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Megaliths

Large Stone Neolithic Structures
Megalithic tombs, stone circles
Pyramids, menhirs, tumuli, dolmens

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Standing Stone Megaliths at Stonehenge
The huge megaliths at Stonehenge.
Image by Balou46. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What are Megaliths?

A megalith is any large stone which is used to construct a prehistoric structure, either alone or together with other rocks.

Many megalithic boulders were used in their pristine state, without being shaped or surfaced, and were carefully fitted together without the use of mortar.

For reference, the word megalith was first used in 1849 by the English antiquary Algernon Herbert (1792-1855) in connection with his book 'Cyclops Christianus, or the supposed Antiquity of Stonehenge'.

Gopika Cave, Nagarjuni Hill, Bihar, Eastern India
Entrance of the Gopika Cave, at Nagarjuni Hill (part of the Barabar complex), one of the oldest surviving rock-cut caves in India. (c.230 BC) It contains a single large oblong room, carved entirely out of granite, with unique rounded ends. Overall, an incredible feat of megalithic rock-cutting. Photo by Anandajoti. (CC BY 2.0)

When were the First Megalithic Structures Built?

Megalithic constructions first appeared during the Neolithic culture, as semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer traditions were superceded by a more settled farming lifestyle.

The first area to grow wheat and raise animals, was southern Anatolia in western Asia, which duly became the site of the first megalithic structure.

Date of the First Megalithic Buildings

The first known example of megalithic architecture is Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic sanctuary in present-day Turkey, which dates to 9,500 BC. Another very early structure is the Nevalı Çori temple complex, which dates to 8,600 BC.

Both these megalithic complexes were built and decorated by hunter-gatherers, rather than farmers or other settlers. This shows that a hunting and foraging lifestyle had enduring appeal in certain regions.

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How Many Megaliths are there in the World?

Answer: probably several hundred thousand, although no one knows for sure.

There are a reported 35,000 megalithic monuments in Europe, which may be an underestimate as some experts estimate there could be as many as 15,000-20,000 megalithic tombs in Ireland, never mind stone circles and other structures.

Meantime, Asian scholars estimate there are 15,000 to 100,000 megaliths in the Korean Peninsula, alone.

Who Created Megalithic Architecture?

Archaeologists believe that Neolithic farmers were the main megalithic builders - at least in Europe. This is amplified by recent DNA evidence, which suggests there was a fusion of two groups -

(1) Mesolithic West Europeans (recent hunter-gatherers) and

(2) Neolithic farmers from the Levant who had migrated along Mediterranean coasts into Spain and France.

DNA analysis of human remains from Megalithic burials, reveals that paternal ancestry was overwhelmingly Mesolithic European, while maternal ancestry was predominantly Levantine.

Why were Megalithic Structures Built?

Megalithic structures were made for numerous reasons, known and unknown.

Temple complexes (e.g. Göbekli Tepe) were erected for spiritual or religious purposes; tombs were constructed to honour the dead; stone circles and alignments (e.g. Stonehenge) appear to have served ceremonial and ritualistic functions.

In general, most megalithic monuments were multi-functional centres of Stone Age culture, not unlike today's cathedrals.

Note that many Neolithic monuments (e.g. Nabta Playa, Carnac Stones, Ġgantija Temples, Maeshowe and Knowth passage tombs) were originally aligned with seasonal events associated with the sun and moon, such as the summer and winter solstices.

Although the exact purpose of these monumental works remains unknown, it's clear they were extremely important to their builders.

First, they used up enormous resources - sometimes including several million man hours - which might otherwise have been devoted to more materially productive tasks.

Second, megaliths were regularly decorated with a variety of megalithic art, such as rock engravings of animals as well as a variety of abstract signs and symbols, including half-circles, lines and radials, serpentiforms, spirals (inc. Newgrange's triple spiral motif), u-signs, y-signs and zigzags.

The Gavrinis Passage Grave, for instance, is noted for its highly decorated orthostats and sillstone.

The artistry, stone masonry and other resources devoted to many of these monuments, shows how important they were to those who built them.

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How Political are Megaliths?

Stone Age society during the Paleolithic era was based around small groups of hunter-gatherers, and appears to have been relatively egalitarian, with no obvious elites.

But after the transition to farming, with its fixed settlements, regional markets and expanding trade routes, new elites emerged to lead the people.

