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Megalithic Art

Decorated Megaliths
Neolithic & Bronze Age

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Relief sculpture of animals on megalith pillar at Göbekli Tepe
Megalithic art from the world famous Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe. The relief sculpture depicts a feline hunting a young wild pig. Image by Dosseman. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is Megalithic Art?

Megalithic art is the decoration of large stones (called megaliths) which were used in the construction of a prehistoric monument.

It is an important feature of late Stone Age culture, and represents the fourth main type of prehistoric art, after petroglyphs, cave painting and freestanding sculpture.

The term 'megalithic art' was first coined by the Irish scholar Elizabeth Shee Twohig, author of The Megalithic Art of Western Europe.

Megaliths were used to create cyclopean stone structures and petroforms during the Neolithic culture and the following Bronze Age culture (from 3,300 BC).

These structures included tombs, stone circles, alignments and other arrangements of standing stones (called menhirs), as well as megalithic temples and sanctuaries.

Megalithic art embraces any type of art used to decorate megaliths, but it mostly includes petroglyphs (stone carvings) and low-relief and high-relief prehistoric sculpture.

It does not include mobiliary art discovered in or around megaliths, such as ancient pottery, ivory carvings, or other artifacts.

When Did it First Appear?

Megalithic art first appeared around 9500 BC at the temple complex of Göbekli Tepe, in present-day Turkey.

From here it spread across the European continent during the Neolithic culture, although for some unknown reason, it seems to be concentrated on the fringes of the Continent, in Ireland, Brittany, the Iberian Peninsula, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Corsica and Malta.

Independent traditions also emerged in Africa and Asia - notably in Egypt, China and the Korean Peninsula.

Megalithic art continued throughout the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age periods. The busiest period occurred between 4500 and 2000 BC, and was boosted by a brand new approach to megalithic design, in the form of Egyptian pyramid architecture.

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Megalithic Stone Carvings

The most common form of megalithic art was rock engravings, which included both abstract motifs as well as images of representational objects, like axes, ploughs, helmets, carts and jewellery.

In France, for instance, the tombs of the Seine-Oise-Marne culture (3100-2000 BC), such as those at Courjeonnet, contain stone carvings of axes, breasts and jewellery, while those in the valley of the Petit Morin contain engravings of hair and noses.

Representational imagery is even more prevalent in Spain and Portugal - one of the few locations where one sees carvings decorated with colour pigments (mostly red and black).

In Ireland, however, abstract signs and symbols dominated.

These were similar to later Celtic designs, although Celtic culture would not emerge until much later during the Iron Age in Europe, after 1000 BC.

Note also, that megalithic stone carving is characterized by a more stylized type of imagery, not at all like the naturalistic animal engravings found in Franco-Cantabrian art, during the Paleolithic.

Spiral images were a common feature in megalithic Europe. In fact, spiral carvings have been found by archaeologists on every continent except Antarctica.

Early examples include the spirals found at the Gavrinis Passage Tomb (4200 BC), in southern Brittany.

These motifs were taken to a new level of complexity by Neolithic artists in Ireland, who produced the famous Triple-Spiral, known as the "Spiral of Life") at the entrance to the Newgrange Passage Tomb (3200 BC), at Brú na Bóinne, Co Meath.

In addition, the nearby Knowth Passage Tomb (3150 BC) features a huge display of rock engravings on more than 200 massive stomes, which constitutes one third of all known megalithic art in Western Europe.

Knowth is also the home of what archaeologists think is the first recorded map of the moon, which was discovered carved into the rock.

Egyptian Megalithic Art

Egypt's megalithic art begins with rock sculpture of animals and a variety of stone carvings, at Nabta Playa in southern Egypt, about 7500 BC.

This is followed later by the Egyptian pyramids - monumental tombs built in the desert to cater for the needs of the pharaoh during the afterlife. The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, consists of an estimated 2.3 million huge blocks of limestone.

The interiors of some pyramids were relatively austere, while others were decorated with a range of painted murals, hieroglyphic pictographs, and sculptural reliefs.

Megalithic structures in Ancient Egypt also feature numerous private tombs as well as numerous temples around Luxor.

Among the latter is the monumental Karnak Temple complex, famous for its megalithic architecture, painted walls and massive granite pillars ornamented with rock carvings and relief sculptures.

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Decorated Stelae

A common but lesser-known form of megalithic decoration is found on ancient stone monuments known as stelae.

These stones were erected mostly as funerary monuments, but also served as government notices, boundary markers, or to commemorate battles. Famous examples include:

Megalithic Art: Famous Examples

Here is a short selection of the world's most famous megalithic decorations.

Göbekli Tepe

9500 BC
Göbekli Tepe contains a diverse range of prehistoric sculpture depicting animals, like wild boars, bulls, antelopes, lions, foxes, snakes, insects and birds, especially vultures which symbolized the ferrying of dead bodies skywards.

