Categories: ArtHistory

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.

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 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 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 was transported until it was correctly placed, after which it was covered with earth, giving rise to the tumulus. 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). 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., 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.

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.

The excavations carried out in some British, Irish, Scandinavian and French monuments have revealed the existence of ritual activities in them from the epipaleolithic period, and raises their age of use in centuries and even millennia, although these data are subject to controversy:

About 8000 BC: wooden constructions at the site of Stonehenge (England).
About 5400 BC: Possible Starting dates for Carrowmore (Ireland).

About 5000 BC: constructions in Evora (Portugal). Beginning of the Atlantic Neolithic.
About 4800 BC: constructions in Brittany and Poitou (France).
About 4000 BC: generalization of constructions with examples in Carnac (Brittany), central and southern France, Corsica, Spain, Portugal, England and Wales.
About 3700 BC: constructions in different parts of Ireland.
About 3600 BC: in England and Malta (Ggantija).
About 3500 BC: Spain, also southwest of Ireland, northern France, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Belgium and Germany.
About 3400 BC: in Ireland, Holland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

About 3200 BC: Megalithic Temple of Hagar Qim (Malta).
About 3,000 BC: constructions in Los Millares (Spain), France, Sicily, Belgium, the Orkney Islands (Scotland), as well as the first circles (henges) in England.
About 2800 BCE: a peak in Denmark and the construction of the Stonehenge circle.
About 2500 BC: climax of megalithism tied to the bell tower in the Iberian Peninsula, Germany and the British Isles, with the construction of hundreds of small stone circles in the latter. With the bell, it passed to northern Europe and central Neolithic to Chalcolithic (the age of copper).
About 2000 BC: Balearic Islands.

Age of bronze
About 2000 BC: constructions in Brittany, Sardinia, Italy and Scotland. The Chalcolithic gives way to the bronze age to the west and north of Europe.
About 1800 BC: in Italy.
About 1500 BC: to Portugal.
About 1400 BCE: Burial of Egtved Girl in Denmark; the body is very well preserved.

Some authors postulate that there is an astronomical connection in many megalithic monuments. They consider that Stonehenge could be an observatory and that its disposition (and the one of many other deposits) is oriented according to the celestial cycles. But, in some constructions, as in the Newgrange Irish tomb, astronomical involvement seems to exist, archaeoastronomy critics allege that these examples should not be extrapolated without evidence to other constructions. The relationship with the position of the stars has also been studied in detail in the case of tables of Menorca, although it is about later megalithic constructions, corresponding to the iron age.

Related Post

It is true that prehistoric societies possessed astronomical knowledge linked to seed and harvesting cycles, and that these could have been reflected in the construction of megaliths. This does not mean, however, that they used these monuments for a systematic observation of the sky, in the modern sense of observation.

Artistic manifestations associated with megalithism

Although the stones that form the megaliths are usually poorly worked, in some cases their surface has engravings or reliefs. These artistic manifestations are found in several places in Western Europe, although the largest concentrations are found in Malta, Ireland, Britain and the Iberian Peninsula. Megalithic art began in the Neolithic period and continued until the Bronze Age. Although many types of monuments received this form of art, most of them are carved out of corridor dolmens and Neolithic statues-menhirs. At dolmens the megalithic art tends to be very abstract and contains relatively few representations of recognizable real objects, but in statues-menhirs it wants to represent anatomical features and clothes and this is more specific. Megalithic art is often similar to prehistoric rock art and contains many similar motifs, such as bowls and circles, although the two forms of rock engravings also have great differences in style. The meaning of megalithic art is subject to much debate.

Megalithism in Asia
In several sites in Eastern Turkey (especially in Göbekli Tepe, but also in Nevali Çori and Nahal Hemar), major ceremonial complexes dating from the tenth millennium BC (9500 BC) have been discovered, so that they date from the most initial phases of the Neolithic. Its main feature is that large circular structures are formed by dozens of megaliths surrounding engravings shaped T. Although it would be the structures of older older orthostats known so far, it is not clear that one of the European megalithic traditions has derived from those. In Göbekli Tepe, four stone circles of an estimated number of 20 have been excavated; One of these circles gets to measure 30 meters from one side to the other. The stone pillars show reliefs of wild boars, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and scorpions.

