Neolithic Megaliths: Their Functions and Meanings
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From the historical perspective, the emergence of megalithic monuments has traditionally been considered indicative of changes in the larger social contexts with which they are associated. Megaliths can take many forms, such as dolmens, menhirs, large chamber tombs, and stone cists. Due to the range of structures built with large stones (i. e. , megaliths), it is difficult to provide a perfect hard-and-fast definition of megaliths, but among archaeologists, there is a general recognition of what does and does not constitute a megalith.
Generally, megaliths can probably be best described as structures built with a few or more unmodified or minimally modified very large boulders reflecting a considerable investment in labor and time, but which do not reach the level of refinement and elaboration found among such structures as the pyramids of Egypt and the Americas and large temples of ancient Greece, Rome and various states in South, East and Southeast Asia—typically constructed with numerous cut blocks of stone. By this definition, megaliths are usually not found in state organized societies.
This fact, megaliths worldwide distribution, their meaning for societies and functions they performed in them prove that megaliths played an important role in understanding the socio-cultural evolution of humanity. The link between megalith building and the emergence of complex societies has been examined by many archaeologists, particularly in the context of Neolithic Europe from which the main theories concerning megaliths and their role in prehistoric societies have been generated.
Collin Renfrew (1976) was one of the first to discuss, in detail, the role of megalith building in the development of prehistoric complex societies by suggesting that the construction of large monuments (including megaliths) was associated with and a marker of the emergence of chiefdom societies in the Early Neolithic of Wessex and that the monuments served as symbols of social cohesion and territorial markers among these societies (Renfrew, 201-202).
Chapman (1981) focused on the function of megaliths not only as territorial markers, but as an expression of kinship-based corporate group use-rights over particular key resources of the early Neolithic (Chapman, 74). Similarly, Madsen (1982) suggested that megalithic tomb building (both dolmens and passage graves) was part of a pattern of gradual social and political elaboration that coincided with the expansion of agriculture during the of Neolithic Denmark as well and that these monuments, following a similar line of reasoning as Renfrew, functioned as territorial markers representing group rights to certain resources (Madsen, 209-210).
Examining the Early Neolithic of Southern Sweden, Liden (1995) also linked megaliths to use rights over resources, although she argued that megaliths initially marked use rights over predictable wild resources and were not necessarily associated with the expansion of agriculture (Liden, 405-407).
In analysis of megaliths in the Brittany region of France, Scarre (2001) argued that large stone tombs and menhirs of the region functioned not as territorial or use-right markers, but as aggregation and ritual centers for dispersed groups who had become partially dependant upon plants and animals but had not yet established a system of fixed settlement (Scarre, 285, 299, 302, 307). Other researchers have focused on the symbolic properties of large prehistoric stone monuments.
McMann (1994) has suggested that monumental Neolithic cairn burials in Ireland were built in locales perceived as sacred places in the earlier Mesolithic (McMann, 534). According to McMann, these megalithic burials (1994) reflect the symbolic power of stone, “the significance of which may have been associated with peoples’ desire to ‘belong’ to nature or a response to the threat posed by domestication of changing this relationship” (McMann , 537).
Other archeologists and anthropologists have also discussed with the potential symbolic significance of large stone monuments. In one of the few ethnoarchaeological examinations of megaliths, Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina (1998) focused on the medium of stone and its association with ancestors and death in kinship-based societies, particularly in Madagascar, where large standing stones are associated with ancestors and where there is a traditional dichotomy between the architecture of the living (made of wood) and the dead (made of stone) (Parker et al, 315-317).
Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina (1998) extended this notion of stone as a medium of the dead and wood as a medium of the living to an analysis of the Late Neolithic Stonehenge and the nearby timber circles at Woodhenge and Durrington Walls and suggested that Stonehenge was a domain of the dead and a place of rituals for the dead in the last half of the third millennium BC, whereas Woodhenge and Durrington Walls were places for the living and rituals and the stage of rituals for the living during the same time period (Parker et al, 313).
In Collin Renfrew’s analyses of European megaliths in the 1970’s (1976), he linked the monuments to changes in the sociopolitical landscape that occurred during the European Neolithic, a theme that has continued to dominate the more recent discussions of prehistoric megaliths (Renfrew, 217-218).
In his study of megaliths of late Neolithic Wessex in southern England, Renfrew examined the ratio of causewayed enclosures to long barrow burial monuments in certain areas and found patterning that appeared to indicate the presence of emerging chiefdoms in the area (Renfrew, 205). For each causewayed enclosure, there were an average of 20 long barrows, which, according to Renfrew, suggested a possible population of about 400-2000 people living in an emerging chiefdom territory marked by the presence of a causewayed enclosure (Renfrew, 205).
Renfrew refined this association between megaliths and group territories and argued that the initial appearance of megaliths in northwestern Europe around 4,000 BC emerged as territorial markers for small-scale segmentary societies characterized by small communities consisting of between 50 and 500 people lacking the hierarchical organization associated with chiefdoms and states (Renfrew, 199). According to Renfrew (1976), population pressure that existed in the Atlantic/North Sea seaboard necessitated the construction of monuments which symbolized the territories and resources controlled by these segmentary societies (Renfrew, 200).
This population pressure would have been created by the population increases resulting from the adoption of farming among fisher-gatherer societies with already substantial populations. Population pressure was considered to be enhanced by the barrier to outward migration presented by the Atlantic Ocean (Renfrew, 218). Renfrew later applied a similar perspective to the megalithic monuments of Orkney. In general, he viewed megaliths as signifying the emergence of complex polities throughout the British Isles.
