Megaliths, cairns, petroforms
Map of described megaliths
Ahu Tongariki - megaliths in Rapa Nui. Photo: Rivi from Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0.
One of the most fascinating groups of archaeological monuments are prehistoric structures made of stones or soil - megaliths, cairns and petroforms. One of the keys to their popularity is that they are widespread in Western Europe, the birthplace of modern science. One can imagine that as children, numerous great thinkers were fascinated by these exotic exceptions to the simple rural life: legendary stones erected by an ancient unknown people without any known practical use. Through the ages, people have loved to strain their minds to find a sensible explanation to the many riddles posed by megaliths.
Even today, we can admit with some pleasure, there are thousands of mysteries left for us. Numerous unknown and forgotten megaliths can be found in regions where megaliths have not been reported so far.
The author admits that this group of interesting monuments has vague borders of criteria, often overlapping with others e.g. megalithic monuments can be cult sites, ancient burials and monuments of rock art. But there is something clearly distinctive about megalithic monuments - a feeling of mysterious ancient times, cultures with long forgotten and very different sets of values. Too often we don't have even a clue why people made these monuments.
Megaliths as defined in this website are structures made of large stones by ancient cultures, without any mortar or cement. In general, this does not include structures built by developed and well expressed cultures like the Romans or Maya but rather the more ancient cultures.
Cairns are man-made piles of stones of diverse purpose and meaning.
Petroforms are ancient, human-made patterns of rocks or soil on open ground.
Although most megaliths in the world belong to Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages, there are exceptions to this rule: such as the Iron Age stone ships in Sweden or medieval turf labyrinths and mazes, as well as dolmens, menhirs and the other megalithic structures of the several islands of Indonesia, which are in active use up to this day. In this group there are also some monuments made without stones, such as the Northern European labyrinths made of peaty soil.
Very often ancient tombs are also megaliths. These consist of stone ships, dolmens and passage graves. Many megalithic monuments represent sites of ancient cults or even contemporary cults. Often megaliths are ancient fortifications. In addition, there are many fascinating monuments with unknown meanings or functions.
Often stones forming a megalithic monument also bear engravings. Most often these are simple cupmarks but one can also find more complex drawings. Thus there is not a clear division between megaliths and rock art either.
Megaliths and petroforms include very diverse monuments. Initially the term "megalith" was applied to Western European monuments and a classification system developed with multiple local variations. However, the numerous and diverse megaliths outside Europe make this classification much harder.
One way to classify them is to divide megalithic structures into two major classes - polylithic type (a structure consisting of many stones) and monolithic type (a single stone). Unfortunately, this division is much less straightforward than it sounds. For example, there can be different groups of separate standing stones or a standing stone can have a cap of another stone on top (like moai in Rapa Nui do).
Another way is to list all the diverse forms of megaliths. Some of the most popular in Western Europe are:
- Menhirs - single, large standing stones
- Dolmens - chambers made of large stone slabs - mostly tombs, which most likely were covered with earth
- Cairns - ancient, manmade piles of rocks
- Passage graves - tombs with a larger room accessible through narrow passage
- Gallery graves - tombs where the width of burial room and passage to it do not differ
- Stone circles - stones set in circular or eliptical form
- Henges - earthwork rings
- Stone rows - rows of upright stones
- Stone ships - burial with stone setting in the form of ship
- Stones with cupmarks and ringmarks
- Stone or soil labyrinths
and so forth.
Although these monuments can be found outside Europe as well, in other areas of the world there are other kinds of megalithic monuments. Some examples are:
- Ahu and also some marae - sacred sites of Polynesians - cleared areas with stones marking borders, whole stone platforms
- Megalithic stone walls - walls made of massive, precisely shaped stone blocks in several areas of world
- Medicine wheels - stone settings in a form of enormous spiked wheel, found in North America
- Inukshuks - vertical stone settings, sometimes resembling human statues, in Arctic North America
- Kenong stones (watu kenong) - cylindrical stones in Sunda Islands, Indonesia
as well as many others.
