Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Builders of the Megalithic Monuments, Their Habits, Customs and Religion


With regard to the date of the megalithic monuments it only remains to sum up the evidence given in the previous chapters. It may be said that in Europe they never belong to the beginning of the neolithic age, but either to its end or to the period which followed it, i.e. to the age of copper and bronze. The majority date from the dawn of this latter period, though some of the chambered cairns of Ireland seem to belong to the iron age. Outside Europe there are certainly megalithic tombs which are late. In North Africa, for example, we know that the erection of dolmens continued into the early iron age; many of the Indian tombs are clearly late, and the corridor-tombs of Japan can be safely attributed in part at least to the Christian era.

With what purpose were the megalithic monuments erected? The most simple example, the menhir or upright stone, may have served many purposes. In discussing the temples of Malta [124]we saw reason for believing that the megalithic peoples were in the habit of worshipping great stones as such. Other stones, not actually worshipped, may mark the scene of some great event. Jacob commemorated a dream by setting up the stone which had served him as a pillow, and Samuel, victorious over the Philistines, set up twelve stones, and called the place "Stones of Deliverance." Others again perhaps stood in a spot devoted to some particular national or religious ceremony. Thus the Angami of the present day in Assam set up stones in commemoration of their village feasts. It seems clear from the excavations that the menhirs do not mark the place of burials, though they may in some cases have been raised in honour of the dead.

The question of the purpose of stone circles has already been dealt with in connection with those of Great Britain. Alignements are more difficult to explain, for, from their form, they cannot have served as temples in the sense of meeting-places for worship. Yet they must surely have been connected with religion in some way or other. Possibly they were not constructed once and for all, but the stones were added gradually, each marking some event or the performance of some periodic ceremony, or even the death of some great chief. The so-called "Canaanite High Place" recently found at Gezer consists of a line [125]of ten menhirs running north and south, together with a large block in which was a socket for an idol or other object of worship. Several bodies of children found near it have suggested that the monument was a place of sacrifice.

Other megalithic structures can be definitely classed as dwellings or tombs, as we have seen in our separate treatment of them. It is not improbable that, if we are right in considering the dolmen as the most primitive form of megalithic monument, megalithic architecture was funerary in origin. Yet, as we find it in its great diffusion, it provides homes for the living as well as for the dead. In their original home, perhaps in Africa, the megalithic race may have lived in huts of wattle or skins, but after their migration the need of protection in a hostile country and the exigencies of a colder climate may have forced them to employ stone for their dwellings. In any case, in megalithic architecture as seen in Europe the tomb and the dwelling types are considerably intermixed, and may have reacted on one another. This, however, does not justify the assertion so often made that the megalithic tomb was a conscious imitation of the hut. It is true that some peoples make the home of their dead to resemble that of the living. Among certain tribes of Greenland it is usual to leave the dead man seated in his hut by way of burial. But such a conception does not exist among all peoples, [126]and to say that the dolmen is an imitation in stone of a hut is the purest conjecture. Still more improbable is Montelius's idea that the corridor-tomb imitates a dwelling. It is true that the Eskimos have a type of hut which is entered by a low passage often 30 feet in length, but for one who believes as Montelius does that the corridor-tomb is southern or eastern in origin such a derivation is impossible, for this type of house is essentially northern, its aim being to exclude the icy winds. In the south it would be intolerably close, and its low passage besides serving no purpose would be inconvenient.

There is really no reason to derive either the dolmen or the corridor-tomb from dwellings at all. Granted the use of huge stones, both are purely natural forms, and the presence of the corridor in the latter is dictated by necessity. The problem was how to cover a large tomb-chamber with a mound and to leave it still accessible for later interments, and the obvious solution was to add a covered passage leading out to the edge of the mound.

