Monument values

In a famous study about the 'cult of monuments', first published in 1903, Alois Riegl distinguished between two kinds of monuments: intentional and unintentional, and then between four principle values of monuments which curiously resemble those suggested by William Lipe in another context (Riegl 1982; Lipe 1984; see also Darvill 1994).

An intentional monument is

"a human creation, erected for the specific purpose of keeping single human deeds or events (or a combination thereof) alive in the minds of future generations" (Riegl 1982: 21).

Intentional monuments are concerned with commemoration, or prospective memory. In every present, they "recall a specific moment or complex of moments from the past", and thus make "a claim to immortality, to an eternal present and an unceasing state of becoming" (Riegl 1982: 24, 38). Riegl believed that all of antiquity and the Middle Ages knew only intentional monuments (Riegl 1982: 26).

According to Riegl (1982: 23), unintentional monuments, which are much more numerous, are remains whose meaning is determined not by their makers, but by our modern perceptions of these monuments, i.e. by retrospective cultural memory. Riegl added that deliberate monuments can also become 'unintentional', when they were built for the benefit of contemporaries or immediate progeny only but survive much longer.

In my view, all monuments can be seen as unintentional in the sense that even if they were built with specific prospective memories in mind, their meanings can ultimately never be determined by their makers but is negotiated within the history culture and cultural memory of each present. All these meanings together give ancient monuments what Mats Burström called their 'cultural value' (1993; see also Burström et al. 1996). Contrary to what Riegl believed, there is abundant evidence for various receptions of (unintentional) ancient monuments long before the modern age, e.g. in later prehistory, in ancient Mesopotamia, in the New Kingdom of Egypt, in Archaic and Classical Greece as well as in historic periods.

According to Riegl, unintentional monuments can have three main values: (art-)historical value, age-value, and use-value (Riegl 1982). Another value, art-value, is restricted to intentional works of art.

Historical value

Riegl argues that the (art-)historical value first developed during the Renaissance in 15th–century Italy and coincided with the first measures for the preservation of monuments (1982: 26). Initially, a distinction was drawn between the art-value and the historical value. But in the 19th century it became clear that as every work of art was also a historical monument, so every historical monument constituted at the same time an art monument (Riegl 1982: 22, 28). Historians and archaeologists believe that they can bridge the gap between past and present through thorough study, and they want to preserve ancient monuments, with the help of legislation, first and foremost as historical sources:

"The historical value of a monument arises from the particular, individual stage it represents in the development of human activity in a certain field... The more faithfully a monument's original state is preserved, the greater its historical value: disfiguration and decay detract from it... It is the task of the historian to make up, with all available means, for the damage nature has wrought in monuments over time... The objective of historical value is ... to maintain as genuine as possible a document for future art-historical research." (Riegl 1982: 34; see also Piper 1948: 95-6)

Riegl's historical value is identical with what William Lipe called 'informational value' (1984: 6-7). The antiquarian Friedrich Lisch (1837: 133), too, made reference to the historical value of megaliths when he wrote:

"Die letzte und einzige Hoffnung, Licht in die Dunkelheit zu bringen, ruhet in den Gräbern, welche bekanntlich aus der Vorzeit als dauernde ... Denkmäler noch herüberragen und in ihrem Schooße das bergen, was wir suchen: Erkenntnis des Seins und des Lebens der Vorfahren."

"The last and single hope for bringing light into the darkness rests in the graves which, as we all know, are left from prehistoric times as enduring ... monuments and hold within them what we are looking for: a knowledge about the being and life of the ancestors." (my translation)

The study of ancient monuments and artefacts as a source of information about the past may go back a long time further than Riegl imagined, and was perhaps an element of history culture already in later prehistory.


