Neolithic Dolmens, Passage Tombs, Menhirs: Megalithic Petroforms.

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Stonehenge Stone Circle (2,600 BCE)
One of the world's most famous
examples of Neolithic art.



What are Megaliths?
Types of Megalith
Significance and Interpretation
Chronology of Megalithic Sites
Megaliths Around the World

See also: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Artworks.

Crucuno Dolmen (c.4000 BCE)
Plouharnel, Brittany.
It is topped with a 40 ton capstone.

To see how megaliths fit into
the evolution of Stone Age art,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For the oldest prehistoric works,
see: Earliest Art.
See also: Architecture Glossary.

What are Megaliths?

In prehistoric art, a megalith is a large, often undressed stone, that has been used in the construction of various types of Neolithic, Chalcolithic or Bronze Age monuments, during the period 4500-1000 BCE. Also known as petroforms, these monuments can consist of just one stone (Menhir), most megalithic monuments consist of a number of stones, which are fitted together without the use of mortar or cement. This form of rock art was used in ceremonial or ritualistic structures (Stonehenge stone circle, monolithic Moai of Easter Island), single or multiple tombs (Newgrange, Knowth), sanctuaries (Gobekli Tepe), and several other types of monumental architecture. The construction and alignment of these prehistoric structures could be highly sophisticated: specific rock shapes were often hewn to meet specific design requirements, while the buildings themselves were sometimes positioned in relation to the stars or the solstice. Aside from their unique architectural designs, megalithic monuments were typically decorated with a variety of Stone Age art, including petroglyphs, various abstract signs and symbols, pictographs, motifs, cupules, cup and ring marks, and other incised imagery. Typical patterns used in this ancient art included spirals, zigzags and other types of abstract art.


Types and Characteristics of Megaliths

The most prevalent type of megalithic structure is the portal tomb – commonly known as the dolmen. Also called dysse (Denmark), hunengrab (Germany), hunebed (Netherlands), anta (Portugal), stazzone (Sardinia), and cromlech (Wales), this typically consisted of several upright supports (orthostats) topped with a flat roofing slab or capstone. Most portal tombs were covered by a protective mound of earth, but in many cases this has now weathered away. Dolmens were the original type of cyclopean stone tomb, from which two further forms were developed - the passage tomb and gallery grave.

The passage tomb was basically formed by the addition of a long entrance passageway to the dolmen itself, the entire structure being covered by a circular mound of earth, occasionally edged with external kerbstone. Famous examples of passage graves include the Newgrange Megalithic Tomb, and the Knowth Megalithic Tomb, both part of the Bru na Boinne UNESCO World Heritage Site in County Meath, Ireland. See also: Irish Stone Age Art.

Maes Howe in Orkney, Bryn Celli Ddu site in Wales, and Gavrinis in the Gulf of Morbihan, Brittany. The gallery grave was an elongated rectangular burial chamber with no entrance passage. It too was buried under a mound. A number of hybrid variants have been excavated, notably in the Hebrides. Gallery graves include British long barrows, Irish court tombs, and German Steinkisten (stone cist). A famous example of a gallery grave is the Zuschen tomb, near Fritzlar, Hesse, in Germany. Another, lesser-known type of Neolithic grave was the wedge tomb (found especially in County Clare, Ireland).

Another well-known form of megalithic monument is the menhir (from the Breton words "men" stone, and "hir" long), a single upright stone, often of enormous size, which was deployed either on its own or in connection with a tomb site. Menhirs were often arranged in circles (Cycoliths) (see for instance Stonehenge, Avebury, and Ring of Brodgar), semi-circles, large-scale ellipses or in parallel rows called alignments (see the 3000 or so menhirs positoned in Carnac, Brittany, in France). In general, megalithic menhirs and stone circles are younger than the more ancient tombs.

Other examples of megalithic architecture include: the Taula, a straight upright stone, topped with another to form a 'T' shape; and the Trilithon, consisting of two parallel standing stones topped with a horizontal stone (lintel). (Stonehenge)


Significance and Interpretation

The true meaning behind the architecture, construction and decorative art of megalithic stone structures remains unknown. Whether polylithic or monolithic, it seems likely that many of them possessed great significance - not least because of the sheer effort involved in their construction, and because of the presence of so many carvings, and other types of megalithic art (the passage grave complex at Knowth, for instance, contains more than 200 decorated stones). It is also worth noting that the groups who built these monuments must have been working to a common design. Not only did they rely on similar architectural features, but also their rock engravings, carvings and incised images had a number of motifs in common. For example, the Severn-Cotswold graves of southwest England, the Court Cairns of northern Ireland and southwest Scotland, and the Transepted gallery tombs of the Loire region in France, all have important internal features in common.

