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Megalithic Architecture

Gobekli Tepe, Nabta Playa, Carnac
Newgrange, Stonehenge
Ggantija, Avebury, Nevali Cori

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Great Pyramid of Khufu, Giza. World famous example of megalithic architecture
The Great Pyramid of Giza. World's most enduring example of megalithic architecture and engineering. Image by Gary Todd. (Public Domain).

What is Megalithic Achitecture?

In prehistoric art, megalithic architecture is the practice of creating monumental structures using megaliths (large stones).

Typically, such structures were erected to commemorate or celebrate a person, idea or event.

Megalithic construction first emerged during the early Neolithic culture of Anatolia, in present day Turkey, but other countries soon followed, as farming and a sedentary lifestyle took root around the world.

As Neolithic settlements grew larger so did the need for town planning and organization, both of which required civic leadership and a public purse, paid for out of taxes.

This led to, or at least coincided with, the worship of deities, which in turn led to the emergence of monumental buildings including sanctuaries, tombs and other megalithic structures.

The most famous type of megalithic building is undoubtedly the series of Ancient Egyptian pyramids built for the country's pharaohs, mostly between 2700 and 1780 BC. For more details, see Ancient Egyptian Architecture (3000-60 BC).

Megalithic architecture also became a powerful form of expression in Africa as well as Europe, where Neolithic culture wasn't fully established until 4,000 BC, and also across Asia during the Bronze and Iron Ages, notably on the Korean Peninsula.

The use of stone 'temples' or sanctuaries during the Neolithic, was not a completely new phenomenon. Modern humans from out of Africa had been using paleolithic caves as sacred places for thousands of years.

But the Neolithic was the first time that large groups of people created their own physical structures.

Types of Megalithic Architecture

There are five basic types of megalithic structure:

Pyramids

Monumental constructions usually made of large stone blocks, with a rectangular base and three or more sloping triangular sides that form an apex. They were designed as a tomb for the after-life of the king, and their internal structure was often extremely complex to foil grave robbers.

The largest example in Ancient Egypt is the Great Pyramid of Giza (or Khufu), which measured about 146.6 metres (481 feet), in height. For thirty centuries it was the tallest man-made structure in the world.

Other Tombs

Smaller megalithic graves include Dolmens, Gallery graves, Passage graves and Cist graves. These structures vary according to the number of burial chambers, and the precise arrangement of their megaliths.

Examples include the Gavrinis and Knowth Passage Tombs, and the Züschen Gallery Tomb.

Stone Circles

A stone circle is a ring of standing stones. Most are found in Western Europe and typically date to between 4000 and 3000 BC. Stonehenge is probably the world's most famous example.

Menhirs

These are individual upright stones, menhirs or obelisks, erected across Europe, Africa and Asia. They are most numerous in Brittany, Ireland, and the UK, where about 50,000 examples have been identified - and also the Korean Peninsula.

The largest ever standing stone - now lying in pieces - is the Broken Menhir of Er Grah (4700 BC) at Locmariaquer in Brittany, which measured 20.6 metres in height and weighed as estimated 330 tons.

Towers

Megalithic towers come in various shapes and sizes. They include the 7,000 Nuraghes of Sardinia - dry-stone round towers up to 20 metres in height that look like beehives. Similar structures include the Torri in Corsica, and the Talaiots from the Balearic Islands.

What Does Megalithic Architecture Tell Us About Neolithic People?

The technical complexity of many constructions shows that Neolithic people had developed considerable building skills. Here are a few common features of megalithic architecture.

Digging Up the Past

For a short guide as to how archaeologists investigate megalithic sites and other locations, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

Megalithic Architecture:
20 Most Famous Examples

Gobekli Tepe

Şanlıurfa Province, Turkey
9,500 BC-8,000 BC

Göbekli Tepe, the Neolithic holy place and cult centre, is the most significant architectural structure of the Stone Age.

