A megalith is a large stone which has been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones. Megalithic means structures made of such large stones, utilizing an interlocking system without the use of mortar or cement.
The word megalith comes from the Ancient Greek μέγας megas meaning great, and λίθος lithos meaning stone. "Megalith" also denotes an item consisting of rock(s) hewn in definite shapes for special purposes. It has been used to describe buildings built by people from many parts of the world living in many different periods. A variety of large stones are seen as megaliths, with the most widely known megaliths not being sepulchral. The construction of these structures took place mainly in the Neolithic (though earlier Mesolithic examples are known) and continued into the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age.
Early stone complexes in eastern Turkey
At a number of sites in eastern Turkey, large ceremonial complexes from the 9th millennium BC have been discovered. They belong to the incipient phases of agriculture and animal husbandry, from which the European (or Western) Neolithic would later develop. Large circular structures involving carved megalithic orthostats are a typical feature, eg. at Nevali Cori and Göbekli Tepe. Although these structures are the most ancient megalithic structures known so far, it is not clear that any of the European Megalithic traditions (see below) are actually derived from them. At Göbekli Tepe four stone circles have been excavated from an estimated 20. Some measure up to 30 metres across. The stones carry carved reliefs of boars, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and scorpions.
The most common type of megalithic construction in Europe is the dolmen
– a chamber consisting of upright stones (orthostats
) with one or more large flat capstones forming a roof. Many of these, though by no means all, contain human remains, but it is debatable whether use as burial sites was their primary function. Though generally known as dolmens, many local names exist, such as anta
, and cromlech
. It is assumed that most dolmens were originally covered by earthen mounds.
The second most common tomb type is the passage grave. It normally consist of a square, circular or cruciform chamber with a slabbed or corbelled roof, accessed by a long, straight passageway, with the whole structure covered by a circular mound of earth. Sometimes it is also surrounded by an external stone kerb. Prominent examples include the sites of Bru na Boinne and Carrowmore in Ireland, Maes Howe in Orkney, and Gavrinis in France.
The third tomb type is a diverse group known as gallery graves. These are axially arranged chambers placed under elongated mounds. The Irish court tombs, British long barrows and German Steinkisten belong to this group.
Another type of megalithic monument is the single standing stone, or menhir. Some of these are thought to have an astronomical function as a marker or foresight, and in some areas long and complex alignments of such stones exist – for example at Carnac in Brittany.
In parts of Britain and Ireland the best-known type of megalithic construction is the stone circle, of which there are hundreds of examples, including Stonehenge, Avebury, Ring of Brodgar and Beltany. These too display evidence of astronomical alignments, both solar and lunar. Stonehenge, for example, is famous for its solstice alignment. Examples of stone circles are also found in the rest of Europe. They are normally assumed to be of later date than the tombs, straddling the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.
Megalithic tombs are aboveground burial chambers, built of large stone slabs (megaliths) laid on edge and covered with earth or other, smaller stones. They are a type of chamber tomb, and the term is used to describe the structures built across Atlantic Europe, the Mediterranean and neighbouring regions, mostly during the Neolithic period, by Neolithic farming communities. They differ from the contemporary long barrows through their structural use of stone.
There is a huge variety of megalithic tombs. The free-standing single chamber dolmens and portal dolmens found in Brittany, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, Wales and elsewhere consist of a large flat stone supported by three, four or more standing stones. They were covered by a stone cairn or earth barrow.
Examples with outer areas, not used for burial, are also known. The Court Cairns of south west Scotland and northern Ireland, the Severn-Cotswold tombs of south west England and the Transepted gallery graves of the Loire region in France share many internal features although the links between them are not yet fully understood. That they often have antechambers or forecourts is thought to imply a desire on the part of the builders to emphasise a special ritual or physical separation of the dead from the living.
The Passage graves of Orkney, Ireland's Boyne Valley, and north Wales are even more complex and impressive, with cross shaped arrangements of chambers and passages. The workmanship on the stone blocks at Maeshowe for example is unknown elsewhere in north west Europe at the time.
Megalithic tombs appear to have been used by communities for the long-term deposition of the remains of their dead and some seem to have undergone alteration and enlargement. The organisation and effort required to erect these large stones mean that the societies concerned must have placed great emphasis on the proper treatment of their dead. The ritual significance of the tombs is supported by the presence of megalithic art carved into the stones at some sites. Hearths and deposits of pottery and animal bone found by archaeologists around some tombs also implies some form of burial feast or sacrificial rites took place there.
Further examples of megalithic tombs include the stalled cairn at Midhowe in Orkney and the passage grave at Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey. Despite its name, the Stone Tomb in Ukraine was not a tomb but rather a sanctuary.
Associated with the megalithic constructions across Europe there are often large earthworks
of various designs – ditches and banks, broad terraces, circular enclosures known as henges
, and frequently artificial mounds such as Silbury Hill
and Monte d’Accoddi
in Sardinia. Sometimes, as at Glastonbury Tor
in England, it is suggested that a natural hill has been artificially sculpted to form a maze or spiral pattern in the turf.
