There are about 35 000 presently extant European megaliths, a term which is derived from Greek μέγας (mégas), 'big', and λίϑoς (líthos), 'stone'. These include megalithic tombs, standing stones, stone circles, alignments, and megalithic buildings or temples. Most of these were constructed during the Neolithic and the Copper Ages and are located in coastal areas. Their distribution is along the so-called Atlantic façade, including Sweden, Denmark, North Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, northwest France, northern Spain, and Portugal, and in the Mediterranean region, including southern and southeastern Spain, southern France, the Islands of Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta and the Balearics, Apulia, northern Italy, and Switzerland. Interestingly, they share similar or even identical architectonic features throughout their distribution. Megalithic graves were built as dolmens and as passage or gallery graves. Thousands of anthropogenic erected stones either stand isolated in the landscapes or were arranged as circles or in rows. There is evidence all across Europe for an orientation of the graves toward the east or southeast in the direction of the rising Sun. The question therefore arises whether there was a single, original source from which a megalithic movement spread over Europe or regional phenomena developed independently due to a similar set of conditions.
Many archaeologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries supported the idea of a single origin for the Megalith-building culture, but this was overturned by the development of carbon-dating techniques in the 1970s did not support this, with dates obtained in this way suggesting that Megalith building started in several different parts of Europe more-or-less simultaneously, and the idea of a single point of origin was largely forgotten. However, since this time many more dates have been collected from Megalithic sites, and sites with related cultural items, creating the potential for a more detailed timeline to be developed for these structures.
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on 11 February 2019, Bettina Schulz Paulsson of the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Gothenburg, describes the results of a review of 2410 available radiocarbon dates taken from premegalithic, megalithic, and nonmegalithic but contemporaneous contexts, and develops a timeline for the spread of the Megalith-building culture based upon this.
Dolmen de las Ruines, Catalonia. Schulz Paulsson (2019).
The radiocarbon dates suggest that the first megalithic graves in Europe were closed small structures or dolmens built above ground with stone slabs and covered by a round or long mound of earth or stone. These graves emerge in the second half of the fifth millennium BC within a time interval of 4794 to 3986 BC, which can be reduced most probably to 200 to 300 years, in northwest France, the Channel Islands, Catalonia, southwestern France, Corsica, and Sardinia. Taking the associated cultural material into consideration, megalithic graves from Andalusia, Galicia, and northern Italy presumably belong to this first stage. There are no radiocarbon dates available from the early megalithic graves in these regions, or their calibrated ranges show an onset extending into the fourth millennium BC, as is the case for Galicia.
Of these regions, northwest France is the only one which exhibits monumental earthen constructions before the megaliths. The Passy graves in the Paris Basin have no megalithic chamber yet, but are impressive labour-intensive structures with a length of up to 280 m. These graves seem to be the earliest monumental graves in Europe; the first individual buried in the Passy necropolis died in 5061 to 4858 BC.
Somewhat later, the first monumental graves emerge in Brittany, and especially in the region of Carnac, in the form of round tumuli covering pit burials, stone cists, and dry-wall chambers. The first building phase of the tumulus St. Michel in Carnac is dated to the time interval 4782 to 4594 BC. The earliest megalithic grave chambers in Brittany, such as Tumiac, Kervinio, Castellic, St. Germain, Manio 5, Mané Hui, and Kerlescan. emerge within this horizon as an architectonic feature of monumental long and round mounds. For these early megaliths, no radiocarbon determinations are available. It is only possible to limit the time interval of construction to the Ancient Castellic horizon based on the typochronological considerations of the grave goods and according to Ancient Castellic contexts with associated radiocarbon results ranging from 4794 to 3999 BC.
In Catalonia, in the Tavertet region, early megalithic graves emerged during the same time interval, even contemporaneous with the graves in Brittany. A reevaluation of the available radiocarbon results yielded a dating of the construction of these graves not before 4722 to 4068 BC. On the northeastern side of the Pyrenees in southern France, early megaliths are either isolated in the landscape or arranged in necropolises as at Najac and Camp del Ginèbre. The unmodeled ranges of three radiocarbon results for Human bones from the necropolis of Najac 4328 to 3979 BC suggest burials within this time horizon.
Along the central Mediterranean coasts and north Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica, small necropolises are found with early megalithic graves. The grave goods from the Li Muri necropolis on Sardinia are attributed to the Late Neolithic San Ciriaco horizon, and, according to the radiocarbon results from the San Ciriaco layers in the settlement of Contraguda, it is possible to limit the emergence of these graves to a time interval from 4733 to 3986 BC.
There are further clusters with potential early megalithic graves documented in the central Mediterranean in northern Italy, for example, in La Vela-Trento, or Maddalena di Chiomonte-Torino and possibly Apulia. However, for these, there are no radiocarbon dates available yet. Based on the archaeological material, they are likely dated to the second half of the fifth millennium BC. From the southwest Iberian Peninsula in Andalusia, the Algarve, and the Alentejo, Schulz Paulsson found more of these possible early megaliths.
