The megalithic era would appear to have begun with the movement of people with advanced farming knowledge from North Africa, the Middle East, Western Asia into Central and Eastern Europe via the Danube from the Black Sea area, and into Western Europe by both land and sea via the Straits of Gibraltar. It would appear to be this Western movement which evolved the megalithic culture. It was a culture which they did not bring with them. Structures like the Pyramids and Mycenaean graves so reminiscent of Boyne passage monuments are so much later in date than their West European and British equivalents. So the new settlers who revolutionised the economy and life-style of Western Europe brought ideas such as knowledge of astronomy and the calendar, but it was perhaps the local population which translated these concepts into stone. The earliest use of stone structures goes back to 5000 BC – perhaps earlier – Mesolithic period. The “high point” of the culture was reached between 3500 BC and 1500 BC.
This brings us to two big questions :- What started the population movement to the North-West from the warmer Southern regions, and what brought the megalithic culture into decline? At least the modern obsession with “global warming” prepares us for one possible explanation of the early population movement. Agriculture provides us with the means of survival. Farming depends on the weather. Vast areas of the lands from which these migrating farmers came are now desert. But they were not always desert. In the Sahara and other areas are many rock scribings and paintings depicting watered grassy lands inhabited by animals which could not flourish there today. Climatologists have proposed that the cause was a shift in the earth’s wind systems, leading to the loss of rain-bearing monsoon-type winds in the areas in question. Gradually farmers would have concentrated on the banks of rivers whose content was unaffected by the loss of rainfall in their lower reaches. The Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus are major examples. There was not room for everybody , and some had to eke out a precarious existence as nomads herding sheep and goats on arid soil – which so many are still doing today, showing the adaptability of human beings. Others emigrated to the wetter (but colder) lands of Europe, changing the lives of the hunter-gatherers there. DNA studies would seem to indicate that their numbers were not large – but their impact on life was enormous. Their blood-line extended to the North of Scotland and the West of Ireland. (Not to be confused with the Central European “Celts” who were thousands of years later and who in fact never did colonise the far Western regions).
In terms of stone structures, there are three main classes of monument. (1) Cairns. (2)Passage Mounds. (3) Stone Alignments. The cairn is basically an ordered heap of stones, coming to a peak. Versatile in use, it could mark a boundary, protect a burial or cremation, mark a person or event, point to a key part of the sky in conjunction with other cairns, etc. Naturally earliest in use, it is still with us! Cairns mark mountain peaks, and guide travellers to the summit. On occasion the cairn had a standing stone (menhir) planted on top as an astronomical marker.
The “mound” is a basic form of mixed earth and stones, not unlike the cairn in concept. It was frequently used to house a burial or cremation – often multiples thereof over a period. Such mounds are given often the misleading title of “barrows”. In many a stone chamber was created to house further burials. The Dolmen is a development of the mound with large vertical stones forming three walls and a massive capstone on top. It would appear they were converted into mounds with earth and small stones surrounding the stone framework. Now only the stone skeleton remains. Many barrows have stone passages within them leading to the central chamber. Burial mounds are normally oriented East – West, to emulate the sun – birth and death. The large Passage Mounds are on a larger scale. The alignment of the passages points to a particular astronomical event at a particular day of the year. They tend to be simple and rigid in their design. In Homer’s Odyssey there is an interesting example of burial customs of the megalithic era which he was still familiar with. (He was writing around 700BC about events which happened around 1200 BC). The crew were burying the remains of a fellow seaman, Elpenor. – “we gave him solemn burial on the boldest headland of the coast. When the corpse was burnt, and with it the dead man’s arms, we built him a barrow, hauled up a stone for monument, and planted his shapely oar on top of the mound”. Plenty of clues here to ancient practices.
There is a theory that stone alignments, forming patterns of astronomical significance, came later than the great Boyne-style passage mounds. It is felt that they were much more flexible in their use, covering all sorts of different astronomical events in their layout. A good example is Stonehenge, which in its stone locations is equally oriented to both midsummer and midwinter sun. Interestingly, Newgrange has the remains of a great circle of standing stones around its exterior. An example of an ancient monument being adapted to new practices in astronomy and mathematics? It would be nice if it was agreed that the stone circle was later than the original mound, but the jury is still out on that one. Brittany and Orkney provide the greatest examples of alignments of standing stones, as well as Stonehenge. However it would be rash to assume that the largest stones represent the highest level of achievement culturally, since in effect they may be mainly a reflection of the local geology. On the other hand megalithic builders went great distances to get the “right” stones, as in the case of the original Stonehenge bluestones, shipped from South Wales.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the highest point in any culture comes before a fall. (Don’t want to keep you awake at night, but at what point does today’s culture stand?) The Tower of Babel really existed and fits into our theme and period. Stone was in that part of the world unavailable and sun dried brick is a poor alternative for massive structures. Also there is the problem of imported labour when local supplies run out. The Egyptian pyramid and tomb building era ran into similar problems. What happened when the massive trilithons of Stonehenge were erected we still don’t know. What we do know is that the use of the monument declined a few hundred years later. This would appear to be reflected all over the megalithic region. It would seem that between 2000 and 1000 BC the megalithic culture seemed to become less relevant. People – just like us today – may have begun to reckon that since the heavenly bodies and seasons were behaving themselves according to a set pattern, there was little relevance in a religion and priesthood which concentrated so much on that aspect of life. The areas in question were possibly infiltrated by new cultures which saw things differently. A new revolution was happening – the use of metals – at first bronze. This alloy of copper and tin required a new technology. The raw materials had to be explored for. Navigation and trade expanded, using megalithic astronomical knowledge. Bronze brought new weaponry as well as better tools. Scarcity bred competition and war. One could be cynical and say the Bronze Age was the beginning of modern times. But humanity didn’t change – increasing evidence is emerging that people in the Neolithic/Megalithic eras were just as nasty to one another as in the Bronze Age or today. Surprise surprise the weather/climate had a lot to do with Bronze Age unrest. There is evidence of the climate of Northern/Western Europe becoming water-logged. Bog covered large areas of Neolithic farmland. Whole forests of trees perished, leaving only their almost fossilised stumps projecting from the bog. The climate today is still cooler and wetter than it was when Newgrange and Stonehenge were first thought of. Bad weather brings crop failure, hunger, disease. Religion goes into decline – the controlling forces of the world have let us down. The centre of gravity shifted to the nations which engaged in trade and exchange. Materialism – always part of the scene – became more evident. The bubble burst around the time of the Trojan War.(1200BC). Already the Mediterranean world had been battered by the eruption of Thera/Santorini (circa 1600 BC). In the same general period North West Europe had been shaken by a massive eruption of Hekla in Iceland. No surprise that the era of the megalithic monuments should end. Gibbon wrote 12 volumes dedicated to the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I don’t think it will take as much to cover the end of the Megalithic Era!