Aspects of the Megalithic Era

By Desmond Johnston

Megalithic mapA glance at a map of megalithic Europe shows us a network of areas containing a concentration of stone monuments extending through Tunisia, Morocco, Iberia, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, south-west Sweden, Ireland, Wales, southwest and northern England, west and north Scotland. These are all coastal areas. The Ocean is the linking factor. In addition, there are pockets on the Mediterranean islands as well as along the shore of the Eastern Mediterranean and of the Black Sea.

By megalithic we mean such phenomena as mounds with interior stone structures, cairns, dolmens, standing stones, passage monuments, and similar structures. There are of course inherent dangers in lumping together all such man-made creations as they can represent the work of more than one culture and vary chronologically.

In each area, a common feature is a heavier concentration near the coast, tending to thin out further from the sea. In the case of France and Ireland in particular, the concentration of monuments is more widespread, not just littoral.

Current dating techniques seem to put the creation of the majority of such monuments in the general area of 5000 to 1500 BC. Previous archaeological thinking that such cultures emerged in Eurasia and made their way into north-west Europe seems at first sight to have been contradicted by the fact that many such megalithic structures in the west predate for example the Pyramids of Egypt and the tholos monuments of Mycenae.

It is important to bear in mind that the structures we see today represent only the final stage of construction of such a monument, which could well have been erected on ground occupied by its predecessors over a period of as much as a couple of thousand years. In the case of Stonehenge it has been possible to map out all the changes in design which occurred over a couple of millennia. In the Boyne area where stones are often elaborately engraved restoration work has revealed that stones at present on view are also engraved on the reverse side, indicating reuse from an earlier construction. Other smaller monuments have been dated a couple of thousand years earlier than the approximate 3000+ BC date given to many larger and better-known monuments.

Newgrange Aerial Photograph
Newgrange, a 5,200 year old megalithic tomb located in the Boyne Valley, Ireland

Rapidly gaining ground - although not yet in all quarters - is the concept that such features as stone passages in mounds (as in the Boyne Valley in Ireland) and alignments of standing stones, (as in Orkney and Brittany) relate to and reflect astronomical phenomena. Their relationship to solar, lunar, stellar positions is too close to be ignored any longer. All this adds up to a close observation of the heavens and the use of this in designing a calendar. This is assumed to relate particularly to the needs of the early farmers. So one may deduce that these originated in the areas where farming began. The wider picture must be kept in mind at the same time. Farming is assumed to have begun at an early date (at least 8000 BC) in the Middle East / Fertile Crescent area.

Two factors are relevant here - the Mediterranean / Middle East area even in the last Ice Age was habitable to man and beast, not to mention plant life, and by this time the warming process which ended the Ice Age was well under way. Astronomical knowledge became well developed in such cultures as Iraq and Egypt. The Ice Age effectively prevented resettlement of the northern lands by even hunter-gatherers until the warming period beginning from around 8000 BC. This resulted in the movement of a hunter-gatherer population northwards from the area of Iberia by land and sea, and also up the Danube from the Black Sea region.

The relatively milder climate of the Middle East/Fertile Crescent areas enabled domestication of plants and animals from around 8000 BC. It is in Turkey, for example Gobekli Tepe, that we are presented with stone monuments supposedly dating from 7000 BC or even earlier. Thus it would be logical to assume that in this area we are looking at "the birth of the megalithic" and of farming.

What happened next is a puzzle. At some stage these sites were deserted and in many cases monuments were buried. A movement of population can be inferred. Did anything happen around 5000 / 4000 BC to step up movement into the Atlantic shores of north-west Europe of a new wave of settlers with a more sophisticated knowledge of farming? For one thing we know the climate was warmer then than it is today. That in itself could have made migration into these areas more likely. Accepting that there have to be good reasons for people to migrate, we should look for such factors as weather and climate change along the North-African seaboard, and in the Fertile Crescent. A falling-off of rainfall would cause a movement into the river valleys of the Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, Nile and also a movement overseas of those unable to find such a solution. One must bear in mind that expansion out of the Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent area was restricted by deserts to the south and east and un-cleared forest to the north, leaving the sea as the main route to greener pastures, apart from rivers such as the Danube. There is evidence for a drying-up of the climate of many parts of the Middle East and North African areas at about this time. This is the period of the River Cultures based on the need for irrigation as the rivers, rather than rainfall, became the main source of water for agriculture. Rock paintings in currently desert areas such as the Sahara depict a land well supplied with livestock at an earlier period.

