This is the most frustrating part of the investigation of the Megalithic Era in NW Europe. To some extent this is complicated by a general and really unjustified aura of mystery surrounding them. Their achievements in stone have created an air of mystique. Recent developments in DNA research have identified them as real people, related to today’s inhabitants of the area. They comprised the old hunter-gatherers who moved northwards and westwards from their pockets of survival around 8000 BC as the ice retreated, combined with a smaller number of early farmers who came much later – perhaps 5000 BC onwards, who had been farming in the Mediterranean area, North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey etc. These folk would seem to be refugees driven off their land over an extended period as winds changed and their climate dried up, creating the deserts we see there today. They did not exterminate the existing hunter-gatherer majority, but mingled with them and introduced them to the plants, seeds and smaller livestock they had been able to bring with them. They also brought ideas about nature, the heavens, and technical knowledge of plants and animals. They had also acquired religious concepts which were added to those of the existing population. They did not seem to bring the stone structures which we associate with the Megalithic, since the great stone structures of the Pyramids, the brick ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the tholos tombs of the Mycenaeans are all of a much later date than the European Megalithic. In fact it has been suggested that a later reverse movement from NW Europe led to the structures we have just mentioned. It could be that the use of stone in great structures of astronomical/religious function was due to the already existing hunter-gatherers. There is however one interesting example of large stone structures which PREDATE the Megalithic (8000 BC) at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. Similar stones, often T-shaped, are to be found in the Balearic Islands. There is one ancient T-shaped stone on Tory Island off the north coast of Ireland where there is a tradition of settlement by a Mediterranean race, bringing the skills of sheep-farming. So there are clues, but sadly few in number. We must keep in mind also that earthworks preceded stone structures , and in fact continued in use as an intrinsic part of stone structures. Passage mounds and tombs, Silbury Hill, Stonehenge, are all examples of the blending of the two materials.
What can we tell of society , in the British Isles for example, around 3500BC? One thing we can b e sure of – it was a wealthy society economically. The Megalithic Agricultural Revolution had well and truly advanced. We have little concrete knowledge of details, but we can compare with two other massive construction periods. These are the Pyramid and tomb-building age in Egypt and the Cathedral-building age in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Economic surplus, large population, and a religious commitment are common factors. Such projects cannot be undertaken without social/political/religious organization. Slave labour was not the answer in the case of either pyramids or cathedrals. Workers were recruited off the land during the slack farming periods. Accommodation had to be provided during the building seasons. The remains of such accommodation have been discovered in recent years in Egypt and around the Stonehenge area. So we are looking at a sophisticated, organised society. We assume the foundations of such megalithic society were tribal, but that we are not looking at warring groups of tribes but at a system where central control prevailed.
Megalithic structures required a high level of technical knowledge. Quarrying, transportation of heavy blocks by land and water, shaping, accurate placement, foundations, are only a few of the skills required. Heavy blocks of stone resting on one another over a period will tend to crack under their own weight. I have seen examples in Newgrange in Ireland where in the corbelled dome a layer of small (crusher) stones was inserted to absorb the force of the stones above. The astronomical knowledge and need for observation which were the raison d’etre of so many megalithic structures, was presumably brought by the early farmers from the Middle East. Mesopotamia (Iraq) was a reputed source of such lore.
The origins of such knowledge lay in the development of farming, which first seems to have taken off around 8000 BC world-wide as the ice retreated. (Nice to think that “global-warming” wasn’t something to “frighten the children with”). The farmers observed Nature in all its moods, coming to understand some of it (movements of sun and moon and their influence on the land) and being thoroughly frightened by the appearance of other elements (gales, droughts, floods, earthquakes etc. They also learned to harness and control some of the forces of Nature like the Nile Flood. Such observations led to a concept of a higher power influencing mankind and the world. Religious ideas developed. As well as observation of the forces of Nature the need for propitiation was recognised. It is easy to see how religion and knowledge went hand in hand. The link between “education” and “religion”, so obvious in mediaeval times, goes back millennia before Christianity.
We have all seen funny and not-so-funny drawings of ragged animal-skin clad characters building Stonehenge etc. Rather a poor image we are beginning to realis. Modern scientific archaeology can give us an idea of what a 5000 year-old skeleton ate on a regular basis, where he was brought up as a child etc. We do not know what they wore. Cloth rarely survives that long, but fragments of cloth have been found going back many thousands of years before the Megalithic. Pre-metal age folk were buried with sophisticated jewellery and evidence of adornment. This also gives us a clue as to a belief in an after-life and to respect for their ancestors.
Society would appear to have been run on an agricultural and on a tribal basis. As mentioned earlier such large projects would involve a stable and organised political society. Since religious concepts were so much part of study of the forces of nature we must assume a priestly class. Public get-togethers and festivals were tied to celebration of movements of heavenly bodies.(Solstices and equinoxes were only the start). We will never know whether the civil and religious authorities clashed as they did in Ancient Egypt and in Christian Europe. Such a collision could well be one explanation for the decline of the Megalithic as a distinct culture. One could suspect that the rise of the Megalithic with its emphasis on astronomy and its practical applications was occasioned by a “folk memory” ofa time when the Earth, sun, moon did not perform their movements in the familiar pattern. Perhaps after a long period of stability of heavenly bodies there was a decline of interest in such matters and a feeling that the monuments and their priestly guardians lacked relevance.
The decline of the Megalithic would appear to coincide with the arrival of metal-working, as in the Bronze Age. New settlers came in with new concepts. The sun followed its traditional path throughout the year – all was well with the world and it was time to embrace new technology and learn from new people. The Bronze Age brought trade on a wider basis, better tools, with an increased agricultural yield. Better weapons and more and bigger areas of conflict emerged. Tribal feuds were replaced by conflicts on a more “national” scale. The later arrival of the Iron Age had parallel effects on civilisation.
What we have been looking at here is the Megalithic era of mainly Western Europe which embraced very roughly the period 3500 – 1500 BC. Other parts of the world seem to have had similar phases, both before and after this time slot. Dolmens in the Indian sub-continent are common, dating from the European Middle Ages period. Easter Island has its great statues of more modern origin, around 1600 AD. Peru and The Lebanon have massive foundation blocks much older than the European Megalithic.
Megalithic structures in NW Europe are comprehensively scattered, and a bias towards Western areas, with probably the highest concentration per square kilometre in Ireland. But in addition to this, there are regions where there are massive concentrations of sites. Stonehenge is one example – the word “Stonehenge”is no longer an adequate title. In Ireland The Boyne and Tara are only a general geographical title. Both these centres, one in England and one in Ireland have a reasonable population today, and presumably also 5500 years ago. This is not so obviously true for Brittany in NW France, and Orkney in Scotland. There is also a tendency for sites to proliferate in moorland in places like Cornwall and Yorkshire. Perhaps one factor is that the climate was kinder in NW Europe in those times than it is today, and in warmer, drier conditions there was more usable soil than today. Or it may be that those areas had an indefinable quality – a feeling of sacredness which marked them out as sites. There are also suggestions being made that the sites are all interlinked, with key astronomical bearings relating them to one another and which determined where they should be constructed. One thing is sure – we are dealing with people of the same mental and social development as ourselves today. Of one thing I am convinced – they did not hail from Mars – nor yet Venus!