In the northern half of the western Iberian Peninsula, there are early megaliths, concentrated mainly in Galicia. So far, these have been dated to the very end of the fifth millennium cal BC, if not later. Most of these dates are from charcoal, and many represent latest possible values due to the inbuilt age of the wood or unsure contexts. From Chan de Cruz 1, a possible construction or usage date from about 4080 BC is available.
Haväng dolmen, Scania. Strikingly, the architectonic concepts of megaliths are similar or even identical all over Europe. Schulz Paulsson (2019).
Small stone chambers with no access and single or double inhumations are diagnostic for the early megalithic stage in the fifth millennium BC. In the last third of the fifth millennium, the earliest chambers with access are attested as dolmens and passage graves. These graves could be reopened for repeated burials, and this marks the beginning of a new practise for the whole of Europe: the construction of graves for successive depositions of human remains over centuries. The earliest known accessible megalithic grave with reliable radiocarbon dates is located in central western France in the necropolis of Prissé-la-Charrière, Deux-Sèvres. The beginning of burial activities at this dolmen is calculated at 4371 to 4263 BC.
Structures transitional to passage graves are documented for Brittany and for the long tumulus or tertre of Lannec er Gadouer with a radiocarbon sequence which pinpoint this transition to 4503 to 4103 BC. Contemporaneous accessible megalithic graves are known from northern Corsica on the Monte Revincu dated at 4327 to 4266 BC.
On the western Iberian Peninsula, date ranges for the onset of accessible structures are calculated for the Estremadura at 3844 to 3383 BC, for the Alentejo at 3743 to 3521 BC, and for Beira at 3883 to 3782 BC. Similarly, the earliest megaliths with entrance in Britain and Ireland are also calculated to the first half of the fourth millennium BC. The earliest known megalithic grave in southeast England, Coldrum in Kent, is calculated at 3971 to 3805 BC, and Parknabinnia on the Burren in Ireland at 3885 to 3440 BC.
The subsequent centuries are a time of megalithic stasis and reuse of ancient megalithic graves. With the exception of the gallery graves in Belgium, there is no evidence for movements or new megalithic regions added at this time.
Finally, an even later megalithic expansion occurred in the second half of the fourth millennium in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. In the Mediterranean, there is a megalithic revival in the second millennium BC in the Balearic Islands, Apulia, and Sicily. These are associated with the Bronze Age and/or with the Bell Beaker phenomena.
Schulz Paulsson concludes that the radiocarbon results suggest that megalithic graves emerged within a time interval of 200 to 300 years in the second half of the fifth millennium BC in northwest France, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula. Northwest France is, so far, the only megalithic region in Europe which exhibits a premegalithic monumental sequence and transitional structures to the megaliths, suggesting northern France as the region of origin for the megalithic phenomenon. For the remaining regions with an early megalithic proliferation in the fifth millennium BC (such as Catalonia, southern France, Corsica, Sardinia, and probably the western Iberian Peninsula and Italian mainland), megaliths are found occurring in small clusters. These are exceptional grave forms for this period in their respective regions, at a time when subterranean cists, pit burials and hypogea (dug-out subterranean burial chambers) were still the most common burial rites. A fresh expansion occurred during the first half of the fourth millennium BC when thousands of passage graves were built along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, Ireland, England, Scotland, and France. Their distribution emphasizes the maritime linkage of these societies and a diffusion of the passage grave tradition along the seaway. The passage graves mark a radical change of burial rites, along with other economic and social changes in Europe. In the second half of the fourth millennium BC, the passage grave tradition finally reaches Scandinavia and the Funnel Beaker areas. Again, there is evidence for the spread of megalithic architecture along the seaway. The first known passage graves in Scandinavia were built on the western coasts of the Swedish Islands Oland and Gotland, which are both situated in the Baltic.
She thus feels able to demonstrate that the earliest megaliths originated in northwest France and spread along the sea routes of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts in three successive principal phases. Their expansion coincided with other social and economic changes of Neolithic and Copper Age societies beyond the scope of this article. The older generation of archaeologists were correct concerning a maritime diffusion of the megalithic concept. They were wrong regarding the region of origin and the direction of the megalithic diffusion. The megalithic movements must have been powerful to spread with such rapidity at the different phases, and the maritime skills, knowledge, and technology of these societies must have been much more developed than hitherto presumed. This prompts a radical reassessment of the megalithic horizons and invites the opening of a new scientific debate regarding the maritime mobility and organisation of Neolithic societies, the nature of these interactions through time, and the rise of seafaring.
Follow Sciency Thoughts on Facebook.