Megalithic art

Megalithic art refers to the use of large stones as an artistic medium. Although some modern artists and sculptors make use of large stones in their work, the term is more generally used to describe art carved onto megaliths in prehistoric Europe.

Megalithic art is found in many places in Western Europe although the main concentrations are in Malta, Ireland, Brittany and Iberia. Megalithic art started in the Neolithic and continued into the Bronze Age. Although many monument types received this form of art the majority is carved on Neolithic passage graves. Megalithic art tends to be highly abstract and contains relatively few representations of recognisable real objects. Megalithic art is often similar to prehistoric rock art and contains many similar motifs such as the ‘cup and ring mark’, although the two forms of rock carving also have large stylistic differences. The meaning of megalithic art is the subject of much debate.

Weathering and vandalism have affected many examples of the art and little of it remains to day.

Study megalithic
The habitat and way of life of megalith builders raises many questions that scientists are trying to answer. The understanding of extinct cultures requires the study of objects (pottery, lithic or bone tools) and monuments that have come down to us, having been sometimes reused by other civilizations, looted, destroyed over the centuries.

Megalithism, a branch of prehistoric archeology, therefore remains a “science of imprecision” according to the prehistorian Serge Cassen, based on hypotheses. The burials, their architectures and their furniture hold an essential place in this research. The construction methods of these imposing buildings, erected by huge blocks of stone, are poorly known, although experimental archeology has made significant progress. These constructions, witnesses of the first monumental architecture in the history of humanity, were erected, mostly as burials, by organized societies.

At first, research on megalithism focuses on defining the natural environment in which megalithic architecture is inserted. Then, she is confronted with the problem of dating, indispensable for the establishment of a chronology.

As early as 1944, Pierre-Roland Giot created, within the Faculty of Sciences of Rennes, a laboratory of prehistoric anthropology in which he applied the scientific techniques to the archeology: petrography of the polished axes, spectrography of the metals, sedimentological study of the deposits Paleolithic among others. He will lead for forty years the great excavations and restorations of megalithic monuments and tumuli and form a team of seasoned prehistorians. Among his students are the names of Yves Coppens,Jacques Briard and Jean L’Helgouach, later joined by Charles-Tanguy Le Roux, Pierre-Louis Gouletquer, Marie-Yvane Daire and Henri Morzadec.

Theories megalithism
Many fanciful interpretations stem from popular traditions, relayed by travelers, poets and folklorists: the megalithic alignments are thus petrified soldiers, the stones raised a forest of phallus, emblems of pancosmic fertility (symbol of the Penis of Heaven penetrating the Earth – woman, or verge of a telluric male discharging its seed in the wind). The stones were brought by fairies, often benevolent divinities of Celtic legends; the dolmens would be the houses of Breton dwarves (korrigans or poulpiquets), covered alleysthe tombs of Gaulish chief. Part of the celtomanes maintain the anachronism of Druidic and Celtic monuments and sometimes popular opinion still sees there works of Gauls or Celts. Theory still wackiest, megalithic routes would be markup allowing aliens to find uranium deposits present on earth.

Most of the scientific theories related to the megalithic phenomenon aim to develop the question of the significance of the erection of these monuments. Megalithism has a religious dimension (funerary stelae), but we do not know anything about this religion, its rites, its ceremonies. It can also have a function of astronomical observatory which makes it possible to determine the important dates of the solar year for companies of farmers-farmers (period of the sowing or the transhumance of the herds). Thus, the megalithic alignmentscan serve as open-air sights, menhir enclosures can mark sunrises and sunsets at solstices, buried corridors lead to a room where the sun only enters at a specific moment (usually the winter solstice). The raised stones have in this case a relation with the worship of the sun and the stars, and it remains a vestige of this function in our popular traditions with the fires of the Saint-Jean, with the celebration of the harvests. Megalithism also has a prestige function, denoting a highly hierarchical society with strong power to force people to move as large blocks. It can be conceived as a term of the neolithic process After the Mesolithic communities that developed a thriving predation economy, able to feed an abundant population, neolithic communities adopted agriculture, practicing either tropical horticulture or grain farming. Fractions of society are thus able to obtain surplus of food, a way to create wealth and well translated megalithic corporate hierarchy to ostentatious wealth or semi-state.

