Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland

All over Britain and Ireland, and particularly in the more remote northern and western areas of Britain and the western side of Ireland, the traveler is quite likely to encounter one of the hundreds—indeed, several thousands— of megalithic monuments (monuments built of large stones) that form a conspicuous legacy of the prehistoric past of the British Isles. Erected in the Neolithic period or the earlier part of the Bronze Age, between the later part of the fourth millennium B.C.E. and the later part of the second millennium b.c.e., this category of monuments includes huge passage tombs such as Newgrange in Ireland and Maes Howe in Scotland, and spectacular settings of standing stones such as Callanish in Scotland and Avebury and Stone-henge in southern England. It also includes a great many more modest tombs and temples, often found in remote fields and farmlands, as well as stone circles, short stone rows, and many single standing stones.

These alluring and mysterious monuments have attracted astronomical attention ever since the earliest antiquarians roamed the British Isles as far back as the seventeenth century. The first person to bring any semblance of a scientific method to this type of investigation was Sir Norman Lockyer at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the most famous name in this regard is Alexander Thom who, from the 1950s to the 1970s, espoused the idea that they functioned as astronomical observatories and incorporated high-precision alignments upon the rising and setting positions of the sun, moon, and stars. These conclusions concerning "megalithic astronomy" caused controversy for many years, until a consensus among archaeologists and astronomers finally began to emerge toward the end of the 1980s.

From the archaeological point of view, it is important to realize that this category of monument does not reflect a particular cultural development

but rather a practice of construction using large stones that emerged among the early farmers of the Neolithic period and spread, developing all the time in various ways, until it finally faded out toward the end of the Bronze Age. It manifests itself in various forms of monument, doubtless with many different purposes. Some, like the great sarsen monument at Stonehenge, were unique, while others evidently represented regional traditions, since monuments of very similar form were found in considerable numbers in particular local areas. Examples of the latter are the wedge tombs of western Ireland and the recumbent stone circles of northeastern Scotland. Many of these regional practices appear to have emerged, and then faded away, within a fairly short period compared with the two millennia or so that the whole megalithic tradition persisted in Britain and Ireland. The whole tradition itself forms part of a wider megalithic tradition that is particularly prominent on the Atlantic fringes of western and northern Europe, although megalithic monuments are also found in other parts of Europe and indeed all over the world at such places as Carahunge in Armenia, Nabta Playa in Egypt, and Rujm el-Hiri in Israel. This wide distribution in itself helps to emphasize that we should not see the practice of building things with big stones as a key indicator of significant ethnic or cultural identities in the past.

All this helps to explain archaeologists' skepticism in the 1970s toward archaeoastronomical theories such as Thom's that implied the existence in Neolithic Britain of a "megalithic science" that was well developed, stable, and consistently practiced (by "megalithic man") from one end of the British Isles to the other. More recent evidence reveals much more complex and regionally specific developments in astronomy throughout the two millennia when megalithic monuments of various forms were being constructed. Important examples in this regard are the axial stone circles of southwest Ireland, the wedge tombs of western Ireland, and the Clava cairns and recumbent stone circles of northeast Scotland.

See also:

Lockyer, Sir Norman (1836-1920); "Megalithic Astronomy"; Thom, Alexander (1894-1985).

Avebury; Axial Stone Circles; Callanish; Carahunge; Clava Cairns; Maes Howe; Nabta Playa; Newgrange; Recumbent Stone Circles; Rujm el-Hiri; Short Stone Rows; Stone Circles; Stonehenge; Wedge Tombs.

References and further reading

Hunter, John, and Ian Ralston, eds. The Archaeology of Britain, 58-94. London: Routledge, 1999.

Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 14-16. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Waddell, John. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland, 57-178. Galway: Galway University Press, 1998.

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