The site sits on a self-made mound about 15 metres high, and occupies an area of about 8 hectares (20-acre). During its construction, around two hundred pillars (or stelae), up to 5.5 metres in height (18 feet) and weighing up to 20 tons, were arranged in a circular pattern, and topped with huge limestone slabs.

These monoliths form the oldest monumental stone structures ever created by humans. No other set of hunter-gatherers has succeeded in matching this feat of architecture.

Most of the pillars are decorated with a variety of rock art, including a wealth of prehistoric sculpture of animals and other creatures.

Göbekli Tepe was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018. Evidence indicates that only five percent of the site has been excavated to date.

Nevali Cori

Şanlıurfa Province, Turkey
Founded 8,600 BC; abandoned 7,500 BC

The temple complex of Nevalı Çori is noted for its ancient megalithic architecture, which incorporated 13 monumental T-shaped pillars (stelae) within its dry stone walls, nearly all of which were decorated with prehistoric art of religious significance.

In addition, the temple interior contained two free-standing pillars some 3 metres in height. Unfortunately, the site is now flooded, following the damming of the Euphrates by the Atatürk Dam.

Together with the neighbouring site of Göbekli Tepe, and the proto-city of Çatalhöyük, Nevalı Çori has changed our understanding of Stone Age culture during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period.

They show that a monumental stone complex was well within the capability of an early Neolithic community, although scientists still can't fathom how the builders were able to recruit and feed a labour force large enough to do the job.

Nevalı Çori is also famous for its prehistoric stone sculpture, including numerous statues, as well as hundreds of 5 cm-high human terracotta figurines used as votive offerings.

Nabta Playa

Nubian Desert, Egypt
7500-5000 BC

The Nabta Playa megalithic site, located about 100 kilometres west of Abu Simbel, used to be a large regional centre for prehistoric people, containing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of archaeological sites.

People came from many regions to Nabta Playa to celebrate calendar events like the summer solstice and the arrival of the monsoons.

They also came to create stone circles and other alignments of large, unshaped megaliths, and build more than 30 complex structures with both surface and subterranean features, featuring some of Africa's oldest sculpture.

The most significant structure at Nabta Playa is the calendar stone circle. This consists of four pairs of large stones plus an assortment of smaller boulders. In 2007, archaeoastronomers confirmed the stones were in possible alignment with Arcturus and Sirius, the Belt of Orion, and the star system Alpha Centauri.

All this implies that Saharan people may have been more progressive and organized than their neighbours in the Nile Valley.

Cromlech of Almendres

Évora, Portugal
6,000 BC

This is the largest array of menhirs on the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest in the whole of Europe.

The site contains around 95 granite monoliths, many of which are 2.5 to 3.5 metres in height, though most are smaller. The stones are severely eroded and were repositioned during the Late Neolithic. The complex was designed as a primitive astronomical observatory, or else had a religious or cultural purpose.

Evidence shows that the architecture of the site evolved in stages, from the Neolithic to Chalcolithic.

During the first phase of construction (Almendres I: 6000 BC), two concentric circles of standing stones were erected.

During the second phase (Almendres II: 5000 BC), a similar but much larger circular pattern of upright stones was created, north of the first two circles, except this time it was more elliptical in shape.

During the third phase (Almendres III: 4000 BC), both sets of circles were modified. Many stones were repositioned into smaller groups and new menhirs were added, to facilitate a different set of social or religious rituals.

The Almendres Cromlech occupies an area of 70 by 40 metres, oriented along an axial alignment northwest to southeast towards the Winter solstice.

Although very worn, decorations are still visible. This megalithic art comprises lines and radials, at least two per stone, plus there are engraved drawings on about a dozen uprights.

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Cairn of Barnenez

Kernéléhen Peninsula, Brittany
4850 BC

The Cairn of Barnenez (also known as Barnenez Mound, or Tumulus de Barnenez) is - together with the Tumulus of Bougon and the Locmariaquer megaliths - one of the earliest megalithic monuments in Europe.

The Barnenez cairn is 72 metres in length, 25 metres in width, over 8 metres tall, and incorporates around 13,000 tonnes of dolerite and granite stone.

