civilisation” in Western Europe is still a civilisation that is
ill-understood, if only because it has suffered from decades of scientific
neglect. At present, some of the answers about the monuments they left
behind is becoming clearer, but questions remain as to who this civilisation
was, and what became of them.
megalithic civilisation has only in recent years become the subject
of serious scientific investigation. Previously, it seems that most
archaeologists preferred the warmer climates of Egypt and the Middle
East to identify our forefather’s past. After all, was that area
not the cradle of civilisation?
In retrospect, the answer suggests it is not, for once the megalithic
monuments were subjected to dating, some were found to be much older
than their counterparts in Egypt.
of the problem between megalithic Western Europe and the civilisations
of the Middle East is a question of prior interest. We have the Bible,
the pyramids and tales of the ancient Gods. Europe only seems to have
Stonehenge. Europe has stories of how the Romans came and conquered
the local population, leaving a less than impressive accounts of what
for a long time were believed to be the megalith builders. It once again
took well into the 20th century before it was realised that the megalith
builders were as far removed from the Romans as we are… and the
earliest megalithic builders more than twice that amount of years, predating
the construction of the pyramids.
This picture also threw the entire debate of what came first on its
head. Civilisation was thought to have spread from the Middle East.
But redating of the megalithic monuments indicated that it could have
been the other way around – even though no-one has ever suggested
this. There are various reasons for this. When in the early 20th century
it was suggested that the Egyptian civilisation was created by “white
men”, this was seen as either evidence of the foolish theory of
Atlantis, or of racism on the part of the person expressing that opinion.
Though there is nothing to indicate that “white men” did
indeed create Egypt, the intriguing conclusion of the available evidence
is that they could have been. Furthermore, “megalithic Europe”
communicated with each other via the shores, using boats. Barry Cunliffe
has labelled it “Facing the Ocean”, as most of the people
travelled along the Atlantic shores of Western Europe, reaching from
the Orkneys in the North, to Morocco in the South. Thus, they had the
boats to enter the Mediterranean Sea and “seed” civilisation
there. Whether the enigmatic megalithic structures of Malta should therefore
be seen as an influence from the west or the east is a good question
– and the most likely answer might be that it was influenced from
both sides, resulting in the unique structures the megalithic temples
of the island have.
making progress, little is still known about “the megalithic civilisation”.
Megalithic literally means “large stones”, and thus the
civilisation is identified by the legacy they left… and which
in Western Europe was often the subject of violent destructions in the
16th till 19th century, when terrain with megalithic remains were often
reclaimed for agricultural purposes.
The destruction or burial of stones, including those at Avebury, makes
the search for purpose and interpretation of the sites more and more
difficult. Today, megaliths seem to have survived more in desolate locations
– unless they are of the magnitude of Stonehenge and Avebury,
which were outside of all proportions that the largest stones remained
intact. But finding megaliths on the slopes of mountains in the Lake
District and not in the centre of London should not lead one to conclude
that megaliths were built in inaccessible locations; more that those
in the centre of London were probably raised to the ground by Roman
if not earlier times.
Major inroads into the megalithic civilisation were created by Gerald
Hawkins and Alexander Thom. Hawkins stated that Stonehenge clearly displayed
astronomical knowledge and hence concluded it was a calendar. Archaeologists
disagree with the calendar, but do agree that the alignments of Stonehenge
are there because the builders had specific ritual festivities at the
main events of the sun: the equinoxes and the solstices. Thom concluded
that many of the lesser known monuments also had stellar alignments;
and his research occurred largely in Brittany, thus
showing that the astronomical component of the megalithic structures
seemed at the core of the building of the monuments itself. Since then,
this possibility has been confirmed in almost all megalithic remains,
as far as Egypt. Still, when their theories were originally aired, Thom
and Hawkins were largely treated as parias in the scientific community.
Thom and Hawkins were breaking the barrier that the megalithic civilisation
was indeed worthy of scientific study. Furthermore, they began to push
the boundaries, making it older than Egypt and the rest of the Middle
East. That did not go down well, and it was even more bizarre that one
researcher who followed in their steps, Martin Brennan was not allowed
to enter Ireland after he had climbed a fence to photograph a sunrise
from a megalithic monument.
