Assmann 1991: 13-4). The pharaohs of ancient Egypt built monuments and left inscriptions in order to immortalize their names and deeds for posterity (Butterfield 1981: 48-9; Hornung 1982: 16; Seters 1983: 145-60). The tower of Babel too was built "so that we may make a name for ourselves" (Genesis 11:4). One Egyptian poet however, did not rate building monuments very highly and recommended writing books instead, in order to preserve more reliably the memory of one's name for the future (Hornung 1982: 14; see also Assmann 1996: 83-4, 305-6). Jan Assmann referred to this project of the Egyptians to construct 'sacred time', and create eternity, through the media of monumental architecture and written inscriptions as a 'monumental discourse' (Assmann 1992: 169; 1996: 78, 81-93).

Similarly, in ancient Mesopotamia, durable monuments and royal inscriptions, especially the commemorative texts, were provided so that certain matters would be remembered in the future (Seters 1983: 60-1; Jonker 1995: 83-5, chapter 3; Bernbeck 1996: 89):

"The royal inscriptions are really egotistical boast, with pious overtones, to future peoples of the king's accomplishments." (Grayson 1980: 191)

Yi-Fu Tuan argued that art and architecture, too, seek visibility. Large monuments and enduring places (he named Stonehenge as an example) can transcend the values of a particular culture and "speak to humanity" (Tuan 1977: 164).

Monuments in prehistory

Jan Assmann claimed that monumentality is necessarily connected with large political forms of organisations such as states and empires (Assmann 1988a; 1988b; 1992). For Assmann, monuments are the way in which collective identity is expressed in states and empires. Monuments are size made visible and as such they are the only appropriate architectural expression of thousand-year empires, such as the Third Reich. Rulers do not only usurp the past but also the future; they want to be remembered for what they have achieved for the whole community. Political power is legitimating itself retrospectively while it is immortalizing itself prospectively (Assmann 1992: 71). This is one important role of monuments. But Assmann's link of monumentality and states or empires is hardly an exclusive one. Monuments, as megaliths aptly demonstrate, had a role to play in prehistoric societies too.

While the building process of megaliths is likely to have played a role in establishing social cohesion and reproducing political power structures, such monuments can also be seen as resulting from a wish to transmit certain values to (human beings of) the future. Megaliths were built intentionally monumental and there is no indication that they were not thought of, and desired, as being permanent and perhaps even eternal (see Tamms 1974: 126-7; Tacon 1994: 126; Sherratt 1995: 246). Their durable character combined with, in many cases, a wide visibility suggests that also then expectations for the future and prospective memories must have been a decisive motivation for building monuments. The role of prehistoric monuments can thus be described as triggering off memories. Some monuments may have been built for the immediately following generation(s) rather than for millennia ahead. The degree of their monumentality may well give as a clue as to how far ahead people may have thought. Those monuments, which were built only for a short-term future, are likely to have disappeared already, while others seem to have been built truly for eternity. But even monuments which were created, and allowed, to become invisible can have had prospective memories (for examples see Young 1993: chapter 1). For instance, wooden predecessors of later stone monuments can be seen as imperfect monuments, which were less durable but built with similar intentions.

In an important ethnographic study, Debbora Battaglia has shown how extensive ceremonies in connection with death can be dominated by a concern with future memory, or 'projective remembrance', as she calls it (1990: 155f.). It is thus not surprising that parallel to monument building, there were alternative ways of transmitting messages to an unknown future, some of which less durable. Examples are oral narratives, regularly performed rituals and ceremonies, 'structured depositions' in the ground, or regularly re-cut chalk figures on the surface of the earth, all of which may or may not have been directly connected with different sorts of monuments (see Vansina 1985: espec. 45-6, 157; Fleming 1987: 198-200; Connerton 1989; Bradley 1991; 1993: 98-9; Thomas 1991: chapter 4). Arguably, the custom of erecting conspicuous monuments implies a challenge to the ability of oral tradition and rituals to transmit important cultural information to the future (Larsson 1997).

Considering provisions for the future carefully was not strange in a Neolithic farming society: both animal husbandry and crop growing have in common that they are 'delayed-return systems', i.e. they yield results only through continuing work over a long time period (Woodburn 1982: 432-3; Bradley 1993: 6-9). If farmers thus have to plan their subsistence strategies for one or more years ahead, they may as well have thought about a future which is further away, and perhaps well beyond their own life expectancy. There was a link 'in the mind' between agriculturalists and monument-builders (Bradley 1993: 17; cf. Clark 1992: 56-7, 105).

Prospective memories in interpretations of prehistoric monuments

A brief look at the main interpretive strategies employed by archaeologists for understanding megaliths shows that they all can be read as theories about different prospective memories, although these memories are of very different kind.

In every approach, megaliths were interpreted as meaningful for a future time. Megaliths thus seem to have always been understood, in one way or another, as expressions of prospective memories (for a critical discussion of this argument see Bradley 2002: chapter 4).

The fate of prehistoric megaliths

Although, as I have argued, the megalith-builders are likely to have had every intention to transform a particular message into permanent memory, later generations had, in fact to find their own interpretations of these large stone structures which they found in the landscape they inhabited. The 19th century traveller Johann Jacob Grümbke put it this way (1988: 177-8; my translation):

"Our present age shows how badly these giants' graves preserved for posterity the memory of the dead whose ashes they include. The oldest annals know nothing, either about their existence, or about the names of those who lie under them, and about their origin not even a reasonable tradition exists."

Later populations were left with no more than the megaliths themselves, plus perhaps, in some cases, associated rituals or oral traditions about these monuments which they may or may not have found relevant or indeed believable (Barrett 1994: 109-12). Many of these monuments were destroyed, others remained meaningful in cultural memories and appeared to speak eloquently about times long gone by.

Monuments were a way to leave an impression on future generations. In a way therefore, monuments were built for us. They may even have been conceived with an anticipation of decay and their appearance in the present could thus have been very much intended. Within this logic, it is our task now, more than anything else, to appreciate and remember the megaliths which we find in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and elsewhere.


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 26 October 2002