A remarkable feature of the megalithic tombs is the occurrence in many of them of a small round or rectangular hole in one of the walls, usually an end-wall, more rarely a partition-wall between two chambers. Occasionally the hole was formed by placing side by side two upright blocks each [127]with a semicircular notch in its edge. Tombs with a holed block or blocks occur in England, instances being the barrows of Avening and Rodmarton, King Orry's Grave in the Isle of Man, Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall, and Plas Newydd in Wales, which has two holes. There are also examples in Ireland, France, Belgium, Central Germany, and Scandinavia, where they are common. Passing further afield we find holes in the Giants' Graves of Sardinia, and in Syria, the Caucasus, and India, where half the dolmens in the Deccan are of this type. The holes are usually too small to allow of the passage of a human body. It has been suggested that they served as an outlet for the soul of the deceased, or in some cases as a means of passing in food to him.

Attention has been frequently drawn to curious round pits so often found on the stones of dolmens and usually known as cup-markings. They vary in diameter from about two to four inches, and are occasionally connected by a series of narrow grooves in the stone. They vary considerably in number, sometimes there are few, sometimes many. They occur nearly always on the upper surface of the cover-slab, very rarely on its under surface or on the side-walls.

Some have attempted to show that these pits are purely natural and not artificial. It has been suggested, for instance, that they are simply the [128]casts of a species of fossil sea-urchin which has weathered out from the surface of the stone. This explanation may be true in some cases, but it will not serve in all, for the 'cups' are sometimes arranged in such regular order that their artificial origin is palpable. These markings are found on dolmens and corridor-tombs in Palestine, North Africa, Corsica, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Great Britain. In Wales there is a fine example of a dolmen with pits at Clynnog Fawr, while in Cornwall we may instance the monument called "The Three Brothers of Grugith" near Meneage.

There is no clue to the purpose of these pits. Some have thought that they were made to hold the blood of sacrifice which was poured over the slab, and from some such idea may have arisen some of the legends of human victims which still cling round the dolmens. Others have opposed to this the fact that the pits sometimes occur on vertical walls or under the cover-slabs, and have preferred to see in them some totemistic signification or some expression of star-worship. It is possible that we have to deal with a complex and not a simple phenomenon, and that the pits were not all made to serve a single purpose. Those which cover some of the finest stones at Mnaidra and Hagiar Kim are certainly meant to be ornamental, though there may be in them a reminiscence of some religious tradition. In any case, it is [129]worth while to remember that cup-markings also occur on natural rocks and boulders in Switzerland, Scandinavia, Great Britain (where there is a good example near Ilkley in Yorkshire), near Como in Italy, and in Germany, Russia, and India.

Of the builders of the megalithic monuments themselves we cannot expect to know very much, especially while their origin remains veiled in obscurity. Yet there are a few facts which stand out clearly. We even know something about their appearance, for the skulls found in the megalithic tombs have in many cases been subjected to careful examination and measurement. Into the detail of these measurements we cannot enter here; suffice it to say that the most important of them are the maximum length of the skull from front to back and its maximum breadth, both measures, of course, being taken in a straight line with a pair of callipers, and not round the contour of the skull. If we now divide the maximum breadth by the maximum length and multiply the result by 100 we get what is known as the cephalic index of the skull. Thus if a skull has a length of 180 millimetres and a breadth of 135, its cephalic index is 135/180 X 100, i.e. 75. It is clear that in a roundish type of head the breadth will be greater in proportion to the length than in a narrow elliptical type. Thus in a broad head the cephalic index is high, while in a narrow head it [130]is low. The former is called brachycephalic (short-headed), and the latter dolichocephalic (long-headed).

This index is now accepted by most anthropologists as a useful criterion of race, though, of course, there are other characteristics which must often be taken into account, such as the height and breadth of the face, the cubic capacity of the skull and its general contour. At any rate, if we can show that the skulls of the megalithic tombs conform to a single type in respect of their index we shall have a presumption, though not a certainty, that they belong to a single race.

For Africa the evidence consists in a group of twenty skulls from dolmen-tombs giving cephalic indices which range from 70.5 to 84.4. The average index is 75.27, and the majority of the indices lay within a few units of that number. Ten skulls from Halsaflieni in Malta have cephalic indices running from 66 to 75.1, the average being 71.84. Of a series of 44 skulls from the rock-tombs of the Petit Morin in France, 12 had an index of over 80, 22 were between 75 and 80, and 10 were below 75. But in the dolmens of Lozère distinctly broad skulls were frequent. A series of British neolithic skulls, mostly from barrows, ran from 67 to 77.