Thus a very basic agriculture among the hunter-gatherers in northern Europe, which possibly already existed from around 7000 BC in areas along the coast, and on lakes and rivers where there was reliance on fish, was improved by the arrival of new settlers with a more sophisticated knowledge of farming and of the calendar. What we need here is more knowledge of a possible drying-up period in the area of the Fertile Crescent. This evidence would appear to be on the increase. On the Nile, Indus, Tigris and Euphrates areas there is evidence for a drying-up of the climate and a movement to the banks of the rivers together with an increased reliance on irrigation. This in itself led to the growth on the river banks of an "urban" civilization, based not in the first instance on commerce and industry as we would expect, but on the need for farming communities to band together in close-knit groups to labour cooperatively on such areas as irrigation and land reclamation, as well as for mutual defence. Sophisticated forms of government, law, architecture, industry, trade, writing, followed.

So far as Western Europe was concerned, the beginnings of human settlement were becoming possible by the end of the last ice age, with a period of around 8000 / 7000 BC being quoted as a starter for settlement. This however leaves a gap of some 3000 years before the first megaliths began to appear. Going back to this early period, we note the arrival of some settlers with a non-nomadic lifestyle, practising basic agricultural techniques and living in permanent houses. Access to rivers and the sea could have contributed to an early settling-down process as a diet based on fish became a major aspect of life. The area of Mountsandel in north-east Ireland is a good example of such a movement. In fact there are grounds for assuming that an early form of agriculture began with communities which were fairly settled because they were dependent on various forms of fish, including shellfish, which gave them a more stable life-style. This is not to deny that the vast majority of settlers coming northwards from around 8000 BC would have remained nomadic hunter-gatherers, So far as the Atlantic shores of Europe are concerned the assumption has been made as a result of DNA research that the first post-Ice Age arrivals came from Iberia and in many cases may have made the journey by sea.

The later movement of early farmers with more sophisticated ideas in such fields as astronomy and agriculture from the North Africa / Middle East / Fertile Crescent areas is reflected also in DNA research. The numbers would not necessarily have been great, but their presence was enough to change the lives and life-style of the hunter-gatherers. We need to move away from such concepts as "invasion" and "mass-migration". If the farming life-style worked in providing more food (and a more varied diet) its impact on the earlier settlers can well be imagined.

This brings us to the development of megalithic monuments in north-west Europe specifically. Successful farming required knowledge of the movements of the sun and moon and the creation of a sophisticated calendar. So it is not surprising that in such areas we begin to find three-dimensional structures resulting from the study of the heavens. This is not to say that the hunter gatherers themselves did not have concepts of the calendar based on their knowledge of the movement of potential prey from one area to another. It has been stated for example that the inhabitants of Gobekli Tepe who have left behind the earliest megalithic monuments so far discovered were in themselves hunter-gatherers. Whether this is true remains to be seen. The truth could lie somewhere in the middle with this particular group being at least partially settled in their lifestyle.

Not only were the night sky and the sun objects of study but in addition to these other climatic factors such as wind and rain, not to mention thunder, were also closely observed in relation to the behaviour and welfare of animals and plants. The role played by fresh water in the form of springs, streams, rivers, lakes was quickly realised. Out of all this religious concepts developed based on the study of nature. The factors on earth and in the sky which affected the daily lives of humans were understood and respected. For all this to happen an intellectual class had to evolve with the provision of education for those who showed an appropriate endowment. It is safe to assume that considerable skills in mathematics in particular must have evolved. Since it was the forces of nature which were being studied one can see the evolution of the concept of an all- controlling spirit or God. Since things were frequently liable to go wrong in real life one of the consequences was a feeling of the need to pray to, and make offerings to whatever god or spirit was deemed to be in control of such factors as wind and water. The coming of misfortunes such as gales and droughts led to such questions as "is this a punishment" -- "what did I do wrong?" Thus one can see that the intellectual group who had been studying and passing on their knowledge of nature was also what we would call a" religious" group. In so many cultures including mediaeval Christianity as well as those of Mesopotamia and Egypt the religious and the educational establishments were merged.

Sunrise at NewgrangeThe movements of the sun and also of the moon played a vital part in the creation of the calendar. All over the megalithic world we see signs of the identification of key points particularly in the movement of the sun. Today we take it for granted that although the sun's influence declines steadily from its Midsummer solstice point it will, six months later, reach a point at which the process seems to reverse and the sun begins to return. To us this is so commonplace that we fail to understand that to our remote ancestors this was a yearly miracle The steady decline of the sun was bound to generate an underlying fear. Noticing the first signs of the reversal of this process would bring rejoicing. One can imagine that the priesthood of the day may well have given the impression that their particular forms of worship actually influenced the sun in its course and brought it back. In this connection it would seem that the period of the winter solstice has a special place in the religious year.

