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New Worlds: Megalithic Architecture

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Stonehenge. The Pyramids of Giza. The moai heads of Rapa Nui.

Ancient megalithic architecture captures our imaginations like just about nothing else. How was it built? Why was it built? What possessed people to go so much effort, hauling enormous stones into position without the benefit of modern engines to make the job easier?

There’s no single answer to this, because “megalithic architecture” is not a single thing. Technically it can mean any structure containing at least one very large stone, whether ancient or modern — or even just the single stone all on its own, if it’s been shaped or shifted by human hands. (The term then is “monolith,” and if that summons up 2001 in your mind, you’re entirely justified.) Mostly, though, when we use this phrase, we’re talking about prehistoric or very early historic structures. Instances of this are found in many parts of the world and many different forms . . . but as with the petroglyphs and petrographs we talked about last week, certain patterns do occur.

The simplest version is just a “standing stone,” sometimes called a menhir. These can occur singly or in groups, so that one speaks of a group of menhirs in some kind of arrangement. These can be squared off or otherwise shaped, but aren’t always, and sometimes they have figures carved into their surfaces. Depending on how far the carving goes, it tips over into being a statue — of which some of the most impressive are hewn directly from the “living rock,” i.e. not quarried free first. The statues of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel are a famous example, and Buddhism abounds in instances of this, with figures decorating caves and hillsides throughout southern and eastern Asia.

Some megalithic structures are tombs. The passage tomb of Newgrange may be the most well-known case, but the labor of constructing something like that is enormous; more common are dolmens or portal tombs, which kind of look like houses of cards, just with enormous rocks instead of lightweight paper. Because these use two or more vertical stones to prop up a flattish roof, some are called “stone tables” — though the famous Stone Table of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is usually depicted as an actual table, not a dolmen. These are found in the Levant and Korea as well as Western Europe (with which they’re most commonly associated), and some of them may have originally been buried, thereby forming the chamber of a tumulus or barrow.

Then, of course, you have pyramids. Not all of these are megalithic; the oldest Egyptian pyramids were built of mud brick, as were the ziggurats of Mesopotamia. But making a large pyramid that won’t collapse under its own weight is a significant engineering challenge, and one you’re more likely to succeed at if you use stone, so the pyramids we usually think of — whether in Africa or Central America — are all constructed that way.

Finally, and in some ways the most mysteriously, there are megaliths arranged into shapes on the ground: circles, spirals, rows, and so forth. It’s not always easy to tell what the original arrangement was, because some of the stones may have been shifted out of place by natural forces or stolen away entirely by humans who want to re-use them elsewhere. Archaeologists can sometimes determine their previous location, though, and their placement can be astonishingly precise, despite the weight involved.

Which brings us to one of the eternal questions about such sites: how on earth were they built? The people who constructed these wonders didn’t have cranes — heck, they often didn’t have the wheel. Despite that, the stone used may have been moved dozens of miles or more, then somehow levered upright or even lifted into position atop other stones. The methods used to achieve that varied, but if you check out documentaries (recent ones, which benefit from newer research), you’ll see logs used as rollers, earthen ramps that let you gradually drag materials higher, and upright pieces being tipped downward into prepared pits. Other theories have been tested: I can’t find confirmation of this now, but I remember reading about someone who believed the Stonehenge bluestones might have been transported by river. When he attempted to prove the feasibility of this approach, his raft sank . . . and in retrieving the stone, he found a very large, cut rock already at the bottom of the riverbed. Did someone in ancient times try the same thing, with the same results?

But whatever tricks were used, the vast majority of what made them go was muscle power. Lots and lots of muscle power. Some of it from domesticated animals, depending on where you are in the world, but the lion’s share probably from hundreds or thousands of humans. Why did people get together in such large numbers to undertake such epic work?

The default answer is usually “social stratification.” When the megalithic structure in question is a tomb, that strongly implies someone was important and powerful enough to either hire or coerce massive amounts of labor for their own glorification after death. But that doesn’t explain all these sites, not by a long shot. Others served religious purposes — which may indeed be tied in with stratification, because in the kinds of societies that built these structures it’s common for the chiefly or kingly role to be intertwined with spiritual leadership, but it’s a more complex answer than pure self-aggrandizement.

Some of these sites, like Stonehenge, appear to have served an astronomical purpose. For an agricultural society, it’s vitally important to know when to plant, and building arrangements of stone that align with key dates — the equinox, summer solstice, rising of the Pleiades, or other useful markers — helps measure the passage of time. Don’t mistake that for an entirely secular purpose, though: as with leadership, agriculture absolutely could be a religious affair as well.

That’s the answer almost always underlying that question of “why.” It’s justifiably a deathless joke in archaeology that if you don’t know what purpose some artifact served, you just label it as a “ritual implement” . . . but that doesn’t mean the label is wrong. Religion is the great glue underlying much of human society over the millennia, and it was likely the prime motivator for people to pour vast amounts of effort into creating something that would last long after they were dead. That’s true not only for ancient sites like the Egyptian pyramids, but also for more recent ones like Christian cathedrals.

Which in turn lends some justification to the wonder we feel when we look at these sites. Not for nothing did Tolkien decorate the landscape of Middle-Earth with structures like the Argonath and the stone circle atop Amon Hen, relics of long-lost ages. I feel as if this trope has fallen out of fashion as part of the backlash against Tolkien-style fantasy, but honestly, ancient megaliths are a very real thing, and a beautiful way to add temporal depth to a setting. The characters don’t have to infodump about the history behind a site — the cardinal sin of many of Tolkien’s imitators; it can be enough for there simply to be enormous stones, carved and placed for a purpose, which later generations have long since forgotten.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Megalithic Architecture”

  1. There’s a site I recently discovered, https://ruralhistoria.com, that has a large number of articles about many aspects of the ancient landscapes and structures in Great Britain — megalithic tombs and stone circles among them, but a whole lot more. There are many, many ways that ancient and medieval activities left traces in the land, some obvious and some much less so. And apparently many of those traces are just commonplace rural background taken for granted by the locals and therefore not very much discussed, but some of them are startling and a bit mysterious to those of us who live in places (like North America) where the land displays completely different patterns of past usage.

    1. Yes, we’ll be talking about some of those next week and the one after — there’s a lot of ways that we mark the land, and we don’t always realize that what we see around us is the result of that.

  2. Much depends on the significance. There were oxen and horses in medieval France, but the king himself and royal princes hauled one stone to the building site of a new cathedral.

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