The builders of the megalithic monuments thus belonged in the main to a fairly dolichocephalic race or races, for the large majority of [131]the skulls measured are of a long-headed type. There are, however, in various localities, especially in France, occasional anomalous types of skull which are distinctly brachycephalic, and show that contamination of some kind was taking or had taken place.

Of the state of civilization to which the builders of the megalithic monuments had attained, and of the social condition in which they lived, there is something to be gathered. It is clear in the first place from the evidence of the Maltese buildings that they were a pastoral people who domesticated the ox, the sheep, the pig, and the goat, upon whose flesh they partly lived. Shellfish also formed a part of their diet, and the shells when emptied of their contents were occasionally pierced to be used as pendants or to form necklaces or bracelets.

Whether these people were agricultural is a question more difficult to answer. It is true that flat stones have been found, on which some kind of cereal was ground up with the aid of round pebbles, but the grain for which these primitive mills were used may have been wild and not cultivated. No grain of any kind has been found in the Maltese settlements.

The megalithic race do not seem to have been great traders. This is remarkably exemplified in Malta, where there is not a trace of connection [132]with the wonderful civilization which must have been flourishing so near at hand in Crete and the Ægean at the time when the megalithic temples were built. The island seems to have been entirely self-sufficing, except for the importation of obsidian, probably from the neighbouring island of Linosa. Of copper, which wide trade would have introduced, there is no sign.

Some writers, however, have argued the existence of extensive trade-relations from the occurrence of a peculiar kind of turquoise called callaïs in some of the megalithic monuments of France and Portugal. The rarity of this stone has inclined some archæologists to attribute it to a single source, while some have gone so far as to consider it eastern in origin. For the last theory there is no evidence whatsoever. No natural deposit of callaïs is known, but it is highly probable that the sources of the megalithic examples lay in France or Portugal.

It would of course be foolish to suppose that the megalithic people received none of the products of other countries, especially at a time when the discovery of copper was giving a great impetus to trade. No doubt they enjoyed the benefits of that kind of slow filtering trade which a primitive tribe, even if it had wished, could hardly have avoided, but they were not a great trading nation as were the Cretans of the Middle and Late Minoan Periods, or the Egyptians of the XIIth [133]and XVIIIth Dynasties. We know nothing of their political conditions, of the groups into which they were divided, or the centres from which they were governed. That there were strong centres of government is, however, clear from the very existence of such huge monuments, many of which must have required the combined and organized labour of large armies of workers, in the gathering of which the state was doubtless strongly backed by religion.

We have seen that the megalithic peoples frequently dwelt in huts of great stones. Yet in the majority of cases their huts must have been, like those of most primitive races, of perishable material, such as wood, wattle, skins, turf, and clay. As for their form there was probably a continual conflict between the round and the rectangular plan, just as there was in the stone examples. Which form prevailed in any particular district was probably determined almost by accident. Thus in Sardinia the round type was mostly kept for the huts and nuraghi, while the rectangular was reserved for the dolmens and Giants' Graves. Even here the confusion between the two types is shown by the fact that near Birori there are two dolmens with a round plan. Again, in Pantelleria the huts of the Mursia are rectangular, while the sesi, which are tombs, are roughly circular. It is therefore probable that the round and rectangular types of building were [134]both in use among the megalithic people before they spread over Europe.

Within their huts these people led a life of the simplest description. Their weapons and tools, though occasionally of copper, were for the most part of stone. Flint was the most usual material. In Scandinavia it was often polished, but elsewhere it was merely flaked. The implements made from it were of simple types, knives, borers, scrapers, lanceheads, and more rarely arrowheads. Many of these were quite roughly made, no more flaking being done than was absolutely necessary to produce the essential form, and the work being, when possible, confined to one face of the flint.

In the Mediterranean obsidian, a volcanic rock, occasionally took the place of flint, especially in Sardinia and Pantelleria. Axes or celts were often made of flint in Scandinavia and North Germany, but elsewhere other stones, such as jade, jadeite, and diorite were commonly used.