Antiquity and pastness as such can be valued aesthetic attributes (Shils 1981: 68-70; Lowenthal 1985: 52-7). According to Riegl (1982: 29-31), such age-value is a phenomenon of the 20h century alone, even though it builds on historical value in general and on a tradition that can be traced back to the 17th century in particular. Age-value depends on the knowledge of age, which rests partly on the perception of traces of 'pleasing decay' and aging (Piper 1948; Lowenthal 1985: chapter 4). Age-value contributes to the aura and authenticity of an object, and creates a context for nostalgia:

"It is probably fair to say that ruins appear more picturesque the more advanced their state of decay: as decay progresses, age-value becomes less extensive, that is to say, evoked less and less by fewer and fewer remains, but is therefore all the more intensive in its impact on the beholder... From the standpoint of age-value, one need not worry about the eternal preservation of monuments... Age-value manifests itself immediately through visual perception and appeals directly to our emotions." (Riegl 1982: 32-3)

William Lipe called a very similar category 'associative/symbolic value' (1984: 4-6). The emerging contradiction between age-value, which supports the decay of monuments, and historical value, which supports their preservation, is avoided by Riegl in a lengthy (and ultimately unconvincing) argument about the interrelations and dependence of both values upon each other (Riegl 1982: 34-8).

Unlike Riegl, I assume that, in principle, age appealed to some people in other periods, too. Hence I would use the concept of age-value also in respect to the later prehistoric roles of ancient monument such as megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

While both historical and age value are considered "commemorative values or values of the past", Riegl contrasts these with the two "present-day values" of use-value and art-value (1982: 31).


Use-value refers to the benefits to people actually using monuments for utilitarian purposes. This includes what William Lipe called 'economic value' (1984: 7–9).

"use-value is indifferent to the treatment of a monument so long as the monument's existence is not affected and no concessions whatsoever are made to age-value... On the other hand, use-value may also require the destruction of a monument; for instance, if decay endangers human life" (Riegl 1982: 39).

There is no doubt that such use-value of ancient monuments has also been appreciated by later prehistoric and historic populations, which is reflected in the evidence for their re-uses.


According to Riegl (1982: 42–50) every monument possesses art-value insofar as it responds to the modern Kunstwollen (artistic ambitions). This is the case when it (1) expresses 'newness-value' and reveals no decay, or when it (2) expresses 'relative art-value' either corresponding to, or contradicting contemporary Kunstwollen. As the term Kunstwollen already implies, monuments with art-value are never unintentional. William Lipe called this value 'aesthetic value' (1984: 7).

Megaliths and other ancient monuments have recently attracted much interest by artists in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, much as elsewhere (see e.g. Lippard 1983), and seem to be increasingly appreciated for a positive art-value. At the same time, the megalithic idea also attracts new art being created using similar means of expression. Who knows, perhaps megaliths played a similar role already in later prehistory and were appreciated then, too, for their art-value; they may even have inspired 'artists' of later periods to build similar structures.


Burström, Mats (1993) Mångtydiga Fornlämningar. En studie av innebörder som tillskrivits fasta fornlämningar i Österrekarne härad, Södermanland. Stockholm Archaeological Reports 27.

Burström, Mats, Björn Winberg and Torun Zachrisson (1996) Fornlämningar och folkminnen. Stockholm: Riksantikvarieämbetet.

Darvill, Timothy (1994) Value Systems and the Archaeological Resource. International Journal of Heritage Studies 1(1), 52-64.

Lipe, William D (1984) Value and meaning in cultural resources. In: H.Cleere (ed) Approaches to the Archaeological Heritage, pp. 1-11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lippard, Lucy (1983) Overlay. Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. New York: New Press.

Lisch, G.C.Friedrich (1837) Andeutungen über die altgermanischen und slavischen Grabalterthümer Meklenburgs und die norddeutschen Grabalterthümer aus der vorchristlichen Zeit überhaupt. Jahresbericht des Vereins für mecklenburgische Geschichte und Alterthumskunde 2, 132-48.

Lowenthal, David (1985) The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Piper, John (1948) Pleasing Decay. In: J. Piper, Buildings and Prospects, pp. 89-116. Westminster: The Architectural Press.

Riegl, Alois (1982) The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origin [1903]. Oppositions 25 (Fall 1982), 21-51.

Shils, Edward (1981) Tradition. London: Faber and Faber.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 17 January 2002