Vultures also appear regularly in Neolithic excavations at Çatalhöyük and Jericho.

Göbekli Tepe's engravings also feature abstract symbols in the shape of crescents, disks and H-motifs. In addition, there is a rare human engraving of a crouching woman, and a bas-relief carving of a headless corpse flanked by vultures.

The pillars themselves were decorated with human arms, hands and loincloths, to suggest some sort of anthropomorphic or therianthropic identity.

In addition, archaeologists believe that the horizontal stone on top of the T-shaped pillars symbolizes the head of a human or god-like figure.

Göbekli Tepe's megalithic architecture and architectural carvings represent some of the finest hunter-gatherer art ever seen.

Nevalı Çori

8620 BC
Nevalı Çori is an early Neolithic settlement in Anatolia. It is noted for having one of the world's oldest known temples, whose megalithic architecture (similar to that of Göbekli Tepe) included thirteen monumental T-shaped pillars (stelae), nearly all of which are decorated with prehistoric sculpture of religious significance.

Nabta Playa

7500 BC
Noted for the astronomical alignment of its stones and for its fish carvings and cow sculpture. An important cultural centre for the surrounding region.

Cromlech of Almendres

6000 BC
The site contains about 95 granite monoliths, some of which are 2.5 to 3.5 metres in height. It represents the largest arrangement of menhirs on the Iberian Peninsula, although many are worn and eroded.

The megalithic decorations are also worn but still visible. They consist of linear markings and radials, at least two per stone, plus a quantity of drawings.

Cairn of Barnenez

4850 BC
The Cairn of Barnenez contains about 13,000 tonnes of dolerite and granite stone heaped over a dolmen tomb containing eleven burial chambers.

Several burial chambers and passages are ornamented with rock engravings of bows and axes, as well as abstract symbols, including serpentiforms and U-shaped signs.

Carnac Stones

4500 BC
The site contains the largest known array of upright megaliths in the world. Most of the stones weigh between one and 20 tonnes.

Carnac also includes numerous tumuli and dolmens, making it one of the densest clusters of megalithic architecture on the planet.

It is also noted for its megalithic art, found mostly in its passage tombs and dolmens.

The decorations consist of serpentine symbols and a large symmetrical, double-headed hand axe symbol. In ancient art, this axe motif is used to represent divine power.

Gavrinis Passage Tomb

4200 BC
This megalithic monument is famous for its richly decorated passage and burial chamber. Of the 29 orthostats in the passage, 23 are engraved with symbols and patterns, such as zigzags, herring bone designs, spirals, lozenges, serpentiforms and concentric circles.

Also present are stylized images of goddesses, human figures, cows, snakes, axes, croziers or staffs, bows and arrows, cattle, and a whale. The engravings in the burial chamber are less elaborate, except for those on the sillstone at the chamber's entrance.

Zuschen Gallery Tomb

3200 BC
This Gallery Grave, belonging to the Wartberg culture is one of the most significant tombs in Central Europe.

Its rock art features lines of dot signs, along with half-circles, and repetitive Y-signs, as well as ploughs and carts. Similar imagery appears in carvings at Mont Bego in the French Ligurian Alps and at Valcamonica, Northern Italy.

Newgrange Passage Tomb

3200 BC
Contains ten basic types of abstract engravings, including both curvilinear designs (arcs, circles, spirals) and rectilinear designs (diamond shapes, chevrons).

The most famous patterns at Newgrange are the triskele or triple-spiral shapes, incised on the entrance stone. Archaeologists continue to debate whether they are purely decorative, or highly symbolic.

Knowth Passage Tomb

3150 BC
This is the largest of all Neolithic passage graves in the Brú na Bóinne complex. It is best known for its kerbstone decorations, featuring spirals, lozenges, crescents, serpentiforms and other curvilinear symbols.

Engravings are also present on the hidden reverse side of the stones, which has led to conflicting theories as to its artistic significance.

Stonehenge Stone Circle

2600 BC
This iconic stone circle, which includes a ring of 30-ton sarsen stones and several massive 50-ton trilithons capped by lintels fixed in place with mortise and tenon joints, is surrounded by a dense web of prehistoric earthworks and burial mounds (tumuli).

The ancient art at Stonehenge includes carved images of daggers and axeheads dating to the mid/late Bronze Age (2400-1200 BC).

NEXT: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

References

(1) Shee Twohig, E. 1981. "Megalithic Art of Western Europe." Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN: ‎ 0198131933; 978-0198131939.
(2) Shee Twohig, E. 2004. "Irish Megalithic Tombs." Shire Publications. ISBN: ‎ 0747805989; 978-0747805984.
(3) Joussaume, Roger. 1988. "Dolmens for the Dead." Batsford Ltd ISBN 978-0-7134-5369-0.

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