Laid to rest

The burial mounds are situated on slight knolls, contributing to the impressive height of these edifices. Only a small fraction of society was interred in these mounds. No other burials are preserved. Building a mound fifteen metres in diameter and up to ten metres high required up to two hectares of land. They consist not only of plain earth but partly of turf – that is to say, of precious arable soil. The resources and manpower required were at the disposal only of the richest members of society. Burial mounds were the preserve of elites.

Over time, new burials were added to the mounds, each time adding to their size and creating gigantic monuments dominating the landscape and visible from afar.

An example is mound LA 117 in Bornhöved in the district of Segeberg, which has recently been studied by the CRC 1266.

Reshaping and rebuilding: the example of Bornhöved

Bronze Age people repeatedly sought out the knoll to the west of the lake at Bornhöved as a site to bury their dead. The earliest grave was dug deep into the clay, which must have been hard work with the crude wooden spades used at the time.

The circumference of the mound was marked with stones. The earth piled up to form the mound was taken from two ditches dug around it. A simple trick makes the mound look taller than it is: the inner ditch, barely visible to archaeologists, accentuates the natural knoll on which the mound is situated and makes it look even taller.

  • The first grave (1877—1744 BCE).

  • The ground is cleared of grass …

  • … and the mound is outlined.

  • A ditch provides material for the mound. It is then encircled with ring of stones.

  • A second ditch was dug to make the knoll and mound look taller — a simple and effective trick known thousands of years ago.

  • Grass grows over the ditch and mound, reabsorbing them into the landscape.

It is likely that decades passed until the next burial. Wind, rain and animals work together to gradually refill the ditch. At some point, work begins on a new grave. The ditch is dug up again and the mound is enlarged. Archaeologist were able to identify up to three such additions, though the graves themselves can no longer be found. The graves in the upper layers were destroyed by the intensive ploughing that began in the Middle Ages.

  • The latest ditch dates back to the time
    between 1,740 and 1,650 BCE.

  • Excursion

    Underneath a modern residential area — how archaeobotanists recreate landscapes of the past

  • Grains of pollen may be preserved for millions of years in soil and sediment, e. g. in lake sediment. Particles land on the water and sink to the bottom, where they are preserved under successive layers of sediment. The deeper the layer, the older the pollen.

  • Microscopic though they are, grains of pollen can be distinguished by their shape and surface structure, allowing species and families of plant to be identified. The analysis of pollen samples from a drill core can thus give clues to the history of a landscape’s vegetation.

  • In lakes, these samples are extracted using rafts and sent to a laboratory for chemical preparation. Under the microscope, the composition of the pollen sample, in its various layers of sediment, reflects the local vegetation.

    Supplementary information on ancient plant life may be derived from samples taken from archaeological digs.

  • Pollen analysis tells us that the mound was built on arable land which ceased to be tilled once the grave was erected. The plant spectrum then became typical of nutrient-poor grassland with possible pasturage. The region’s dense vegetation began to disappear in 1100 BCE. The landscape opened up and heather took over as the most common plant, a sure indicator of poor soils.

  • Though poor in nutrients, the soil around the mound was used for the cultivation of buckwheat in the Early Modern era. Evidence of rye, corn and oilseed rape in samples from the mound’s uppermost layers testify to the use of fertiliser in more recent times, without which these crops could not have been grown.

  • Microscopic grains of pollen allow us to reconstruct the environmental history of cultivated land from earliest times to the present.

A last dying of the rich upper class

The burial mound is rebuilt one last time. Two hundred years after the illumination, towards the end of the Early Bronze Age, people come together for another funeral. This time, they join forces to build a wreath of enormous stakes around the mound, logs that rise high above the ground in which they are firmly secured with stones. The stakes make the mound visible from afar.

The great mound burials have entered their final phase. Burial goods — notably gold and swords — are increasingly used. Cremation is introduced as part of the funeral rite. Once the flames of the pyres have died down, the charred bones are still buried in coffins. The elite still shows off its full power, manifested in burial mounds and visible to all from afar. But as the Early Bronze age draws to a close, the building of burial mounds ceases across much of northern Europe.

