Celtic Monuments



Written by Teasha Bayles


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Social structure was exemplified through monuments. Although there are few specific names of rulers, we know that these large burials were created for people of importance. Archaeological evidence such as grave goods have been found with some remains. Also, the ceremonial use of these megalithic structures prove that these people belonged to a community and had a strong belief system, and religious leaders like druids were held in high regard. Their beliefs and ceremonial monuments were central to their life.

Table of Contents:
  • History
  • Types of Monuments
  • Materials and Operation
  • Structure
  • Conclusion



History

The people of Pre-Roman Europe created remarkable stone and earth structures known as megalithic monuments. The word “megalithic” comes from the Greek words “mega”, meaning large, and “lithos”, meaning stone. These structures developed out of the important ritualized tradition of burial of the dead, and served as both a burial site and as a place where ceremonies took place. These structures allowed the living to connect with the dead and and also served as a way for the dead to contact our world.
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Spread of megaliths in Europe
egalithic monuments are found all over the world, even though most were built at different periods in time (right up to the 19th century), and are unrelated. However, the theory of convergent evolution can explain why similar structures developed in dissimilar and unrelated societies. Convergent evolution is when different species evolve similar solutions to similar evolutionary pressures at different times in the earth’s history. The significance of monumentalism and importance of burial and belief in afterlife among European civilizations probably led to the emergence of megalithic structures. Also, trade and interaction could explain why similar monuments were erected in different civilizations.
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Each red dot represents a megalithic monument
In Europe, megalithic monuments can be found along the length of the Atlantic seaboard, from the south of Spain to the south of Sweden, the western part of Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and northern Germany. Megaliths are also found in the western Mediterranean basin.


Types of Monuments


There were many different types of monuments and structures in pre-Roman Europe, but some of the main types are:
  • Barrow
  • Dolmen
  • Cairn
  • Passage Tomb
  • Menhir
  • Stone Circle

Barrow

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Silbury Hill, England

A barrow is a mound of earth and/or stones raised over a grave. Bodies were often cremated or placed in stone or wooden vaults, and large mounds of soil were heaped on top. Remains were added to the barrow throughout time, causing the barrow to become larger and larger as more remains were added. There are two major types of barrows: the round barrow and the long barrow.

Round Barrow

Round barrows are simple in shape, comprising of a round mound of earth and stone on top of a burial. They were often surrounded by ditches, and ranged from simple mounds of earth to more complex layering of earth and stone.

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Duggleby Howe, England

The image to the right depicts Duggleby Howe, a site in Yorkshire, England, and is one of the largest round barrows in Britain. It has been modified many times, illustrating how remains were often buried on top of one another, creating a bigger and bigger barrow as time passed. Bowls, bodies, skulls, cremated remains, and burial shafts were all found in Duggleby Howe. Fifty three traces of cremation have been found on top of Duggleby Howe.









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West Kennet Long Barrow, England

Long Barrow

They are intricate communal burial mounds, and are often rectangular in shape. Up to fifty remains were buried in a trench, and the trench was then surrounded by stone cairns. Finally, large earth barrows were constructed on top of the structure.
Most of the remains are simply bones, rather than whole skeletons, implying that the bodies were either subject to exposure before burial or were moved from a previous burial site. Long barrows were left open so that future remains could be added, and after several generations they were sealed. There is some evidence of grave goods, implying that individuals buried in long barrows were powerful and had high social status.
Barrow burial was used up until the 7th century with the introduction of Christianity.

Dolmen


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Poulnabrone dolmen, Ireland

A dolmen is a single chamber tomb with a large flat stone laid on upright stones. Dolmens were designed as a burial chamber and were often covered with earth to form a barrow. They were mainly constructed in the Neolithic period. They were the start of future megalithic architecture in Europe.
Dolmens often contained remains of about five people, and therefore probably used as a family burial site. It is debatable whether these structures were primarily used as burial sites or for more ceremonial purposes.
Cairn

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Queen Maeve's Cairn, Ireland






A cairn is a manmade mound of rough stones. A cairn is a transitional phase between a barrow and passage tomb. Like barrows and passage tombs, cairns are communal burials with art depicted inside the tomb. There is also a chamber, much like a passage tomb. Also comparable to passage tombs, cairns’ entrances faced so that the sun would shine in on specific days.