We can only guess at the way in which the megalithic people were clothed. No doubt the skins of the animals they domesticated and of those they hunted provided them with some form of covering, at any rate in countries where it was needed. Possibly they spun wool or flax into a thread, for at Halsaflieni two objects were found which look like spindle-whorls, and others occur on sites which are almost certainly to be attributed to the megalithic people. There is, however, [135]nothing to show that they wove the thread into stuffs.

The love of personal decoration was highly developed among them, and all branches of nature were called upon to minister to their desire for ornament. Shells, pierced and strung separately or in masses, were perhaps their favourite adornment, but close on these follow beads and pendants of almost every conceivable substance, bone, horn, stone, clay, nuts, beans, copper, and occasionally gold.

One small object assumes a great importance on account of its wide distribution. This is the conical button with two converging holes in its base to pass the thread through. This little object, which may have served exactly the purpose of the modern button, occurs in several parts of the megalithic area. There are examples in Malta made of stone and shell. Elsewhere it is most usually of bone. It occurs in Sardinia, in France, in the rock-tombs of Gard, and in the corridor and rock-tombs of Lozère and Ardèche, in Portugal in the allée couverte of Monte Abrahaõ, in Bohuslän (Sweden), and at Carrowmore in Ireland. Outside the megalithic area it has been found in two of the Swiss lake-dwellings and in Italy.

The pottery of the megalithic people was of a simple type. It was all made by hand, the potter's wheel being still unknown to the makers. Pottery with painted designs does not occur outside Sicily, [136]except for a few poor and late examples in Malta. The best vases were of fairly purified clay, moderately well fired, and having a polished surface, usually of a darkish colour. On this surface were often incised ornamental designs, varying both in type and in the skill with which they were engraved. As a rule the schemes were rectilinear, more rarely they were carried out in curves. Sardinia furnishes some fine examples of rectilinear work, while the best of the curved designs are found in Malta, where elaborate conventional and even naturalistic patterns are traced out with wonderful freedom and steadiness of hand.

The pottery of the megalithic area is not all alike; it would be surprising if it were. Even supposing that the invaders brought with them a single definite style of pottery-making this would rapidly become modified by local conditions and by the already existing pottery industry of the country, often, no doubt, superior to that of the new-comers. Nevertheless, there are a few points of similarity between the pottery of various parts of the megalithic area. The most remarkable example is the bell-shaped cup, which occurs in Denmark, England, France, Spain, Sardinia, and possibly Malta (the specimen is too broken for certainty). Outside the area it is found in Bohemia, Hungary, and North Italy. Here, as in the case of the conical button, we cannot argue that the form was actually introduced by the megalithic [137]race, though there is a certain possibility in favour of such a hypothesis.

That the megalithic people possessed a religion of some kind will hardly be doubted. Their careful observance of the rites due to the dead, and their construction of buildings which can hardly have been anything but places of worship, is a strong testimony to this. We have seen that in the Maltese temples the worship of baetyls or pillars of stone seems to have been carried on. Several stone objects which can scarcely have been anything but baetyls were found in the megalithic structures of Los Millares in Spain, but none are known elsewhere in the megalithic area.

There is some reason for thinking that among the megalithic race there existed a cult of the axe. In France, for instance, the sculptured rock-tombs of the valley of the Petit Morin show, some a human figure, some an axe, and some a combination of the two. This same juxtaposition of the two also occurs on a slab which closed the top of a corbelled chamber at Collorgues in Gard. A simple allée couverte at Göhlitzsch in Saxony has on one of its blocks an axe and handle engraved and coloured red. There are further examples in theallée couverte of Gavr'inis and the dolmen called La Table des Marchands at Locmariaquer.

[138]These sculptured axes call to mind at once the numerous axe-shaped pendants of fine polished stone (jade, jadeite, etc.) found in Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, and France, and apparently used as amulets. The excavation of Crete has brought to light a remarkable worship of the double axe, and it has been argued with great probability that one of the early boat signs figured on the pre-dynastic painted vases of Egypt is a double axe, and that this was a cult object. It seems very probable that in the megalithic area, or at least in part of it, there was a somewhat similar worship, the object of cult, however, being not a double but a single axe, usually represented as fitted with a handle. It need not be assumed that the axe itself was worshipped, though this is not impossible; it is more likely that it was an attribute of some god or goddess.

