Does the Megalithic Tradition have an ‘origin’?

There are ∼35,000 presently extant European Megaliths – ancient monuments constructed from one or more blocks of stone – that remain all across Europe. Most of them come from the Neolithic period and the Copper Age. The majority of them are concentrated in coastal areas, while there are quite a few in the inland, too (e.g. Thrace -modern day Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey).


The long standing question on Megaliths is whether they spread across Europe from a single point, or if this tradition arose at different locations, independent of each other.

Using radiocarbon dates from a large quantity of material (2,410 available radiocarbon dates taken from pre-megalithic, megalithic, and non-megalithic but contemporaneous contexts throughout Europe), archaeologist Bettina Schulz Paulsson (University of Gothenburg) attempted to answer the question.

“My results show that Northwest France was where Europe’s first megalith graves arose and that the megalith tradition then gradually diffused in largely three phases. All in all, the results indicate that there was great mobility via sea routes. This is the first time that this has actually been shown. The distribution of these graves suggests that the megalith tradition was diffused via sea routes. The maritime skills and technologies of megalithic societies appear to have been more advanced than previously thought” said Bettina Schulz Paulsson.


Followingly, let’s have a look at selected parts of the specific paper titled “Radiocarbon dates and Bayesian modeling support maritime diffusion model for megaliths in Europe

Abstract There are two competing hypotheses for the origin of megaliths in Europe. The conventional view from the late 19th and early 20th centuries was of a single-source diffusion of megaliths in Europe from the Near East through the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast. Following early radiocarbon dating in the 1970s, an alternative hypothesis arose of regional independent developments in Europe. This model has dominated megalith research until today. We applied a Bayesian statistical approach to 2,410 currently available radiocarbon results from megalithic, partly premegalithic, and contemporaneous nonmegalithic contexts in Europe to resolve this long-standing debate. The radiocarbon results suggest that megalithic graves emerged within a brief time interval of 200 y to 300 y in the second half of the fifth millennium calibrated years BC in northwest France, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic coast of Iberia. We found decisive support for the spread of megaliths along the sea route in three main phases. Thus, a maritime diffusion model is the most likely explanation of their expansion.

To build a chronological megalithic sequence as precisely as possible, we adopted a Bayesian modeling approach, which is applied here to a wide region, using the program OxCal 4.1. We combined measurements with archaeological information relating to stratigraphical contexts, associated cultural material, and information on the burial rites, to narrow the time intervals for the calibrated ranges. In a first important step, we reviewed critically the 2,410 samples, including measurements from the 1960s up to the present, to determine the quality and reliability of the sample contexts. For each site with available radiocarbon results and a suitable sequence, we constructed one-phased or multiphased models with phase boundaries taking into consideration the detailed stratigraphic information,.


Results The radiocarbon dates suggest that the first megalithic graves in Europe were closed small structures or dolmens built aboveground with stone slabs and covered by a round or long mound of earth or stone. These graves emerge in the second half of the fifth millennium calibrated years (cal) BC within a time interval of 4794 cal BC to 3986 cal BC, which can be reduced most probably to 200 y to 300 y, in northwest France, the Channel Islands, Catalonia, southwestern France, Corsica, and Sardinia. Taking the associated cultural material into consideration, megalithic graves from Andalusia, Galicia, and northern Italy presumably belong to this first stage. There are no radiocarbon dates available from the early megalithic graves in these regions, or their calibrated ranges show an onset extending into the fourth millennium cal BC, as is the case for Galicia. Of these regions, northwest France is the only one which exhibits monumental earthen constructions before the megaliths.

The Passy graves in the Paris Basin have no megalithic chamber yet, but are impressive labor-intensive structures with a length of up to 280 m. These graves seem to be the earliest monumental graves in Europe; the first individual buried in the Passy necropolis died in 5061 cal BC to 4858 cal BC. Somewhat later, the first monumental graves emerge in Brittany, and especially in the region of Carnac, in the form of round tumuli covering pit burials, stone cists, and dry-wall chambers. The first building phase of the tumulus St. Michel in Carnac is dated to the time interval 4782 cal BC to 4594 cal BC.