Much less known, yet equally impressive, is the 20 year long study performed
by Aubrey Burl, who finished his overview of hundreds if not thousands
of megalithic monuments in Europe in the mid 1990s. His conclusion read
that the first crude stone structures were created in the Lake District,
north-western England. From there, they spread South, towards Wessex,
Devon and Cornwall. From there, they reached south-western Ireland.
Northern Ireland was “seeded” directly from the Lake District,
as it was a short stretch of water that separated the two locations.
As to their purpose, Burl was very careful, but did suggest that he
felt they had a religious purpose, though a dual purpose, such as meeting
place for tribes or between tribes, was most likely a secondary purpose
of the sites.
important clue is that even though Brittany is well-known for its tremendous
concentration of megalithic monuments, it is in the far less known region
east of Paris, around the city of Sens, that the largest concentration
can be found. As the area is largely urban and industrial and not a
holiday destination like Brittany, few people are however aware of this
fact. One person who did become intrigued by these stones was the Belgian
historian Marcel Mestdagh. His area of expertise were the Viking invasions.
He noted that the invasion pattern in western Europe seemed to follow
a particular feature of the landscape that other researchers had been
unable to identify. Mestdagh believed that this pattern had to do with
the distribution of megaliths across the landscape. Furthermore, he
noted that this pattern seemed to focus in on Sens, which was unique
from a Viking perspective in the sense that the town was besieged, rather
than sacked as all other towns. Aware that megaliths were often used
by later people as border stones, Mestdagh wondered whether they might
actually be markers along the roads. Since then, other researchers have
come to the conclusion that many megalithic monuments were indeed situated
along ancient roads. If the megaliths marked roads – and noting
that the Vikings found a Europe that was largely rural, not urbanised,
could it be that they followed this system, eventually ending up in
Sens? If so, then it meant that all roads seemed to lead to Sens –
which made sense, as, having the largest concentration of megaliths,
it might thus be the capital. Furthermore, Sens was close to Paris,
which in later years would become the capital of France.
did the megalithic builders come from, and more importantly, where did
they go to? Whereas the local European population at the time might
have decided to just start erecting large stone monuments, the question
is why they stopped – and whether they abandoned the regions they
formerly inhabited. And if so, why?
they left no written sources, identifying these people by their language
is impossible. Thomas O’Rahilly researched early Irish history
and came across an ancient language that had words that were Indo-European.
One of these dialects was the Hiberno-Brittany dialect, known as Ernbelre,
the language of the Erainn. In The Secret Languages of Ireland, R.A.
Stewart Macalister noted how he came across a group of people in Liverpool,
a group largely on the outskirts of society. They still spoke Ernbelre,
in the beginning of the 20th century. He concluded that the megalithic
people were still alive at the time of the Roman conquest. They were
known as Ateconti (Aithech Tuatha, “for rent”), as they
were used in the Roman legions. Later, the Irish would consider them
to be lowest of all social classes.
Macalister noted that the group still lived as if they were a clan,
marrying inside the clan, behaving in mysterious ways about their language,
their descendents may thus have lived onwards in Western Europe,
what made them stop building with “large stones”?
The megalithic civilisation in Europe ended in ca. 1200 BC, roughly
the time when Stonehenge was no longer extended. It times the
end, but does not identify the cause.
Perhaps foreign invaders came into Western Europe. Another option
might be that the end of the megalithic civilisation coincided
with the onset of a Dark Age in Europe. It would last approx.
half a millennium, when the Greek and Roman civilisations began
to flourish. The onset of the Dark Age is also linked with the
end of the Cretan civilisation, which itself was linked to the
eruption of the Santorini volcano. Might the massive eruption
of this volcano have destroyed the Western economy? As both Crete
and the Megalithic civilisation were strongly relying on the sea
as a means of communication, this may be the real cause for the
end of the megalithic era: the downturn in the European economy
meant that there was no more time or resource for a continued
expansion of megalithic monuments, such as Stonehenge.
However, the end of the civilisation remains largely shrouded
in mystery – and might remain for a while longer.
article originally appeared in Frontier 1.2 (1995) and has been