Robert Chapman expanded the discussion of the apparent link between group territories and, megalithic monuments by linking megaliths to resource-controlling corporate groups. Chapman (1981) argued that megalithic monuments in the European Neolithic were likely to have marked the territories and resources controlled by kinship-based corporate groups (Chapman, 73). Chapman (1981) drew on ethnographic observations presented by earlier researchers that pointed to a link between corporate groups, resources, cemeteries, and formal rites associated with death (Chapman, 74).
Chapman (1981) noted that the evidence suggested a correlation between the presence of Linear Pottery Culture (4500-4000 BC) sites and mortuary practices in northwestern Europe (Chapman, 78). During this time, according to Chapman, there is evidence for a direct link between large stone tombs and critical resources (e. g. , favorable pasture land in areas of southern France, water in the case of southeastern Spain, wild marine resources in Sweden, and arable land in Holland) suggesting a role of the tombs as markers for corporate group ownership over both agricultural and wild resources (Chapman, 79).
In an assessment of his megalith-corporate group model, Chapman (1981) examined the implications the monuments had for labor control in light of discussions that labor control may have been more valuable than land for early agricultural communities in Europe (Chapman, 80-81). Torsten Madsen (1982) has argued for a similar pattern present in the early Neolithic of Denmark (3100-2200 BC). In an analysis of settlement patterns in Neolithic East Jutland, Denmark, Madsen found that the highest density of megalithic tombs could be found within 4 km of the coastline (Madsen, 201).
Determination of the natural conditions in the vicinity of these tombs based on their location in relation to watercourses and coastline and analysis of soils indicated that resources (e. g. , nuts, aquatic resources, wild boar) were likely more diverse in areas around tombs in comparison to other areas (Madsen, 202). In the Neolithic, according to Madsen (1982) sites close to varied natural resources from the land and the sea would have been sought after by early farmers and the relatively high densities of cultural material in those areas supports this notion (Madsen, 226, 227).
Thus, Madsen asserted that the megalithic tombs served as symbolic expressions of rights over particularly desirable land and coastline, along with distinctive pottery placed in front of tombs, symbols of group identity. Evidence for feasting (e. g. , masses of foodstuffs and deliberately broken pottery associated with megaliths) was considered by Madsen (1982) to reflect a system in which territorial rights and affiliation were expressed symbolically in rituals (Madsen, 211, 228).
Focusing on the Neolithic of Brittany, Chris Scarre (2001) interpreted megalithic monuments (menhirs and chambered tombs) as aggregation centers for groups that were spatially dispersed in their settlement in the context of the Neolithic of Brittany (mid-5th millennium BC to the mid-3rd millennium BC). Scarre (2001) noted that pollen evidence indicated that large-scale forest clearance in most parts of Brittany began relatively late, by the 2nd or 1st millennium BC (Late Bronze Age/Iron Age) (Scarre, 297).
The workforce requirements for building the megalithic monuments, according to Scarre (2001), may have been fulfilled by populations that periodically came together for rituals that occurred at the megaliths (Scarre, 299). Pollen and settlement evidence indicated relatively mobile settlement patterns with periods of colonization and abandonment during the Neolithic of Brittany (Scarre, 299). In this context, Scarre suggested that megaliths could have been ritual centers and reminders of places previously inhabited (Scarre, 305-307).
Due to the way in which some megaliths seem to be aligned with various astronomical phenomena, many researchers have contended that they were built as astronomical observatories that served a variety of purposes. As one of the first to apply a scientific approach to the issue of megaliths as astronomical observatories, Alexander Thorn (1966) used mathematics to examine the notion that megaliths were used as observatories for viewing the cosmos.
Thorn (1966) noted that the location of the monuments in relation to the position of the sun, moon and stars at different times of year indicated that “the monuments were used to keep track of the earth’s position in the current year in the eclipse cycle” (Thorn, 332). Euan MacKie (1977) expanded on the notion that megaliths functioned as astronomical observatories. MacKie (1977) argued that megalithic monuments in Neolithic Britain and Ireland were astronomical observatories used by an elite group with specialized knowledge of astronomy (MacKie, 91).
This group would have been dominated by a religious elite who was responsible for the construction of earthworks and stone circles on the Salisbury Plain and at Durrington Walls in southern England, which MacKie suggested contained a roofed, elite structure (MacKie, 95-96). MacKie also focuses on data from Maes Howe passage tomb and the settlements of Skara Brae and Barnhouse, all representing Neolithic Orkney.
The Barnhouse and Skara Brae sites and their associated Grooved Ware pottery and domestic, funerary, and ceremonial buildings were considered by MacKie to represent evidence of the presence of a religious elite group. According to MacKie (1977), Maes Howe’s unique architectural features that illuminated phenomena, such as sunsets, were very likely used to establish solar calendars and thus represented evidence of the specialized knowledge of a religious elite (MacKie, 103). Apparent orientations to the sun and moon occur at megaliths in other areas as well.
Some megaliths in Portugal are aligned with the first full moon of the spring equinox. Solar alignments are also present at Newgrange in Ireland and Gavrinis in Brittany. Numerous studies of megaliths have offered diverse insights into potential sociopolitical, economic and ideological factors that may have been responsible for constructing megaliths monuments in prehistoric societies. A certain degree of overlap exists in terms of the general ideas concerning the significance of large stone monuments in prehistory.
In literature reviewed and analyzed, there is a broad consensus that megalithic monuments in some way represented central places for social groups, whether they were territorial markers, group aggregation centers, astronomical observatories or representations of symbolic structures. From this perspective, one can firmly insist that megaliths represented a very important aspect and theme in our understanding of human social, ethnographic and cultural evolution.