- 1:a very large usually rough stone used in prehistoric cultures as a monument or building block
A megalith is a large stone that has been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones. Megalithic describes structures made of such large stones, utilizing an interlocking system without the use of mortar or cement.
The word 'megalith' comes from the Ancient Greek μέγας megas meaning great, and λίθος lithos meaning stone. Megalith also denotes an item consisting of rock(s) hewn in definite shapes for special purposes. It has been used to describe buildings built by people from many parts of the world living in many different periods. A variety of large stones are seen as megaliths, with the most widely known megaliths not being sepulchral. The construction of these structures took place mainly in the Neolithic (though earlier Mesolithic examples are known) and continued into the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age.
Early stone complexes in eastern Turkey
At a number of sites in eastern Turkey, large ceremonial complexes from the 9th millennium BC have been discovered. They belong to the incipient phases of agriculture and animal husbandry, from which the European (or Western) Neolithic would later develop. Large circular structures involving carved megalithic orthostats are a typical feature, e.g. at Nevali Cori and Göbekli Tepe. Although these structures are the most ancient megalithic structures known so far, it is not clear that any of the European Megalithic traditions are actually derived from them. At Göbekli Tepe four stone circles have been excavated from an estimated 20. Some measure up to 30 metres across. The stones carry carved reliefs of boars, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and scorpions.
The most common type of megalithic construction in Europe is the portal tomb – a chamber consisting of upright stones orthostats) with one or more large flat capstones forming a roof. Many of these, though by no means all, contain human remains, but it is debatable whether use as burial sites was their primary function. Though generally known as dolmens the correct term accepted by archaeologists is portal tomb. However many local names exist, such as anta in Portugal, stazzone in Sardinia, hunebed in the Netherlands, Hünengrab in Germany, dysse in Denmark, and cromlech in Wales. It is assumed that most portal tombs were originally covered by earthen mounds.
The second-most-common tomb type is the passage grave. It normally consists of a square, circular, or cruciform chamber with a slabbed or corbelled roof, accessed by a long, straight passageway, with the whole structure covered by a circular mound of earth. Sometimes it is also surrounded by an external stone kerb. Prominent examples include the sites of Brú na Bóinne and Carrowmore in Ireland, Maes Howe in Orkney, and Gavrinis in France.
The third tomb type is a diverse group known as gallery graves. These are axially arranged chambers placed under elongated mounds. The Irish court tombs, British long barrows, and German Steinkisten belong to this group.
Another type of megalithic monument is the single standing stone, or menhir. Some of these are thought to have an astronomical function as a marker or foresight, and, in some areas, long and complex alignments of such stones exist, for example, at Carnac in Brittany.
In parts of Britain and Ireland the best-known type of megalithic construction is the stone circle, of which there are hundreds of examples, including Stonehenge, Avebury, Ring of Brodgar, and Beltany. These, too, display evidence of astronomical alignments, both solar and lunar. Stonehenge, for example, is famous for its solstice alignment. Examples of stone circles are also found in the rest of Europe. They are assumed to be of later date than the tombs, straddling the Neolithic and the Bronze Ages.
Megalithic tombs are aboveground burial chambers, built of large stone slabs (megaliths) laid on edge and covered with earth or other, smaller stones. They are a type of chamber tomb, and the term is used to describe the structures built across Atlantic Europe, the Mediterranean, and neighbouring regions, mostly during the Neolithic period, by Neolithic farming communities. They differ from the contemporary long barrows through their structural use of stone.
There is a huge variety of megalithic tombs. The free-standing single chamber dolmens and portal dolmens found in Brittany, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, Wales, and elsewhere consist of a large flat stone supported by three, four, or more standing stones. They were covered by a stone cairn or earth barrow.