It was at this moment in time that the sun would have to be propitiated and that mass gatherings would have been held at key points where the sun's movements were being observed. The actual day of the solstice would have been an occasion for prayer. The rejoicing would have come a few days later when the first identifiable signs of change were observed and made public. It is not for nothing that the celebration of Christmas falls on the 25th rather than on the 21st of December. (Bearing in mind that early Christian festivals tended to fall on already-existing celebration dates). I see this period, rather than Midsummer, as being the key point in the megalithic year. The much vaunted Midsummer celebration, when one thinks about it, would not have been a time for rejoicing since it marked an impending falling off of the sun's influence. Current thinking about Stonehenge, for example, is that the Midwinter festival was much more important than that of Midsummer.

While we associate the megalithic era, not unnaturally, with stone it is well to remember that not just stone, but also wood, must have played a vital part in early monuments designed for observation of the skies. Tree trunks were easy to cut and shape, not too heavy to place in holes in the ground, and would be relatively easy to realign. This goes to explain the large number of sites which have been discovered in recent years where orderly arrangements of post-holes have been identified. Nor is it necessarily always true that arrangements of wooden uprights belong to an earlier period than stone monuments.

Stone however has its own special characteristics. For one thing it is permanent. In many cases components of monuments were not made from stone extracted from a quarry or rock face, but from stones deposited on the ground (erratics) as a result of glacial activity. Such stones would have undoubtedly "magical" significance. There is evidence that in some cultures, perhaps in all originally, any shaping of such stones which was required could only be done by stone tools. A couple of references in the Old Testament would appear to bear this out (Deuteronomy 27 v6 and Joshua 8 v31) where the use of "whole" stones and of stones on which no man had applied "iron" was enforced. There is no good reason to believe that the Israelites were the only ancient culture with such prohibitions on the use of metal. A logical conclusion would be that we cannot always assume that stone monuments were made and shaped in the Neolithic period only. In other words the use of stone tools could have continued long after the introduction of bronze and iron for other purposes. Another comment on the shaping of stones on megalithic sites is the use of techniques which were obviously learned in the process of handling wood. Stonehenge is a perfect example of applying carpentry techniques to stone with the use of mortice and tenon joints in the uprights and lintels.

A development of farming with its attendant prosperity made possible the erection of the great megalithic monuments. Only a culture enjoying economic prosperity and with a large population-base could have created such wonders. Nor was all this the product of a "slave economy". There is plenty of evidence that these great structures were erected by a willing agricultural population. They were constructed over periods when work on the land was less demanding on labour and there is evidence for the creation of accommodation for workers and families during construction periods. There is also evidence for feasting and general celebration coinciding with the key periods of the solar and lunar year.

At the peak of the Megalithic - perhaps around 3000 BC - we see building skills at their best, and it is easy to assume that the cultural/religious elite had maximum support from the people on the one hand and secular rulers on the other. An important part of "megalithic" thinking would appear to be respect for the forces of Nature and also a respect for one's ancestors. Stone circles and alignments, together with passage mounds, reflected the celestial aspect, while dolmens, barrows etc. reflected an ancestor cult. When and how did all this change?

In general, it would seem that the Megalithic era in many areas was in decline between 2000 and 1500 BC. This would seem to tie in with the Bronze Age. This too was an era of prosperity, but prosperity based not so much on farming as on war, urbanization, commerce, superior weaponry. (Sounds familiar?) People would have become blasé about things celestial. Knowledge would have become more widespread. The influence of an elite intelligentsia/priesthood was in decline. The sun could now be "guaranteed" to perform according to a pattern worked out so long ago. A priestly class could no longer effectively threaten celestial retribution if mortals did not conform in their lives and religious practices. The controlling spirits of the past were being replaced by gods and goddesses with human attributes - not necessarily the most desirable ones either.

From the beginning climate / weather has played a huge role in the affairs of mankind. At the height of the Megalithic the weather of Northern Europe was warmer and drier than today. At some point a radical change took place, as the present cool wet climate emerged. In the West of Ireland, in Scotland, and elsewhere underneath peat bogs lie the identifiable signs of Neolithic farming and the skeletons of buried trees - an indication of a continuing cold wet era which drove farmers on to higher ground with less fertile soils. While Wessex and the Boyne area are agriculturally viable today, just as they would have been 6000 years ago, this cannot be said for many other great megalithic areas such as Brittany, Mayo, Northern England, Orkney etc. One must assume that in the kinder climate of the era these areas had good farmland and a thriving population to create such a multiplicity of monuments. The building age of the Megalithic did not survive these climate changes. Nor could it survive the resultant warlike incursions which are so often the result of economic downturn, driven also by the new bronze technology. The greatest phase of Stonehenge with the great trilithons also marks the end of an era.

