Mark Greener reviews recent findings on ‘megalithisme’
The 35000 remaining megaliths scattered across Europe – from Sweden to Sicily, from Poland to Portugal – include tombs, standing stones, stone circles, alignments and buildings.1,2 Despite this widespread distribution, megaliths share numerous features.1 As long ago as 1719, the Swiss antiquary Jacques Christophe Iselin remarked on the resemblance between the Cocherel burial chamber in Normandy and some Scandinavian structures.2
Archaeologists have debated the origin of European megaliths ever since. Initially, the conventional view proposed a single source, spread by a ‘megalithic people’ from the Near East by maritime exchange as far afield, according to some 19th-century scholars, as Scandinavia, Ireland, North Africa, Palestine and India.1,2 In the middle of the last century, Gordon Childe proposed that migrant missionaries or prospectors settled in local societies and superimposed the megalith tradition, perhaps as part of a funerary rite, on local cultures.1,2 The people didn’t spread – but their ideas, beliefs and practices did.2 In 1969, James Mavor proposed that the tradition began in Minoan Crete. He suggested that “many of the [megalithic] structures found all along the coasts could only have been inspired by sea voyagers, implying that the Minoans travelled by sea as far as Britain”.3
But radiocarbon dating in the 1970s suggested that megaliths arose independently in Portugal, Andalusia, Brittany, SW England, Denmark, and possibly Ireland.1 No particular megalithic tradition had “chronological precedence over any other”.2 Archaeologists felt that the radiocarbon evidence ruled out megalithic people, missionaries and prospectors gradually spreading the idea.2 Nevertheless, independent development couldn’t account for the similarities – which are often very specific – between many, often geographically distant, sites.2
Now new research from Bettina Schulz Paulsson from the University of Gothenburg, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, throws new light on the origins of European megaliths. The study suggests that the megalithic age began in NW France within 200 to 300 years in the second half of the fifth millennium BC and spread along Mediterranean and Atlantic coastal sea routes in three main phases. The findings, Schulz Paulsson notes, also suggest “advanced maritime technology and seafaring in the megalithic Age”.1
Schulz Paulsson used sophisticated statistics to analyse 2410 radiocarbon dates from megalithic, partly pre-megalithic and contemporary non-megalithic sites. Archaeological information (such as stratigraphy, cultural material and information on burial rites) helped narrow the interval suggested by radiocarbon dating.1
Based on radiocarbon dates, usually from buried human remains, the first European megalithic graves were closed small structures or dolmens, built from stone slabs and covered by a round or long mound of earth or stone. These graves probably emerged over 200-300 years between 4794-3986 BCE in NW France, the Channel Islands, Catalonia, SW France, Corsica and Sardinia (The paper includes dates for numerous megaliths).1
NW France is, however, the only known European megalithic region that has earth monuments that do not include large stones – such as the Passy graves in the Paris Basin, which are up to 280m long – and transitional structures that predate megaliths. The first person buried at Passy died between 5061 and 4858 BCE. The first building phase of the round St Michel tumulus near Carnac dates, Schulz Paulsson estimates, to between 4782 and 4594 BCE.1
So, Schulz Paulsson argues, the megalithic tradition probably began in northern France.1 Indeed, a “growing consensus” suggests that farmers from northern France introduced the Neolithic when they colonised Britain. Perhaps they also imported the megalithic tradition. Chris Scarre, for instance, notes that the long mound and chambered tombs in southern Britain “were derived directly from those of northern France”.2
A new rite
A new burial rite emerged during the last third of the fifth millennium BC: graves were reopened. An accessible megalithic grave in Prissé-la-Charrière, Deux-Sèvres, France (4371-4263 BCE) is the earliest known example that can be dated reliably using radiocarbon decay.1 Our ancestors built thousands of passage graves along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, Ireland, England, Scotland and France during the first half of the fourth millennium BCE. The first megalith graves with an entrance in Britain and Ireland date from the first half of the fourth millennium BCE. The Coldrum long barrow in Kent dates from 3971-3805 BCE. Parknabinnia wedge tomb in Co. Clare, Ireland dates from 3885-3440 BCE.1
The megalithic tradition underwent further expansion during the second half of the fourth millennium BCE, reaching northern Germany and Scandinavia, again probably by sea.1 The first known Scandinavian passage graves lie on the western coasts of the islands of Oland and Gotland.1 Archaeologists date the rectangular Toftadösen dolmen in Gotland to around 3400–3300 BCE, making it the most easterly megalith in N Europe.4 Two of Gotland’s famous ‘stone ships’ from the Bronze Age appear to be “‘moored’ at the megalith structure”. Several other lines of evidence suggest the on-going use of the site as an important ritual landscape.4 The megalithic tradition seemed to undergo the third and final expansion in the second millennium BCE, spreading across the Mediterranean, Balearic Islands, Apulia and Sicily.1
Schulz Paulsson suggests that this distribution “emphasizes the maritime linkage of these societies and a diffusion of the passage grave tradition along the seaway”.1 A journey between Neolithic Iberia and Brittany might take 5-6 weeks if mariners hugged the coast. Braving the Bay of Biscay would halve the time, but they’d be out of sight of land. Such a voyage is certainly well within the bounds of possibility. Scarre points out that coastal communities in Neolithic Brittany transported large menhirs by sea for some 40km, so, the boats must have been fairly sophisticated.2 Moreover, about a quarter of the people buried in the Falbygden passage graves in Sweden were not native to the area. Several individuals buried in British megalithic tombs spent at least part of their childhood elsewhere.2 So, many Neolithic settlements were far from being insular and isolated.
“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,” Schulz Paulsson concludes.1 Aye, there’s the rub. We now have an unprecedented understanding – although not conclusive proof – of when the megalithic tradition began and where. We know how it probably spread. But we don’t know why the tradition inspired our ancestors to raise such magnificent, labour-intensive monuments across Europe.
Published in NE157 (June 2019), pp14-16
- B. Schulz Paulsson, ‘Radiocarbon dates and Bayesian modeling support maritime diffusion model for megaliths in Europe’, Proc. Nat’l Academy of Sciences 2019:116:3460-3465 Available free at www.pnas.org/content/116/9/3460
- C. Scarre, ‘Megalithic people, Megalithic missionaries: the history of an idea’. Estudos Arqueológicos de Oeiras 2018;24:157-170 Available free on Research Gate at tinyurl.com/yxh6twtw
- J Mavor, Voyage to Atlantis (Fontana 1973) p178. This remains one of the best summaries, in my view, supporting the eruption on Thera as the main element in the myth of Atlantis.
- H. Martinsson-Wallin and P. Wallin, ‘The story of the only (?) megalith grave on Gotland Island’. Documenta Praehistorica 2010:37:77-84 Available free at https://revije.ff.uni-lj.si/DocumentaPraehistorica/article/view/37.7