Megalithism is a complex phenomenon, present in many parts of the world, from the end of Prehistory to the present day. The term refers to a form of Neolithic architecture consisting of erecting megaliths (from mega Greek = large; lithos = stone, literally large stones), the period during which these buildings were erected and their scientific study by archaeologists who try to understand the meaning. In particular, megalithism has been of particular importance in Europe for the Neolithic peoples. The term “megalithic art” is also used to refer to the use of megaliths, erected by prehistoric groups for religious or sepulchral purposes but also as astronomical observatories or even as an artistic medium. The expression is more generally used to describe art engraved on megaliths.
The chronological succession of the different megalithic currents does not in any way imply a link of filiation between them. Megalithism is a widespread phenomenon in the world, with regional peculiarities such as Atlantic, Nordic or African alignments, English or Scottish circles or henges or Orkney, the “tombs of giants” and Sardinian nuraghi, Corsican torres , the Balearic taulas, the tombs of Arabia and Sinai, the Scottish brochs, the Welsh cromlechs, the menhirs or Peulvens, the dolmens under tumuli or under cairn, the covered alleys, the menhirs, the statues Korean pine, Japanese kofun, Olmec altars, Colombian anthropomorphic megaliths or the Pascuan moais. Many megaliths are Christianized by Christians, including carving the cross-shaped top or symbols on their surface. As early as the Vita prima sancti Samsonis, St. Samson was said to have engraved a cross on a menhir around which Bretons from across the Channel were “playing” ancestral rites (including the practice of young women wishing to marry dancing around stones, rubbing against blocks or sitting on them, their phallic symbol being associated with fertility). It is mainly in, and later with the invention of dynamite and the regrouping of which are responsible for three quarters of the destruction of the megaliths. It is estimated that of those erected in Western and Northern Europe, about 10,000 survive in our time.
The habitat and way of life of megalith builders raises many questions that scientists are trying to answer. The understanding of extinct cultures requires the study of objects (pottery, lithic or bone tools) and monuments that have come down to us, after being sometimes reused by other civilizations, looted, destroyed over the centuries. Megalithism, a branch of prehistoric archeology, remains a “science of imprecision” according to the prehistorian Serge Cassen, based on assumptions. Burials, their architectures and their furniture play an essential role in this research. The construction methods of these imposing buildings, built with huge blocks of stone, are poorly known, although experimental archeology has made significant progress. These constructions, witnesses of the first monumental architecture in the history of humanity, were erected, mostly as burials, by organized societies. Initially, research on megalithism focuses on defining the natural environment in which megalithic architecture fits. Then, she is confronted with the problem of dating, indispensable for the establishment of a chronology. As early as 1944, Pierre-Roland Giot created, within the Faculty of Sciences of Rennes, a laboratory of prehistoric anthropology in which he applied the scientific techniques to archeology: petrography of polished axes, spectrography of metals, sedimentological study of deposits Paleolithic among others. For forty years, he will lead the great excavations and restorations of megalithic monuments and barrows and form a team of seasoned prehistorians. His students include Yves Coppens, Jacques Briard and Jean L’Helgouach, who were later joined by Charles-Tanguy Le Roux, Pierre-Louis Gouletquer, Marie-Yvane Daire and Henri Morzadec.