Although their excavators have always considered it the oldest place of worship in the world, the theory that could be a residential complex containing ceremonial elements has recently been raised.

Middle East
Dolmens and menhirs have been found in large areas of the Near East: from present-day Aleppo to northern Syria, to southern Yemen, through Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. There are also on Charag Island (Iran) or in northern Iraq, and the highest concentration of dolmens is located on both banks of the depression formed by the Jordan Valley, with a clear predominance on the eastern side. This happens mainly in the Golan Heights, Hauran and Jordan, which probably have the highest concentration of dolmens in the Near East. In Saudi Arabia, however, only a few dolmens have been identified, most of them in the Hijaz. The megaliths seem to resurface in Yemen in small quantities, and this could indicate the continuation of a tradition linked to that of Somalia and Ethiopia.

Far East
There are megalithic burials in northeast and southeastern Asia, with the main concentrations in the Korean peninsula. There are also in Liaoning, Shandong and Zhejiang (China), the east coast of Taiwan, Kyūshū and Shikoku (Japan), the province of Dong Nai in Vietnam, as well as in areas of India and Pakistan. Certain megalithic traditions are still practiced in the islands of Sumba and Nias, in Indonesia.

In India, the megaliths can be dated from the second millennium to the middle of the 1st century BC (2000-500 BC). In Mongolia, the so-called deer stones are dated between the end of the second millennium BC and beginnings of the 1st century BC. The dolmens of Korea date during the 1st millennium BC and those of Japan between the seventh and second centuries BC.

Northern style
The megalithic traditions of northeastern Asia have their origins in North China, especially in the Liao river basin. The custom of building megalithic burials spread rapidly from this area to the Korean peninsula, where the structure of the megaliths is geographically and chronologically different. The oldest are denominated of northern style or table, due to the fact that they show a characteristic funerary chamber elevated on the ground and formed by heavy patches slabs that create a rectangular cista. An excessive stone placed on the slabs crowns the funeral chamber, giving it the appearance of a table. These constructions date from the first part of the Mumun ceramics period (1500-850 BC) and are distributed, with few exceptions, to the north of the Han River. Some northern-style megaliths in northeastern China contain such aphids as Liaoning bronze daggers, which aroused some archaeologists to interpret these burials as the tombs of heads or preeminent individuals (great men). Anyway, either as a result of tomb robberies or deliberate mortuary conduct, most of the northern megaliths do not contain aubergines.

Southern style
The Southern style burials are distributed throughout the south of the Korean peninsula. It is believed that most of them date from the last part of the initial Mumun period or the middle Mumun. The southern style megalith scale is typically smaller than that of the northern ones. The southern burial area consists of an underground chamber made on the same ground or covered with thin slabs. A solid stone placed on the funerary area is supported by small rocking rocks. Most Korean megaliths are of this type, and some archaeologists estimate that there could be between 15,000 and 100,000.

Like the northern ones, southern megaliths contain few or no artifacts. However, in a small number of these appear refined burnished reddish ceramic, bronze daggers, polished stone dowels and jade ornaments. Southern burials are often forming groups, scattered in lines parallel to the direction of the streams. These necropolises contain burials that are joined together by low stone platforms made with large pebbles. On these platforms, cracks have been found reddish brushed crails and carbonized wood, which has led to the archeologists who were sometimes used to celebrate ceremonies and rituals. The slabs of the cover of many southern megaliths have cut marks in the shape of glasses, and a few show human representations and daggers.

Sheltered slab style
These megaliths are distinguished from others due to the presence of a burial pit, which sometimes reaches 4 m depth, covered by large pebbles. A large covering was placed on the funerary well without ortostats that sustained it. This typology is the most monumental of the Korean peninsula and is distributed mainly by its southern coast. It seems that most date from the most recent Mumun period (700-550 BC), and some may belong to the first part of the final Mumun. An example found near Changwon, in a small necropolis of Deokcheon-in, is Burial No. 1, which contains a solid rectangular slab and a ground platform.

Current megalithic traditions in Indonesia
The Indonesian archipelago is the home of Austronesian, past and present megalithic traditions. These traditions of contemporary times can be found on the isolated island of Nias (opposite the western coast of northern Sumatra), between the Batak from the same north of Sumatra, on the Sumba island of the province of Nusatenggara and between the Toraja of the interior of Merlas southern. These traditions remained isolated and not disturbed until well into the 19th century.

