megalithic monuments

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Megalithic Monuments

How was monumental Neolithic architecture constructed and how was it used?

The massive tombs and ceremonial structures built from huge stones in the Neolithic period are known as megalithic architecture, from the Greek words for “large” (megas) and “stone” (lithos). Archaeologists disagree about the nature of the societies that created them. Some believe megalithic monuments reflect complex, stratified societies in which powerful religious or political leaders dictated their design and commanded the large workforce necessary to accomplish these ambitious engineering projects. Other interpreters argue that these massive undertakings are clear evidence for cooperative collaboration within and among social groups, coalescing around a common project that fueled social cohesion without the controlling power of a ruling elite. Many megalithic structures are associated with death, and recent interpretations stress the fundamental role of death and burial as public theatrical performances in which individual and group identity, cohesion, and disputes were played out.

Elements of Architecture

Post-and-Lintel and Corbel Construction

Of all the methods for spanning space,  post-and-lintel  construction is the simplest. At its most basic, two uprights (posts) support a horizontal element ( lintel ). There are countless variations, from the wood structures and underground burial chambers of prehistory, to Egyptian and Greek stone construction, to medieval timber-frame buildings, and even to present-day cast-iron and steel construction. Its limitation as a space spanner is the degree of tensile strength of the lintel material: the more flexible, the greater the possible span. Another early method for creating openings in walls and covering space is corbeling, in which rows or layers of stone are laid with the end of each row projecting beyond the row beneath, progressing until opposing layers almost meet and can then be capped with a stone (capstone) that rests across the tops of both layers.

Many megalithic tombs are preserved in Europe, where they were used for both single and multiple burials. In the simplest type, the dolmen , a tomb chamber was formed of huge upright stones supporting one or more table-like rocks, or  capstones , in a post-and-lintel system. The structure was then mounded over with smaller rocks and dirt to form a  cairn  or artificial hill.

More elaborate burial sites—called  passage graves —have corridors leading into a large burial chamber. At Newgrange in Ireland, a huge passage grave—originally 44 feet tall and 280 feet in diameter—was constructed about 3000–2500 bce ( fig. 1–12 ). Its passageway, 62 feet long and lined with standing stones, leads into a three-part chamber with a  corbel vault  (an arched structure that spans an interior space). Some stones are engraved with linear designs, mainly rings, spirals, and diamond shapes. These patterns may have been marked out using strings or compasses, and then carved by picking at the rock surface with tools made of antlers. Recent analysis of such engraved designs suggest that we should understand them in terms of the neuropsychological effects—including hallucinations—they would have had on people visiting the tomb. They may have played important roles in ritual or political ceremonies that centered around death, burial, and the commemoration and visitation of the deceased by the living.

Of all the megalithic monuments of Europe, the one that has stirred the public imagination most strongly is STONEHENGE in southern England ( figs. 1–13  1–14 ). A henge is a circle of stones or posts, often surrounded by a ditch with built-up embankments. While Stonehenge is not the largest such circle from the Neolithic period, it is one of the most complex, with eight different phases of construction and activity starting in about 3000 bce and stretching over a millennium and a half through the Bronze Age.

1–12 Tomb Interior with Engraved Stones