This photograph shows the stones of Stonehenge up close. Stonehenge is the most well known megalithic structure.
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Image courtesy of Corel Photography

Megaliths Revealed

Many people are interested in the mysterious megalithic structures that can be found around the world. This page will give you all the ins and outs so these structures aren't such a mystery!

First, a megalithic structure is a prehistoric monument made of large stones. Megalith comes from Greek; "mega" means big and "lithos" means stone.

Megalithic structures can be found across Europe in Great Britain, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Corsica, and Malta. These structures can also be found in Russia, the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

Even though separated by great distances, many of the structures look alike. In fact, megalithic structures can be categorized. There are Menhir structures. These are the upright or standing stones. Standing stones are often arranged in circles or lines. There are Dolmens. These are three or more upright stones with a stone that balances on top. Dolmen structures acted as a burial ground. A Cairn is a dry-stone encasement of one or several burial chambers. A Tumulus is a mound of earth, grass, and stones that covers a tomb. Whereas the Dolmen and Cairn provide access to the burial chamber, a Tumulus is totally closed off by dirt.

The most famous megalithic site is Stonehenge in England. Its various stages are dated to have been built between 3,000-2,000 BC. But, there are much older megalithic sites. Certain megaliths in Brittany are as old as 4,600 B.C. That means that almost 7,000 years ago, people were moving stones of up to 180 tons in weight around the countryside. How they did that without cranes or trucks or even simple horse-drawn carts IS a mystery!

As we've seen, people arranged these stones in various formations, but their exact purpose is unknown. Many were used for burial grounds, some might have been used as route markers, perhaps some were used for astronomical or religious purposes. In many cases, we simply don't know.

We do know that many of the structures have an astronomical alignment. Some are oriented towards the solstice points on the horizon (points where the Sun rises or sets on the summer or winter solstice). Some structures point to certain stars or the Moon's rising or setting on special days. Others point to Venus. Still others are aligned with the cardinal directions of north, south, east and west. The alignment of megalithic structures is of prime concern to those who study the structures. Because alignment can be so complicated, structures must be taken case by case. Some alignments point to social and religious beliefs of the community, other alignments seem to suggest deliberate sky observing and astronomical activity.

Each megalithic structure is unique. Many of these mysterious monuments have inspired legend and lore about their building and purpose. Concentrating on the megaliths of Europe, let's look at Stonehenge of England, Newgrange of Ireland, Balnuaran of Clava in Scotland, Pentre Ifan in Wales, the stones of Fossa in Italy and the Carnac stones of France.

Last modified July 25, 2001 by Jennifer Bergman.

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