Travel in the Megalithic era was made possible by knowledge of the stars. The misconception that seafarers of the period dared not venture out of sight of land is gradually vanishing. Night was the ideal time to get one's bearings at sea. This knowledge was particularly valuable in the Bronze Age to help in the search for such commodities as tin, gold, copper. In the Megalithic period there are signs that people used astronomical knowledge to travel to new places of settlement and to transfer knowledge back and forth over large distances. The knowledge which created Silbury Hill became available to the builders of the Egyptian Pyramids in a later period.

The body of knowledge which lies behind the constructions of the Megalithic period, encompassing astronomy, mathematics, plant and animal husbandry and undoubtedly concepts of a theological nature, survived to some extent into the Classical era. In Greece and Rome there is evidence of input from Egypt for example. In North-West and Central Europe the knowledge survived in another form, not always accepted by us today, indoctrinated as we are by the "superiority" of the Graeco-Roman culture. In effect both cultures were parallel in achievement, but the Graeco-Roman one was urban, like its predecessors from Crete, Egypt, Babylon, Sumeria. In Roman times, as today, the city reigned supreme. The rural/village-based cultures of Central and Western Europe were regarded, in the words of Kipling, as "lesser breeds without the law".

A perfect example of this attitude is to be found in Julius Caesar's comments on the culture of the Gauls in his account of the Gallic War. He refers to the descendants of the intellectual/religious elite of the Megalithic era, describing them as the "Druid" culture. A fair man in his comments, considering that he would have been taught to regard such folk as illiterate barbarians, he gives an account of their educational achievements, based on rote-learning - not because they were illiterate, but because rote-learning and live debate (as practised by Plato and Aristotle for example) was a better way to learn. Since this scholarly class were the descendants of the creators of the calendar and the great megalithic structures, it is worth while to paraphrase some of Caesar's comments on them in his "Conquest of Gaul".

"The Druids officiate at the worship of the gods ------ Large numbers of young men flock to them for instruction ----- They act as judges ------ The Druids are exempt from military service ----- They do not pay taxes like other citizens ( I like that one - the advantages of a good education!) ------ Some of them spend 20 years at their studies ------- Their religion forbids them to commit their teachings to writing ------ They also hold long discussions about the heavenly bodies and their movements, the size of the universe and of the earth, the physical constitution of the world, and the power and properties of the gods, and they instruct the young men in all these subjects".

A key comment made by Caesar, the significance of which tends to be ignored, runs as follows:- "The Druidic doctrine is believed to have been found existing in Britain, and thence imported into Gaul : even today those who want to make a profound study of it generally go to Britain for the purpose". In other words we are looking at a system older than the Roman, undoubtedly having its origins in the Megalithic. The "Druidic" system must have survived the ravages of the Bronze Age and of the early Iron Age, collapsing some 90-odd years after Caesar when the Claudian invasion took place. It is interesting that Caesar places its origins on the Western seaboard. Anglesey had been the chief base in the Roman period, but Ireland could well have been the home of the "Druidic" system - perhaps the Boyne area?

Since Ireland remained independent of Roman cultural and political control one must presume that the "Druids" may have relocated to Ireland after the fall of Anglesey. What happened then has been largely lost. A non-written and oral tradition proved vulnerable when Patrick and his missionaries proved as determined as the Romans to eradicate "Druidic" culture. Perhaps the culture had deteriorated to such an extent that it had to be obliterated - we will never know. Perhaps both Romans and Christians feared the latent power of this ancient culture. In any case there is an interesting resemblance between the "Druidic" system as described by Caesar and the early Christian Irish monastic system which did so much to reverse the effects of the Dark Ages in Europe. (Proof that "if you can't beat them - join them"). If only the two cultures had not been so opposed we would have a much better understanding of the Megalithic world today. The megalithic roots of "Druidism" could well be found in the priestly/scribal educational systems of Mesopotamia and Egypt, (the Magi?) bearing in mind the migration of the "First Farmers" from the Middle East. One thing is clear - the megalithic culture was in no way intellectually inferior to those of Sumeria, Babylon, and Egypt. The knowledge of astronomy was common to all - and survived into Roman times. The difference lay in the more rural village-based cultures of the Atlantic seaboard as opposed to the urban cultures of the Middle East - not to mention our modern attitudes which still favour urban over rural.