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Spring Equinox Sunrise at Cairn T, Ireland



Passage Tomb

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Newgrange, Ireland


Passage tombs consist of a narrow passage made of stones and may be covered in earth and stone. Some contain multiple chambers, with a main burial chamber and smaller sub-chambers leading off from it. Sometimes passage tombs are covered with a cairn and an elaborate roof. Megalithic art has also been carved into many of the stones of passage tombs.
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Megalithic art carved in the roof stone at Newgrange
The passage is often aligned with the sun, so that the sun shines into the passage at an important point of the year. At Maeshowe in Scotland, and similarly at Newgrange in Ireland, the passage itself is aligned so that it is illuminated on the winter solstice.
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Maeshowe illuminated by the winter solstice
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Chamber in Newgrange also illuminated by the winter solstice
Later passage tombs were often built on the tops of hills so that they could be seen from great distances. Builders obviously put forethought into construction of such a structure, and such efforts would have required some leadership and planning. Passage tombs were used for more complex ceremonies as well, and were the crowning achievement in megalithic burial structures.

Menhir

A menhir is a large upright standing stone. Their sizes can vary, but most are an uneven square shape that tapers at the top. A menhir can be a part of a group or just as a single stone, known as a monolith. Menhirs are found all throughout Europe, but most are found in Western Europe.
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Rudston Monolith, England. The tallest menhir in Britain
Menhirs were often carved with megalithic art, suggesting they were significant structures to pre-Roman peoples. Their function is debatable. Some explanations suggest they were used for astronomical functions and calendars, territorial markers, or places of human sacrifice. In the case of the Rudston Monolith, the flat face of the stone faces the midwinter sunrise, suggesting astronomical uses, and human skulls have been found buried around it, also suggesting sacrifice.

Stone Circle

A monument of standing stones, in the shape of a circle, ellipse, or arc. The number and size of stones used varies substantially. There are over 1,000 stone circles in Britain and Ireland, and most are located near the coast.
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Swinside, England
Stone circles do not encompass graves and display no evidence of human dwelling, signifying these structures were used for ceremonial purposes. Some structures are aligned with the rising or setting of the sun and moon, but the crudeness of the size and structure of the stones eliminates the possibility of precise astronomical purposes.
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Avebury, England
Stone circles started off small and had closely set stones. However, later in the Neolithic period stone circles began grow in size and complexity. The stone circle at Avebury, for example, measures at 400 metres in diameter. These were obviously places for large groups and communities to gather and perform ceremonies. By the Bronze Age, however, smaller stone circles were popular. These were probably built families, and were far less monumental than the earlier and larger stone circles.
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Aerial photograph of Avebury


Materials and Operations

Materials

Monuments were built with various materials:
  • Earth and stone
  • Small stones used for dry stone masonry
  • Megalithic blocks
  • Timber used for tools, rollers, and scaffolding, or to build roofing and chambers
These materials had to be supplied by extraction or collecting, transported over short and long distances, and assembled and shaped.
Small stones were often extracted from nearby geology, and the signs of deep weathering indicate these stones were taken from the surface. Large monoliths however, were sometimes extracted from further distances, up to 10 kilometers.

Operations

There are a variety of ways these stones and materials were transported, including rollers, levers, and counterweights. Most of the transportation methods used wood, proving that wood was an important commodity in megalithic construction.
Modern attempts to transport the larger stones have been successful, proving that creating such structures with stones weighing several dozen tons does not require herculean strength.


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Modern men moving large stones with wooden rollers



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Proving that, although construction of monolithic structures was difficult, it was not impossible


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A possible explanation of how to move large stones across water from great distances


Structure

These structures are the result of careful planning and require knowledge of construction.
Recent research has proven that cairns and mounds are not just piles of stone and rubble. The materials and stones are structured, with arranged faces, and the monument has a defined shape. Excavations show that cairns and mounds often concealed chambers that were small in comparison to the outer structure. Other cairns and mounds however, do not contain any chamber, proving that these structures had more than a funerary function.
Menhirs were also planned and were laid out according to their relation to their environment. The tools used to stabilize the huge uneven stones used in menhirs were designed so well that most of the stones are still standing today. Megalithic architecture has continued to be very stable and strong over several millennia, proving that these structures were carefully thought out. Builders knew how to construct such monuments, a knowledge that was probably passed down through generations in a civilization.


