A megalith is a large stone that has been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones. The word "megalithic" describes structures made of such large stones, utilizing an interlocking system without the use of mortar or cement, as well as representing periods of prehistory characterised by such constructions. For later periods the term monolith, with an overlapping meaning, is more likely to be used.
The word "megalith" comes from the Ancient Greek "μέγας" or megas (meaning "great") and "λίθος" or 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.
- 1 Early stone complexes in eastern Turkey
- 2 Middle Eastern megaliths
- 3 European megaliths
- 4 African megaliths
- 5 Asian megaliths
- 6 Melanesian megaliths
- 7 Analysis and evaluation
- 8 Gallery
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 External links
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. Large circular structures involving carved megalithic orthostats are a typical feature; e.g. 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. As well as human figures, the stones carry a variety of carved reliefs depicting boars, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and scorpions.
Middle Eastern megaliths
Dolmens and standing stones have been found in large areas of the Middle East starting at the Turkish border in the north of Syria close to Aleppo, southwards down to Yemen. They can be encountered in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Megaliths have also been found on Kharg Island in Iran and at Barda Balka in Iraq.
The most concentrated occurrence of dolmen in particular is in a large area on both sides of the Jordan Rift Valley, with greater predominance on the eastern side. They occur first and foremost on the Golan Heights, the Hauran, and in Jordan, which probably has the largest concentration of dolmen in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, only very few dolmen have been identified so far in the Hejaz. They seem, however, to re-emerge in Yemen in small numbers, and thus could indicate a continuous tradition related to those of Somalia and Ethiopia.
The standing stone has a very ancient tradition in the Middle East, dating back from Mesopotamian times. Although not always 'megalithic' in the true sense, they occur throughout the Orient, and can reach 5 metres or more in some cases (such as Ader in Jordan). This phenomenon can also be traced through many passages from the Old Testament, such as those related to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, who poured oil over a stone that he erected after his famous dream in which angels climbed to heaven (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob is also described as putting up stones at other occasions, whereas Moses erected twelve pillars symbolizing the tribes of Israel. The tradition of venerating (standing) stones continued in Nabatean times and is reflected in, e.g., the Islamic rituals surrounding the Kaaba and nearby pillars. Related phenomena, such as cupholes, rock-cut tombs and circles also occur in the Middle East.
The second-most-common tomb type is the passage grave. It normally consists 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 Brú na Bóinne and Carrowmore in Ireland, Maes Howe in Orkney, and Gavrinis in France.
The most common type of megalithic construction in Europe is the portal tomb – 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, the correct term accepted by archaeologists is portal tomb. However many local names exist, such as anta in Galicia and Portugal, stazzone in Sardinia, hunebed in the Netherlands, Hünengrab in Germany, dysse in Denmark, and cromlech in Wales. It is assumed that most portal tombs were originally covered by earthen mounds.
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 Italy, dolmens can be found in Apulia, Sardinia and in Sicily. In the latter place, they are located in Mura Pregne (Palermo), Sciacca (Agrigento), Monte Bubbonia (Caltanissetta), Butera (Caltanissetta), Cava Lazzaro (Siracusa), Cava dei Servi (Ragusa), Avola (Siracusa), all structures covered, in the ancient, by a circular mound of earth and dated to the early Bronze Age. In the dolmen of Cava dei Servi, the archaeologists found numerous human bone fragments and some splinters of Castelluccian (Early Bronze Age) ceramics.
In parts of Britain and Ireland the best-known type of megalithic construction is the stone circle, of which examples include 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 assumed to be of later date than the tombs, straddling the Neolithic and the Bronze Ages.
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 southwest Scotland and northern Ireland, the Severn-Cotswold tombs of southwest 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 emphasize 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 northwest 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 organization and effort required to erect these large stones suggest that the societies concerned 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 that 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. There are also extensive grave sites with up to 60 megaliths at Louisenlund and Gryet on the Danish island of Bornholm. Despite its name, the Stone Tomb in Ukraine was not a tomb but rather a sanctuary.
In association with the megalithic constructions across Europe, there are often large earthworks of various designs – ditches and banks (like the Dorset Cursus), broad terraces, circular enclosures known as henges, and frequently artificial mounds such as Silbury Hill in England 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.
It seems that spirals were an important motif for the megalith builders. They 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. While 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 Europe.
Spread of megalithic architecture in Europe
In Europe megaliths are, in general, 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. Pierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d'Aussy introduced the terms menhir and dolmen, both taken from the Breton language, into antiquarian terminology. He mistakenly 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 northeast of the country, 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 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; i.e. predating the Neolithic monuments by centuries or millennia. Caveats apply: In some cases, they are so far removed in time from their successors that continuity is unlikely; in other cases, the early dates, or the exact character of activity, are controversial.
- Circa 9000 BC: Construction in Asia Minor (Göbekli Tepe); from proto-Hattian or else a yet-to-be-discovered culture.
- Circa 7000 BC: Construction in proto-Canaanite Israel (Atlit Yam). Circa 4000~3000 BC: Constructions in the rest of the proto-Canaanite Levant, e.g. Rujm el-Hiri and dolmens.
