Megalithic Summary

At present, megalithic material from areas outside Brittany and the British Isles is still too sporadically recorded to be included effectively in a general summary. Extremely large stones were used in building monuments in many parts of the world (Mohen 1989, pp. 42-67). In a purely descriptive sense, such architecture may properly be called megalithic. Many scholars at the beginning of the 20th century assumed that all such monuments belonged to a single historical tradition, ultimately derived from Europe. We know of no attempt by any archaeologically competent scholar to defend such a view in the last 50 years. Certainly, some combinations of earth mounds as burial places with large stone monuments seem strikingly similar in widely separated areas, but independent origins seem likely for most of them. For example, the "megalithic" of India (ca. 800-100 b.c.) is now known to follow the Early Iron Age and seems to be associated with Dravidian languages (Parpola 1994, pp. 172-173). In some cases, approximate alignments are suggested by plans and descriptions although astronomical associations of most of these monuments are still undemon-strated at the present time.

For Brittany and the British Isles, we can provide some rough conclusions about the state of present scholarship. The earliest evidence for astronomical interests appears in connection with large burial mounds in Brittany and western Ireland. Entrance passages to these tombs usually had an orientation to the southeast, sometimes specifically to the winter solstice. Early megalithic cultures probably spread largely by sea, and astronomical observations would have been important in navigation as well as religion. Artistic motifs may have been used as notations of astronomical phenomena. Gigantic single pillars of stone were sometimes erected during this period, but clear indications that they were used astronomically are lacking. Somewhat before 3000 b.c., large stone circles were built. These were apparently used as meeting places and incorporated community beliefs about cosmic order, which embodied astronomical orientations and therefore the timing of ritual events. There is very good evidence at this period for alignments to sunrise at winter solstice and good evidence for equinoctial horizon alignments. There are also possibly deliberate alignments on the cross-quarter days, intermediate between solstices and equinoxes. Evidence for interest in smaller divisions of the year or for alignments on stellar rising points is very weak, as is evidence for lunar alignments, at this period. This situation began to change at about the time of the appearance of avenues in the form of long rows of paired stones in the mid-3rd millennium b.c. An interest in the major and minor lunar standstills, and perhaps in eclipses, probably antedates 2000 b.c. Clear data about such interests seem to be associated with shorter rows of stones. Fans of stone rows seem usually to align on associated cists and to date well after 2000 b.c. The suggested function of the fans for measuring the lunar wobble (the 9' of inclination variation) is still strongly disputed. However, by about 1500 b.c., short rows of stones seemed to be used for making and recording sophisticated lunar and solar observations. Near the end of the Megalithic tradition, pairs of disparate stones (tall and pointed vs. squat and rounded) appear, but have no clear astronomical significance.

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