Overview of Megalithic Monuments

Megaliths at sunset, Callanish, Scotland

Mint Images / Frans Lanting / Getty Images

Megalithic means 'large stone' and in general, the word is used to refer to any huge, human-built or assembled structure or collection of stones or boulders. Typically, though, megalithic monument refers to monumental architecture built between about 6,000 and 4,000 years ago in Europe, during the Neolithic and Bronze ages.

The Many Uses for Megalithic Monuments

Megalithic monuments are among the earliest and most permanent of archaeological structures, and so many of them were used, or more properly, have been used and reused for thousands of years. Their original intent is likely lost to the ages, but they may have had multiple functions as they were used by different cultural groups over the centuries and millennia. In addition, few, if any, retain their original configuration, having been eroded or vandalized or quarried or added to or simply modified for reuse by subsequent generations.

The thesaurus compiler Peter Marc Roget categorized megalithic monuments as memorials, and that may very well indeed have been a primary function of these structures. But megaliths clearly had and have multiple meanings and multiple uses over the thousands of years that they have stood. Some of the uses include elite burials, mass burials, meeting places, astronomical observatories, religious centers, temples, shrines, processional lanes, territory markers, status symbols: all of these and others that we'll never know are certainly part of the uses for these monuments today and in the past.

Megalithic Common Elements

Megalithic monuments are quite varied in makeup. Their names often (but not always) reflect a major part of their complexes, but archaeological evidence at many of the sites continues to reveal previously unknown complexities. The following is a list of elements that have been identified at megalithic monuments. A few non-European examples have been thrown in for comparison as well.

  • Cairns, mounds, kurgans, barrows, kofun, stupa, tope, tumuli: all of these are different cultural names for man-made hills of earth or stone generally covering burials. Cairns are often differentiated from mounds and barrows as stone piles-but research has shown that many cairns spent part of their existence as mounds: and vice versa. Mounds are found on every continent on planet earth and date from the Neolithic to recent times. Examples of mounds include Priddy Nine Barrows, Silbury Hill and Maeve's Cairn in the United Kingdom, Cairn of Gavrinis in France, Maikop in Russia, Niya in China and Serpent Mound in the United States.
  • Dolmens, cromlechs, rostral columns, obelisks, menhir: single large standing stones. Examples are found at Drizzlecombe in the UK, Morbihan Coast of France and Axum in Ethiopia.
  • Woodhenges: a monument made of concentric circles of wooden posts. Examples include Stanton Drew and Woodhenge in the UK and Cahokia Mounds in the United States)
  • Stone circles, cystoliths: a circular monument made of free-standing stones. Nine Maidens, Yellowmeade, Stonehenge, Rollright Stones, Moel Ty Uchaf, Labbacallee, Cairn Holy, Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, all in the United Kingdom
  • Henges: a parallel ditch and bank pattern of construction, generally circular in shape. Examples: Knowlton Henge, Avebury.
  • Recumbent stone circles (RSC): Two vertical stones, one horizontal placed between them to watch the moon as it slides along the horizon. RSCs are specific to northeastern Scotland, sites like East Aquorthies, Loanhead of Daviot, Midmar Kirk.
  • Passage tombs, shaft tombs, chambered tombs, tholos tombs: architectural buildings of shaped or cut stone, generally containing burials and sometimes covered with an earthen mound. Examples include Stoney Littleton, Wayland's Smithy, Knowth, Dowth, Newgrange, Belas Knap, Bryn Celli Du, Maes Howe, Tomb of the Eagles, all of which are in the UK.
  • Quoits: two or more stone slabs with a capstone, sometimes representing a burial. Examples include Chun Quoit; Spinsters Rock; Llech Y Tripedd, all in the UK
  • Stone rows: linear paths made by placing two rows of stones on either side of a straight pathway. Examples at Merrivale and Shovel Down in the UK.
  • Cursus: linear features made by two ditches and two banks, generally straight or with doglegs. Examples at Stonehenge, and a large collection of them in the Great Wold Valley.
  • Stone cists, stone boxes: smallish square boxes made of stone which contained human bones, cists may represent what was the interior part of a larger cairn or mound.
  • Fogou, souterrains, fuggy holes: underground passageways with stone walls. Examples at Pendeen Van Fogou and Tinkinswood in the UK
  • Chalk giants: a type of geoglyph, images carved into the white chalk hillside. Examples include the Uffington White Horse and the Cerne Abbas Giant, both in the UK.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Overview of Megalithic Monuments." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/megalithic-monuments-ancient-art-sculpture-171835. Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, July 29). Overview of Megalithic Monuments. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/megalithic-monuments-ancient-art-sculpture-171835 Hirst, K. Kris. "Overview of Megalithic Monuments." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/megalithic-monuments-ancient-art-sculpture-171835 (accessed May 30, 2023).