It was the 'god-kings' of this new elite class, for whom many megalithic tombs were created.

The Egyptian pyramids, for instance, were built solely to sustain the pharaohs in the afterlife.

In Ireland, according to a 2020 study, the Newgrange passage tomb was built exclusively for an elite male, such as the leader of a 'royal dynasty'.

Megaliths: Types, Characteristics

There are 10 basic types of megalithic structures.

Pyramids of Ancient Egypt

Built during the Bronze Age culture, pyramids are the largest type of megalithic structure. Made of stone or brick, with a rectangular base and four sloping triangular sides, they were usually highly complex constructions containing a decorated burial vault filled with valuables and set within a maze of passageways.

A good example is the Great Pyramid of Giza (Khufu/Cheops). This, the largest Egyptian pyramid ever built, was started in about 2550 BC, and served as the tomb for the pharaoh Khufu.

When completed, it was 146.6 metres tall, with a base of 230 metres, which gave it a volume of 2.6 million cubic metres. Its construction required an estimated 2.3 million large blocks, weighing a total of 6 million tonnes of local limestone.

The surrounding buildings include two mortuary temples, tombs for Khufu's immediate family and court officials, as well as three smaller pyramids for his wives.

Other famous pyramids include:

Other Tombs

These include: Dolmens, Gallery graves, Passage graves, Court tombs, Wedge tombs, and Cist graves.

Dolmens

In simple terms, a dolmen is a type of entrance grave with a large horizontal capstone supported by two or more lithic uprights. Usually, it had a rectangular burial chamber and was covered with earth or smaller stones to form a tumulus burial mound. Today, many dolmen mounds have been cleared away, leaving just the stone crypt.

A good example of a dolmen tomb is the megalithic Dolmen de Sa Coveccada, the largest dolmen in Sardinia.

Dated to around 2100 BC, it is made out of volcanic trachyte rock, and consists of a rectangular chamber enclosed by three massive orthostats and a capstone weighing an estimated 25 tonnes.

Gallery Graves

A gallery grave is a megalithic tomb consisting of a single passage which serves as the burial chamber. Typically, the passage chamber is formed by two parallel walls of orthostats, roofed over with capstones, and contains a number of burials, arranged one after the other.

There are four basic types of gallery grave: complex, transepted, segmented, and wedge-shaped, and each type can be covered with an earthen mound or rocky cairn.

An example is the 20m long and 3.5m wide Züschen Tomb near Fritzlar, Germany. Made out of sandstone slabs, it has a small antechamber some 2.5 metres in length, and was covered by an earth mound. It is also noted for its megalithic rock art.

Passage Graves

In this type of tomb, the entrance opens into a passage, which leads to the burial chamber. Some versions have one simple chamber, while others are cruciform with three or more alcoves or sub-chambers off the main burial chamber. The chamber may sometimes have a corbelled roof.

Most passage tombs are enclosed by a mound of soil and stones, or a rocky cairn.

Examples include Newgrange Passage Tomb and Knowth Passage Tomb, at the Brú na Bóinne complex in Co Meath, Ireland.

Court Tombs

These consist of a semi-circular forecourt at the entrance. The forecourt leads directly into one or more burial chambers. Court tombs were usually enclosed with a long mound or cairn.

An example is the large court tomb at Creevykeel, in Co Sligo (4000-2500 BC). Measuring 15 metres long and 9 metres wide, the oval-shaped court leads into the burial gallery which is divided by upright monoliths into two chambers, under a corbelled roof. The entire structure was covered by a cairn.

Wedge Tombs

Dating to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (2350-2000 BC), a wedge tomb consisted of a rectangular stone-built burial chamber, which typically narrowed and declined in height towards the rear. It was roofed with large stone slabs and usually covered with a cairn of earth.

Good examples include the Labbacallee wedge tomb near Fermoy, in Co Cork, and the Parknabinnia wedge tomb in Co Clare - both in Ireland.

Cist Graves

A cist tomb is a small stone-built coffin-size structure which usually serves as an ossuary for the bones of the dead person(s). One or more individual cist graves are sometimes found within larger monuments, such as a long barrow.

Funerary objects are sometimes included in a cist, in accordance with the status of the deceased.

An example is the cist grave at Drumnadrochit, on the shores of Loch Ness, dating to 2000 BC. Fragments of ancient pottery along with a wrist guard designed for use with a bow and arrow, were also found inside.

