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A megalith is a large stone which has been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones. Megalithic describes structures made of such large stones, utilizing an interlocking system without the use of mortar or cement.

The word 'megalith' comes from the Ancient Greek megas meaning great, and lithos meaning stone. Megalith also denotes an item consisting of rock(s) hewn in definite shapes for special purposes. It has been used to describe buildings built by people from many parts of the world living in many different periods. A variety of large stones are seen as megaliths, with the most widely known megaliths not being sepulchral. The construction of these structures took place mainly in the Neolithic (though earlier Mesolithic examples are known) and continued into the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age.

Early stone complexes in eastern Turkey

At a number of sites in eastern Turkeymarker, large ceremonial complexes from the 9th millennium BC have been discovered. They belong to the incipient phases of agriculture and animal husbandry, from which the European (or Western) Neolithic would later develop. Large circular structures involving carved megalithic orthostats are a typical feature, eg. at Nevali Cori and Göbekli Tepemarker. Although these structures are the most ancient megalithic structures known so far, it is not clear that any of the European Megalithic traditions (see below) are actually derived from them. At Göbekli Tepe four stone circles have been excavated from an estimated 20. Some measure up to 30 metres across. The stones carry carved reliefs of boars, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and scorpions.

European megaliths

most common type of megalithic construction in Europe is the dolmen – a chamber consisting of upright stones (orthostats) with one or more large flat capstones forming a roof. Many of these, though by no means all, contain human remains, but it is debatable whether use as burial sites was their primary function. Though generally known as dolmens, many local names exist, such as anta in Portugalmarker, stazzone in Sardinia, hunebed in the Netherlandsmarker, Hünengrab in Germanymarker, dysse in Denmarkmarker, and cromlech in Walesmarker. It is assumed that most dolmens were originally covered by earthen mounds.

The second most common tomb type is the passage grave. It normally consists of a square, circular or cruciform chamber with a slabbed or corbelled roof, accessed by a long, straight passageway, with the whole structure covered by a circular mound of earth. Sometimes it is also surrounded by an external stone kerb. Prominent examples include the sites of Brú na Bóinne marker and Carrowmoremarker in Irelandmarker, Maes Howemarker in Orkneymarker, and Gavrinismarker in Francemarker.

The third tomb type is a diverse group known as gallery graves. These are axially arranged chambers placed under elongated mounds. The Irish court tombs, British long barrows and German Steinkisten belong to this group.

Another type of megalithic monument is the single standing stone, or menhir. Some of these are thought to have an astronomical function as a marker or foresight, and in some areas long and complex alignments of such stones exist – for example at Carnac in Brittany.

In parts of Britainmarker and Irelandmarker the best-known type of megalithic construction is the stone circle, of which there are hundreds of examples, including Stonehengemarker, Aveburymarker, Ring of Brodgarmarker and Beltany. These too display evidence of astronomical alignments, both solar and lunar. Stonehenge, for example, is famous for its solstice alignment. Examples of stone circles are also found in the rest of Europe. They are normally assumed to be of later date than the tombs, straddling the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.


Megalithic tombs are aboveground burial chambers, built of large stone slabs (megaliths) laid on edge and covered with earth or other, smaller stones. They are a type of chamber tomb, and the term is used to describe the structures built across Atlantic Europe, the Mediterraneanmarker and neighbouring regions, mostly during the Neolithic period, by Neolithic farming communities. They differ from the contemporary long barrows through their structural use of stone.

There is a huge variety of megalithic tombs. The free-standing single chamber dolmens and portal dolmens found in Brittany, Denmarkmarker, Germanymarker, Irelandmarker, Netherlandsmarker, Swedenmarker, Walesmarker and elsewhere consist of a large flat stone supported by three, four or more standing stones. They were covered by a stone cairn or earth barrow.

Examples with outer areas, not used for burial, are also known. The Court Cairns of south west Scotlandmarker and northern Irelandmarker, the Severn-Cotswold tombs of south west Englandmarker and the Transepted gallery graves of the Loiremarker region in Francemarker share many internal features although the links between them are not yet fully understood. That they often have antechambers or forecourts is thought to imply a desire on the part of the builders to emphasise a special ritual or physical separation of the dead from the living.

