The Megalithic World

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Avebury . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 406

Barnenez . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 408

Boyne Valley Passage Graves . . . . . . . . . . 413

Trackways and Boats . . . . . . . . . . . . . 415

The megalithic world was created as a result of the adoption of agriculture along the Atlantic coast of western Europe by local Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, with a few immigrant Neolithic farmers from central Europe and the Mediterranean. This transition had taken place by about 5500 b.c. in Spain and Portugal, 5000 b.c. in Southwest France, 4700 b.c. in Northwest France, and 4000 b.c. in southern Scandinavia, Britain, and Ireland.

Although these groups by then were cultivating cereals and keeping sheep, cattle, and pigs, there is little evidence for major clearances of woodland to grow crops. Pollen analysis suggests mostly small-scale clearance, and the earliest convincing field systems (from Céide Fields in western Ireland) date to about 3500 b.c. Many excavated sites have produced the remains of wild plant and animal foods, and these items continued to be an important element in the diet, although scientific analyses of human bone chemistry suggest that seafood by this time had been abandoned.

The ephemeral nature of the settlements matches the lack of evidence for large-scale clearance, that is, there seem to be no large communities requiring a large cleared area for their subsistence needs. It has been argued that the overall lack of houses points to a quite mobile society, showing continuity with the Mesolithic. Many houses have been found in Ireland, however, so there, at least, existed a fairly settled lifestyle of single households (fig. 1). Large rectangular houses, such as Balbridie in Scotland, Lismore Fields in England, and Balley-galley in Ireland, may have been special-purpose buildings connected with grain production or the exchange of flint. The rectangular house at Le Haut-Mée in Brittany, in Northwest France, may indicate a community of incoming farmers from the Paris basin, using flint and flint technology brought from that area.

In Britain villages of round stone houses appeared in the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland in about 3300 b.c. The best-known site is Skara Brae on Orkney's Mainland, with several very similar houses in terms of layout, size, and internal features facing one another. The same kinds of sites are known elsewhere in Orkney, for example, Barnhouse, on Mainland, where the houses are remarkably uniform in appearance except for one larger building—a massive structure resembling a tomb—right next to the village. Similar contemporary developments are seen in southern Scandinavia, where there are very large sites; their arrangement has yet to be confirmed by excavations. In Brittany the settlement of very large houses at Pléchâtel developed at about the same time.


It is not farming and housing that best demonstrates the changed relationship between people and land; the most dramatic change comes with the appearance of a variety of monuments, especially burial mounds and enclosures. Although there have been claims that some burial mounds, such as Carrowmore in Ireland (fig. 2), predate the Neolithic, the radiocarbon dates at that site are not for actual burials but come from charcoal, which could easily derive from earlier activity in the same place.

The importance of these monuments is clearly shown by their early development. In many areas along the Atlantic, including Spain, Brittany, southern Britain, and Denmark, radiocarbon dating has established that the first monuments appeared early in the Neolithic. Older theories of a long "pioneer phase," during which farming communities evolved to the stage at which they had the free time to construct monuments, have been abandoned. Instead, it is clear that these monuments were essential to the societies that created them, perhaps in part because of the dispersed nature of communities in their everyday lives.

The earliest examples of these burial monuments have been identified as stone-chambered tombs or megalithic tombs. In some cases, these are impressive monuments, built to last and to dominate the landscape. Many contain elaborate carvings, although later examples also can be rather small and unimpressive. They occur along the Atlantic coast from Portugal to Ireland and up to southern Scandinavia.

There is great debate over the origin of megaliths and burial in stone-chambered tombs, which emerged during the fifth millennium b.c. It is on the evidence from Brittany that debate has centered. The oldest theory of the origin of megaliths was that they represented the spread of a religious cult by megalithic missionaries. This possibility was ruled out, however, by the impact of radiocarbon dating, which showed that the Atlantic megaliths were much older than their supposed Mediterranean forebears.