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Towers

This category of megalith is exemplified by the dry-stone Nuraghes found on the island of Sardinia.

A Nuraghe was a round Bronze Age tower with a truncated cylindrical shape that looked something like a beehive.

Nuraghes, which could be up to 20 metres tall, are the most common megalithic structures in Sardinia, with more than 7,000 recorded specimens. Most date to between 1900 and 800 BC.

Other megalithic towers similar to Nuraghes are the smaller and less imposing Torri of southern Corsica (2200 BC), and the equally small Talayots found on Menorca and Majorca.

An example is the Santu Antine nuraghe in Torralba, Sardinia. Made out of huge basalt blocks, the central tower was originally 23–24 metres tall, 15 metres in diameter, and contained three tholoi chambers one on top of another.

It was aligned with the summer and winter solstices, and dated to 1700-1800 BC.

Menhirs

Menhirs are large upright standing stones. They were erected an individual monoliths, or sometimes as part of a group. Their size and shape is irregular, although they typically taper towards the top.

An example is the Géant du Manio (4000 BC) at Carnac, situated near the Manio Quadrilateral. It stands about 6.5 metres tall and is the largest menhir within the stone alignments at the site.

Another, more tragic example, is the Broken Menhir of Er Grah (4700 BC). This was originally 20.5 metres tall and weighed an estimated 330 tonnes. It fell over in 4000 BC, following an earth tremor.

Obelisks

An obelisk is a tall, narrow, monument with a square base, which tapers into a pyramidion at the top. In the Ancient World, obelisks were usually carved from a single monolith and were used as funerary monuments, symbolizing rebirth.

The oldest surviving obelisk dates from the reign of Sesostris I (1971-1926 BC) and stands at Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, on the former site of a temple dedicated to Ra, the Egyptian sun god.

Other famous examples include the Luxor Obelisks - erected around 1250 BC for the Luxor Temple during the reign of Ramesses II.

The western stone, 23 metres high, was taken to Paris in the 1830s and re-erected in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France. Its base weighs over 250 tonnes. The eastern obelisk remains in Luxor.

Steles

A stele is a stone slab decorated with symbols or drawings inscribed on its surface, either in the form of engravings or carved reliefs.

Steles were multifunctional megaliths. They were used for funerary or commemorative purposes (grave stelae); or for government proclamations or war memorials; or for marking boundaries.

An example is black basalt stele inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi - a Babylonian legal text, written in the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, about 1750 BC, supposedly by Hammurabi, King of Babylon.

The reconstructed stele is 2.25 metres in height and now resides in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Stone Alignments

A stone alignment consists of one or more lines of upright megaliths. In simple terms, it's a pattern of standing stones.

The world's most famous stone alignments are the Carnac Standing Stones in southern Brittany.

Acknowledged to be the largest known array of upright megaliths in the world, Carnac features more than 4,000 menhirs aligned in rows, spread over 6.5 kilometres and 40 hectares.

The stones weigh between one and 20 tonnes.

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Stone Circles

A stone circle is no more than a ring of standing stones.

Most are found in Britain, Ireland, and Brittany – and typically date to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, from 3000 BC onwards.

During the Bell-beaker culture about 2400 BC, for instance, hundreds of stone circles were built in the British Isles.

Where stone circles spread over a relatively wide area, they sometimes contain other megalithic monuments, notably burial pits and other earthworks. Numerous stone circles are astronomically aligned.

Examples include the Cromlech of Almendres (6000 BC) at Evora in Portugal, whose two circles were eventually repositioned into smaller groupings; the Stonehenge Stone Circle with its five gigantic trilithons, each about 7.4 metres in height and weighing about 50 tons; and Avebury Henge, the largest megalithic stone circle in Britain.

Tumuli

A tumulus is a burial mound or barrow that covers a megalithic tomb or some other funerary monument. It can vary considerably in size.

The term tumulus is synonymous with 'burial mound', but 'barrow' is a specific term for a prehistoric burial mound.

While a tumulus is not a megalithic structure itself, it is usually a component of one, since it covers a variety of megalithic graves such as dolmens, gallery graves, or passage tombs. In the Caucasus, tumuli are known as kurgans.

An example is the Tumulus of Er Grah at Locmariaquer, Brittany, which is roughly 140 metres long, around 20 metres wide. The structure, which dates to 4700 BC, housed the tombs of several tribal leaders and other dignitaries.