The Passage graves of Orkneymarker, Ireland's Boyne Valley, and north Wales are even more complex and impressive, with cross shaped arrangements of chambers and passages. The workmanship on the stone blocks at Maeshowemarker for example is unknown elsewhere in north west Europe at the time.

Megalithic tombs appear to have been used by communities for the long-term deposition of the remains of their dead and some seem to have undergone alteration and enlargement. The organisation and effort required to erect these large stones mean that the societies concerned must have placed great emphasis on the proper treatment of their dead. The ritual significance of the tombs is supported by the presence of megalithic art carved into the stones at some sites. Hearths and deposits of pottery and animal bone found by archaeologists around some tombs also implies some form of burial feast or sacrificial rites took place there.
Further examples of megalithic tombs include the stalled cairn at Midhowemarker in Orkney and the passage grave at Bryn Celli Ddumarker on Angleseymarker. Despite its name, the Stone Tombmarker in Ukrainemarker was not a tomb but rather a sanctuary.

Other structures

Associated with the megalithic constructions across Europe there are often large earthworks of various designs – ditches and banks, broad terraces, circular enclosures known as henges, and frequently artificial mounds such as Silbury Hillmarker in Englandmarker and Monte d’Accoddimarker in Sardinia. Sometimes, as at Glastonbury Tormarker in England, it is suggested that a natural hill has been artificially sculpted to form a maze or spiral pattern in the turf.

Spirals were evidently an important motif for the megalith builders, and have been found carved into megalithic structures all over Europe – along with other symbols such as lozenges, eye-patterns, zigzags in various configurations, and cup and ring marks. Whilst clearly not a written script in the modern sense of the term, these symbols are considered to have conveyed meaning to their creators, and are remarkably consistent across the whole of Western Europe.

Spread of megalithic architecture in Europe

Spread of megalithic architecture in Europe.

In Western Europe and the Mediterranean, megaliths are generally constructions erected during the Neolithic or late stone age and Chalcolithic or Copper Age (4500-1500 BC). Perhaps the most famous megalithic structure is Stonehengemarker in England, although many others are known throughout the world. The French Comte de Caylus was the first to describe the Carnac stones. Legrand d'Aussy introduced the terms menhir and dolmen, both taken from the Breton language, into antiquarian terminology. He interpreted megaliths as gallic tombs. In Britain, the antiquarians Aubrey and Stukeley conducted early research into megaliths. In 1805, Jacques Cambry published a book called Monuments celtiques, ou recherches sur le culte des Pierres, précédées d'une notice sur les Celtes et sur les Druides, et suivies d'Etymologie celtiques, where he proposed a Celtic stone cult. This completely unfounded connection between druids and megaliths has haunted the public imagination ever since . In Belgiummarker there is a megalithic site at Wéris, a little town situated in the Ardennesmarker. In the Netherlands, megalithic structures can be found in the north-east of the current, mostly in the province of Drenthe. Knowthmarker is a passage grave of the Brú na Bóinnemarker neolithic complex in Ireland, dating from c.3500-3000 BC. It contains more than a third of the total number of examples of megalithic art in all Western Europe, with over 200 decorated stones found during excavations.

Timeline of megalithic construction


Excavation of some Megalithic monuments (in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and France) has revealed evidence of ritual activity, sometimes involving architecture, from the Mesolithic, ie predating the Neolithic monuments by centuries or millennia. Caveats apply: in some cases, they are chronologically so far removed from their successors that continuity is unlikely, in other cases the early dates, or the exact character of activity, are controversial. Examples include:


  • Circa 3700 BC: Constructions in Ireland (Knockiveagh and elsewhere).

  • Circa 2800 BC: Climax of the megalithic Funnel-beaker culture in Denmark, and the construction of the henge at Stonehenge.


  • Circa 2400 BC: The Bell-beaker culture was dominant in Britain, and hundreds of smaller stone circles were built in the British Isles at this time.

Bronze Age

  • Circa 2000 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Er Grah), Italy (Barimarker), Sardinia (northern), and Scotland (Callanishmarker). The Chalcolithic period gave way to the Bronze Age in western and northern Europe.

  • Circa 1800 BC: Constructions in Italy (Giovinazzomarker).

  • Circa 1400 BC: Burial of the Egtved Girl in Denmark, whose body is today one of the most well-preserved examples of its kind.