Many fanciful interpretations stem from popular traditions, relayed by travelers, poets and folklorists: the megalithic alignments are thus petrified soldiers, the stones raised a forest of phallus, emblems of pancosmic fecundity (symbol of the penis of Heaven penetrating the Earth- woman, or verge of a telluric male discharging his seed in the wind). The stones were brought by fairies, often benevolent divinities of Celtic legends; the dolmens would be the houses of Breton dwarves (korrigans or poulpiquets), the covered alleys the tombs of Gaulish chiefs. Part of the celtomanes maintain the anachronism of Druidic and Celtic monuments, and sometimes popular opinion still sees there works of Gauls or Celts. The theory is even more far-fetched, the megalithic roads would be markings allowing extraterrestrials to find the deposits of uranium present on earth. Most of the scientific theories related to the megalithic phenomenon aim to develop the question of the significance of the erection of these monuments. Megalithism has a religious dimension (funeral steles), but we do not know anything about this religion, its rites, its ceremonies. It can also have an astronomical observatory function which makes it possible to determine the important dates of the solar year for farmers ‘and herders’ societies (period of sowing or transhumance of herds). Thus, megalithic alignments can be used as open-air sights, menhir enclosures can mark sunrises and sunsets at solstices, buried corridors lead to a room where the sun only penetrates at a specific moment (usually rising winter solstice). The raised stones have in this case a relation with the worship of the sun and the stars, and there remains a vestige of this function in our popular traditions with the fires of the Saint-John, to the celebration of the harvests. Megalithism also has a prestige function, denoting a highly hierarchical society with strong power to compel people to move such large blocks. It can be conceived as a term in the neolithic process: after the Mesolithic communities that developed a thriving predation economy, able to feed an abundant population, neolithic communities adopted agriculture, practicing either tropical horticulture or grain farming . Fractions of society are thus able to obtain surplus food, a means of creating wealth and megalithism thus translates hierarchical societies with ostentatious or semi-state wealth. In Europe, some megaliths like Stonehenge are linked to the amber and tin routes that the merchants of the southern countries were looking for. According to archaeologists such as Jacques Blot, it is likely that isolated menhirs are an ancient demarcation marking the ways of transhumance. Jacques Blot remarks that in the Basque Country, menhirs are on large roads: shepherds’ passages, salt routes, etc. Other times, the menhir can also commemorate an important event or character. Most researchers nowadays agree to recognize megaliths in a multiplicity of roles, in order of importance, social, cultural (religious and funerary), astronomical, astrological, artistic, agricultural, and so on. If all these constructions did not have all these functions, they reveal an organized society.
In Neolithic times in Western Europe, megalithism is frequently related to burials. Au, are called “megalithic burials” tombs whose architecture was based on the stacking of large blocks, can not be moved easily by one or two individuals. By extension, the term “megalithic burial” refers to all the large buildings, so monumental, built of stone in the Neolithic, having served as a collective or individual burial place, without the internal structure being made of blocks megalithic. In the case of monuments built using massive blocks, these were arranged in two main orientations, either vertically (orthostats) or horizontally (slabs, pavement or roof). The first excavations of large Carnaceian burial structures showed that the megalithic burials were generally covered with a more or less organized mound, called cairn, if it was in stone or tumulus if it were in the ground. The burials raise various questions, especially concerning the social organization necessary for the construction of this type of monuments, the conception of the funerary space, the relationship with the divine, the place of the man in his environment, as well as the treatment from the body.
If the first function of the megalithic architecture is probably not directly artistic, the megalith is sometimes the privileged support of the art of his time. For example, the orthostats of dolmens can be decorated with very complex engravings whose symbolism escapes us; they may also have been carved and present an anthropomorphic shape, thus resembling real prehistoric statues, some of which are sexual (figuration of breasts) and have rows of necklaces. In the same way, the statues-menhirs are megaliths whose engravings, sometimes very evolved and numerous, are the witnesses of the artistic activity of the men of the prehistory, the art associating with the sacred one. However, these data are often distorted because the engraved art is more rare on the menhirs than in the tombs, because of the blistering of the granites which makes disappear many traces. The alteration of painted representations is even more important, to the point that the historiographic tradition has long denied the existence of Neolithic pictorial art, yet well attested in the Iberian megalithic art whose painting is executed in red ocher essentially , with various shades in the colors and a complement of black manganese paint. New specific methodologies for detecting pictorial motifs reveal that this symbolic but also decorative pictorial art is more developed than archaeologists thought, even in the least furnished regions in megalithic architectures. The corpus of engraved signs includes zigzag patterns (or serpentiformes) that may evoke draperies, snakes (theory of ophiolatry dear to William Stukeley and Maudet de Penhouet), or waves of sharp-crested waves; the corniform motifs most often interpreted as reductions of bucranes; scutiform patterns; zoomorphic or anthropomorphic signs; crosses and crosserons; the axes fitted; bows and arrows; cartridges ; the cups; the nested arches.
Megalithism has not completely disappeared. If the Bantu of the province of Ogoja, in the South-East of Nigeria, no longer raise the phallic Akwanshi for a hundred years like the Kelabit of Sarawak, against the Malagasy of the plateau of Imerina, the Konsos of Ethiopia and the Toraja of Sulawesi or the people of Sumba in Indonesia still make megaliths today to honor their dead and enhance the rank of family or clan. This claims, as it did many millennia ago, enormous physical and economic costs, but also a spirit of cooperation that reinforces the unity of the ethnic groups still practicing megalithism.