megalith is a large stone that has been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones. The word "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  (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 beingsepulchral.  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. 

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. 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 (see below) 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.Early stone complexes in eastern Turkey

European megaliths

The second-most-common tomb type is the passage grave. It normally consists of a square, circular, or cruciform chamber with a slabbed or corbelledroof, 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 IrelandMaes Howe in Orkney, and Gavrinis in France.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 Galicia and Portugalstazzone in Sardiniahunebed in the NetherlandsHünengrab in Germanydysse in Denmark, and cromlech inWales. It is assumed that most portal tombs were originally covered by earthen mounds.
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 examples include StonehengeAveburyRing 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.


There is a huge variety of megalithic tombs. The free-standing single chamber dolmens and portal dolmens found in BrittanyDenmarkGermany,IrelandNetherlandsSwedenWales, 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.
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.
Examples with outer areas, not used for burial, are also known. The Court Cairns of southwest Scotland and northern Ireland, the Severn-Cotswold tombs of southwest England and the Transepted gallery graves of the Loire region in France share many internal features, although the links between them are not yet fully understood. That they often have antechambers or forecourts is thought to imply a desire on the part of the builders to emphasize a special ritual or physical separation of the dead from the living.
The Passage graves of Orkney, Ireland's Boyne Valley, and north Wales are even more complex and impressive, with cross-shaped arrangements of chambers and passages. The workmanship on the stone blocks at Maeshowe for example is unknown elsewhere in northwest Europe at the time.
Megalithic tombs appear to have been used by communities for the long-term deposition of the remains of their dead, and some seem to have undergone alteration and enlargement. The organization and effort required to erect these large stones suggest that the societies concerned placed great emphasis on the proper treatment of their dead. The ritual significance of the tombs is supported by the presence of megalithic art carved into the stones at some sites. Hearths and deposits of pottery and animal bone found by archaeologists around some tombs also implies that some form of burial feast or sacrificial rites took place there.

Other structures
Further examples of megalithic tombs include the stalled cairn at Midhowe in Orkney and the passage grave at Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey. There are also extensive grave sites with up to 60 megaliths at Louisenlund and Gryet on the Danish island of Bornholm. Despite its name, the Stone Tomb in Ukrainewas not a tomb but rather a sanctuary.

Associated with the megalithic constructions across Europe, there are often large earthworks of various designs – ditches and banks, broad terraces, circular enclosures known as henges, and frequently artificial mounds such as Silbury Hill in England and Monte d’Accoddi in Sardinia. Sometimes, as atGlastonbury Tor in England, it is suggested that a natural hill has been artificially sculpted to form a maze or spiral pattern in the turf.
It seems that spirals were an important motif for the megalith builders, and have been found carved into megalithic structures all over Europe – along with other symbols such as lozenges, eye-patterns, zigzags in various configurations, and cup and ring marks. While not a written script in the modern sense of the term, these symbols are considered to have conveyed meaning to their creators, and are remarkably consistent across the whole of Western Europe.

Spread of megalithic architecture in Europe

In Western Europe and the Mediterranean, megaliths are, in general, constructions erected during the Neolithic or late stone age and Chalcolithic or Copper Age (4500-1500 BC). Perhaps the most famous megalithic structure is Stonehenge in England, although many others are known throughout the world. The French Comte de Caylus was the first to describe the Carnac stonesPierre Jean-Baptiste Legrand d'Aussy introduced the terms menhir anddolmen, both taken from the Breton language, into antiquarian terminology. He interpreted megaliths as gallic tombs. In Britain, the antiquarians Aubrey and Stukeley conducted early research into megaliths. In 1805, Jacques Cambry published a book called Monuments celtiques, ou recherches sur le culte des Pierres, précédées d'une notice sur les Celtes et sur les Druides, et suivies d'Etymologie celtiques, where he proposed a Celtic stone cult. This completely unfounded connection between druids and megaliths has haunted the public imagination ever since. InBelgium, there is a megalithic site at Wéris, a little town situated in the Ardennes. In the Netherlands, megalithic structures can be found in the northeast of the country, mostly in the province ofDrentheKnowth is a passage grave of the Brú na Bóinne neolithic complex in Ireland, dating from c.3500-3000 BC. It contains more than a third of the total number of examples of megalithic artin all Western Europe, with over 200 decorated stones found during excavations.

Timeline of megalithic construction

Excavation of some Megalithic monuments (in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and France) has revealed evidence of ritual activity, sometimes involving architecture, from the Mesolithic, i.e., predating the Neolithic monuments by centuries or millennia. Caveats apply: In some cases, they are so far removed in time from their successors that continuity is unlikely; in other cases, the early dates, or the exact character of activity, are controversial. 