Conclusion

The exact use of tombs and megaliths is debatable, but no matter their purpose, they represent monuments, and required a large amount of time and skill to build. The civilizations that built these monuments were complex in the sense that they belonged to a somewhat sedentary and hierarchal society. Seasons were very important to pre-Roman Europeans, as evidenced in the alignment of passages and stones with astronomical events. These people relied on agriculture and the land as a way of life, and therefore relied on the changing seasons to determine their lifestyle. Some form of leadership was needed to carry out the construction, and in the case of passage tombs, these leaders were often buried in the structures. However, despite the appearance of leadership in the form of large projects and construction, we have little evidence of specific rulers. There were more women of power buried than men, however, showing that women had an important and powerful place in society. Although very few leaders are named, the pre-Roman Europeans have left us with monumental architecture that both captivate and confuse archaeologists and people worldwide.


Links and Sources


Websites:

The Megalithic Portal. http://www.megalithic.co.uk/index.php

The Sacred Island. http://www.carrowkeel.com/

Knowth. http://www.knowth.com/

English Heritage. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/

MyGuideIreland. http://www.myguideireland.com/neolithic-sites-in-ireland

Britannica Online Encycolpedia. http://www.britannica.com/

Journals and Articles:

"Filming Through the Mists of Time: Celtic Constructions and the Documentary".
Author: Angela Piccini
Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 1, Supplement: Special Issue: Anthropology in Public (Feb. 1996), pp. S87-S111
Published By: The University of Chicago Press
URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2744235


"Megalithic Tombs and Long Barrows in Britain"
Author: Frances Lynch
Published By: Shire Publications Limited 2004
URL: http://books.google.com...


"European Prehistory: Neolithic to the Iron Age"
Author: Marija Gimbutas
Published By: Stanford UP, Vol. 3. 1963. 69-106.




MODULES

Key Words:

monuments
architecture
megaliths
passage tombs
tombs
mounds
dolmens
cairns
Newgrange
Wayland's Smithy
Silbury Hill
West Kennet Long Barrow

I plan on discussing archaeological sites of Pre-Roman Europe, mainly Ireland and England. Most of the sites I'll be looking at are linked to religion and used for some sort of religious purpose. I'll be highlighting the general categories of Celtic monuments, and then going into detail and describing a few specific sites.



Here is the first sentence of the article, "Kerma: The Rise of an African Civilization":

The floodplains along the Nile constitute an important but as yet little utilized series of laboratories for the comparative study of the origins and interaction of ancient civilizations.



An article relating to my topic is "Filming Through the Mists of Time: Celtic Constructions and the Documentary".
Author: Angela Piccini
Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 1, Supplement: Special Issue: Anthropology in Public (Feb. 1996), pp. S87-S111
Published By: The University of Chicago Press
URL:
http://www.jstor.org/stable/2744235




Most Celtic structures that exist today were erected for religious purposes and burials. Many of these were megaliths, or sites that were comprised of large stones. There are various types of megaliths, such as a menhir, dolmen, passage tomb, and stone circle. Other types of burial sites include the barrow, cairn, and various earthworks. These structures served as a burial site and as a place of worship. They allowed the living to connect with the dead and with ancestors, and also served as a way for the dead to contact this world.



Types of Megaliths:

Dolmen - A single chamber tomb with a large flat stone laid on upright ones.


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Poulnabrone dolmen, Ireland

Menhir - A large upright standing stone.

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Rudston monolith

Rudston monolith, the tallest menhir in the UK

Passage Tomb - consists of a narrow passage made of stones and may be covered in earth and stone.

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Newgrange, Ireland

Stone Circle - a monument of standing stones, in the shape of a circle, ellipse, or arc

Avebury_henge_and_village_UK.jpg
Avebury, England

Types of burial sites:

Barrow - a mound of earth and/or stones raised over a grave

SilburyHill_gobeirne.jpg
Silbury Hill, England

Cairn - a manmade mound of rough stones used to mark a burial site

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Queen Maeve's Tomb, Ireland




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An aerial photo of Stonehenge.



This book explains locations of several burials and tombs in Britain that date to pre-Roman and Neolithic times. The author explains that no matter the use of the tombs and megaliths, they represent monuments, and had to have taken a lot of time and leadership to build. The civilizations that built these monuments were complex in the sense that they belonged to a somewhat sedentary and hierarchal society. Some form of leadership was needed to carry out the construction, and in the case of tombs, these leaders were often buried in the structures.

Article: "Megalithic Tombs and Long Barrows in Britain"
Author: Frances Lynch
Published by: Shire Publications Limited 2004
URL: http://books.google.com...