Prehistoric stone monument of the late Neolithic (New Stone Age) or early Bronze Age. Most common in Europe, megaliths include single large uprights or menhirs (for example, the Five Kings, Northumberland, England); rows or alignments (for example, Carnac, Brittany, France); stone circles; and the hutlike remains of burial chambers after the covering earth has disappeared, known as dolmens (for example, Kits Coty, Kent, England, where only the entrance survives).
A number of explanations have been put forward for the building of megaliths during the Neolithic period in areas including Denmark, Ireland, northeastern Scotland, England, western France, and Spain. These range from economic reasons to expressions of dominance (neo-Marxist) and symbolism. The great stone monuments at Carnac in western Brittany, France; in Jersey, such as La Hougue Bie; and in western Britain and Ireland, suggest possible cultural links through trade among megalith builders whose rural economy encompassed arable farming, stockrearing, and the development of pottery and weaving.
In the later Neolithic, in Wessex, southern England, the construction of stone monuments such as Avebury and Stonehenge involved large numbers of working hours and considerable organization; possibly the stone was transported over a great distance, as has been suggested in the case of the bluestone at Stonehenge, although glacial deposition is another explanation.
Changes in social structure and diversification of labour probably caused the practice of megalith building to be abandoned.
Use of megalithic tombs derived from the rock-cut tombs of the western region of the Mediterranean, and spread along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe, through Spain, France, and the Low Countries, as far north as the Baltic. Types of graves include passage graves such as Bryn-celli-ddu in Wales; gallery graves, especially in the Severn and Clyde areas of England and Scotland; and long barrows with megalithic chambers such as the West Kennet in Wiltshire, England.
In the early (pre-megalith) phase of monument construction, long barrows containing a wooden burial chamber were constructed; in some, stone chambers were built. Each group of mounds is associated with a circular monument (a causewayed camp) in concentric circles, possibly serving as a ritual focus. Passage graves, part of the megalithic landscape, were of stone construction with a channel leading to the burial chamber. The example on Ile Langue, in southern Brittany, France, from the late 5th millennium BC, has a corbelled chamber underneath a circular mound. Its relatively simple construction, using dry-stone walling technique, was superseded by the use of even larger stones - the traditional megaliths seen in the landscape of northwestern Europe. In parts of France, gallery graves contain several burials, associated with expanded village settlements.
Stone circles, alignments, and menhirs, along with henges (circular ditched earthworks), possibly performed ritual functions connected with astronomy or the calendar, linked to seasonal and agricultural practices, and matters of life and death. Little is known of the religious beliefs and observances associated with these monuments, but theories have included possible worship of an Earth mother combined with fertility ritual.
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