One fascinating mound is Silbury Hill - the largest artificial mound in Europe, constructed between 2470 and 2350 BC.

This monumental earthwork used up a prodigious amount of resources for no obvious reason. Excavations have found no trace of any tomb or monument beneath its surface.

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Cairns

A cairn is a mound of rough stones piled up as a memorial or landmark.

Cairns are frequently heaped over tombs, but not always. And this is why they differ from tumuli or kurgans (grave mounds) and barrows (prehistoric grave mounds).

An example of a cairn enclosing a tomb is the Cairn of Barnenez (4850 BC) on the Kernéléhen Peninsula, Brittany. The Barnenez cairn is 72 metres long, 25 metres wide, and 8 metres tall, and contains 13,000 tonnes of dolerite and granite.

Under the cairn are 11 burial chambers.

Chronology of Megalithic Sites

Here is a brief timeline of megalithic structures, including: pyramids, passage tombs, dolmens, gallery tombs, cist tombs, cairns, stone circles, stone alignments, henges, towers, menhirs and other standing stones. All dates are BC.

9500
Gobekli Tepe: first megalithic buildings
8620
Nevali Cori: one of the world's oldest temples
7500
Nabta Playa, Africa's first megaliths
7100
Çatalhöyük World's first proto-city
6000
Cromlech of Almendres, Portugal: Phase I.
5000
Cromlech of Almendres Phase II
4850
Cairn of Barnenez, Brittany
Skorba Temples: Malta
4800
Tumulus of Bougon, Deux-Sèvres
4700
Locmariaquer Megaliths, Brittany
Menhir of Er Grah: largest ever menhir
4500
Carnac Stones, Brittany
4200
Gavrinis Passage Grave, Brittany
4000
Cromlech of Almendres Phase III
Knock Iveagh Cairn, Ireland
Géant du Manio' Carnac's largest menhir
Broken Menhir of Er Grah falls
3750
Dolmen of Menga, Spain
3600
Ġgantija & Ħaġar Qim Temples, Malta
3500
Ipatovo Kurgan, Stavropol, Russia
3400
Maikop Kurgan, Maikop, Russia
3200
Zuschen Gallery Tomb, Germany
Newgrange Passage Tomb, Ireland
3150
Knowth Passage Tomb, Ireland
Tarxien Temples, Malta
3100
Stonehenge Ditch started
3000
Rujm el-Hiri, Golan Heights
Turkana megalithic cemetery, Kenya
2850
Avebury Henge, near Stonehenge
2800
Maeshowe, Mainland Orkney
2670
Great Pyramid of Giza
2648
Djoser's Step Pyramid, Saqquara
2600
Stonehenge stone circle built
Bent Pyramid, Dahshur
2575
Red Pyramid, Dahshur
2570
Pyramid of Khafre, Giza
2520
Pyramid of Menkaure, Giza
2400
Hundreds of smaller stone circles built in UK
2500
Creevykeel Court Tomb, Ireland
2350
Silbury Hill Mound, England
2300
Labbacallee Wedge Tomb, Ireland
2000
San Silvestri, Paladini, Albarosa dolmens, Italy
Carahunge Stone Circle, Armenia
1800
Tholos de El Romeral, Spain
1200
Megalithic building tradition ends during the era of Iron Age art in Europe
1000
First Korean dolmens

NEXT: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Patton, Mark (1993). Statements in Stone: monuments and society in Neolithic Brittany. Routledge. 209 pages. ISBN 0-415-06729-4.
(2) Wendorf, Fred; Schild, Romuald (2013). Holocene Settlement of the Egyptian Sahara: Volume 1: The Archaeology of Nabta Playa. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 51–53. ISBN 9781461506539.
(3) HJ Fleure, HJE Peake, "Megaliths and Beakers". The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 60, Jan. - Jun., 1930 (Jan. - Jun., 1930), pp. 47–71.
(4) Pozzi, Alberto (2013). Megalithism - Sacred and Pagan Architecture in Prehistory. Universal Publisher. ISBN 978-1-6123-3255-0.
(5) Schulz Paulsson, B. (11 February 2019). "Radiocarbon dates and Bayesian modeling support maritime diffusion model for megaliths in Europe". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116 (9): 3460–3465.

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