It contains 11 burial chambers (mostly with corbelled roofs) entered by separate passages lined with stone slabs or dry stone walls. The chambers are known in French as 'Dolmen à couloir', equivalent to 'passage tombs'.

Constructed in two main phases, the cairn has steep facades and a stepped profile. It consists of relatively small blocks of stone, with only the chambers being truly megalithic in character.

Several of the chambers and passages are decorated with rock engravings of bows and axes, as well as abstract symbols, like serpentiforms and U-shaped signs.

Locmariaquer Megaliths

Locmariaquer, Brittany
4700 BC

These consist of three main megalithic structures: the Broken Menhir of Er Grah, the dolmen known as the Table des Marchand, and the Er-Grah tumulus passage grave.

The Broken Menhir of Er Grah was erected about 4700 BC, and toppled over as a result of an earth tremor in 4000 BC, breaking into 4 pieces. It was about 20.5 metres tall and weighed an estimated 330 tons. It was the biggest standing stone ever erected in history. It was carved from a rocky outcrop in the district.

The Table des Marchand is a large dolmen burial chamber which was originally covered by a cairn, before being exposed, then re-covered by stone in 1993. The roof capstone of the chamber is decorated with a large carving depicting an axe, along with a plough being drawn by some oxen - part of a larger decorated stone whose other fragments were reused in the nearby Gavrinis Passage Tomb and the neighbouring Tumulus of Er-Grah.

The Tumulus of Er Grah measures roughly 140 metres in length, and between 16 and 26 metres in width. The structure began as a single-person cist grave, before several burial mounds and a 2-metre high rectangular cairn were added. Evidence indicates the Tumulus housed the graves of several tribal leaders and other dignitaries, although no human remains have been recovered. Instead, excavations have yielded a quantity of stone tools, along with some ancient pottery and items of jewellery.

Carnac Stones

Southern Brittany
4500 BC

The Carnac Stones constitutes the largest known array of upright megaliths in the world. These 'stone alignments' contain 4,000 menhirs aligned in rows which extends over 6.5 kilometres (4 miles) and 40 hectares. Most of the stones weigh between one and 20 tonnes.

Carnac also includes numerous tumuli (burial mounds), dolmens (stone tombs), and individual menhirs, making it the densest concentration of megalithic architecture ever seen.

Most of the stones were erected around the middle of the fourth millennium BC. However, some date to about 4,500 BC, while a small number - notably in the underground tombs - date to 5,000 BC or earlier.

Carnac is also famous for its megalithic art, mostly in its passage tombs and dolmens.

The most famous alignments are those at Ménec, Kermario, Kerlescan and Le Petit-Ménec. The most important tumuli at Carnac, are Saint-Michel, Tumiac and Mané-er-Hroëk.

The largest standing stone at Carnac is the 6.5 metre 'Géant du Manio' (c.4000 BC), located near the Manio Quadrilateral.

Gavrinis Passage Grave

Gavrinis, Gulf of Morbihan
4200 BC

The Gavrinis passage tomb (Cairn de Gavrinis) is an important megalithic monument with connections to Newgrange Passage Tomb and Knowth Passage tomb, in Ireland, and with the Maeshowe passage grave on Mainland Orkney.

It was built between 4,200 and 4,000 BC and had a very short life: within a few centuries, the passage was deliberately blocked up with loose stones. Fortunately, this helped to preserve its world famous rock engravings.

Gavrinis' megalithic architecture features a 14-metre corridor (0.8 metres wide and 1.5 metres high) which ends in a small dolmen-style burial chamber, roofed by a massive 17-tonne capstone.

The walls of the passage comprise 29 gigantic stone slabs, or othostats. The passage floor is slabbed but rises slightly. Thus although Gavrinis is aligned to the rising sun at the Winter Solstice, the chamber is not illuminated as at Newgrange.

The engravings on the sillstone at the chamber's entrance, are similar to the carved lintels at Knowth and Fourknocks in Ireland.

