The Radiocarbon Revolution

by the way, not only for the megaliths in this chapter but for practically all the stones from all over the world that we will encounter in this book (the few exceptions are in Egypt, where it is thought they used copper saws with the help of abrasive sand). So, the quarrying and shaping of the stones was done with tools made of stone. If the quarried stone was relatively soft, like limestone, one could easily use tools made of harder stone. However, for stones like granite or andesite (which is similar to granite, and found in the Andes), one had to use "percussors," which were chunks of the same material worked roughly into spheres and then violently thrown against the area to be removed.

We know precious little about megalithic civilization. The ceramics of the megalithic peoples of Great Britain, for example, are classified in three main styles—Peterborough, Grooved Ware, and Beaker—with the first being very similar to the third and all three sharing overlapping characteristics for long periods. These people did not have written language as far as we know, and until just a few years ago it was thought that the structures they built and the objects they made were nothing more than feeble attempts to mimic the splendors of the Near Eastern and Aegean civilizations, inept imitations made by "howling barbarians"

Until the 1970s, archaeologists had no method of absolute dating. This meant that even if you had a stratigraph, which is archeological data from successive layers at the same site, the best you could build was a relative chronology (e.g., ceramic objects with a square pattern are older than ceramic objects with a diamond pattern), but you had no way of determining the absolute dates (e.g., the square pattern is from 1800 BC and diamond pattern from 1600 BC). But the inability to know for certain proved to be no obstacle for archaeologists and historians who, instead of prudently suspending judgment or at least qualifying their claims, embraced the nefarious dogma that human civilization was born (sic) in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3000 BC and then slowly, gradually spread through Europe in ever-widening concentric circles, this model being valid for both the diffusion of ideas and the physical migration of populations. The main exponent of this "diffusionism" was Gordon Childe, according to whom civilization passed first through the Aegean and then spread into Iberia and Italy, crossing the Danube into northern Europe and finally reaching the British Isles. One of Childe's specific theses was that the great Mycenaean tombs called Tholos (long corridors with vault-roofed terminal chambers) were the inspiration for the chamber tombs and other megalithic structures that appeared first in Spain and later in northern Europe.

It was only logical, therefore, to date megalithic civilization to the middle of the second millennium BC. That is, until the revolution. No other word, really, except revolution can describe the fallout of the discovery, around 1950, of carbon dating.

The story of the so-called radiocarbon revolution is also the story of how a single, ingenious idea caused the complete upheaval of an entire discipline; I recommend reading the classic (if dated) book by the historian and archaeologist Colin Renfrew (1973), which also contains an exhaustive introduction to the technical aspects of carbon dating. A simple explanation will suffice here: carbon 14 (C-14) is a radioactive substance, meaning that it decays into another substance by emitting particles according to a simple and constant physical law. C-14 is present in the air and accumulates in organisms through respiration; when the organism dies, the accumulation stops. So, by measuring the C-14 present in the remains and checking it against the constant rate of radioactive decay, it becomes possible to establish when the organism stopped breathing (I am breezing right past all the technical problems involved here). The results were slightly variable when it was first used in 1949, but it was later perfected by calibrating C-14 data with that of dendrochronology, the dating technique that uses the growth rings of trees to reconstruct historical wood sequences.

C-14 dating of organic remains from megalithic sites melted away diffusionist ideas as the sun does snow. The Kercado tumulus in Brittany, for example, turned out to be one of the oldest stone structures on the planet, dating all the way back to 4700 BC. And who would have thought that the megalithic civilization of Malta was building temples 700 years before the Pyramids? In England, Stonehenge was already underway by 2800 BC, more than 1300 years before the Mycenaean tombs of which it was allegedly a pale imitation (kind of makes one wonder if the Mycenaeans weren't the copycats. . .).

The diffusionist dogma is, in my view, a perfect example of how history and archaeology have habitually underestimated the thought of civilizations that were inconsiderate enough as to leave us with no written accounts. In fact, every scholar who adhered to that dogma assumed that the great megalithic monuments were built by barbaric people in emulation of their superiors, never asking seriously what purpose they might have served, to the extent that we still do not know much more now than they did then. To demonstrate this, let's take a trip to the realm of the giants.

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