  • Circa 1200 BC: Last vestiges of the megalithic tradition in the Mediterranean and elsewhere come to an end during the general population upheaval known to ancient history as the Invasions of the Sea Peoples.

African megaliths

Nabta Playa

Nabta Playamarker at the southwest corner of the western Egyptian desert was once a large lake in the Nubian Desert, located 500 miles south of modern-day Cairomarker. By the 5th millennium BC, the peoples in Nabta Playa had fashioned the world's earliest known astronomical device, 1000 years older than, but comparable to, Stonehengemarker. Research shows it to be a prehistoric calendar that accurately marks the summer solstice. Findings indicate that the region was occupied only seasonally, likely only in the summer when the local lake filled with water for grazing cattle.. There are other megalithic stone circles in the southwestern desert.

Middle Eastern megaliths

Dolmens and standing stones have been found in large areas of the Middle East starting at the Turkishmarker border in the north of Syriamarker close to Aleppomarker, southwards down to Yemenmarker. They can be encountered in northern Lebanonmarker, southern Syria, Israelmarker, Jordanmarker and Saudi Arabiamarker. The most concentrated occurrence of dolmen in particular is in a large area on both sides of the Great Rift valley, with greater predominance on the eastern side. They occur first and foremost on the Golan Heightsmarker, the Hauran, and in Jordan, which probably has the largest concentration of dolmen in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, only very few dolmen have been identified so far in the Hejaz. They seem, however, to re-emerge in Yemen in small numbers, and thus could indicate a continuous tradition related to those of Somaliamarker and Ethiopiamarker.

The standing stone has a very ancient tradition in the Middle East, dating back from Mesopotamian times. Although not always 'megalithic' in the true sense, they occur throughout the Orient, and can reach 5 meters or more in some cases (such as Ader in Jordan). This phenomenon can also be traced through many passages from the Old Testament, such as those related to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, who poured oil over a stone which he erected after his famous dream in which angels climbed to heaven (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob is also described as putting up stones at other occasions, whereas Moses erected twelve pillars symbolizing the tribes of Israel. The tradition of venerating (standing) stones continued in Nabatean times and is e.g. reflected in the Islamic rituals surrounding the Kaabamarker and nearby pillars.Related phenomena, such as cupholes, rock-cut tombs and circles also occur in the Middle East.

Asian megaliths

Megalithic burials are found in Northeast and Southeast Asia. They are found mainly in the Korean Peninsula. Beside that, they are also found in the Liaoningmarker, Shandongmarker, and Zhejiangmarker in Chinamarker, Kyūshūmarker in Japanmarker, Dong Nai provincemarker in Vietnammarker and parts of Indiamarker. A living megalithic tradition is found on the island of Sumbamarker in Indonesia. The greatest concentration of megalithic burials is in Korea. Archaeologists estimate varyingly that there are 15,000 to 100,000 southern megaliths in the Korean Peninsula. Typical estimates hover around the 30,000 mark for the entire peninsula, which in itself constitutes some 40% of all dolmens worldwide (see Dolmen).

Southern style

Southern-style megalithic burials are distributed in the southern Korean Peninsula. It is thought that most of them date to the latter part of the Early Mumun or to the Middle Mumun Period. Southern-style megaliths are typically smaller in scale than northern megaliths. The interment area of southern megaliths has an underground burial chamber made of earth or lined with thin stone slabs. A massive capstone is placed over the interment area and is supported by smaller propping stones. Most of the megalithic burials on the Korean Peninsula are of the southern type.

As with northern megaliths, southern examples contain few, if any, artifacts. However, a small number of megalithic burials contain fine red-burnished pottery, bronze daggers, polished groundstone daggers, and greenstone ornaments. Southern megalithic burials are often found in groups, spread out in lines that are parallel with the direction of streams. Megalithic cemeteries contain burials that are linked together by low stone platforms made from large river cobbles. Broken red-burnished pottery and charred wood found on these platforms has led archaeologists to hypothesize that these platform were sometimes used for ceremonies and rituals. The capstones of many southern megaliths have 'cup-marks' carvings. A small number of capstones have human and dagger representations.

