By John Powell FRGS
Neolithic people first arrived in what is now England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland about 9,000 years ago, and their arrival marked the end of the Stone Age. These people are best remembered as being megalithic builders – the word means “massive stones” – and the early stonemasons also inhabited parts of southern Scandinavia, northern Spain as well as Malta and North Africa.
We know little about the megalithic craftsmen, as they left no written records. Stone circles such as Stonehenge in England, Kenmare in Ireland and impressive buildings, such as Newgrange in Ireland and Carnac in France, show what brilliant architects these people were. What will remain of our own civilisation in 5,000 years’ time when modern concrete, glass and steel structures are often levelled to the ground within a few decades of their construction?
Some stone structures that survive are a thousand years older than the ancient cities of Sumeria, where civilised urban society is thought to have begun. What motivated the megalithic architects and was there method in their design?
Links between the megalithic builders are not difficult to find. Few archaeologists now doubt that many structures are built with alignments to the solstices and equinoxes as well as the rising and setting of the Moon and the motions of the planets.
Alexander Thorn, a Scottish professor of engineering at Oxford University, spent most of his life studying megalithic sites, and found that many prehistoric builders had used a standard unit of measurement. Thorn called this the Megalithic Yard and defined it as being equal to 0.82966 metres. He calculated that there are between five and then thousand megaliths of all kinds in the British isles alone.
Another common factor is that the vast majority of major megalithic sites tend to be near to the sea or to rivers. Spiral symbols at Newgrange have also been found at a major megalithic temple in Malta.
The fact that Malta, a Mediterranean Island, was the centre of a major Neolithic culture also suggest that the Neolithic peoples were skilled seafarers as well as architects, and their influence could have spread as far as the west of Africa, where a stone circle known as the Tomb of the King exists at Sine in Senegal. There is also a megalithic alignment on the island of Sylt in eastern Germany.
Famed Stonehenge in England’s Salisbury Plain was first thought to have been a Druid meeting place, but in the 20th century, new techniques, pioneered by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast and the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at Oxford University Laboratory, made possible a more accurate dating system. Construction began in about 2,950 BC and was largely complete by 3,300 BC, but the mystery of why it was built and left abandoned in about 1,600 BC remains unsolved.
Another puzzle is – why were stones brought from west Wales virtually together in around 2,600 BC, and other large upright stones, which give a goal post look, installed some 300 years later in about 2,300 BC. The ditch surrounding the site probably took fifty years to complete. Stonehenge originally consisted of 30 upright stones linked by lintel stones. Apart from the Welsh stone, local sandstone, known as ‘Sarsen’, was used.
In the 19th century, Charles Darwin showed that earthworms had caused the great monoliths to settle into the earth.
The second largest stone circle in Britain, after Stonehenge, is at Callanish on the island of Lewis in Scotland. A megalithic group at Messa in the Cyrenaica region of Libya bears a striking resemblance to Stonehenge.
Perhaps the most written about site, Stonehenge, pales into insignificance, when compared with the sheer size and weight of the heavy stones in Carnac in Brittany. There are more than 4,000 stones in parallel lines, some terminating in a semi-circle. Like Stonehenge, nothing is known about why it was built, but there is speculation that it might have had some religious significance.
Archaeologists date the stones from between 3,500 and 1,800 BC – about the same date as Stonehenge. The stones weigh up to 350 tons and some stand over six metres high, with some having symbols inscribed on them.
The main Menec alignment is a kilometre long and consists of 1,000 stones, some of which are four metres high. The next group at Kermario are near Auray, and beyond these are the alignments of Kerlesean, ending in a semi-circle of 39 menhirs.
East of Carnac town centre is a large tumulus at St. Michel, with a large central chamber and connecting galleries.
The Boyne Valley in Ireland has Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth as megalithic sites. Of these, Newgrange is the best preserved, dating from around 3,200 BC, and is thought to have taken 70 years to complete.
The site was carefully restored, using local materials, between 1962 and 1975. The mound is an artificial creation covering a burial chamber of corbelled stones.
On the winter solstice, December 21st, the rays of the sun penetrate the tomb and illuminate the burial chamber. Many of the stones and slabs are decorated with zigzags, spirals and other geometric patterns – an early form of writing or religious symbols? The Egyptian pyramids at Giza were not built when Newgrange was constructed.
The mound at Knowth, excavated by Professor George Eogan, and open to the public, is larger than Newgrange and dates from about 3,500 BC. One large mound of one hectare in size, containing a passage grave, is surrounded by 18 smaller ones. In addition, the larger mound is surrounded by 127 kerbstones, many containing decorations, which make up one quarter of Western Europe’s known Neolithic art.
Another Boyne Valley site at Dowth, dating from 2,000 to 2,500 BC, was excavated in 1847. The mound is 85 metres in diameter and 15 metres in height. Unfortunately, the Victorians plundered many of the finds at the site during the excavation.