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Megalithic Monuments

How was monumental Neolithic architecture constructed and how was it used?

The massive tombs and ceremonial structures built from huge stones in the Neolithic period are known as megalithic architecture, from the Greek words for “large” (megas) and “stone” (lithos). Archaeologists disagree about the nature of the societies that created them. Some believe megalithic monuments reflect complex, stratified societies in which powerful religious or political leaders dictated their design and commanded the large workforce necessary to accomplish these ambitious engineering projects. Other interpreters argue that these massive undertakings are clear evidence for cooperative collaboration within and among social groups, coalescing around a common project that fueled social cohesion without the controlling power of a ruling elite. Many megalithic structures are associated with death, and recent interpretations stress the fundamental role of death and burial as public theatrical performances in which individual and group identity, cohesion, and disputes were played out.

Elements of Architecture

Post-and-Lintel and Corbel Construction

Of all the methods for spanning space, post-and-lintel construction is the simplest. At its most basic, two uprights (posts) support a horizontal element ( lintel ). There are countless variations, from the wood structures and underground burial chambers of prehistory, to Egyptian and Greek stone construction, to medieval timber-frame buildings, and even to present-day cast-iron and steel construction. Its limitation as a space spanner is the degree of tensile strength of the lintel material: the more flexible, the greater the possible span. Another early method for creating openings in walls and covering space is corbeling, in which rows or layers of stone are laid with the end of each row projecting beyond the row beneath, progressing until opposing layers almost meet and can then be capped with a stone (capstone) that rests across the tops of both layers.

Many megalithic tombs are preserved in Europe, where they were used for both single and multiple burials. In the simplest type, the dolmen , a tomb chamber was formed of huge upright stones supporting one or more table-like rocks, or capstones , in a post-and-lintel system. The structure was then mounded over with smaller rocks and dirt to form a cairn or artificial hill.

More elaborate burial sites—called passage graves —have corridors leading into a large burial chamber. At Newgrange in Ireland, a huge passage grave—originally 44 feet tall and 280 feet in diameter—was constructed about 3000–2500 bce ( fig. 1–12 ). Its passageway, 62 feet long and lined with standing stones, leads into a three-part chamber with a corbel vault (an arched structure that spans an interior space). Some stones are engraved with linear designs, mainly rings, spirals, and diamond shapes. These patterns may have been marked out using strings or compasses, and then carved by picking at the rock surface with tools made of antlers. Recent analysis of such engraved designs suggest that we should understand them in terms of the neuropsychological effects—including hallucinations—they would have had on people visiting the tomb. They may have played important roles in ritual or political ceremonies that centered around death, burial, and the commemoration and visitation of the deceased by the living.

Of all the megalithic monuments of Europe, the one that has stirred the public imagination most strongly is STONEHENGE in southern England ( figs. 1–13 , 1–14 ). A henge is a circle of stones or posts, often surrounded by a ditch with built-up embankments. While Stonehenge is not the largest such circle from the Neolithic period, it is one of the most complex, with eight different phases of construction and activity starting in about 3000 bce and stretching over a millennium and a half through the Bronze Age.

1–12 Tomb Interior with Engraved Stones

Newgrange, Ireland. c. 3000–2500 bce.

1–13 Stonehenge

Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England. c. 3000–1500 bce.

The site started as a cemetery of cremation burials marked by a circle of bluestones, transported over 150 miles from the west, where they were quarried from a site in Wales that was also a prehistoric healing site. Through numerous sequences of alterations and rebuilding, Stonehenge continued to function as a place of the dead. Between 2900 and 2600 bce, the bluestones were rearranged into an arc. Around 2500 bce, a circle of huge sarsen stones—a gray sandstone—created the famous appearance of the site, with the bluestones rearranged within. The center of the site was now dominated by a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of five sarsen trilithons, or pairs of upright stones topped by lintels. The one at the middle rose taller than the others to a height of 24 feet, with a lintel over 15 feet long and 3 feet thick. This group was surrounded by the so-called sarsen circle, a ring of uprights weighing up to 26 tons each and averaging 13½ feet tall.

Many theories have been advanced to explain the meaning of Stonehenge. In the Middle Ages, people thought that Merlin, the legendary magician of King Arthur, had built it. Later, the complex was erroneously associated with the rituals of Celtic druids. Because its orientation is related to the position of the sun at the solstice, some have argued that it was an observatory to track cosmic events or a calendar for regulating agricultural schedules. None of these ideas is supported by current archaeologists and recent evidence. We now believe that Stonehenge was the site of ceremonies linked to death and burial, and that this complex can only be understood in relation to nearby prehistoric sites dating from the same period when it was in use.

1–14 Diagram of Stonehenge

The settlements built near Stonehenge also follow circular layouts, but they were built not of stone, but wood, and they were the site of human habitation rather than burial and ritual. A mile from Stonehenge is Durrington Walls, a large settlement (almost 1,500 feet across) surrounded by a ditch and containing a number of wooden circles and circular houses. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that some people who stayed here had traveled from regions far away from the site and may have been visiting as pilgrims. Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were connected to the Avon River by banked avenues, joining the world of the living (the wood settlement) with the world of the dead (the stone circle). Neolithic people would have moved between these worlds as they walked the avenues, sometimes to bring the dead for burial, sometimes to participate in ceremonies or rituals dedicated to the memory of ancestors. The meaning of Stonehenge, therefore, rests within an understanding of the larger landscape that contained habitations as well as ritual sites.

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