  • Circa 5000 BC: Constructions in Portugal (Évora). Emergence of the Atlantic Neolithic period, the age of agriculture along the western shores of Europe during the sixth millennium B.C. culture of La AlmagraSpain near by, perhaps precedent from Africa.
  • Circa 4800 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Barnenez) and Poitou (Bougon).
  • Circa 4400 BC: Constructions in Malta (Skorba temples).
  • Circa 4000 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Carnac), Portugal (Lisbon), France (central and southern), Corsica, England and Wales.
  • Circa 3700 BC: Constructions in Ireland (Knockiveagh and elsewhere).
  • Circa 3600 BC: Constructions in England (Maumbury Rings and Godmanchester), and Malta (Ġgantija and Mnajdra temples).
  • Circa 3500 BC: Constructions in Spain (Málaga and Guadiana), Ireland (south-west), France (Arles and the north), SardiniaSicily, Malta (and elsewhere in the Mediterranean), Belgium(north-east) and Germany (central and south-west).
  • Circa 3400 BC: Constructions in Ireland (Newgrange), Netherlands (north-east), Germany (northern and central) Sweden and Denmark.
  • Circa 3300 BC: Constructions in France (Carnac stones)
  • Circa 3200 BC: Constructions in Malta (Ħaġar Qim and Tarxien).
  • Circa 3000 BC: Constructions in France (SaumurDordogneLanguedocBiscay, and the Mediterranean coast), Spain (Los Millares), Sicily, Belgium (Ardennes), and Orkney, as well as the first henges (circular earthworks) in Britain.


  • Circa 2500 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Le MenecKermario and elsewhere), Italy (Otranto), Sardinia, and Scotland (northeast), plus the climax of the megalithic Bell-beaker culture inIberia, Germany, and the British Isles (stone circle at Stonehenge). With the bell-beakers, the Neolithic period gave way to the Chalcolithic, the age of copper.
  • Circa 2400 BC: The Bell-beaker culture was dominant in Britain, and hundreds of smaller stone circles were built in the British Isles at this time.

Bronze Age

  • Circa 2000 BC: Constructions in Brittany (Er Grah), Italy (Bari), Sicily (Ragusa), Sardinia (northern), and Scotland (Callanish). The Chalcolithic period gave way to the Bronze Age in western and northern Europe.
  • Circa 1800 BC: Constructions in Italy (Giovinazzo) and in Sicily (Cava dei Servi, Cava Lazzaro).
  • Circa 1500 BC: Constructions in Portugal (Alter Pedroso and Mourela).
  • Circa 1400 BC: Burial of the Egtved Girl in Denmark, whose body is today one of the best-preserved examples of its kind.
  • Circa 1200 BC: Last vestiges of the megalithic tradition in the Mediterranean and elsewhere come to an end during the general population upheaval known to ancient history as the Invasions of the Sea Peoples. 

African megaliths

Nabta Playa

The Calendar Stones
Nabta Playa at the southwest corner of the western Egyptian desert was once a large lake in the Nubian Desert, located 500 miles south of modern-day Cairo. By the 5th millennium BC, the peoples in Nabta Playa had fashioned the world's earliest known astronomical device, 1,000 years older than, but comparable to, Stonehenge.  Research shows it to be a prehistoric calendar that accurately marks the summer solstice. Findings indicate that the region was occupied only seasonally, likely only in the summer when the local lake filled with water for grazing cattle.  There are other megalithic stone circles in the southwestern desert.

Located in South Africa, this is a prehistoric stone structure in the Blue Swallow Reserve next to Kaapsehoop in Mpumalanga. Located on a sloping cliff top facing east, the site consists of a large number rock boulders, erected to create a stone setting. The exact location of Adam's Calendar on Google Earth is 25 37' 54.36" S / 30 45' 36.00" E.  In all there are around a dozen stones that appear to be standing, including two 2.5 m slabs that stand parallel to each other in the middle of the monument. These stones, were most likely transported about 2-5 kilometers and placed into position. Possibly the front stone was positioned so the right edge caught the setting sun in the summer months. The left edge was carved to cast a shadow on the flat calendar rock during the winter months. The age of the stones is unknown and estimates vary wildly. It is however clear that they have been exposed to the elements for thousands of years based on the extensive erosion patterns on some of the rocks.  The Calendar was brought to the world's attention by Johan Heine following his initial research. Subsequent research found that it is incredibly accurately aligned with the Equinox and Solstices. This ancient Calendar has several additional features which are accurately aligned with the cardinal headings. Presently Johan Heine is campaigning to extend the current research and restore this incredibly important ancient site.