Outstanding megalithic monuments and petroforms
Some of the best known megaliths are located in Europe:
- Stonehenge - England, Great Britain. One of the most popular archaeological monuments in the world, consisting of a group of large standing stones in a circular setting, erected circa 2500 BC (?). Located in the middle of dense complex of archaeological monuments.
- Avebury - England, Great Britain. Another highly popular megalithic site consisting of henge and several stone circles.
- Callanish standing stones - Scotland, Great Britain. One of the most impressive arrangements of standing stones, circa 2900 - 2600 BC.
- Ring of Brodgar - Scotland, Great Britain. Circle of standing stones inside of henge. Circa 2500 - 2000 BC.
- La Hougue Bie - Jersey, Great Britain. One of the most impressive passage graves with an 18.6 metres long chamber, under a 12.2 metres high earthen mound. Developed circa 4000 - 3500 BC.
- Newgrange - Louth, Ireland. Most famous megalithic site in Ireland: a tomb hill, 76 metres wide and 12 metres high with a passage grave built between 5500 - 3200 BC. Renowned due to its astronomic positioning: at the dawn of winter solstice day Sun shines through the 18 metre long passage.
Carnac stone settings, France.
Kamel15, Wikimedia Commons, GNU-GPL-3.0
- Grand Menhir of Locmariaquer (Broken Menhir of Er Grah) - Brittany, France. Largest known menhir in world: was 20,6 metres high, erected circa 4700 BC, now fallen.
- Gavrinis tomb - Brittany, France. Impressive passage grave with some of the best megalithic art on its slabs
- Ale's Stones (Ales stenar) - Scania, Sweden. A stone ship 67 metres long, one of the largest.
- Almendres Cromlech - Évora, Portugal. Largest megalithic site in Iberian peninsula, consisting of impressive circular stone settings and separate menhirs. Stones ornamented, developed in 5000 - 4000 BC.
Tarxien temple with stone bowl, Malta.
Taty2007, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0
- Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien and others - Malta. Very impressive temple complexes, some of the oldest temples in world, developed circa 3600 - 3200 BC.
- Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni - Malta. The only known underground temple of prehistoric times (besides nearby Xagħra Stone Circle in Gozo Island).
- Zhane river dolmens - Krasnodar Krai, Russia. Some of the most unusual and most elaborate dolmens known.
- Trilithon of Baalbek - Bequaa, Lebanon. Here a later Roman temple is built over some of the largest prehistoric man made stone blocks weighing over 750 tons each. Nearby lies circa 1200 tons heavy stone block.
- Göbekli Tepe - Şanlıurfa Province, Turkey. The oldest place of worship in the world (10th millenium BC, late Mesolithic - early Neolithic) has several monolithic stone pillars, up to 3 meters in height with carved reliefs and pictograms.
Rujm El Hiri, Syria.
אסף.צ, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0
- Rujm-el-Hiri - Golan Heights, Syria. Enormous megalithic monument consisting of several concentric stone rings with more than 42 000 basalt rocks.
- Plain of Jars, Site 1 - Xiangkhouang Province, Laos. One of the most impressive sites of enormous, up to 3 metres high stone jars (in total more than 400 sites known), possibly used as funeral urns circa 0 - 500 AD.
- Gochang Dolmens - Jeollabuk (North Jeolla), South Korea. Some of the most impressive of the numerous South Korean dolmens, capstones weigh up to 225 tons. Nearby are other impressive megaliths.
- Karahunj (Zorats Karer) - Syunik province, Armenia. Megalithic necropolis from the 3rd - 2nd millenia BC (?). Contains a ring of upright stones. Many standing stones have holes in the upper ends. According to some researchers the site served as astronomical observatory.
- Asuka megaliths - Nara, Japan. Largest megaliths in Japan, moved up to 300 - 500 tons heavy blocks. Complex of this unique monument developed over long time period.