The rejection of a Mediterranean inspiration for megaliths led to suggestions of a local origin. In Late Mesolithic Brittany, at Téviec and Hoëdic, small islands off the coast, these plausible ancestors to megalithic burial occur in shell middens. There are twenty-three burials at Téviec and fourteen at Hoëdic. Men, women, and children were interred together in stone-lined pits, covered, in the most elaborate examples, by small heaps of stone (cairns). In one case a small upright stone marked the burial. These burials date to the period 5500–4500 b.c.

Thus the idea of multiple burial existed among the hunter-gatherers of Brittany before the emergence of monuments, negating the possibility of a purely local development of megaliths. The living community's ancestors were placed visibly in the landscape, with the result that they became an important part of future social developments. Focusing such attention on their ancestors could have represented a way for the living to demonstrate their rights to the territory they controlled—perhaps fishing rights in the case of the hunter-gatherers on the coast of Brittany and presumably land and its wealth in the case of Neolithic groups. Earlier models, such as that of Renfrew, suggested that megalithic tombs acted as territorial markers for societies under pressure because of the lack of land to the west to absorb a growing population. The evidence from pollen analysis, however, shows that the impact of farming was too slight for this explanation to hold true, and it may be that other resources, such as stone suitable for making axes and ornaments, were just as desirable as farming land.

One of the most dramatic developments in the study of Breton prehistory has been the discovery that many passage graves contain reused standing stones (menhirs) with a set of carvings different from those in the tombs themselves. At Gavrinis, one of the most elaborate tombs, the uncovering of the top of the chamber capstone revealed that it was part of a substantial carved stone, which joined with the capstones from two other mounds. The carvings on this 14-meter-high stone, and on another possibly original stone, are of cattle, sheep, and goats; axe plows (which look like plows with axe-shaped blades); and axes. These items clearly are representative of food production through the stages of clearance, cultivation, and pasturing, perhaps a celebration of the introduction of agriculture. The largest of these standing stones—Le Grand Menhir Brisé (Great Broken Standing Stone), some 21 meters (70 feet) long—was not reused. Reexamination of older excavations also has shown that groups of menhirs formed the first phase of activity at numerous places that later saw the construction of stone-chambered tombs.

The discovery of a series of long burial mounds at Passy-sur-Yonne, with central European material and burial customs, in Burgundy, central France, has revived the theory of an outside origin for megalithic burials. The earliest stone-chambered tombs in France, according to radiocarbon dating, are in Brittany rather than the Paris basin, however. Crucially there are equally early megalithic tombs in Iberia, which lies well away from any central European influences. In Iberia the possibility has been raised that, just as in Brittany, megalithic constructions began with menhirs, some carved with a shepherd's crook, but this speculation needs to be supported by dating evidence. Some of the earliest tombs have small chambers that were sealed by mounds. Others could be reentered through low passages; unfortunately, this meant that material was added to and removed from the chambers over thousands of years, making it difficult to be sure of the earliest activity. This problem is common across the megalithic tombs of western Europe.

In southwest France the tomb complex at Bougon has been intensively investigated. At least ten tombs were constructed over a thousand years, beginning with simple round chambers containing a dozen skeletons and imported pottery and stone beads and ending with massive extensions to existing mounds, increasing the length of the monument by more than 60 meters (200 feet) in one case. These extensions cover only a few burials, if any, so they must be primarily for displaying the construction abilities of the builders. Little can be said about the skeletal contents of Breton stone-chambered tombs, owing to the acid soil of the area, but they certainly contain a range of elaborate finds. The items include pottery from funerary ceremonies, small axes, polished stone disk rings thought to be symbols of wealth, and long flint blades from the mines at Grand Pressigny in central France. Careful excavation has revealed that such sites as Barnenez were constructed in several stages and that both long and round mounds were built early in the Neolithic, covering simple stone boxes. Later monuments incorporated a passage, so that the chamber at the center of a mound could be reentered many times. Many also are elaborately decorated, with stones in the passage and chamber covered with carvings.