Middle Eastern megaliths

The standing stone has a very ancient tradition in the Middle East, dating back from Mesopotamian times. Although not always 'megalithic' in the true sense, they occur throughout the Orient, and can reach 5 metres or more in some cases (such as Ader in Jordan). This phenomenon can also be traced through many passages from the Old Testament, such as those related to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, who poured oil over a stone that he erected after his famous dream in which angels climbed to heaven (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob is also described as putting up stones at other occasions, whereas Moses erected twelve pillars symbolizing the tribes of Israel. The tradition of venerating (standing) stones continued in Nabatean times and is reflected in, e.g., the Islamic rituals surrounding the Kaaba and nearby pillars. Related phenomena, such as cupholes, rock-cut tombs and circles also occur in the Middle East.Dolmens and standing stones have been found in large areas of the Middle East starting at the Turkish border in the north of Syria close toAleppo, southwards down to Yemen. They can be encountered in Lebanon, Syria, IsraelJordan, and Saudi Arabia. Megaliths have also been found on Kharg Island in Iran and at Barda Balka in Iraq. The most concentrated occurrence of dolmen in particular is in a large area on both sides of the Jordan Rift Valley, with greater predominance on the eastern side. They occur first and foremost on the Golan Heights, the Hauran, and in Jordan, which probably has the largest concentration of dolmen in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, only very few dolmen have been identified so far in the Hejaz. They seem, however, to re-emerge in Yemen in small numbers, and thus could indicate a continuous tradition related to those ofSomalia and Ethiopia.

Asian megaliths

Northern style
Megalithic burials are found in Northeast and Southeast Asia. They are found mainly in the Korean Peninsula. They are also found in the Liaoning,Shandong, and Zhejiang in China, the East Coast of TaiwanKyūshū and Shikoku in JapanDong Nai province in Vietnam and parts of Pakistan and India. Some living megalithic traditions are found on the island of Sumba and Nias in Indonesia. The greatest concentration of megalithic burials is in Korea. Archaeologists estimate that there are 15,000 to 100,000 southern megaliths in the Korean Peninsula. Typical estimates hover around the 30,000 mark for the entire peninsula, which in itself constitutes some 40% of all dolmens worldwide (see Dolmen).
Northeast Asian megalithic traditions originated in northeast China, in particular the Liao River basin. The practice of erecting megalithic burials spread quickly from the Liao River Basin and into the Korean Peninsula, where the structure of megaliths is geographically and chronologically distinct. The earliest megalithic burials are called "northern" or "table-style" because they feature an above-ground burial chamber formed by heavy stone slabs that form a rectangular cist. An oversized capstone is placed over the stone slab burial chamber, giving the appearance of a table-top. These megalithic burials date to the early part of the Mumun Pottery Period (c. 1500-850 BC) and are distributed, with a few exceptions, north of the Han River. Few northern-style megaliths in northeast China contain grave goods such as Liaoning bronze daggers, prompting some archaeologists to interpret the burials as the graves of chiefs or preeminent individuals.  However, whether a result of grave-robbery or intentional mortuary behaviour, most northern megaliths contain no grave goods.

Southern style

Southern-style megalithic burials are distributed in the southern Korean Peninsula. It is thought that most of them date to the latter part of the Early Mumun or to the Middle Mumun Period. Southern-style megaliths are typically smaller in scale than northern megaliths. The interment area of southern megaliths has an underground burial chamber made of earth or lined with thin stone slabs. A massive capstone is placed over the interment area and is supported by smaller propping stones. Most of the megalithic burials on the Korean Peninsula are of the southern type.

As with northern megaliths, southern examples contain few, if any, artifacts. However, a small number of megalithic burials contain fine red-burnished pottery, bronze daggers, polished groundstone daggers, and greenstone ornaments. Southern megalithic burials are often found in groups, spread out in lines that are parallel with the direction of streams. Megalithic cemeteries contain burials that are linked together by low stone platforms made from large river cobbles. Broken red-burnished pottery and charred wood found on these platforms has led archaeologists to hypothesize that these platform were sometimes used for ceremonies and rituals.  The capstones of many southern megaliths have 'cup-marks' carvings. A small number of capstones have human and dagger representations.
These megaliths are distinguished from other types by the presence of a burial shaft, sometimes up to 4 m in depth, which is lined with large cobbles. A large capstone is placed over the burial shaft without propping stones. Capstone-style megaliths are the most monumental type in the Korean Peninsula, and they are primarily distributed near or on the south coast of Korea. It seems that most of these burials date to the latter part of the Middle Mumun (c. 700-550 BC), and they may have been built into the early part of the Late Mumun. An example is found near modern Changwon at Deokcheon-ni, where a small cemetery contained a capstone burial (No. 1) with a massive, rectangularly shaped, stone and earthen platform. Archaeologists were not able to recover the entire feature, but the low platform was at least 56 X 18 m in size.