Spirals were evidently an important motif for the megalith builders, and have been found carved into megalithic structures all over Europe – along with other symbols such as lozenges, eye-patterns, zigzags in various configurations, and cup and ring marks. Whilst clearly not a written script in the modern sense of the term, these symbols are considered to have conveyed meaning to their creators, and are remarkably consistent across the whole of Western Europe.
Spread of megalithic architecture in Europe
In Western Europe and the Mediterranean, megaliths are generally constructions erected during the Neolithic or late stone age and Chalcolithic or Copper Age (4500-1500 BC). Perhaps the most famous megalithic structure is Stonehenge in England, although many others are known throughout the world. The French Comte de Caylus was the first to describe the Carnac stones. Legrand d'Aussy introduced the terms menhir and dolmen, both taken from the Breton language, into antiquarian terminology. He interpreted megaliths as gallic tombs. In Britain, the antiquarians Aubrey and Stukeley conducted early research into megaliths. In 1805, Jacques Cambry published a book called Monuments celtiques, ou recherches sur le culte des Pierres, précédées d'une notice sur les Celtes et sur les Druides, et suivies d'Etymologie celtiques, where he proposed a Celtic stone cult. This completely unfounded connection between druids and megaliths has haunted the public imagination ever since. In Belgium there is a megalithic site at Wéris, a little town situated in the Ardennes. In the Netherlands, megalithic structures can be found in the north-east of the current, mostly in the province of Drenthe. Knowth is a passage grave of the Brú na Bóinne neolithic complex in Ireland, dating from c.3500-3000 BC. It contains more than a third of the total number of examples of megalithic art in all Western Europe, with over 200 decorated stones found during excavations.
Timeline of megalithic construction
Excavation of some Megalithic monuments (in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and France) has revealed evidence of ritual activity, sometimes involving architecture, from the Mesolithic
, ie predating the Neolithic monuments by centuries or millennia. Caveats apply: in some cases, they are chronologically so far removed from their successors that continuity is unlikely, in other cases the early dates, or the exact character of activity, are controversial. Examples include:
- Circa 5000 BC: Constructions in Portugal (Évora). Emergence of the Atlantic Neolithic period, the age of agriculture along the western shores of Europe.
- Circa 4800 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Barnenez) and Poitou (Bougon).
- Circa 4000 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Carnac), Portugal (Lisbon), France (central and southern), Corsica, England and Wales.
- Circa 3700 BC: Constructions in Ireland (Knockiveagh and elsewhere).
- Circa 3600 BC: Constructions in England (Maumbury Rings and Godmanchester), and Malta (Ġgantija and Mnajdra temples).
- Circa 3500 BC: Constructions in Spain (Málaga and Guadiana), Ireland (south-west), France (Arles and the north), Sardinia, Sicily, Malta (and elsewhere in the Mediterranean), Belgium (north-east) and Germany (central and south-west).
- Circa 3400 BC: Constructions in Ireland (Newgrange), Netherlands (north-east), Germany (northern and central) Sweden and Denmark.
- Circa 3200 BC: Constructions in Malta (Ħaġar Qim and Tarxien).
- Circa 3000 BC: Constructions in France (Saumur, Dordogne, Languedoc, Biscay, and the Mediterranean coast), Spain (Los Millares), Sicily, Belgium (Ardennes), and Orkney, as well as the first henges (circular earthworks) in Britain.
- Circa 2800 BC: Climax of the megalithic Funnel-beaker culture in Denmark, and the construction of the henge at Stonehenge.
- Circa 2500 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Le Menec, Kermario and elsewhere), Italy (Otranto), Sardinia, and Scotland (north-east), plus the climax of the megalithic Bell-beaker culture in Iberia, Germany, and the British Isles (stone circle at Stonehenge). With the bell-beakers the Neolithic period gave way to the Chalcolithic, the age of copper.
- Circa 2400 BC: The Bell-beaker culture was dominant in Britain, and hundreds of smaller stone circles were built in the British Isles at this time.
- Circa 2000 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Er Grah), Italy (Bari), Sardinia (northern), and Scotland (Callanish). The Chalcolithic period gave way to the Bronze Age in western and northern Europe.
- Circa 1800 BC: Constructions in Italy (Giovinazzo).
- Circa 1500 BC: Constructions in Portugal (Alter Pedroso and Mourela).
- Circa 1400 BC: Burial of the Egtved Girl in Denmark, whose body is today one of the most well-preserved examples of its kind.
- Circa 1200 BC: Last vestiges of the megalithic tradition in the Mediterranean and elsewhere come to an end during the general population upheaval known to ancient history as the Invasions of the Sea Peoples.
at south west corner of western desert was once a large lake in the Nubian
Desert, located 500 miles south of modern day Cairo
. By the 5th millennium BC the peoples in Nabta Playa had fashioned the world's earliest known astronomical
device, 1000 years older than, but comparable to, Stonehenge
. Research shows it to be a prehistoric calendar
that accurately marks the summer solstice
. Findings indicate that the region was occupied only seasonally, likely only in the summer
when the local lake filled with water for grazing cattle
.. It is to be mentioned that there are other megalithic stone circles in the south of western desert.