- Circa 6000 BC: Constructions in Portugal (Évora)
- Circa 5000 BC: Emergence of the Atlantic Neolithic period, the age of agriculture along the western shores of Europe during the sixth millennium B.C. pottery culture of La Almagra, Spain near by, perhaps precedent from Africa.
- Circa 4800 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Barnenez) and Poitou (Bougon).
- Circa 4500 BC: Constructions in south Egypt (Nabta Playa).
- Circa 4400 BC: Constructions in Malta (Skorba temples).
- Circa 4000 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Carnac), Portugal (Lisbon), France (central and southern), Corsica, Spain (Galicia), England and Wales, Constructions in Andalusia, Spain (Villa Martín, Cádiz).
- 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 3300 BC: Constructions in France (Carnac stones)
- Circa 3200 BC: Constructions in Malta (Ħaġar Qim and Tarxien).
- Circa 3100 BC: Constructions in Russia (Dolmens of North Caucasus)
- 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 2500 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Le Menec, Kermario and elsewhere), Italy (Otranto), Sardinia, and Scotland (northeast), 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), Sicily (Cava dei Servi, Cava Lazzaro), 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 1400 BC: Burial of the Egtved Girl in Denmark, whose body is today one of the best-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.
Nabta Playa at the southwest corner of the western Egyptian 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 an astronomical device 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. There are other megalithic stone circles in the southwestern desert.
Namoratunga, a group of megaliths dated 300 BCE, was used by Cushitic-speaking people as an alignment with star systems tuned to a lunar calendar of 354 days. This discovery was made by B. N. Lynch and L. H. Robins of Michigan State University.
Megalithic burials are found in Northeast and Southeast Asia. They are found mainly in the Korean Peninsula. They are also found in the Liaoning, Shandong, and Zhejiang in China, the East Coast of Taiwan, Kyūshū and Shikoku in Japan, Đồng Nai Province in Vietnam and parts of Pakistan and India. Some living megalithic traditions are found on the island of Sumba and Nias in Indonesia. The greatest concentration of megalithic burials is in Korea. Archaeologists estimate that there are 15,000 to 100,000 southern megaliths in the Korean Peninsula. Typical estimates hover around the 30,000 mark for the entire peninsula, which in itself constitutes some 40% of all dolmens worldwide (see Dolmen).
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 northeast 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.
Living megalith culture of Indonesia
The Indonesian archipelago is the host of Austronesian megalith cultures both past and present. Living megalith cultures can be found on Nias, an isolated island off the western coast of North Sumatra, the Batak people in the interior of North Sumatra, on Sumba island in East Nusa Tenggara and also Toraja people from the interior of South Sulawesi. These megalith cultures remained preserved, isolated and undisturbed well into the late 19th century.
Several megalith sites and structures are also found across Indonesia. Menhirs, dolmens, stone tables, ancestral stone statues, and step pyramid structure called Punden Berundak were discovered in various sites in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, and the Lesser Sunda Islands.
The Punden step pyramid and menhir can be found in Pagguyangan Cisolok and Gunung Padang, West Java. The Gunung Padang Site is the biggest megalithic site in Southeast Asia. The Cipari megalith site also in West Java displays monoliths, stone terraces, and sarcophagi. The Punden step pyramid is believed to be the predecessor and basic design of later Hindu-Buddhist temples structure in Java after the adoption of Hinduism and Buddhism by the native population. The 8th century Borobudur and 15th-century Candi Sukuh featured the step-pyramid structure.
Madia Gonds of Maharashtra, India
Megaliths occur in many parts of Melanesia, mainly in Milne Bay Province, Fiji and Vanuatu. Few excavations has been made and little is known about the structures. The megalith tomb Otuyam at Kiriwina has been dated to be approximately 2000 years old which indicates that megaliths are an old custom in Melanesia. However very few megaliths have been dated. The constructions have been used for different rituals. For example, tombs, sacrifices and rituals of fecundity. Dance sites exist next to some megaliths. In some places in Melanesia rituals are continued to be held at the sacred megalith sites. The fact that the beliefs are alive is a reason that most excavations have been stopped at the sites.
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. Common motifs including crooks and axes seem to be symbols of political power, much like the crook was a symbol of Egyptian pharaohs. Amongst the indigenous peoples of India, Malaysia, Polynesia, 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:
Ale's Stones at Kåseberga, around ten kilometres south east of Ystad, Sweden
the Great Menhir of Er Grah, the largest known single stone erected by Neolithic man, later toppled
Menhir in the "Cham des Bondons" site, Lozère, France
Dolmen of Avola (Sicily)
- List of megalithic sites
- Megalithic monuments in Europe
- British megalith architecture
- Irish Megalithic Tombs
- Megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
- Megaliths in the Urals
- Nordic megalith architecture
- Plain of Jars ranging from the Khorat Plateau in Thailand in the south, through Laos and to Dima Hasao of northerneastern India.
- Standing stone
- Stone circle
- Nature worship
- Bilger's rocks
- Straße der Megalithkultur - tourist route from Osnabrück to Oldenburg via some 33 Megalithic sites.
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- Index of Megalithic monuments in Ireland
- The Modern Antiquarian
- Pretanic World - Megaliths and Monuments
- Modern Megalith-Building