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Medway megaliths

The Medway megaliths or Medway tombs are names given to a group of Neolithic chambered long barrows and other megaliths located in the lower valley of the River Medway in the English county of Kent. They are the only group of megaliths in eastern England and the only significant megalithic use of sarsen stone outside the prehistoric structures of Salisbury Plain and its surrounding downland.

They primarily consist of:

Numerous other nearby scatters of large stones such as Smythe's Megalith (also called the Warren Farm chamber), the sarsens at Great Tottington and Cossington, the Blue Bell Hill Dolmen and the White Horse Stones may represent the remains of similar, now destroyed monuments. The Victoria County History for Kent also records a standing stone at Cobham which may have been an outlying example but which is located on heavily-wooded private land and has never been investigated in the modern era.

Several other collections of sarsens in the area, such as a group east of Harvel and those in the fields around the Coldrum monument, are today considered to be natural or to be the result of eighteenth and nineteenth century farmers clearing their fields of large stones and placing them together out of the way. Local sarsen was also exploited as a building material for millennia, as attested by the fabric of the church at Addington. A phase of destruction in the thirteenth century, indicated by pottery finds may have been to plunder the tombs for building material. Alternatively the need for agricultural land, treasure hunting or religiously-inspired damage may account for the monuments' poor state. A second phase of destruction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, using fire and gunpowder to break the stone for building caused further damage.

The tombs are all located on the south-facing lower slopes of the North Downs. One group is concentrated between Maidstone and Rochester on the eastern side of the Medway and another between Snodland and Wrotham to the west of the river. Those on the eastern side are closely clustered and would have been intervisible when they were built.

They are thought to represent a prehistoric ritual landscape unique to the south east of England. In 1999, archaeological work in the vicinity of Kit's Coty uncovered a Neolithic long house further emphasising the area's significance during the period. It has been suggested that an avenue of stones and a cursus crossed the valley linking the Kit's Coty side with the Coldrum Stones side. Numerous prehistoric artefacts have been found in the area since the eighteenth century and later, Bronze Age round barrows also overlook the valley.

It is unclear whether the megaliths are part of the continental European tradition or are closer to the types found much further west on Salisbury Plain. That they have been damaged and not extensively excavated under professional conditions makes analysis difficult. Stuart Piggott considered them to be of Dutch descent whilst Glyn Daniel thought they exhibited Scandinavian influences and OGS Crawford saw parallels with the Severn Cotswold tradition in western England. No convincing parallels have been drawn with any of these monument types however.

All those that survive well enough to be surveyed are broadly oriented east-west with stone chambers at the eastern end of earth mounds around 70m long in surviving examples. The burial chambers themselves were all rectangular and around 2m by 4m in plan. They may have been divided up into compartments and paved with further stones and their barrows surrounded with stone kerbs. The long earth mound that originally covered each chamber used material excavated from parallel flanking ditches in at least one instance The tomb entrances would have been sealed by a portal stone with a façade erected alongside. The gaps between the façade uprights were infilled with smaller stones.

Both inhumations and cremations are represented and it is likely that they served as communal mausolea during the third and fourth millennia BC. However, in common with other examples of megalithic architecture they probably also served a purpose for the living, as territorial markers and gathering places. Unlike the tombs of Wessex there is little evidence for earlier activity such as causewayed enclosures but there are plenty of later prehistoric and even Roman ceremonial sites in the vicinity of the megaliths.

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