Why and how did I want to use hypermedia and the World Wide Web in my Ph.D. thesis?

To every thesis there is a story. Usually, such a story can explain much better why a thesis looks the way it does than any formal academic argument can. So here is the (much abbreviated) story of my thesis entitled "Monumental Past. Interpreting the Meanings of Ancient Monuments in Later Prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Germany)" (Holtorf 1998).

I have been fascinated by what monuments mean to people ever since my Hamburg MA thesis of 1993, in which I empirically investigated the contemporaneous meanings of three selected megaliths and menhirs in Germany. Having come to Lampeter later the same year I wrote a second M.A. thesis, again about the various meanings of megaliths, but this time focussing more on the theoretical background of Radical Constructivism and reception theory as well as on prehistoric and historic case-studies. Having had to make a decision about my Ph.D. research topic early in 1994, this topic seemed to be interesting and promising to pursue further. I chose later prehistory as a time period, since I was mainly interested in working with material culture evidence.

Since I started my work in 1994, the basic theme proved feasible and has stayed virtually the same, but I have modified my exact line of argument several times, and this is reflected in the various outlines and abstracts which I wrote at different points in time. Even though empirical detail has got a certain irresistible attraction to me (as well as a considerable rhetorical power), the theoretical aspects of my thesis have always, and perhaps over the years increasingly so, been more important to me than the details of the archaeology of my study area. One of the biggest challenges from the start was if I could find enough relevant material evidence on which to build a larger argument. Already confident after looking at the regional literature in the library of the Institute of Archaeology in London and an explorative visit to the sites and monuments record (Ortsaktenarchiv) of the Landesamt für Bodendenkmalpflege in Lübstorf, both early in 1995, I became entirely convinced about my project during extended visits to the study area during the summers of 1995 and 1996.

On the basis of the promising evidence I had collected, and the associated archaeological literature I had read, it was always clear to me that for interesting interpretations I would need exciting ideas, rather than more material or access to even more archaeological literature. My interest was, after all, first and foremost in the meanings of ancient monuments, not in a particular archaeological period or area. So I decided early on to combine my archaeological work with references to various other, but related, themes and topics. Later prehistory would be supplemented by evidence from later historic periods as well from the present. Ancient monuments and conceptions of the past in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern would be associated with case-studies from completely different archaeological and anthropological contexts. The actual receptions of megaliths which I could see in the record would thus be put in the wider context of meanings of monuments more generally.

All this was to be put into practice by using hypermedia technology. My original application document and further discussions about my plan to submit on the World Wide Web, and then on CD-Rom, led me to think in detail about the characteristics and significance of hypermedia links in the text. As a consequence, the idea of making sense by making connections became more and more important to me, and developed perhaps into one of the most important elements of the entire thesis. Although my thesis also contained a table of contents, I did not impose a specific order in which it ought to be read (after the entrance and the title pages), nor an essential sequence of my argument. Instead I stressed, in both form and content, the power of making connections as an interpretative tool (see also Holtorf forthcoming). All I offered to the reader were a couple of access points that lead them right into the thesis. After that, I said: `Be investigative! Be an archaeologist!´ As with monuments, my thesis has to be interpreted by making connections. In this sense, it becomes a 'monument' itself.

As an example of the non-linearity of my thesis I reproduce here its title page, offering several options for where to go next. Note that all words which appear underlined in the text are clickable in the thesis.

Monumental Past

Interpreting the Meanings of Ancient Monuments in Later Prehistoric Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Germany)



Doctoral dissertation

by Cornelius J Holtorf

of the Department of Archaeology, University of Wales, Lampeter

completed in April 1998


Since the format of this dissertation is somewhat unusual, all readers are advised to read first my introduction on how to read this thesis (click here).

There are several possible starting points leading you into the thesis:

The overview gives a brief summary of the key arguments. The database of megaliths and their later receptions presents the material I have worked with. The glossary of terms introduces the theoretical vocabulary.
The map shows some important locations in my study area.

The bibliography refers to the body of literature I have worked with.
The implications of my work indicate its potentials for future research. The section on the history of research discusses how other archaeologists have approached megaliths in Mecklenburg- Vorpommern. The full list of pages can help ensure that you haven't missed anything.
During the process of my research I have been assisted by a great number of institutions, colleagues and friends and I would like to thank them all for their help. Without it, this thesis would not have been possible.


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Last updated: Mon March 8 1999