Northern style

Northeast Asian megalithic traditions originated in Northeast China, in particular the Liao River basin. The practice of erecting megalithic burials spread quickly from the Liao River Basin and into the Korean Peninsula, where the structure of megaliths is geographically and chronologically distinct. The earliest megalithic burials are called "northern" or "table-style" because they feature an above-ground burial chamber formed by heavy stone slabs that form a rectangular cist. An oversized capstone is placed over the stone slab burial chamber, giving the appearance of a table-top. These megalithic burials date to the early part of the Mumun Pottery Period (c. 1500-850 BC) and are distributed, with a few exceptions, north of the Han Rivermarker. Few northern-style megaliths in Chinamarker contain grave goods such as Liaoningmarker bronze daggers, prompting some archaeologists to interpret the burials as the graves of chiefs or preeminent individuals. However, whether a result of grave-robbery or intentional mortuary behaviour, most northern megaliths contain no grave goods.


These megaliths are distinguished from other types by the presence of a burial shaft, sometimes up to 4 m in depth, which is lined with large cobbles. A large capstone is placed over the burial shaft without propping stones. Capstone-style megaliths are the most monumental type in the Korean Peninsula, and they are primarily distributed near or on the south coast of Korea. It seems that most of these burials date to the latter part of the Middle Mumun (c. 700-550 BC), and they may have been built into the early part of the Late Mumun. An example is found near modern Changwonmarker at Deokcheon-ni, where a small cemetery contained a capstone burial (No. 1) with a massive, rectangularly shaped, stone and earthen platform. Archaeologists were not able to recover the entire feature, but the low platform was at least 56 X 18 m in size.

Madia Gonds of Maharashtra, India

A study mentions living megalithic practices amongst the Madia Gonds. The Madia Gonds live in Bhamragadmarker Taluka of Gadchiroli District of Maharashtramarker, Indiamarker.

Analysis and evaluation

Megaliths were used for a variety of purposes. The purpose of megaliths ranged from serving as boundary markers of territory, to a reminder of past events, to being part of the society's religion. Common motifs including crooks and axes seem to be symbols of political power, much like the crook was a symbol of Egyptian pharaohs. Amongst the indigenous peoples of Indiamarker, Malaysiamarker, Polynesia, North Africa, North America, and South America, the worship of these stones, or the use of these stones to symbolize a spirit or deity, is a possibility. In the early 20th century, some scholars believed that all megaliths belonged to one global "Megalithic culture" (hyperdiffusionism, e. g. 'the Manchester school', by Grafton Elliot Smith and William James Perry), but this has long been disproved by modern dating methods. Nor is it believed any longer that there was a European megalithic culture, although regional cultures existed, even within such a small areas as the British Isles. The archaeologist Euan Mackie wrote "Likewise it cannot be doubted that important regional cultures existed in the Neolithic period and can be defined by different kinds of stone circles and local pottery styles (Ruggles & Barclay 2000: figure 1). No-one has ever been rash enough to claim a nation-wide unity of all aspects of Neolithic archaeology!"

Types of megalithic structures

The types of megalithic structures can be divided into two categories, the "Polylithic type" and the "Monolithic type". Different megalithic structures include:

Polylithic type
Monolithic type


Image:Moai Rano raraku.jpg|Easter Islandmarker's Moai at Rano RarakumarkerImage:Dscn5211-mane-braz 600x800.jpg|Inside the burial chamber, Mane BrazImage:Almendres_cromlech_3.jpg|Menhirs at the Almendres CromlechImage:abakan08.jpg|Megalithic tomb in Khakasiya, Russian FederationmarkerImage:abakan09.jpg|Megalithic tomb in Khakasiya, Russian FederationmarkerImage:Guam Dolmen Sites.JPG|Capstones of southern-style megalithic burials in Guam-ri, Jeollabuk-do, KoreamarkerImage:Ales stenar bred.jpg|Ale's Stonesmarker at Kåseberga, around ten kilometres south east of Ystad, SwedenImage:BrynCelliDdu3.jpg|Bryn Celli DdumarkerImage:Talaiot.jpg|Talaiot in MajorcamarkerImage:Deer-stone.jpg|Deer stone near Mörön in MongoliamarkerImage:Bretagne Morbihan Locmariaquer 14015.jpg| the Great Menhir of Er Grah, the largest known single stone erected by Neolithic man, later deliberately toppled.Image:Cham des Bondons menhir.jpg|Menhir in the “Cham des Bondons” site, Lozère, France.


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