In Europe, some megaliths like Stonehenge are related to roads amber and tin that southern countries merchants fetched.

According to archaeologists such as Jacques Blot, it is likely that isolated menhirs are an ancient demarcation marking the ways of transhumance. Jacques Blot notes that in the Basque Country, menhirs are on major roads: shepherds’ passages, salt routes, etc. Other times, the menhir can also commemorate an event or an important person.

Most of the researchers concerned today agree to recognize megaliths in a multiplicity of roles, ie, in order of importance, social, cultural (religious and funerary), astronomical, astrological, artistic, agricultural, and so on. If all these constructions did not have all these functions, they reveal an organized society “under the direction of ruling elites, princes or priests, knowing how to organize and incite by force or force important populations, perhaps reinforced occasionally ceremonies and religious works by exogenous elements “.

Construction process
The construction process of a megalith started in the quarry where the large blocks of stone were extracted. From there they were transported (1) on trunks and branches to the place chosen for the erection of the monument. In this place the vertical blocks were dropped in a narrow hole previously excavated (2) and then they were adjusted until they were vertical, after which the hole was filled to fix them firmly. In the case of the menhirs the process was finished, but for the erection of a dolmen, the most difficult task was continued, consisting in placing the block or horizontal blocks. To do this, embankments were made on both sides of the orthostats, until reaching the same height as these. Through these embankments the horizontal block (3) was transported until it was correctly placed, after which it was covered with earth, giving rise to the tumulus (4). This hypothesis of construction has been proven in practice by several research teams, including that of JP Mohen, who in 1979 built a dolmen in France using two hundred men and whose upper slab had a weight of 32 tons.

Studies conducted in Wessex, in the south of England, showed that building the final phase of Stonehenge required some 30 million work hours, carried out by a workforce from the entire region. For the great mound of Silbury Hill, in the same region, it took 18 million hours and was lifted in just two years, according to its excavator. Each one of the minor henges of Wessex supposed of the order of a million hours of work, or what would be the same, 300 people working a whole year.

Although initially it was thought that the simplest monuments were necessarily older and that they were gaining in complexity over time, now it is known that it was not always the case: in Britain they were built from the 5th millennium BC. C. large megalithic assemblages, while in the second millennium a. C. they became smaller.

The oldest megaliths, those of Carrowmore, in Sligo, Ireland, have been dated to 5400-4700 BC. C. and are prior to any known vestige of agriculture in the region. They are related to hunter-gatherer concheros and some of the burials have evidence of fleshlessness, cremation, ritual sacrifices and cannibalism.

The most extensive period of megalithic constructions is located in the Iberian southwest, where it covers approximately from 4800 a. C. to 1300 a. C., including the periods between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, although Towards 3800 a. C. Megaliths were erected in Brittany and in western France, while between 3500 and 3000 BC. C. this phenomenon extended by practically all the populations of the European Atlantic slope, until then devoid of common cultural nexuses. Some people think that deep -sea fishing, particularly that of cod, could serve as a means of transmission.

Since the end of the 5th millennium and throughout the IV millennium a. In Corsica, collective hypogea with antechamber and several cameras decorated with images related to the cult of the bull were enabled. From 3100 a. C., are observed in the Portuguese focus and its surroundings important innovations in the funeral construction: artificial caves and tholoi. From 3100 a. C. and up to 2200 a. C. Fortified populations developed in southwestern and southeastern Iberia, forming the first and only complex societies involved in the megalithic phenomenon: the cultures of Vila Nova (Tajo estuary) and Los Millares (Almería). 6 There is also a noticeable increase in overseas trade, importing amber from Scandinavia, as well as ivory and ostrich eggshell from Africa. It is in this period that the appearance of the megalithic phenomenon also begins to be seen in areas that can not be considered strictly Atlantic, both in central Europe and in the western Mediterranean.