Dolmen of Menga

Málaga, Spain
3750 BC

The Dolmen of Menga, a megalithic long barrow type of dolmen, which served as a grave for local dignitaries, is one of the largest known megalithic structures in Europe.

It measures 27.5 metres in length, 6 metres in width, and 3.5 metres in height. Its construction required 32 megaliths, the largest weighing an estimated 180 tonnes.

After completion of the burial chamber and the passage leading to it, the crypt was covered with earth, forming a mound. When the grave was excavated in the 19th century, archaeologists recovered several hundred skeletons from inside.

Nearby dolmens include the Dolmen de Viera and the slightly more distant structure known as Tholos de El Romeral.

In 2016, UNESCO designated the dolmens of Menga, Viera, and El Romeral as a World Heritage Site under the name 'Antequera Dolmens Site'.

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Ġgantija Temples

Gozo, Malta
3600–2500 BC

The Ġgantija temples - believed to be a fertility cult centre - are the earliest of Malta's Neolithic sacred places, and the world's second oldest religious structures after Göbekli Tepe in Turkey.

Along with the Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Ta' Ħaġrat, Skorba and Tarxien, Ġgantija has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as the 'Megalithic Temples of Malta'.

The building phase culminated in the large Tarxien temple complex, which remained active until 2500 BC, after which the temple-building culture came to an end.

According to Maltese legend, the temples were built by giants, hence the name Ġgantija, meaning 'Giants' tower'.

The Ġgantija megalithic monument consists of two temples and part of a third. It is aligned with the equinox sunrise.

The temples form a clover-leaf shape, with a series of semi-circular apses connected with a central passage. Traces of the original wall plaster are still visible between the stone blocks. The original apses were covered by roofing. The southern temple - the older and larger of the pair - is about 6 metres tall.

Newgrange Passage Tomb

Boyne Valley, Ireland
3,200 BC

Newgrange passage tomb is a large megalithic grave and ceremonial centre, aligned on the winter solstice sunrise. Its 12-metre high mound occupies an area of about one acre.

It is part of the extensive Brú na Bóinne necropolis, a World Heritage Site which includes the passage tombs of Knowth and Dowth, as well as numerous other burial mounds, standing stones and henges.

Newgrange was constructed at the beginning of the Bronze Age culture, around 3.200 BC, and abandoned during the era of Iron Age art in Europe, in the 1st century BC.

Newgrange's megalithic architecture includes the following external features.

Newgrange is also world famous for its abstract symbols, notably the triple spiral motif, which is unique to the site. Its cultural significance stems from the light it sheds on the values and capabilities of Irish society during the Neolithic.

Zuschen Gallery Tomb

Hesse, Germany
3200 BC

The Züschen tomb is a Stone Age gallery grave which belongs to the Late Neolithic Wartberg culture. It is one of the most important megalithic monuments in Central Europe.

In addition to its megalithic architecture, the tomb is noted for its rock carvings, comparable to similar rock art across Europe.

The tomb contains a large quantity of symbols carved on the slabs inside the chamber. Rows of dot signs, along with half-circles, and repetitive Y-signs may be abstract motifs or simply stylised depictions of cattle.

Grave offerings recovered include flint knives and sickle blades as well as triangular slate axes, plus several bone tools. No doubt any precious items would have been taken years ago.

A replica of the Züschen grave can be seen in the Hessian State Museum in Kassel.

Knowth Passage Tomb

Boyne Valley, Ireland
3,200 BC

The mound covering the Knowth passage tomb is about 12 metres in height and measures roughly 67 metres in diameter. It covers an area of about one hectare (2.5 acres).

Underneath, there are two passages (with separate entrances) each leading to a separate cruciform burial chamber.

The passage walls are lined with massive slabs known as orthostats, up to 2 metres tall. The passages were constructed along an east-west line, and were probably aligned with the sun or moon. But new construction work has made further investigation pointless.