In northern France and Holland, long, rectangular mounds covered a single large chamber. Early tombs contained up to fifteen bodies of women, men, and children, with earlier skeletons moved aside to make room for later burials. At La Chaussée-Tirancourt, a late tomb dating to after 3000 b.c., remains from more than 350 persons were found in the chamber, which was divided into 3 compartments. The burials had taken place over a long period, with individual acts of selective burial taking place, so that a group of six children were buried together, for example. The items accompanying the burials were quite ordinary compared with those in the Breton tombs. Similarly at Bronneger in Holland the burials were accompanied only by local pottery.

The earliest chambered tombs in Denmark are relatively small and simple, probably owing to the lack of suitable stone. They are very common, comprising perhaps fifty thousand examples overall. The tombs mostly contain few burials, often only a single person, and grave goods of pottery and local flint work and amber. Later passage graves (dating to after 3700 b.c. in southern Scandinavia) are larger and more prominent in the landscape and contain many more bodies, in the case of southern Sweden up to two hundred. Even though Scandinavian passage graves were small compared with those elsewhere, they represent the scene of intense later activity. For example, the small Västra Hoby tomb in Sweden had been emptied out in the eighteenth century, but excavations recovered some fifty thousand fragments of decorated pottery from the area in front of the tomb, more than any other passage grave in Northwest Europe. These finds generally are interpreted as offerings to the honored ancestors occupying the tomb.

Chambered tombs in Britain and Ireland often are larger and more elaborate. Early examples contain more burials than do those in Scandinavia, but grave goods are rare. Some large tombs are located very prominently in the landscape, and only a small proportion of the earth or stone mound is needed to cover the burial chamber. The most elaborate tombs of the Cotswold-Severn group of western England and Wales, such as West Kennet, have numerous chambers, which were used to bury groups selected by age and sex. Passage graves appeared in Britain and Ireland, too, after 3700 b.c. These examples are some of the finest of all stone-chambered tombs, including Maes Howe on Mainland, the largest of the Orkney Islands, and Newgrange and Knowth in the Boyne Valley of Ireland. Their scale meant that they were targeted by tomb robbers long ago—Maes Howe by the Vikings, if the runic inscription inside the tomb is true. Surprisingly there are no signs of later worship, except that at Newgrange and Knowth smaller tombs were built around the massive one, perhaps so that their occupants could rest in the shadow of these powerful ancestors.

The second major form of burial monument from this period, found in areas where stone was lacking, is the earthen long barrow, with burials in graves or inside a wooden chamber under a long mound of earth. These monuments appeared in the Early Neolithic, around 4500 b.c., in the Kujavian lowlands of Poland and spread from there to France, Holland, Scandinavia, and Britain. Most research work has been carried out on those of Denmark and Britain. Danish examples were built from the very beginning of the Neolithic, around 4000 b.c. In Denmark grave goods are quite common—excavations produce pottery, amber, flint work, and pieces of copper imported from the Alps.

There is a wide range of variation in terms of burial structure. The simplest type is just a grave; closed graves, in which the bodies were sealed by wood or stones, are the most common. The construction of long mounds was a communal undertaking, given the size of the task and discoveries of lines of stakes dividing the mound area into sections. The general lack of survival of bones (in these mostly acidic soils) makes it difficult to say more than that few people were buried. A rare exception is Bygholm No⁄rremark, where the first grave contained an adolescent with an amber bead and an arrowhead (possibly the cause of death), and the second held four adults buried in pairs, with their heads pointing in opposite directions and without grave goods.

Earthen long barrows in Britain are roughly rectangular or trapezoidal in shape and are found mostly in the lowlands. In this area mounds of earth cover burials placed inside a wooden chamber, here, too, small by comparison with the total area of the mound. As with chambered tombs, grave goods are rare, even in places where there are more than fifty burials, for example, at Fussell's Lodge in England. The skeletons often seem to have been deliberately disarticulated, suggesting that a community of ancestors was important, rather than individuals. Even there, only a small percentage of the population was interred in a burial monument; others came to rest in enclosure ditches, caves, pits, bogs, shores, and rivers. Over time even fewer were granted monumental burial, ending up with single burials.