During the IV millennium a. C. ceremonial circular platforms surrounded by wooden poles and with internal concentric moats were built in Great Britain, that from 3000 a. C. were being replaced by the complex circles of orthostats known as henges.

The deployment of the bell-shaped cultural complex from Vila Nova towards 2900 a. C., 8 confirms the cultures of the south of the Iberian peninsula as megalithic foci still in full swing at that time.

Its basic types are the menhir and the dolmen, but their grouping, the combination of both or greater complexity, give rise to a more varied typology in which we find alignments (such as Carnac, in France), cromlech (such as Stonehenge, in England) and corridor and camera dolmens, abundant in Andalusia as is the case of Valencina (Matarrubilla, La Pastora, Ontiveros, Montelirio), Trigueros (Soto) or Antequera (Menga, Viera and El Romeral).

The word menhir comes from Breton, a language in which it means “long stone” (from men or maen = stone and hir = long). It consists of a single megalith (monolith) driven vertically into the ground and can not be assigned a clearly funerary use. Sometimes they are grouped in rows, giving rise to an alignment like that of Carnac; they can also be presented forming circles forming a crómlech, whose most sophisticated examples are the hengesfrom England. There is also the type of statue-menhir, with a whole series of characteristics, being an anthropomorphic representation sculpted and / or engraved on a menhir.

More complex than the menhir is the dolmen, a term also derived from the Breton meaning “stone table” (from dol = table and men = stone). The dolmen is formed by two or more orthostats on which a horizontally placed slab rests. In Spain they are abundant, emphasizing among others those of Dombate (Galicia), Sakulo (Navarra), Laguardia and Eguilaz (Álava), Tella (Aragón), Pedra Gentil (Catalonia) and Tapias (Extremadura).

A more complex variety of the latter type is the corridor and camera dolmen, which consists of a corridor or gallery that leads to one or two chambers. Both the corridor and the camera can present a regular or irregular plane; the regular corridor leads to a regular chamber, well differentiated, in a circular (as in the case of El Romeral) or square (Viera), which can also be covered not by megaliths but by a false vault, as happens in Los Millares (Almería). Sometimes a secondary and smaller chamber appears located in the same longitudinal axis of the building and communicated with the main one by another short corridor (El Romeral). In the irregular planes there is no clear separation between the corridor and the chamber, which looks like a mere widening of the corridor; unlike the regular ones its cover is lintelled and is formed by large megaliths (Menga). In all cases this type of buildings were covered by a mound of earth several meters in diameter, like artificial hills, which give them the appearance of a cave, which is why, sometimes and popularly, they are called “caves”, as occurs in Antequera.

Megalithic art
If the primary function of architecture megalithic is mostly likely not directly artistic, the megalith is sometimes the preferred medium of art of its time. For example, the orthostats of the dolmens can be decorated with very complex engravings whose symbolism escapes us; they may also have been carved and present an anthropomorphic shape, thus resembling real prehistoric statues, some of which are sexual (figuration of breasts) and have rows of necklaces. Similarly, the statues-menhirsare megaliths whose engravings, sometimes very evolved and numerous, are the witnesses of the artistic activity of men of prehistory, the art associating with the sacred. However, these data are often distorted because the engraved art is more rare on the menhirs than in the tombs, because of the blistering of the granites which makes disappear the number of plots 18. The alteration of painted representations is even more important, to the point that the historiographical tradition has long denied the existence of Neolithic pictorial art, though well attested in the Iberian megalithic art whose painting is executed in red ocher essentially,. New specific methodologies for detecting pictorial motifs reveal that this symbolic but also decorative pictorial art is more developed than archaeologists thought, even in the least furnished regions in megalithic architectures.

The corpus of engraved signs includes zigzag patterns (or serpentiforms) that can evoke draperies, snakes (theory of ophiolatry dear to William Stukeley and Maudet de Penhouet), or waves of sharp-crested waves; the corniform motifs most often interpreted as reductions of bucranes; the scutiformes units; zoomorphic or anthropomorphic signs; the butts and crosserons; the axes fitted; bows and arrows; cartridges; the wells; the nested hoops.


