Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A megalith is a large stone which has been used to construct a structure or monument either alone or with other stones. Megalithic means made of such stones, but without the use of mortar or cement. The word megalith comes from the Ancient Greek megas meaning large, and lithos meaning stone.
Distribution of megaliths
The term can be used to describe buildings erected by people from many parts of the world living in many different periods. In the early 20th century, some scholars believed that all megaliths belonged to one global "Megalithic culture" (Hyperdiffusionism , e. g. by Grafton Elliot Smith and William James Perry), but this has long been disproved by modern dating methods.
Western European megaliths
In Western Europe and the Mediterranean, megaliths are generally constructions erected during the Neolithic or late stone age and Chalcolithic or Copper Age (4500 - 1500 B.C.E). Perhaps the most famous megalithic structure is Stonehenge in England, although many others are known throughout the world.
The French Comte de Caylus was the first to describe the Monuments of Carnac. Legrand d'Aussy introduced the terms menhir and dolmen, both taken from the Breton language, into antiquarian terminology. He interpreted megaliths as gallic tombs.
In Britain, the antiquarians Aubrey and Stukeley conducted early research into megaliths. In the year XIII (1805) Jacques Cambry published a book called Monuments celtiques, ou recherches sur le culte des Pierres, précédées d'une notice sur les Celtes et sur les Druides, et suivies d'Etymologie celtiques, where he proposed a Celtic stone cult. This completely unfounded connection between druids and megaliths has haunted the public imagination since.
Types of megalithic structures
Different megalithic structures include:
- Orthostat: This is an upright slab forming part of a larger structure.
- Menhir: This is single standing stone.
- Dolmen (or cromlech in Welsh): This is a free standing chamber consisting of standing stones covered by a capstone as a lid. They were used for burial and were covered by mounds.
- Taula: This is a straight standing stone, topped with another forming a 'T' shape.
- Stone row
- Stone circle
- Ship setting
Main article: Megalithic tomb
Many megalithic monuments were burial mounds which were often re-used by different generations. The chambered cairn is a common type of collective tomb. Some of these are passage graves generally built of drystone walling and/or megaliths often with a round burial chamber in a round mound with a straight passage leading out. Gallery graves have a long megalithic chamber with parallel sides often in a long mound with an entrance at one end.
Many megaliths were thought to have a purpose in determining important astronomical events such as the solstice and equinox dates (see archaeoastronomy). Cup marks on megaliths have been thought by some to represent stars and thus to show the stellar orientation of megalithic sites.
Examples of megaliths
Other megaliths include:
- Ale's Stones
- Carnac, Brittany, France
- Easter Island
- Filitosa, Corsica, France
- Ġgantija, Gozo, Malta, the oldest free-standing structure known
- Ħaġar Qim , Malta
- Mnajdra , Malta
- New Grange, Ireland
- Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland
- Stanton Drew, Somerset, UK
- Tarxien, Malta
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