From about 3800 b.c., causewayed enclosures, so called because of the large number of causeways, or gaps, in the ditch circuit, appeared across northwestern Europe. In the Loire region of western France they are usually thought to have been defensive enclosures, because of the deep ditches (sometimes several circuits) cut into rock, remains of collapsed drystone walls, and pince-de-crab (crab's pincers) entrances. Excavations have shown that the pince-de-crab entrances often were later additions, sometimes after the ditch behind had filled up; in those cases, they could not have been defensive. Many enclosures produce burials on the ditch floor, sometimes with pottery. Radiocarbon dates suggest a range of 3500–2900 b.c. for the dates of these sites, more than a hundred of which have been identified from aerial photographs. They have much in common with southern Scandinavian enclosures, some thirty of which were constructed from about 3400 to 3150 b.c., contain ditch burials, and have small enclosed areas tacked on to the outsides of the sites. The vast majority of these enclosures sit on promontories surrounded by wetland or open water. The ditch layout is mostly single, although double lines of ditches are known. This relatively open barrier either cuts off a promontory or forms a boundary around the whole site. At some sites a timber palisade supplements the ditches.

The layout of the sites is simple, with the exception of Sarup on Fyn, Denmark. At this site there are two lines of ditches, with individual ditch segments fenced off, fence lines and a timber palisade behind the ditches, and small enclosures outside the palisade, with two formal entrances. It may be that attempts were made to control entry into the enclosure. Sarup is by far the most intensively explored of the enclosures, having undergone almost total excavation. Deliberately placed deposits in the ditches included pottery, flint work, and adults' and children's jaws and skulls. Stone settings near the ditch base had pottery, animal bones, and charcoal in and below the stones amid layers of charcoal and burnt soil, suggesting that the charcoal sometimes was still smoldering when it was buried. The palisade trench contained considerable amounts of pottery, far more than in the interior of the enclosure; complete vessels were placed along the palisade. Neither the ditches nor the palisade was in use for long, maybe just a single year. Given this short history, the effort involved in creating the Sarup enclosure is remarkable. Some 100,000 work hours would have been expended on its construction. Inside the Sarup enclosure were twenty offering pits, some containing complete pots and carbonized wheat without weed seeds, indicating a painstaking selection of grain.

Other sites have produced similar traces of placed deposits. The bases of ditches at many sites contained whole pots, piles of flint tools, heaps of animal bone sometimes mixed with human bone, and human skulls. Traces of fire have been noted in the ditches at several sites. The site of Toftum, Denmark, was constructed and abandoned in a short time. Some deliberate filling in of ditches included the deposition of complete vessels, but other parts of the ditches were backfilled with cultural debris, including heaps of shells, flint, and potsherds.

Few sites have seen the exploration of large areas of the interior of the enclosure, but some have produced offering pits, as at Sarup. At Årupgard, in Denmark, pits have been found to contain complete pots and a hoard of Alpine copper and local amber. The major excavations at Sarup and Toftum showed that these were very short-lived sites of conspicuous consumption and therefore unlike the fixed burial mounds. These important places were not forgotten, however, as many large Middle Neolithic settlements occupy the sites of enclosures.

In Britain and Ireland some seventy causewayed enclosures are known, predominantly from southern England but with examples from Scotland and Northern Ireland as well. The distribution is not continuous, however, even in southern England. Enclosures were being constructed by 4000 b.c.—unlike the examples in southern Scandinavia, they were a significant monumental element from the beginning of the Neolithic. Enclosures in this region were located in peripheral locations, away from main areas of contemporary settlement and often in small woodland clearings. Perhaps the activities carried out inside enclosures were seen as socially dangerous and therefore had to be separated from everyday life. Many enclosures had a concentric spatial arrangement, with up to four circuits of ditches. These ditches were the primary focus of depositional activity of various kinds but also saw episodes of recutting. Different ditch segments may have been maintained by particular family or clan groups; this arrangement would have explained the wide variations in ditch segments and their later contents, which will have reflected the history of the group responsible for them.

