Moving A Megalith With Cow Power

at the Dahlem Domain Open Air Museum in Berlin.

The Dahlem Domain manor, with a metropolitan train station three minutes away!

The German group piloted by Jörg Bremond, a rare breeds specialist, meets once a year in late winter. They were hosted in 2016 by the Domäne Dahlem Open Air Museum in Dahlem, which has a working farm totally open to the public. Berliners stroll around there, visit the museum itself and its shop selling farm-fresh produce, attend the many activities and events, and can drop by to watch farm manager Astrid Masson and her team of interns using cow draft for the works and days of each season (1). This unusual situation is seconded by the new permanent exhibit called the “Culinarium”, which takes up the challenge of making the connections between farm and food clear to a public traditionally demanding about food quality. Museum Director Peter Lummel – a member of ALHFAM – guided the tour around the Culinarium and its wealth of subjects laid out in attractive panels, from the agricultural innovations staircase up to the mechanical milk cow, on to specific questions that intrigue, such as how the self-service supermarket developed or just what percentage of the world’s people eat with knife and fork, chopsticks or hands – with hands winning, hands down.

Axel Göbel milking in front of the production gauge in the “Culinarium”.

The oxdrivers visited the entire working farm, from chicken breeds to the sheep, goats, poneys and the Domain’s three cows, all housed comfortably in a former large-scale farming facility. There, they met Emma, the star of the show, and her ten-day-old calf, Elsa. Emma and her two regular companions do the farm work, take people for char-a-banc rides and are teachers in the regular working cow handlers’ training sessions. However, she had a special job to do, and that was moving a megalith.

Three-cow cavalcade on the Dahlem Domain museum and farm in Berlin.

The Dahlem farm has a special relationship with archaeologist Eva Rosenstock of the Berlin Free University Prehistory Institute and she was among the Saturday evening speakers, presenting a converging hypothesis among her colleagues in a paper entitled “Moraines, Megaliths and Moo” – that massive land clearing and the consequent building of the first monumental structures in northern Europe may have been carried out mainly by cattle draft (2). The suspense on Sunday morning for the working session was pleasantly peaking. Emma’s calf bounded about merrily, with her mother keeping a wary eye on her. Would Emma be too distracted to concentrate on her task? Would she shy at the megalith, nearly a ton, on its sledge, or at the rails and rollers she would have to back into? And being hitched to the lines with a hanging scale that was to measure each draft effort? All that suspense and – Emma just did it, keeping her people busy, resetting the rollers. Astrid, ever concerned at not letting an animal be put to too much strain, withdrew the star player, and the humans were able to try their hand at moving the megalith in teams of two, ten and twenty, all of which produced much food for thought, and precise measurements for the Berlin group plus their University of Kiel colleagues, who are working along the same lines.

1-ton megalith, Emma and her calf, master oxdriver Astrid Masson.

This was but the highlight of the meeting, as it is always an opportunity for much informal exchange over harness and skills-sharing. Anne Wiltafsky showed the latest experiments in cow behavior from her Cow School in Kilchberg, Switzerland. Rolf Minhorst, specialist in the development of the three-pad collar, spoke to us of his stay in the Dominican Republic as an agricultural advisor and the stakes involved in high-volume peanut production with cattle draft. Others showed us the festive events or museum demonstrations they had participated in over the year, updated us on photographing and filming European farmers still using working cattle and horses, and shared news from oxdrivers round the world, as well as the always relaxed atmosphere and a chance to enjoy Berlin food specialties.

Nothing beats emulation for motivating colleagues to further the adventure. These experiments were pursued the following year at the EXARC member Lauresham Open Air Laboratory.

Cozette Griffin-Kremer, Associate Researcher, CRBC Brest


  • (1) See Astrid’s Handbook on harnessing cattle in German: Handbuch Rinderanspannung. Praktischer Ratgeber zu Verhalten, Ausbilding, Beschirrung und Anspannung von Zugrindern. (Cattle Harnessing Handbook with practical tips on behavior, training, harnessing and draft) Starke Pferde Verlag, 2015, 202 pp. (In German with summary in English, especially applies to working with cows in museums in a regional context)
  • (2) Eva Rosenstock, Astrid Masson and Bernd Zich. Moraines, megaliths and moo: putting the prehistoric tractor to work in Müller, Johannes et al (eds.) Megaliths, Societies, Landscapes: Early Monumentality and Social Differentiation in Neolithic Europe. Vol. 3, Verlag Dr. Rudolf Habelt, Bonn, 2019, pp. 1099-1112