- Uushigiin Uver - Khentii province, Mongolia. One of the most impressive groups of Deer stones and other monuments. 14 standing stones with beautiful carved deer on their surfaces. Constructed in 1000 BC (?).
- Ono Limbu village - Nias Island, North Sumatra, Indonesia. In this traditional village, like in many others on this island, enormous stones still serve to construction and ceremonial uses.
- Batak stone chairs in Samosir - north-east of Samosir Island, Toba Lake, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Approximately 300 years old ancient ceremonial court site, in service up to recent times.
- Megaliths of Bada Valley - Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. In this pristine valley there are scattered impressive ancient stone statues and kalamba, enormous stone cisterns.
- Padang Hill - West Jawa, Indonesia. Largest concentration of megalithic stones in Southeast Asia, consisting of thousands of stone blocks.
- Marupu of Anakalang - Sumba Island, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Largest complex of dolmens - burials (marupu) in Sumba. Sumba Island is very rich in enormous, often heavily ornamented dolmens serving for ceremonial traditions up to this day.
- Nabta stone circle - New Valley, Egypt. Stone setting in a form of circle, circa 4800 BC, possibly the oldest archaeoastronomical monument in world
- Msoura - Tangier-Tétouan, Morocco. Impressive stone circle with 167 standing stones up to 5 metres high
- Djalloumbéré and Wassu stone circles - Senegal and Gambia. This is a group of 52 stone circles with more than 1000 standing stones, erected mostly in between 640 - 860 AD.
- Ahu Tongariki and numerous other megaliths on Rapa Nui, Chile. The little island of Rapa Nui hosts some of the most impressive and interesting megaliths of the world - many shaped like a standing man (moai). The largest standing moai is on Ahu Tongariki - it weighs 86 tons.
- Ha'amonga 'a Maui - Tongatapu, Tonga. An unusual, giant trilithon, which was built in the early 13th century. Stones of this structure rise up to 5.2 m high.
Stone money of Yap, Federated States of Micronesia.
E.Guinther, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0
- Rai of Yap - Yap Island, Federated States of Micronesia. Limestone discs with a hole in the middle, diameter up to 3.6 metres. Stone discs have been used as money for centuries here, but enormous discs were produced with the arrival of Europeans in the middle of 19th century.
- Medicine Wheel of Bighorn National Forest - Wyoming, United States. Petroform - stone setting resembling an enormous spiked wheel. This ceremonial structure was constructed by Native Indians.
- The Diquis Spheres - Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Very unusual monument - perfectly round stone spheres, some up to 16 tons in weight. This is an ancient monument, although exact timing and culture are unknown.
- Inuksuk Point (Enukso Point) - Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. A group of over 100 vertical stone settings, serving as navigation and reference points.
- Sacsayhuamán - Cusco, Peru. One of the most impressive complexes of megalithic walls with blocks up to 120 - 200 tons heavy: possibly built by Kilke culture between 900 - 1200 AD.
- Calçoene megalithic observatory - Amazon Stonehenge - Amapá, Brazil. Pre-Columbian structure - a circle marked with 127 blocks of granite, stones up to 3 metres high.
Some Internet resources
- Stone Pages - one of the oldest and most respected (at least by me) pages on the subject of megaliths. Main focus on Western Europe - but "news" section provides rich material about whole world!
- The Modern Antiquarian - thousands of meghalitic sites from many locations in Europe, good quality pictures!
- Megaliths.net - one might disagree with views of author Andis Kaulins but - there are presented so many monuments from whole world!
- The Meghalitic Portal - highly recommended due to information about lots of monuments around the world... but, oh man, navigation of this site is confusing! (Oct 2009)
- Dolmenes y Megalitos del Mundo (in Spanish) - wonderful blog about megaliths of the world.
- Steinkreise - Menhire - Dolmen - Ancient Stones (for most part in German) - oldfashioned but pretty informative site about Western European megaliths.