At the main enclosure at Hambledon Hill, England, forty-five burials were recovered from the 20 percent of the ditch that was excavated, pointing to some two hundred bodies altogether. The excavated burials were predominantly of children; indeed there were twice as many as adult burials. This is a common pattern, with children being buried much more often at causewayed enclosures than in earthen long barrows. Elsewhere enclosures consistently have produced human skeletal remains.

In the ditch at Etton were specially placed deposits; they comprised small heaps of butchered animal bones on the ditch base, including a neatly tied bundle of cattle bones next to a partly dispersed group of hazelnuts, a complete upturned vessel on a birch-bark mat, and a sheet of folded and trimmed birch bark. At Hambledon Hill long, narrow deposits of organic material containing animal bone, pottery, flint work, and human bone were placed along the bottom of the ditch, possibly in leather bags. The animal bones were identified as feasting debris. Enclosure ditches often produce exotic materials; they may have played a major role in exchange. Stone axes are quite common finds at enclosures, frequently appearing long distances from their source. Thus at Hambledon Hill there were axes from hundreds of miles away in Britain and even from continental Europe as far away as the Alps. Pottery also came from a hundred miles away. Enclosures were not markets, however, from which objects would be redistributed, for the exotic items brought to enclosures remained there.

Some sites later were given defenses, possibly becoming settlements. The clearest candidates are Hambledon Hill and Crickley Hill in southern England. At Hambledon Hill several enclosures later were enclosed by a defensive ditch and a timber palisade. This defense eventually was attacked and destroyed, as evidenced, for example, by the remains of two young men killed by arrowheads buried in the ditch at the same time that the timber palisade was burned down. At Crickley Hill, where large numbers of arrowheads have been found, the palisade was burned, and then the site was abandoned for settlement. No single explanation can cope with the variety of British enclosures, but there are some clear themes: consumption, control over access, and destruction.

Evidence of violent death occurs throughout the megalithic world, as at the three tombs at Châtelliers-du-Vieil-Auzay in western France. Each tomb contained pairs of males, one killed by arrows and the others by axe blows to the head. That some of these deaths may have been attributable to executions rather than warfare is suggested by the discovery in Sigersdal Mose (bog), Denmark, of two women, one with the cord used to strangle her still around her neck.


Although conflict is often thought of as the opposite of peaceful exchange, such does not seem to have been the case in the megalithic world, in that the same communities that were fighting also were involved in wide-ranging exchange networks. Polished axes of both flint and hard stone were produced and traded on a massive scale. They were used mainly for tree felling, but they clearly had much more than purely economic importance. This can be seen in the production, exchange, and deposition of axes. Flint axes were produced at mines and stone axes at open quarries. Some mines were massive; for example, there were five thousand shafts at Rijckholt in Holland. At the Plussulien quarry in Brittany about five thousand axes a year were produced for some twelve hundred years. Although this seems like industrial production, at some sites the workers deliberately chose to quarry at difficult locations. For example, at Langdale in northern England quarrying took place on a steep mountainside, even though equally good stone can be seen on the surface along a 19-kilometer (12-mile) stretch. In Ireland people rowed out to Rathlin Island to quarry stone, despite the availability of geologically identical rock on the mainland. In addition most axes were polished all over, although only the cutting edge needs to be polished to improve performance—modern experiments confirm that this was the most time-consuming part of the whole process.

These noneconomic concerns also appear in the distribution of axes. The long-distance exchange of axes is well known, with scientific analysis showing that jadeite axes from the Alps moved across a distance of 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) to Scotland. The key to the importance of jadeite axes is not that they were of better quality but that they were visually distinctive and so were obviously imports. This is a very common pattern: across western Europe imported axes were of no better quality than local products but apparently were desirable because they were exotic. In southern Scandinavia massive, unwieldy flint axes were produced from distinctively colored flint and then exchanged over the longest distances. Axes from Rathlin were traded to England and Langdale axes to Ireland. On the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy, only 16 percent of axes on Jersey are made from the local source, with imports coming from Brittany, Normandy, and the neighboring island of Guernsey. The Jersey axes, however, were clearly desirable on Guernsey, where more are found than on the island where they were produced.