The western passage is 34 metres long, while the eastern passage, 40 metres long, making it the longest megalithic passage in Western Europe. It leads to a two-tier burial chamber with a high corbelled roof.

Outside, the base of the mound is encircled with over 120 oblong kerbstones - each about 2.5 metres in length.

The Knowth Passage Tomb is estimated to contain one quarter of all the megalithic art produced in Europe.

It features a total of 250 decorated stones, many of which are decorated with abstract signs, including numerous petroglyphs with spirals and other curvilinear designs.

There are numerous associations between Knowth's megaliths and astronomy, including maps of the moon, as well as calendars based on the positions of the sun, moon, and stars.

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Stonehenge

Salisbury Plain, England
3100 BC

Stonehenge - probably the world's most famous example of megalithic architecture - sits at the centre of an extensive cluster of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, including hundreds of burial mounds.

The Stonehenge Stone Circle includes an outer ring of sarsen standing stones (each weighing 25 tons), capped by connecting horizontal lintels. There is also an inner ring of smaller bluestones around the remains of five free-standing trilithons, each about 7.4 metres in height, and weighing up to 50 tons.

Originally, Stonehenge was aligned towards the sunrise on the summer solstice.

Experts believe the site served as a multifunctional centre of Neolithic tomb culture, concerned with ancestor worship and healing, as well as burial.

In any event, by 2,000 BC, Stonehenge was the most important ceremonial centre in southern England.

Sadly, this iconic megalithic structure has fallen into a delapidated state. Along with the Avebury Henge monument, the complex was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

Rujm el-Hiri

Golan Heights
3000-2700 BC

Rujm el-Hiri (Gilgal Refaim) is an Early Bronze Age megalithic site, located in the middle of a wide plateau studded with hundreds of dolmen tombs.

It consists of three or more concentric circles of stone walls arranged around a 5-metre tall tumulus. The walls are connected by smaller stone walls lying perpendicular to the circles. The outer circle is about 160 metres in diameter and 2.4 metres tall.

The central tumulus is made of smaller rocks, and is thought to have been built after the surrounding walls were completed.

It measures 20 metres in diameter and rises about 4.6 metres above ground level. Two entrances to the site face the northeast and southeast.

The layout is seemingly aligned in the general direction of the June solstice sunrise.

In total, the formation includes more than 40,000 tonnes of basalt rock.

The site does not appear to have been a defensive position or a residential building of some kind, but most likely a ceremonial centre featuring ritual activity to please the gods. However, there is no consensus on its purpose owing to a lack of similar examples, in the region.

Avebury Henge

Wiltshire, England
2850 BC

Avebury is a Neolithic henge monument containing three stone circles in southwest England. Along with Stonehenge, Avebury is one of the most famous prehistoric sites in Britain, not least because it contains the country's largest megalithic stone circle.

The site consists of a large henge (a ditch and a bank) with an outer circle of standing stones, plus two smaller stone circles situated inside the centre of the monument.

The Avebury henge measures 347 metres in diameter and about 1,000 metres in circumference. It is radiocarbon dated to the middle of the third millennium BC.

Within the henge is an outer circle of stones, with a diameter of about 331 metres (1,088 ft), this is Britain's largest stone circle. It was built at the same time, or 400-500 years after the earthworks.

Originally it consisted of 98 sarsen stones, each around 4 metres in height and up to 40 tonnes in weight.

It is radiocarbon dated to 2870–2200 BC.

Nearer the centre of the monument are two depleted stone circles. The northern circle is 98 metres in diameter, the southern was 108 metres in diameter before its destruction some 300 years ago.

Avebury is a part of a wider prehistoric landscape which contains numerous older monuments, including Silbury Hill, Windmill Hill, and West Kennet Long Barrow.

Maeshowe

Mainland Orkney, Scotland
2800 BC

Maeshowe is a megalithic cairn and passage grave of the Neolithic era, and one of the largest tombs in Orkney.

The mound containing the tomb is 35 metres in diameter and about 7 metres tall. It is encircled by a ditch up to 14 metres wide.