The excavations carried out in some British, Irish, Scandinavian and French monuments have revealed the existence of ritual activities in them since the Epipaleolithic, raising their age of use in centuries and even millennia, although such data are subject to controversy:

Circa 5400 a. C.: possible initial dates for Carrowmore (Ireland).

Circa 5000 a. C.: constructions in Evora (Portugal). Beginning of the Atlantic Neolithic.
Circa 4800 a. C.: constructions in Brittany and Poitou (France).
Circa 4300 a. C.: Generalization of buildings with examples in Carnac (Brittany), central and southern France, Corsica, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain and Wales.
Circa 3700 a. C.: buildings in different parts of Ireland.
Circa 3600 a. C.: Ggantija in Malta and in England initial phases of circular embankments called henges, such as the site of Stonehenge.
Circa 3500 a. C.: El Romeral, in Antequera (Spain); also in the southwest of Ireland, northern France, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Belgium and Germany.
Circa 3400 a. C.: in Ireland, Holland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

Circa 3200 a. C.: megalithic temple of Hagar Qim (Malta).
Circa 3000 a. C.: constructions in Los Millares (Spain), France, Sicily, Belgium, the Orkney Islands (Scotland), as well as the first circles (henges) in England.
Circa 2800 a. C.: High point in Denmark and construction of the Stonehenge circle.
Circa 2500 a. C.: climax of the megalithic linked to the bell-shaped in the Iberian Peninsula, Germany and the British Isles, with the construction of hundreds of small stone circles in the latter. With the campaniform it was passed in northern and central Europe from the Neolithic to the Chalcolithic (the Copper Age).

Bronze Age
Circa 2000 a. C.: constructions in Brittany, Sardinia, Italy and Scotland. The Chalcolithic gives way to the Bronze Age in the west and north of Europe.
Circa 1800 a. C.: in Italy.
Circa 1500 a. C.: in Portugal.
Circa 1400 a. C.: Burial of Egtved Girl, in Denmark, whose body is very well preserved.

Megalithism worldwide
The chronological succession of the different megalithic currents does not in any way imply a link of filiation between them. Megalithism is a widespread phenomenon in the world, with regional features such as alignments Atlantic, Nordic or African, circles or henges English, Scottish or Orkney, the “giants’ tombs” and nuraghi Sardinian, the Corsican torres, the Balearic taulas, the tombs towers of Saudi and Sinai, the brochs of Scotland, the stone circles Welsh, the menhirs or peulvens, the dolmens in mounds or under cairn, the covered walkways, the standing stones, the chen-pin Korean, the kofun Japanese, altars Olmecs, the Colombian anthropomorphic megaliths or the Pascuan moais.

Many megaliths are Christianized by Christians, including carving the cross-shaped top or symbols on their surface. From the vi th century according to the Vita prima sancti Samsonis, Samson saint have carved a cross on a menhir around which the Britons across the Channel were engaged “in the game” to ancestral rites (including the practice of young women wishing to marrying around stones, rubbing against blocks or sitting on them, their phallic symbol being associated with fertility). This is mainly xviii th century and the nineteenthth century with the invention of dynamite and land consolidation of the 20th century that are responsible for three quarters of the destruction of the megaliths.

It is estimated that about 50,000 megaliths had been erected in Western and Northern Europe, about 10,000 remain in our time.

Ireland has the largest concentration of megalithic art in Europe, particularly in the Boyne Valley. This art form appears to be entirely abstract and is perhaps the most famous with its well-known multiple-spirals. It is believed that much of this artwork is entoptically derived from induced states of altered consciousness (Dronfield 1993). Stylistically the art of Ireland is similar to occasional finds in nearby Wales and the Scottish Isles. Approximately 70% of Ireland’s ancient decorated rocks and stones are to be found in the Boyne Valley (o’Sullivan 1997;19)

The French region of Brittany has the second highest concentration of megalithic art. The earliest examples in this area are with anthropomorphic representations on menhirs which later continued in passage graves. Brittany shares some motifs with both Ireland and Iberia and the level of contact between them has always been debated. Among the most famous examples are the passage grave at Gavrinis and the Barnenez mound.

