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Number 118 in this series. Link to all items here.

Megaliths of Southern Italy

They look as if they were dropped in place by a race of giants. As a matter of fact, folklore still refers to them in many parts of Europe as 'tombs of the giants'. Indeed, there are otherwise rational persons (because they refuse to believe in giants) who will look you in the eye and tell you that alien creatures with advanced technology must have levitated these things into place from orbiting spacecraft. They are 'megaliths'—from the Greek, meaning 'large stones'. The most famous group of megaliths is Stonehenge on the Salisbury plain in southern England, but hundreds of other, smaller, sites exist in Europe from central Sweden down through Spain, France, Italy and the Mediterranean islands. They are found, as well, throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Depending on the site, their construction has been dated back to anywhere between five and two thousand years b.c. Many of the ones in Europe are closer to the earlier date and are the oldest examples of European architecture. Their builders are covered by the term "protohistoric," meaning "just before recorded history". We know very little about them except that they spent an inordinate amount of time pushing very heavy stones into place. 

There are basically two kinds of megaliths: dolmen and menhir. Both words are from Breton, a Celtic language spoken in an area of northern France where a great many of them have been found. Dolmen means "table stone" and menhir "tall stone". Thus, dolmen refers to a chambered construction, generally a flat table stone supported on three sides by upright slabs, with the fourth side open as an entrance to the chamber. In some cases there may also be a covered corridor leading into the chamber through the open side. The smaller stone slabs arrayed on either side of the entrance define the corridor leading to the main chamber. Originally, dolmens served as tombs, either for individuals or groups, and both chamber and entrance were covered over with cairns or earth. 

Although dolmens clearly had a funerary purpose and, hence, probably played a significant part in religious rituals and other ceremonies of the Neolithic peoples who built them, there is much less unanimity of opinion on the function of free–standing menhirs, such as the circle at Stonehenge or those on the Orcadi islands of Scotland. They may have served as boundary markers, clan identification, or as ceremonial sites. Some of them, Stonehenge, for example, are astronomically exact, and probably functioned in ceremonial capacity at certain times of the year, such as at the solstice or equinox. Some menhirs might even have been phallic symbols connected to fertility rites. Both menhirs and dolmens have been found decorated with various spirals or zig–zag designs. Wooden versions of these monuments existed, as well, but, obviously, these have been much more vulnerable to the ravages of time than their stone cousins 

Speculation on who built the megalith monuments of Europe—and why—has varied over the last few centuries. Scholarly research, employing modern dating methods, have put to rest a number of earlier theories, such as that they started on Crete in the third millennium b.c. and spread out from there. Many monuments along the Atlantic coast of France are, in fact, older than similar ones on Crete. In the 17th century there was also a short–lived theory that was quite ready to hold that the Romans built them as they spread across Europe a mere two thousand years ago, or that Celtic druids had built them as sacrificial altars. These ideas are clearly mistaken. 

There has also been some discussion over whether the megaliths originated with a single Neolithic people or arose spontaneously at the hands of different tribes at various times and places. Earlier archaeology even spoke of an age of "the coming of the megalith builders," as if a single people, obsessed with the idea of erecting monuments to itself, had spread across Europe and then faded into the obscurity of preliterate history. That idea is not widely held today, however. The tendency now is to think that the megaliths are a product of the so–called "Neolithic Revolution". This term refers to the period during which hunting and gathering cultures slowly changed over to more stable societies based on agriculture and animal husbandry. 

This change started in the Middle East in the 9th millennium b.c. and spread westward into Europe by the 6th millennium b.c. Giving up a nomadic way of life meant that villages could be built, places where entire generations of inhabitants would come of age and pass away—and where there is passing away there has always been —much earlier than even these Neolithic peoples—a human tendency to mark that passage. Thus, the monuments were probably put in place over quite a wide span of time by various peoples who perhaps had no idea that other tribes were doing the same thing a thousand miles distant. 

The presence of the megaliths has fascinated us, true, but has also attracted the hostility of the Christian religion over the last two thousand years. They were often seen as holdovers from paganism, and, as such, a number of them were destroyed. In many cases, however, they were Christianized, that is, crosses were inscribed on them, so they might serve as Christian altars. 

They have been built in our own times, too, but not in Europe. Inhabitants of Madagascar have been seen to erect dolmens and menhirs by the oldest 'hydraulic' technology in the world—human sweat. So much for the claim that megaliths could not have been moved without the aid of extraterrestrial technology. 

The heel of the boot of Italy—that is, Apulia—is rich in megaliths, particularly dolmens: Giovinazzo, Santa Sabina near Brindisi, Altamura, and Minerrini di Lecce near Otranto are a few of the many sites. (Also, there are a few dolmen in Sicily dated to around 2900-2100 BC. One group is on the slopes of Mount Castellaccio near Messina.) Perhaps the best preserved and most easily accessible dolmen in the south of Italy is in an orchard just off the autostrada to Bari, a few minutes' walk from the rest stop/filling station named Dolmen di Biscieglie [photo, above]. It's on the northbound side, so if you stop on the way down to Bari you will have to walk under the autostrada and come up on the other side. Walk out the back of the rest-stop and follow the signs. A small park has recently been built around it and the site itself is marked by a small plaque to "our unknown forebears". It is a lonely, potentially eerie, site and if you are given to searching for affinity with the ages, this is a good place to sit and think about a few dozen villagers four or five thousand years ago who built this tomb for their dead and then went back to their daily routine and puzzled over life and death just the way we do today. 

[Also see the photos of Bronze Age nuraghi settlements and 'tombs of the giants' on Sardinia by clicking here. The general article on Sardinia (click here) may also be on interest. Also see the entry on Malta for information about similar structures there.]

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