There are various stones and megalith-like structures arranged in circles and other patterns at sites throughout Southern Africa. These include "Adam's Calendar" in Mpumalanga
, also called the Johan Heine Stone Calendar after its discoverer. Most of the attention seems to focus on a group of rocks that face towards what would have been the Orion constellation.
Megalithic burials are found in Northeast and Southeast Asia. They are found in Liaoning, Shandong, and Zhejiang in China, the Korean Peninsula, Kyūshū in Japan, and parts of India. A living megalithic tradition is found on the island of Sumba in Indonesia. Perhaps the greatest concentration of megalithic burials is in Korea. Archaeologists estimate varyingly that there are 15,000 to 100,000 southern megaliths in the Korean Peninsula.
Northeast Asian megalithic traditions originated in Northeast China
, in particular the Liao River
basin. The practice of erecting megalithic burials spread quickly from the Liao River Basin and into the Korean Peninsula, where the structure of megaliths is geographically and chronologically distinct. The earliest megalithic burials are called "northern" or "table-style" because they feature an above-ground burial chamber formed by heavy stone slabs that form a rectangular cist. An oversized capstone is placed over the stone slab burial chamber, giving the appearance of a table-top. These megalithic burials date to the early part of the Mumun Pottery Period
(c. 1500-850 BC) and are distributed, with a few exceptions, north of the Han River
. Few northern-style megaliths in China
contain grave goods
such as Liaoning
bronze daggers, prompting some archaeologists to interpret the burials as the graves of chiefs or preeminent individuals. However, whether a result of grave-robbery or intentional mortuary behaviour, most northern megaliths contain no grave goods.
Southern-style megalithic burials are distributed in the southern Korean Peninsula
. It is thought that most of them date to the latter part of the Early Mumun or to the Middle Mumun Period. Southern-style megaliths are typically smaller in scale than northern megaliths. The interment area of southern megaliths has an underground burial chamber made of earth or lined with thin stone slabs. A massive capstone is placed over the interment area and is supported by smaller propping stones. Most of the megalithic burials on the Korean Peninsula
are of the southern type.
As with northern megaliths, southern examples contain few, if any, artifacts. However, a small number of megalithic burials contain fine red-burnished pottery, bronze daggers, polished groundstone daggers, and greenstone ornaments. Southern megalithic burials are often found in groups, spread out in lines that are parallel with the direction of streams. Megalithic cemeteries contain burials that are linked together by low stone platforms made from large river cobbles. Broken red-burnished pottery and charred wood found on these platforms has led archaeologists to hypothesize that these platform were sometimes used for ceremonies and rituals. The capstones of many southern megaliths have 'cup-marks' carvings. A small number of capstones have human and dagger representations.
These megaliths are distinguished from other types by the presence of a burial shaft, sometimes up to 4 m in depth, which is lined with large cobbles. A large capstone is placed over the burial shaft without propping stones. Capstone-style megaliths are the most monumental type in the Korean Peninsula, and they are primarily distributed near or on the south coast of Korea. It seems that most of these burials date to the latter part of the Middle Mumun (c. 700-550 BC), and they may have been built into the early part of the Late Mumun. An example is found near modern Changwon at Deokcheon-ni, where a small cemetery contained a capstone burial (No. 1) with a massive, rectangularly shaped, stone and earthen platform. Archaeologists were not able to recover the entire feature, but the low platform was at least 56 X 18 m in size.
Analysis and evaluation
Megaliths were used for a variety of purposes. The purpose of megaliths ranged from serving as boundary markers of territory, to a reminder of past events, to being part of the society's religion. Amongst the indigenous peoples
, North Africa
, North America
, and South America
, the worship of these stones, or the use of these stones to symbolize a spirit or deity, is a possibility. In the early 20th century, some scholars believed that all megaliths belonged to one global "Megalithic culture (hyperdiffusionism
, e. g. 'the Manchester school', by Grafton Elliot Smith
and William James Perry
), but this has long been disproved by modern dating methods. Nor is it believed any longer that there was a European megalithic culture, although regional cultures existed, even within such a small areas as the British Isles. The archaeologist Euan Mackie wrote "Likewise it cannot be doubted that important regional cultures existed in the Neolithic period and can be defined by different kinds of stone circles and local pottery styles (Ruggles & Barclay 2000: figure 1). No-one has ever been rash enough to claim a nation-wide unity of all aspects of Neolithic archaeology!"
Types of megalithic structures
The types of megalithic structures can be divided into two categories, the "Polylithic type
" and the "Monolithic type
". Different megalithic structures include:
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Plain of Jars
ranging from the Khorat Plateau in Thailand in the south, through Laos and to North Cachar Hills of northern India.