  • Excursion

    The meaning of monumental tombs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

  • The term mausoleum derives from the ancient Persian king Mausolus (377—353 BCE), who had a monumental tomb built for himself in the city of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey). So impressive was the tomb that it was ranked among the seven wonders of the ancient world and became a byword for large and richly decorated tombs.

  • In the Middle Ages, a person’s prominence was indicated by their burial in a church and, within the church, their tomb’s proximity to the chancel. To be buried in a church or its crypt was hence a privilege of bishops, royalty, the nobility and similarly eminent personages. This changed with the Reformation.

  • The Reformation changed perceptions of the afterlife and challenged the idea that the fate of a person’s soul was tied to the position of their grave. This opened up the possibility of burial sites away from churches and on the edge of villages and towns.

  • In the early eighteenth century, the aristocracy began building mausoleums on their estates. The romantic movement and a new interest in the landscape led these burial sites to be designed as integral parts of parks and landscape gardens. Notable examples in Germany include the mausoleum of the Hanoverian royal family in that city’s Berggarten or the pyramid built by Prince Hermann of Pückler-Muskau at Bad Muskau.

  • As the population grew in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it became necessary to move municipal cemeteries beyond the gates of the city. These cemeteries followed a new aesthetic which in turn expressed a new view of nature. Cemeteries took the shape of parks, with graves arranged along structured lines.

  • In the nineteenth century the rising middle classes began to emulate the aristocracy and their opulent buildings. Urban industrialists now built family plots and mausoleums in the historicist style, completing the circle begun by King Mausolus.

  • The nineteenth century also saw an increase in cremation, against the resistance of the Roman Catholic church. The number of cremations further increased after the first world war. In Germany, cremation currently account for approximately half of all burials, varying between urban and rural areas and according to dominant religious tradition.

A social revolution

A turning point is reached around 1100 BCE. The destruction of thousands of hectares of fertile soil for the construction of burial mounds has led to poor soils and a decline in arable farming. The land around the mounds is given to pasture. Culturally, opulent tombs and rich burial goods fall out of fashion. The individual gains in importance and each person is now entitled to a proper burial.

Instead of adding further monuments to the landscape, Late Bronze Age people return to the older mounds, burying their dead there in urns with a few personal effects. Wealth and ostentation are no longer displayed in the burial rite. Households now share graves on the side of the mounds. The social revolution of the late Bronze Age allows archaeologists to appreciate the whole spectrum of Bronze Age society.

  • Buried in a pretty vessel. This urn from Bornhöved was carefully made and polished to a sheen.

  • This covering dish faced upwards and may have contained an offering of food. No other grave goods were found at Bornhöved.

  • The bowl is decorated and, like the urn, carefully made.

  • Simplicity is the norm: other urns are more crudely fashioned.

  • First a cooking pot, then an urn. Vessels were repurposed; here, a food crust is still visible on the inside.

  • Just put a lid on it: dishes were mostly used as covers.

  • An upturned vessel might serve as a lid.

  • Off with its head: the upper portion fell victim to the plough.

  • Tightly packed. A stone packing protected the urn.


  • Never mind the brush — first, the digger.

  • Modern measuring technology beats dusty notebooks.

  • Documentation matters — both photography …

  • … and scale drawings.

  • Ditches, pits and posts.

  • Stone upon stone: laying bare an urn hidden inside a dense pile of stones.

  • An aerial photograph of Bornhöved. In spite of the dry soil, the ditch is clearly discernible at the centre of the image.

  • The central grave; the head can just about be discerned on the left.

  • The prehistoric post is only visible today as a dark stain in the light sand. Once the post rotted away, the packing stone used to support it fell into the post hole.

Illumination today

Modern burials

"The bigger, the better" is a principle that led to a social revolution and a re-evaluation of religious customs. The Reformation heralded a change in beliefs that continues today. Churches and graveyards ceased to be inseparable. In the nineteenth century, the prosperous middle classes began to imitate the aristocracy in the funeral customs. Large tombs and mausoleums were erected on the fringes of the city.

The increasing popularity of cremation in the nineteenth century signalled another shift in funeral customs, with numbers surging after the First World War. Cost and space are the most frequently cited factors, but the increasing democratisation of society and a change in mourning practices — at least in urban areas — also contributed.