megalithic monument

megalithic monument (mĕgəlĭthˈĭk) [key] [Gr., = large stone], in archaeology, a construction involving one or several roughly hewn stone slabs of great size; it is usually of prehistoric antiquity. These monuments are found in various parts of the world, but the best known and most numerous are concentrated in Western Europe, including Brittany, the British Isles, Iberia, S France, S Scandinavia, and N Germany. Aside from the standing stones and stone heaps that are still raised occasionally as boundary marks or memorials of personal and public events, most megalithic monuments seem to have been erected for funerary and religious purposes. The Western European megaliths were constructed during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age and are believed to range in date from c.4000 B.C. to 1100 B.C. Most chamber tombs were probably built during the 4th millennium B.C., and the stone circles generally date somewhat later. Megalithic monuments may be divided into four categories: the chamber tomb, or dolmen; the single standing stone, or menhir; the stone row; and the stone circle. Chamber tombs were usually covered with earth mounds, forming a barrow. Menhirs sometimes stood alone near the entrance of a tomb or on top of the mound. Sometimes they were set in long rows called alignments, as at Carnac in Brittany; in other places they were arranged in a circle, the most elaborate of which is Stonehenge in England (these are known as cromlechs outside Britain). The individual stone slabs may reach 65 ft (20 m) in length and 100 tons (90 metric tons) in weight. Such massive structures testify to the engineering feats possible with the concerted efforts of relatively ill-equipped peoples.

See G. Daniel, The Megalith Builders of Western Europe (1958); A. Thom, Megalithic Sites in Britain (1967) and Megalithic Lunar Observations (1973); C. Renfrew, Before Civilization (1973); J. Mitchell, Megalithomania (1982); R. Joussaume, Dolmens for the Dead (tr. by A. and C. Chippendale, 1988).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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