In this article we argue that within the Danish Bronze Age there was a short-lived period (roughly 1500–1150 bc) that witnessed a dramatic investment of resources into the construction of monumental architecture in the form of barrows and long houses. These investments had far-reaching long-term effects on the local landscape with negative consequences for agricultural productivity. We use two extraordinary well-documented excavations of a barrow (Skelhøj) and a long house (Legård) as a model for labour organisation and resource allocation, which is calculated against the number of barrows and long houses recorded in the Danish Sites and Monuments database for the period. An astonishing minimum of 50,000 barrows were constructed, devastating an estimated 120,000–150,000 hectares of grassland. During the same time period an estimated 200,000 long houses were constructed and renewed every 30–60 years. In densely settled regions the effects are easily recognisable in pollen diagrams as a near-complete deforestation. Thereby, the productive potential of the economy was, in effect, reduced.
The situation was unsustainable in a long-term perspective and, at least on a local scale, it implied the risk of collapse. On the other hand, the exploitation of resources also appears to have entailed a new way of operating in the landscape, which led to a new organisation of the landscape itself and a restructuring of society in the Late Bronze Age. The intense character of these investments in monumental architecture is assumed to rely primarily on ritual and competitive rationales, and it exemplifies how the overall economy may be considered an unstable or contradictory interplay between ritual, political, and domestic rationales.1