Iberian megalithic art contains the most number of realistic representations of objects, although there is also a strong abstract element. Iberia is the only place to have painted decoration as well as carved. Other areas may also have originally been painted, but Iberia’s arid climate lends itself to preservation of the paint. The paint (as it currently survives) is normally restricted to black and red, although occasionally features white as well.

Megalithic art is extremely rare in Central Europe. The gallery grave at Züschen in Germany is an intriguing exception, as it appears to mix motifs known from the west European megalithic tradition with others more familiar from alpine Rock art.

Non-abstract art
As well as abstract or geometric art, some carvings are considered to represent tools, weapons, animals, human figures, deities or idols. The gallery graves of the Seine-Oise-Marne culture such as that at Courjeonnet have images of axes, breasts and necklaces carved on their walls. The meaning of some of these is disputed. For instance, some of the tombs in the valley of the Petit Morin in France and elsewhere contain engravings of breasts, noses, hair, and a collar or necklace. These have been described both as deities (occasionally as ‘dolmen deities’) and as representations of the deceased.

The megalithic phenomenon can only be explained in the context of the profound changes produced as a result of the progressive neolithization of Western Europe. These changes, economic and social, were the result of the transition from predatory economies, based on hunting and gathering, to other producers, based on agriculture and livestock. Thus, the affected populations began to consider the land in which they lived and from which they were nourished as their own. The accumulation of surpluses and the need for a larger organization led to the emergence of segmental societies (or tribes), and later, the first headquarters. These societies (more complex than the Paleolithic bands) were, under the tutelage of the shamans (who held the spiritual and symbolic power), responsible for the construction of such works.

This process can be observed when performing a sociological reading of the burials: the collective burials without clear differentiations are interpreted as belonging to more or less egalitarian segmentary societies and led by big men (big man in English) while those who register groupings and grave goods unequal would correspond to hierarchical societies run by a boss.

The megalithic monuments have been interpreted as symbolic and / or ritual centers of the populations of their environment, of which there are very few data: a few scattered cabins of wood or stone, accumulations of flint, pits and homes, are the evidences found. The exception is the interesting town of Skara Brae, in the Orkney Islands (Scotland). Also have been found in north and northwest Europe certain enclosures delimited by successive moats, embankments and palisades, called entrenched fields, enclosures in the south of Great Britain, which would work, possibly, as ritual spaces complementary to the megaliths.

Over time, the analysis of this phenomenon has varied depending on the prevailing theories in each era:

Migrationist interpretation, majority during the nineteenth century: established that a single group of immigrants was responsible for the construction of all the megaliths.

Diffusionist: nuanced at the beginning of the twentieth century the previous one by attributing to the influence of the merchants of the Eastern Mediterranean the diffusion in the West of the ideology associated with megalithism.

Processal – functionalist: when it was demonstrated that the western megaliths were older than many Eastern ones, an explanation was sought of how this local development was produced through the analysis of the processes and their socio-economic functions.

Neomarxista: explains the use of megalithic ritual as a camouflage of the position of power of a few within the group.

Postprocesual: emphasizes the symbolic aspects within a specific social context.

The different interpretations of their ideological functions revolve around their use as elements of social equilibrium, territorial delimitation, prestige and / or power of the community, remarking the identification of their builders with the land in which their ancestors were buried, what would give them the right to work it. With the strengthening of the headquarters and the consequent social hierarchy, which coincides with the rise of metallurgy, it was changing to a model in which the individual prevailed over the collective: the megaliths gave way to individual burials.

Megalithism is the work of peoples who do not yet know the writing or advanced architectural techniques, such as those that began to practice the contemporary civilizations of Mesopotamia or Egypt. Do not forget that many megalithic monuments are subsequent to the construction of Mesopotamian ziggurats or the great Egyptian pyramids.

Source from Wikipedia