Living megalith culture of Indonesia

The Punden step pyramid and menhir can be found in Pagguyangan Cisolok and Gunung PadangWest Java. The Gunung Padang Site is the biggest megalithic site in Southeast Asia. The Cipari megalith site also in West Java displays monoliths, stone terraces, and sarcophagi. The Punden step pyramid is believed to be the predecessor and basic design of later Hindu-Buddhist temples structure in Java after the adoption of Hinduism and Buddhism by the native population. The 8th century Borobudur and 15th-century Candi Sukuh featured the step-pyramid structure.
Several megalith sites and structures are also found across Indonesia. Menhirs, dolmens, stone tables, ancestral stone statues, and step pyramid structure called Punden Berundak were discovered in various sites inJavaSumatraSulawesi, and the Lesser Sunda Islands.The Indonesian archipelago is the host of Austronesian megalith cultures both past and present. Living megalith cultures can be found on Nias, an isolated island off the western coast of North Sumatra, the Batak people in the interior of North Sumatra, on Sumba island in East Nusa Tenggara and also Toraja people from the interior of South Sulawesi. These megalith cultures remained preserved, isolated and undisturbed well into the late 19th century.
Lore Lindu National Park in Central Sulawesi houses ancient megalith relics such as ancestral stone statues. Mostly located in the Bada, Besoa and Napu valleys.

Madia Gonds of Maharashtra, India

A study mentions living megalithic practices amongst the Madia Gonds. The Madia Gonds live in Bhamragad Taluka of Gadchiroli District of MaharashtraIndia.

Melanesian megaliths

Megaliths occur in many parts of Melanesia, mainly in Milne Bay ProvinceFiji and Vanuatu. Few excavations has been made and little is known about the structures. The megalith tomb Otuyam at Kiriwina has been dated to be approximately 2000 years old which indicates that megaliths are an old custom in Melanesia. However have very few megaliths been dated. The constructions have been used for different rituals. For example, tombs, sacrifices and rituals of fecundity. Dance sites exist next to some megaliths. In some places in Melanesia rituals are continued to be held at the sacred megalith sites. The fact that the beliefs are alive is a reason that most excavations have been stopped at the sites.

Analysis and evaluation

Megaliths were used for a variety of purposes. The purpose of megaliths ranged from serving as boundary markers of territory, to a reminder of past events, to being part of the society's religion. Common motifs including crooks and axes seem to be symbols of political power, much like the crook was a symbol of Egyptian pharaohs. Amongst the indigenous peoples of India,MalaysiaPolynesiaNorth AfricaNorth America, and South America, the worship of these stones, or the use of these stones to symbolize a spirit or deity, is a possibility.  In the early 20th century, some scholars believed that all megaliths belonged to one global "Megalithic culture"  (hyperdiffusionism, e. g. 'the Manchester school',  by Grafton Elliot Smith and William James Perry), but this has long been disproved by modern dating methods.  Nor is it believed any longer that there was a European megalithic culture, although regional cultures existed, even within such a small areas as the British Isles. The archaeologist Euan Mackie wrote "Likewise it cannot be doubted that important regional cultures existed in the Neolithic period and can be defined by different kinds of stone circles and local pottery styles (Ruggles & Barclay 2000: figure 1). No-one has ever been rash enough to claim a nation-wide unity of all aspects of Neolithic archaeology!"  

Types of megalithic structures

The types of megalithic structures can be divided into two categories, the "Polylithic type" and the "Monolithic type." Different megalithic structures include:
Polylithic type
  • Dolmen: a free standing chamber, consisting of standing stones covered by a capstone as a lid. Dolmens were used for burial and were covered by mounds.
    • Great dolmens
    • Rectangular dolmens
    • Simple dolmens
    • Polygonal dolmens
  • Taula: a straight standing stone, topped with another forming a 'T' shape.
  • Cistvaens
  • Chamberless stone enclosure
  • Guardian stones
  • Passage grave
  • Tumuli or barrows
  • Punden or Punden Berundak: step earth and stone pyramid, similar to tumuli but enforced with stone walls.
  • Cairns or Galgals
  • Cromlech (ed., a Welsh term)
  • Kurgans
  • Nuraghi
  • Talayots
  • Sessi or Stazzone
  • Round Towers
  • Marae (Polynesia)
  • Ahus with Moai and Pukao (Easter Island)
Monolithic type
  • Menhir: a large, single upright standing stone.
  • Alignments (or Stone row avenues [e.g., Linear arrangement of upright, parallel standing stones])
  • Cycoliths (or stone circles)
  • Stantare
  • Trilithon: Two parallel upright stones with a horizontal stone (called a lintel) placed on top, e.g. Stonehenge.
  • Orthostat: an upright slab forming part of a larger structure.
  • Stone ship
  • Statues such as most moai
  • Gateways