In Nias, there were stone statues, stone benches for stone heads and tables to carry out justice. The megaliths were necessary for the funeral commemorations of the hierarchies, so that they could meet with their pious ancestors in the afterlife. The erection of a megalith was the prelude to a ritual feast.

Throughout Indonesia, you can find different deposits and megalithic structures: menhirs, dolmens, stone tables, ancestral statues, and staggered pyramids, locally called Punden Berundak, have been discovered in several places in Java, Sumatra, Celébres and the smaller islands of the probe.

Pyramids Punden and its menhirs can be seen in Pagguyangan Cisolok and Gunung Padang in western Java, and Gunung Padang is the largest megalith in Southeast Asia. In the same province, the site of Cipari brings together monoliths, stone terraces and sarcophagi. It is believed that the Punden pyramid is the precedent and the basic design of the later structure of the Hindus and Buddhist temples of Java that were built after the adoption of these religions by the population: the stupa of Borobudur from the 8th century or the temple of Candi Sukuh from the 15th century presents the stepped pyramid structure.

Lore Lindu National Park in Sulawesi center houses the remains of ancient megaliths, statues and ancient stony, mostly located in the valleys of Bada kiss and napus.

Mahdia Gonds from Maharashtra, India
A 2002 study mentions current megalithic practices between the Mahdia Gonds of Tehsil Bhamragad, in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, India.

Megalithism in Africa
In the southern region of Ethiopia, there is still the largest concentration of megaliths in the African continent. Some of these graves or dolmens could be of great antiquity, since according to some authors they go back to the X millennium BC. Most, on the other hand, are much more recent, from the millennium of our era, and count for thousands (it has been estimated a figure of 10,000) in Shewa and Sidamo. Another of the regions with the greatest presence of megaliths is that of Soddo, south of Addis Ababa, where some 160 archaeological sites have been discovered to date, such as Tiya, a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

In the Niafunké malinese region, the Tundidaro site comprises more than one hundred and fifty stones placed. Similar constructions protect some graves in countries such as Niger, Togo and Chad. In Senegal and Gambia, the four major groups of megalithic circles that are located between the Gambia, in the south, and Saloum, in the north, have been classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (2006); Between the four add 93 circles and about 1,000 megaliths, and have been dated between the third century BC and the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. In the Bouar population, in the Central African Republic, there are megaliths dating from the 6th century BC.

In Nabta Playa, in the desert of Nubia (south of present Egypt and 100 km west of Abu Simbel), from the tenth millennium BC, a great lake began to form. Towards the 5th millennium BC, the inhabitants of Nabta Playa constructed a supposed astronomical device that is considered by some researchers to be the oldest in the world, a thousand years before Stonehenge, although of very inferior dimensions. Some researchers believe that it could be a prehistoric calendar that accurately indicated the solsticesummer The findings show that the region used to be occupied only seasonally, probably in the summer, when the lake water would be used to drink the herds. There are also five megalithic alignments that extend from a set of central stones.

Megalithism in Oceania

They are megaliths in many parts of Melania, especially in the province of Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu. But so far, few excavations have been carried out and, therefore, there is little information on these structures. In the megalithic tomb of Otuyam, to Kiriwina (Trobriand Islands), they have been awarded approximately 2,000 years old, which would indicate, although there are very few dated megaliths, that these traditions are an ancient custom in the region. These constructions have been used to celebrate different rituals, for example funeral, sacrificial or fertile. Near to some megaliths, there are places suitable for performing dances. In certain places in Melanesia, these rituals continue to be celebrated in the same sacred places, as beliefs remain alive, which has been one of the reasons for the paralysis of many excavations.

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. 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.

Contemporary Megalithism
Megalithism has not completely disappeared. If the Bantu of the province of Ogoja, in the south-east of Nigeria, no longer raise the phallic Akwanshi for a hundred years like the Kelabit of Sarawak, against the Malagasy of the plateau of Imerina, the Konsos of Ethiopia and the Toraja of Sulawesi or the inhabitants of Sumba in IndonesiaStill standing today are megaliths to honor their dead and value the rank of family or clan. This requires, as several thousand years ago, enormous physical and economic costs but also the spirit of cooperation that strengthens the unity of the ethnic groups that still practice megalithism.

Source from Wikipedia