In Catalonia, in the Tavertet region, early megalithic graves emerged during the same time interval, even contemporaneous with the graves in Brittany. A reevaluation of the available radiocarbon results yielded a dating of the construction of these graves not before 4722 cal BC to 4068 cal BC.

Along the central Mediterranean coasts and north Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica, small necropolises are found with early megalithic graves. The grave goods from the Li Muri necropolis on Sardinia are attributed to the Late Neolithic San Ciriaco horizon, and, according to the radiocarbon results from the San Ciriaco layers in the settlement of Contraguda, it is possible to limit the emergence of these graves to a time interval from 4733 cal BC to 3986 cal BC.

There are further clusters with potential early megalithic graves documented in the central Mediterranean in northern Italy, for example, in La Vela-Trento, or Maddalena di Chiomonte-Torino and possibly Apulia. However, for these, there are no radiocarbon dates available yet. Based on the archaeological material, they are likely dated to the second half of the fifth millennium cal BC.

The earliest known accessible megalithic grave with reliable radiocarbon dates is located in central western France in the necropolis of Prissé-la-Charrière, Deux-Sèvres. The beginning of burial activities at this dolmen is calculated at 4371 cal BC to 4263 cal BC.

Accessible megalithic graves are known from northern Corsica on the Monte Revincu dated at 4327 cal BC to 4266 cal BC.

On the western Iberian Peninsula, date ranges for the onset of accessible structures are calculated for the Estremadura at 3844 cal BC to 3383 cal BC, for the Alentejo at 3743 cal BC to 3521 cal BC, and for Beira at 3883 cal BC to 3782 cal BC. Similarly, the earliest megaliths with entrance in Britain and Ireland are also calculated to the first half of the fourth millennium cal BC. The earliest known megalithic grave in southeast England, Coldrum, is calculated at 3971 cal BC to 3805 cal BC, and Parknabinnia on the Burren in Ireland at 3885 cal BC to 3440 cal BC.

A later megalithic expansion occurred in the second half of the fourth millennium in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. In the Mediterranean, there is a megalithic revival in the second millennium cal BC in the Balearic Islands, Apulia, and Sicily.


Discussion The radiocarbon results suggest that megalithic graves emerged within a time interval of 200 y to 300 y in the second half of the fifth millennium cal BC in northwest France, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula. Northwest France is, so far, the only megalithic region in Europe which exhibits a premegalithic monumental sequence and transitional structures to the megaliths, suggesting northern France as the region of origin for the megalithic phenomenon.


NovoScriptorium: Before anything else, we must put forth the fact that Megaliths did/do not exist only in Europe but, basically, almost everywhere on Earth (one can find countless examples in a few minutes by searching the Web). Hence, in our opinion, it is not correct to discuss about an ‘origin’ of the Megalithic tradition. It is more reasonable to assume that the phenomenon emerged in several different territories independently. Otherwise -if we define an ‘origin’- one must accept that there was a Global Civilization in the Prehistoric times, led by some pioneering ‘nation’, something which seems quite difficult to believe -the least.

Secondly, it is quite interesting that the Megaliths found in the Balkans (e.g. Bulgaria, Greece) are not at all mentioned. Europe extends up to there alright, but, strikingly, the borderside of Europe remains out of the discussion.

Specifically for the Megaliths of Greece, our search showed that there hasn’t yet been a single appropriate dating of the monuments, something very difficult to understand. There are only ‘estimates’ on very few of them. Below you can read some of our relative articles.

Special attention should be given to this one:

Even as an ‘estimate’, this discovery apparently places Greece among the countries with the oldest megalithic structures in Europe. It is obvious that there is a demand for proper dating of these monuments.

Last but not least, we believe that OSL (Optically stimulated luminescence), instead of Carbon, Dating should be used for the Megaliths.


Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides




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