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Functions and Meanings of Neolithic Megaliths

From the historical perspective, the emergence of megalithic monuments has traditionally been considered indicative of changes in the larger social contexts with which they are associated. Megaliths can take many forms, such as dolmens, menhirs, large chamber tombs, and stone cists. Due to the range of structures built with large stones (i. e. , megaliths), it is difficult to provide a perfect hard-and-fast definition of megaliths, but among archaeologists, there is a general recognition of what does and does not constitute a megalith.

Generally, megaliths can probably be best described as structures built with a few or more unmodified or minimally modified very large boulders reflecting a considerable investment in labor and time, but which do not reach the level of refinement and elaboration found among such structures as the pyramids of Egypt and the Americas and large temples of ancient Greece, Rome and various states in South, East and Southeast Asia—typically constructed with numerous cut blocks of stone.

By this definition, megaliths are usually not found in state organized societies. This fact, coupled with their widespread global distribution, has resulted in the inclusion of megaliths in discussions of socio-cultural evolution. The link between megalith building and the emergence of complex societies has been examined by many archaeologists, particularly in the context of Neolithic Europe from which the main theories theories concerning megaliths and their role in prehistoric societies have been generated.

Collin Renfrew (1976) was one of the first to discuss, in detail, the role of megalith building in the development of prehistoric complex societies by suggesting that the construction of large monuments (including megaliths) was associated with and a marker of the emergence of chiefdom societies in the Early Neolithic of Wessex and that the monuments served as symbols of social cohesion and territorial markers among these societies.

Chapman (1981) focused on the function of megaliths not only as territorial markers, but as an expression of kinship-based corporate group use-rights over particular key resources of the early Neolithic. Similarly, Madsen (1982) suggested that megalithic tomb building (both dolmens and passage graves) was part of a pattern of gradual social and political elaboration that coincided with the expansion of agriculture during the of Neolithic Denmark as well and that these monuments, following a similar line of reasoning as Renfrew, functioned as territorial markers representing group rights to certain resources.

Examining the Early Neolithic of Southern Sweden, Liden (1995) also linked megaliths to use rights over resources, although she argued that megaliths initially marked use rights over predictable wild resources and were not necessarily associated with the expansion of agriculture.

In analysis of megaliths in the Brittany region of France, Scarre (2001: 285, 299, 302, 307) argued that large stone tombs and menhirs of the region functioned not as territorial or use-right markers, but as aggregation and ritual centers for dispersed groups who had become partially dependant upon plants and animals but had not yet established a system of fixed settlement. Other researchers have focused on the symbolic properties of large prehistoric stone monuments.

McMann (1994: 534) has suggested that monumental Neolithic cairn burials in Ireland were built in locales perceived as sacred places in the earlier Mesolithic. According to McMann, these megalithic burials (1994: 537) reflect the symbolic power of stone, the significance of which may have been associated with peoples’ desire to ‘belong’ to nature or a response to the threat posed by domestication of changing this relationship.

Bradley (1998) have also dealt with the potential symbolic significance of large stone monuments. In one of the few ethnoarchaeological examinations of megaliths, Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina (1998) focused on the medium of stone and its association with ancestors and death in kinship-based societies, particularly in Madagascar, where large standing stones are associated with ancestors and where there is a traditional dichotomy between the architecture of the living (made of wood) and the dead (made of stone).

Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina (1998: 313) extended this notion of stone as a medium of the dead and wood as a medium of the living to an analysis of the Late Neolithic Stonehenge and the nearby timber circles at Woodhenge and Durrington Walls and suggested that Stonehenge was a domain of the dead and a place of rituals for the dead in the last half of the third millennium BC, whereas Woodhenge and Durrington Walls were places for the living and rituals and the stage of rituals for the living during the same time period.

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