The mound covers a network of passages and chambers contructed from stone slabs, each weighing up to 30 tons.

Like Newgrange, the megalithic architecture of Maeshowe ensures that the rear wall of its central chamber is illuminated on the winter solstice.

The entrance passage is 11 metres in length and just less than a metre high. So visitors must crawl into the central chamber, which itself is about 4.6 metres square, 3.8 metres tall and lined with massive stone slabs.

Inside the chamber, enormous angled-buttresses rise from each corner up to the ceiling.

The workload needed to build Maeshowe has been estimated at anything between 39,000 and 100,000 man-hours.

The size and sophistication of Maeshowe points to it being the last tomb of its type, likely built about 2800 BC. We know that the builders of Maeshowe were users of grooved ware pottery, which was fashionable from about 3000 BC.

In 1999, along with Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and other nearby sites, Maeshowe was designated part of the 'Heart of Neolithic Orkney' UNESCO World Heritage site.

Egyptian Pyramids

From 2670 BC

There are 118 different pyramids in Egypt, the first of which was Djoser's Pyramid located in the Saqqara necropolis, northwest of Memphis.

This 6-tier, 4-sided, 60-metre high structure was the first Egyptian pyramid to be built, around 2670 BC.

Djoser's Pyramid owes its style of megalithic architecture to the Saqqara mastaba built in 2700 BC. Indeed, the lower levels of the pyramid resembled a mastaba until alterations were introduced to create its distinctive step pyramidal shape.

Djoser's burial chamber inside was a vault made from granite stone. There was only one opening, which was sealed with a 3.5 ton stone block. Some 40,000 stone vessels were stored in the pyramid to satisfy Djoser's needs in the afterlife.

Other famous Egyptian pyramids, not mentioned above, include:

Pyramids were also constructed in several other countries. In fact, the largest pyramid by volume is the Mesoamerican Great Pyramid of Cholula, located in Mexico.

Carahunge

Syunik, Armenia
2000 BC

Carahunge (Zorats Karer) is a megalithic site located near Sisian, on a mountain plateau in southern Armenia.

Known as the 'Armenian Stonehenge', this Neolithic archaeological monument sits on a rocky rise and occupies an area of about 7 hectares.

The monument consists of 223 basalt stones (each between 1-3 metres in height, and weighing as much as 10 tons), along with other undocumented stones and remains, and features a range of burial cists and menhirs.

Archaeoastronomers believe that the menhirs could have been used for the purposes of astronomical observation.

The stones are extremely weathered and overgrown with moss and lichen. Only a small proportion of the site has been fully investigated, or explored with ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

Korean Dolmens (650 BC)

Gochang, Hwasun, Ganghwa
650 BC

Dolmen tombs (koindol or chisongmyo) were extremely popular in Ancient Korea. More than 30,000 of these megalithic structures have been documented in the country, accounting for about 40 percent of the global total.

Most of these are located in South Korea, where they are accorded the status of protected monuments.

They are commonly found near villages, and the funerary offerings they contain indicate they were built as tombs for elite members of the community.

Such offerings included ancient pottery, bronzes, stone tools, and other items of ancient art like jewellery.

Most of the stone slabs used in Korean dolmen architecture are massive, weighing in excess of 70 tonnes. The largest example found so far measured 7 metres in height and 5.5 metres in width.

Most date to the late Neolithic era or the Korean Bronze Age, during the first millennium BC.

Bronze Age culture (including the dolmen tradition) spread south into Korea from Manchuria. This new metallurgical culture engendered an elite class which introduced (and was honoured by) the construction of dolmen tombs.

An outstanding example of early Bronze Age dolmens are the table-type tombs on Ganghwa Island (1000 BC).

The Korean sites of Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa contain over 1,000 stone dolmens which were used as graves, and sometimes also for ritual purposes, when megalithic culture was widespread on the Korean Peninsula, after 1000 BC.

These three sites were jointly made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000. The practice of dolmen-building ended around 250 BC.

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

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