Chronology of Famous Megalithic Sites

Here is a short chronological list of well-known monuments constructed during the late Stone Age. (All dates are approximate).


9000 BCE: Work starts on round megalithic buildings at Gobekli Tepe, Turkey.
8000: First known works (postholes) begin at Stonehenge. See Mesolithic art.


5000 BCE: Monuments in Portugal at Evora.
4800: Work begins on Barnenez mound.
4400: Skorba temples in Malta.
4000: Carnac stones, megaliths in Lisbon, Corsica, England, Wales.
3700: Monuments in Knockiveagh (Ireland).
3600: Maumbury Rings, Godmanchester; Ggantija/ Mnajdra temples, Malta.
3500: Work begins on megaliths at Gavrinis, Arles, Malaga and Guadiana.
3450: Monuments in Belgium, south-west Germany, Sicily, Belgium, Sardinia.
3400: Monuments in Netherlands, northern Germany, Sweden and Denmark.
3300: Construction of the German stone cist known as the Zuschen tomb.
3200: Hagar Qim and Tarxien in Malta.
3100: Work begins on Newgrange. Ditch and mound dug at Stonehenge.
3000: Monuments in Ardennes, Dordogne, Languedoc, Biscay in France.
2800: Highpoint of Danish Funnel-beaker culture in Denmark.
2700: Start of the Old Kingdom Egyptian Pyramids in Ancient Egypt.
2600: Work begins on the Stonehenge stone circle.

Chalcolithic Copper Age

2500 BCE: Work starts at Knowth, sites in Brittany, Otranto (Italy), Sardinia.
2450: Apogee of Bell-beaker culture in Iberia, Germany, and Britain.
2400: The Bell-beaker culture is dominant in Britain, and hundreds of smaller stone circles are built in the British Isles at this time.

Bronze Age

2000 BCE: Monuments in Brittany, Italy, Sardinia, Scotland.
1800: Megaliths in Giovinazzo, Italy.
1500: Monuments in Alter Pedroso and Mourela in Portugal.

Megaliths Around the World

Middle East
Portal tombs and menhirs have been discovered across the Middle East, notably in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia (Hejaz) and Yemen. Concentrations occur on the Golan Heights (see also the Venus of Berekhat Ram), and especially in Jordan. Related Stone Age art, such as cupules, rock-cut tombs and cycoliths have also been excavated in the Levant.

One of the most famous sites of African megaliths is the Nabta Playa in the western Egyptian desert south of Cairo. Around 4200 BCE, a series of standing stones were erected - in alignment with the stars, comparable to Stonehenge but more than a Millennium earlier. Later, during the Third Millennium, we see the emergence of Egyptian pyramids architecture - a unique architectural contribution to tomb design. For more about pyramids and other unique megaliths like the Sphinx at Giza, see: Egyptian Architecture (c.3000 BCE onwards).

Megalithic tombs (portal and passage) have been excavated in Northeast and Southeast Asia. Concentrated in the Korean Peninsula, they have also been found in China (Liaoning, Shandong, and Zhejiang), Japan (Kyushu and Shikoku), Vietnam (Dong Nai province), India, and Indonesia. In the north, the megalithic tradition first appeared in Manchuria, notably in the basin of the Liao River, from where it spread into the Korean Peninsula.

The most ancient megalithic tombs - those north of the Han River, and dating from the early part of the Mumun Pottery Period (c.1500-850 BCE) - are traditionally referred to as "northern" or "table-style", due to their above-ground burial chamber constructed from heavy stone slabs topped with a large capstone which looks rather like a table-top.

The less ancient "southern-style" megalithic graves - found mostly on the Korean peninsula, and numbering as many as 100,000 - date from the latter part of the Early Mumun (c.850-700 BCE) or the Middle Mumun period (c.700-550 BCE). Smaller than northern tombs, their burial chamber is underground and usually lined with stone slabs. A huge capstone acts as the roof and is usually propped up with smaller support stones. Like their "northern" counterparts, most southern-style megalithic tombs contain few artifacts, though some excavations have unearthed caches of ancient pottery, bronze weaponry, and greenstone ornaments, while a number of capstones are embellished with relief sculpture, carvings and other types of engraving.

A third style of Asian megalithic architecture is the Capstone-style tomb, which has a burial shaft (7-15 feet deep), lined with cobbles. Typically, the shaft is roofed with an unsupported stone slab (capstone). Concentrated near the southern coast of Korea, these Capstone-style burial sites date back to the late Middle Mumun period (c.700-550 BCE).

• For more about Stone Age artifacts, see: Paleolithic Art and Culture.
• For information about prehistoric artworks, see: Homepage.

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