While we have concentrated most on Western European aspects of the Megalithic period, we need to remember that we are dealing with a world-wide phenomenon To some extent the origins of plant and animal husbandry are key factors, making study of the heavens necessary to the creation of a calendar. "Observatories" are to be found, dating from ancient times, from America to India - China - the Pacific. The use of stone, often on a massive scale, is common. The respect for the dead and for one's ancestors is shown in the creation of stone monuments wherever the Megalithic is to be found.

Are we looking at an isolated phenomenon? Personally I think not. One obvious example of the revival of the Megalithic type of concept is to be found in the creation of the great Gothic cathedrals in Northern and Western Europe - home of the Megalithic. Here too there is a combination of the spiritual with the technological. Again the structures reflect a wave of economic prosperity .In both, there is evidence of cooperative effort within the community. What we know in the case of the Gothic we can infer in the case of the Megalithic - namely strong regional competition. There are parallels too in how the era ended. The Megalithic declined under the deterioration in climate and the incursions of the Bronze Age. In the case of the Gothic the greatest factor was the Black Death which reduced Europe's population by at least one third. A consequence of this was a questioning of traditional faith - how could God to whom such beautiful structures had been dedicated allow such a calamity? After that the pace of cathedral building declined.

Yet another parallel between the two eras lies in a shared desire to tie together astronomical phenomena with the structures. This is carried to its highest point in Chartres Cathedral, but is a common feature. Again, it is undoubtedly true that the cathedrals were constructed on sites sacred in the Megalithic era - in fact this could well be true for all early Christian sites. So many churches have standing stones, dolmens etc. in their grounds. Chartres itself has a dolmen in the crypt. Mathematics played an immense part equally in Megalithic structures and in Mediaeval cathedrals. In the case of the former the mathematics evolved through observation of the heavens. In the case of the latter the ancient knowledge, surviving into Roman times, had to be painfully relearned as a result of the Dark Ages.

What can more modern times offer as a continuation of the Megalithic? Cooperative projects are to a large extent "out". Work is done largely by those who are trained and paid to do it - but perhaps raising the necessary money is sometimes a cooperative effort. In the Megalithic, "Druidic", and earlier Christian systems education and the spiritual dimension were "under the same management". Research and education are now secular but under the control of political and economic forces.

If the Megalithic implies a special sanctity attached to stone (shared by the cathedral builders}, then we can see in more modern times almost a "worship" of other materials. This is particularly true of the Victorian love -affair with iron. Railways, machinery, ships, bridges, etc. all show an obsession with this "new" commodity. The "spiritual" however was now being replaced with the material and with the economic.

The Megalithic would in no way have been a perfect age. Human beings are the same in any period. For example the surgical art of repairing cracked skulls by trepanning was well under way in the Megalithic age!

A distinct feature of megalithic structures is that in each area of the world there is a unique regional style within the general format of passage mounds, cairns, standing stones, alignments. To some extent the local geology determines shape and size. One intriguing feature is the presence or absence of "ornament" in the form of engraving of patterns on the rock surfaces. In the majority of sites such markings are absent. In other areas like the Boyne or Brittany designs are a key part of the monument. Here again regional variations occur. There are however certain world-wide conventions of design -including such features as spirals, concentric circles, chevrons, etc. I have myself experienced a sense of wonder standing in a valley in New Caledonia looking at the same designs as I had previously seen in the Boyne mounds. It is generally agreed that such designs represent astronomical features, and astronomers have been able to see solar and lunar movements and predictions of eclipses in them. Two very good books on this topic in relation to Ireland are :- The Stars and the Stones by Martin Brennan, and Irish Symbols of 3000BC by N L Thomas.

Could the megalithic culture have been physically carried round the world by its leading scholars? In the case of movement - both ways - between the Fertile Crescent and Northern Europe there should be no problem. In the case of movement between widely-separated areas such as America / India / China / the Pacific imagination would have to be stretched - but imagination is being stretched frequently nowadays as new discoveries about the skills of our ancestors emerge. Did early farming produce an elite group with a body of knowledge of the movements of sun, moon, and stars in one region, who then carried it far afield? Or did such knowledge emerge at around the same time spontaneously in each part of the world? I found New Caledonia a thought-provoking experience.

Newgrange Passage Tomb - Boyne Valley Ireland
Newgrange Megalithic Tomb in the Boyne Vally, Ireland's Ancient East

Boyne Valley Private Day Tour

Boyne Valley Tours
Immerse yourself in the rich heritage and culture of the Boyne Valley with our full-day private tours. Visit Newgrange World Heritage site, explore the Hill of Slane, where Saint Patrick famously lit the Paschal fire. Discover the Hill of Tara, the ancient seat of power for the High Kings of Ireland. Book Now