The First Stone Builders
In these early days of human civilization, while urban communities were not as widespread in western Europe as they were in Mesopotamia, in the former you could find many megalith constructions. The purpose of these large stone structures still mystifies but archaeologists have formulated some ideas about their uses: possibly they were erected for astronomical observations or to serve as communal tombs for the upper classes. They were likely also used to claim land. More than 500 of these sites have been documented in Ireland alone. There were three different types of these massive stone structures: menhir, dolmen, and cromlech.
Carnac, Brittany, France (c. 4000 B.C.E.)
Carnac, in Brittany, France, contains one of the most extensive menhir assemblies in the world—more than 10,000. The word menhir derives from two Celtic words: men, meaning “stone,” and hir, meaning “long.” These stones were slightly shaped and placed standing upright into the ground. They often stood individually, but at Carnac they appear in rows. Some people believe that these shapes were phallic and their position is supposed to represent the male fertilizing the earth. Others think the menhirs functioned as a point on a landscape map, suggesting that the area might have been used as an observatory to track the movement of heavenly bodies.
Stonehenge (c. 3100 –c. 1500 B.C.E.)
Henges were made of wood or stone circles. Stonehenge, the most famous of these constructions, is a cromlech. The word cromlech derives from the Welsh words crom, meaning “curved” or “bent,” and lech meaning “stone.” It is clear that cromlechs were used to mark sacred spaces but their exact purpose is still unknown.
Stonehenge, in particular, began as a ditch running in a circle. Fifty-six pits inside the circular ditch have been excavated; they were filled with rubble or cremated human bones.
Later, sarsen stones (sandstone blocks) were erected in a layout that aligned with midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset and the positions of the moon. The stones stand on a slightly sloping ridge with a mile-long road that runs east to west. In form Stonehenge consists of a series of concentric circles and U shapes. The outer circle is a post-and-lintel construction with blocks of stone thirteen feet high. The blocks are rough on the outside and a little bit smoother on the inside, and each stone tapers slightly at the top.
To secure the outer circle at Stonehenge, a tenon projects from each post. This tenon then fits into a hole that has been carved into the lintil. For the outer wall of structures, the lintels were slightly curved, creating a circle when they are all attached end to end. The inner circle is formed from single upright bluestones. These include five large trilithons that are arranged in a U shape. Then there is an even smaller U shape of bluestones that echoes the shape of the five posts-and-lintels. Within this U, one lone stone lies on the ground. This has been called the Altar Stone, although its true use is not certain.
Many of the original stones at Stonehenge have now fallen but those that are still standing show us a shadow of how impressive must have been the original monument. They have become one of the biggest tourist attractions in Britain.
Eventually a new group of settlers brought their pottery skills and new building techniques into the area. These settlers, called the Beaker People, are believed to have completed Stonehenge. Somehow, they managed to bring in huge sandstone blocks from a village that was about twenty miles away. No one knows for certain how the community managed to achieve this incredible feat.
Dolmens (the word comes from the Celtic word dol which means “table”) are large, flat stones that are supported by two or more upright stones; think of it as the construction of a table. Dolmens could be constructed to form single-chamber tombs. These were usually covered with earth or smaller stones to form a burial mound. Later, additions were made to the dolmens that turned them into passageways. Dolmens may have also been used to mark the boundaries of settlement territories. Sometimes the walls inside a dolmen were decorated with carvings or paintings.
Mysteries of the Stones
Archaeologists do not know how the massive stones that make up Stonehenge were brought to the site. The bluestones weigh as much as four tons each and the largest sandstones weigh as much as fifty tons. No one has any idea how the lintels were placed either. Scientists are constantly uncovering more information about the megaliths but we still do not know for certain for what purpose these structures were used. It is clear that there is some common purpose, since henges appear throughout Europe. The people who lived during these times were tremendously impacted by seasonal changes. Some archaeologists think these henges were the sites of dances, spring and summer celebrations, and processions dedicated to the change in season.
Another possibility stems from the construction of the megaliths at Stonehenge. These structures do not include roofs. Perhaps they were used as astronomical observatories to help keep track of time and the motion of the stars, including the sun. These monuments were situated according to positions of the sun and the moon at particular times of the year. Even the road is aligned with the rising summer sun.
As the use of metal increased starting around 2000 B.C.E., the prevalence of these massive stone monuments began to decline.