Among the rock-hewn tombs of the valley of the Petit Morin in the department of Marne, France, were seven which contained engravings on one of the walls. Several of these represent human figures (Fig. 13). The eyes are not marked, but the hair and nose are clear. In some the breasts are shown, in others they are omitted. On each figure is represented what appears to be a collar or necklace. Similar figures occur on the slabs of some of the allées couvertes of Seine et Oise, and on certain blocks found in and near megalithic burials in the South of France. Moreover, in the [139]departments of Aveyron, Tarn, and Hérault have been found what are known as menhir-statues, upright pillars of stone roughly shaped into human semblance at the top; they are of two types, the one clearly female and the other with no breasts, but always with a collar or baldric.

It has been argued that these figures represent a deity or deities of the megalithic people. Déchelette, comparing what are apparently tattoo marks on a menhir-statue at Saint Sermin (Aveyron) with similar marks on a figure cut on a schist plaque at Idanha a Nova (Portugal) and on a marble idol from the island of Seriphos in the Ægean, seems inclined to argue that in France and Portugal we have the same deity as in the Ægean. This seems rather a hazardous conjecture, for we know that many primitive peoples practised tattooing, and, moreover, it is not certain that the French figures represent deities at all. It is quite as likely, if not more so, that they represent the deceased, and take the place of a grave-stone: this would account for the occurrence of both male and female types. This was almost certainly the purpose of six stones that remain of a line that ran parallel to a now destroyed tomb at Tamuli (Sardinia). Three have breasts as if to distinguish the sex of three of those buried in the tomb. We must not therefore assume that any of the French figures represents a 'dolmen-deity.'

[140]The method of burial observed in the megalithic tombs is almost universally inhumation. Cremation seems to occur only in France, but there it is beyond all doubt. The known examples are found in the departments of Finistère, Marne, and Aisne, and in the neighbourhood of Paris. In Finistère out of 92 megalithic burials examined 61 were cremations, 26 were inhumations, and 5 were uncertain. It is extremely curious that this small portion of France should be the only part of the megalithic area where cremation was practised. It is generally held that cremation was brought into Europe by the broad-headed 'Alpine' people, who seem to have invaded the centre of the continent at some period in the neolithic age. It is possible that in parts of France a mixture took place between the megalithic builders and the Alpine race. Intermarriage would no doubt lead to confusion in many cases between the two rites.

In all other cases the builders of the megalithic monuments buried their dead unburned. Often the body was lying stretched out on its back, or was set in a sitting position against the side of the tomb; but most frequently it was placed in what is known as the contracted position, laid on one side, generally the left, with the knees bent and drawn up towards the chin, the arms bent at the elbow, and the hands placed close to the face. Many explanations of this position have been [141]suggested. Some see in it a natural posture of repose, some an attempt to crowd the body into as small a space as possible. Some have suggested that the corpse was tightly bound up with cords in order that the spirit might not escape and do harm to the living. Perhaps the most widely approved theory is that which considers this position to be embryonic, i.e. the position of the embryo previous to birth. None of these explanations is entirely convincing, but no better one has been put forward up to the present.

This custom, it must be noted, was not limited to the megalithic peoples. It was the invariable practice of the pre-dynastic Egyptians and has been found further east in Persia. It occurs in the neolithic period in Crete and the Ægean, in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and other parts of Europe, and it is one of the facts which go to show that the builders of the megaliths were ethnologically connected, however remotely, with their predecessors in Europe.

At Halsaflieni, in Malta, we have perhaps examples of the curious custom of secondary interment; the body is buried temporarily in some suitable place, and after the flesh has left the bones the latter are collected and thrown together into a common ossuary. That the bones at Halsaflieni were placed there when free from flesh is probable from the closeness with which they were packed together (see p. 111). There are also possible examples [142]in Sicily (see p. 79). The custom was not unknown in neolithic days, especially in Crete. It is still occasionally practised on the island and on the Greek mainland, where, after the dead have lain a few years in hallowed soil, their bones are dug up, roughly cleaned, and deposited in caves.