Finally, axes also are marked out in their deposition. Many are found deliberately buried. In southern Scandinavia hoards contained longer axes than those found in settlements. They also are typical finds in bogs, rivers, and lakes, leading to the idea that the axes were offerings to gods or spirits, as also seems a likely explanation for the amber necklaces found in bogs in southern Scandinavia. After about 3300 b.c. many of these exchange networks shrink, and southern Scandinavia and Holland became part of the Corded Ware or Single Grave culture of individual burials in graves with pots and battle-axes under small, round mounds, looking more toward Germany and eastern Europe. In Atlantic France, Spain, and Portugal megalithic tombs continue until the introduction of copper and the transformation of society.

Developments were quite different in Britain and Ireland, however. There a range of new monuments emerged, while settlements once again became small and hard to spot. The largest were cursus monuments (rectangular bank-and-ditch enclosures, some of which are several miles long), constructed perhaps as processional ways across landscapes and incorporating older earthen long barrows into their course. The best-known monuments are the henges—the earliest and most famous being Stonehenge in southern England. A henge is defined as a bank-and-ditch enclosure with the bank outside the ditch; thus it was clearly not defensive. The external bank outside the ditch could have been a visual barrier or a platform from which to observe ceremonies in the interior. The sites range in size from very small, about 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter, to massive, more than 370 meters (1,200 feet) in diameter. Avebury in southern England is an example of the latter. They have substantial ditches, and there often are restrictions on the entrance, perhaps showing control over access. A variety of activities have been recorded inside henges, evidenced by pits, post circles (unconvincingly claimed to be buildings at some sites, such as Durrington Walls in southern England), stone circles, and even burials, but these are rare. The objects deposited at henges frequently are elaborate, exotic, and strange, such as functionally useless chalk axes.

Stonehenge is unusual in many respects. It is the earliest example of a henge monument, construction having started around 3000 b.c. It is perhaps transitional between causewayed enclosures and henges, because the bank is outside the ditch, with a ring of posts inside. A large number of cremation burials were deposited in the ditch, the bank, and the posthole circle, and timber structures (largely destroyed by later activity) and lines of posts were erected inside. The site was transformed around 2600 b.c., when the bluestone circle was constructed from stones transported more than 650 kilometers (400 miles) from Wales and the avenue was created, perhaps to commemorate the route taken in moving the stones from the River Avon.

Timber circles also were constructed on their own, for example, Greyhound Yard in southern England, which is perhaps 370 meters (1,200 feet) across, and the West Kennet group near Stonehenge. Sometimes these timber circles were converted to stone circles, for instance, the Sanctuary, located at the end of an avenue of stones leading from the Avebury henge. Stone circles were monuments in their own right; these circles are found mainly in the north and west of Britain in rocky areas, most impressively at Callanish in the Hebrides of Scotland, with a circle at the heart of a series of stone avenues.

The supreme achievement of the megalithic world was the enormous mound of Silbury Hill near Avebury. Just over 150 meters (500 feet) in diameter and 40 meters (130 feet) high, the chalk and soil piled up to a volume of 3.8 million cubic meters (12.5 million cubic feet). Despite three excavations, no burial has been found below the mound; it appears to be a ceremonial site, with survey work following the collapse of an old excavation tunnel pointing to an original spiral course around the mound. As with so many other features of the megalithic world, Silbury Hill shows how beliefs, religious or magical, lay behind the creation of the archaeological remains uncovered in modern times.

See alsoNeolithic Sites of the Orkney Islands (vol. 1, part 3); Hambledon Hill (vol. 1, part 3); Sarup (vol. 1, part 3); Avebury (vol. 1, part 4); Barnenez (vol. 1, part 4); Boyne Valley Passage Graves (vol. 1, part 4); Corded Ware from East to West (vol. 1, part 4); Stonehenge (vol. 2, part 5).


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I. J. N. Thorpe

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The Megalithic World

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