Megaliths are large stone structures or groups of standing stones which are located at sites in various parts of the would and believed to have religious significance. The term "megalith" means "great stone" which is derived from the Greek words "megas" ('great') and "lithos" ('stone'). However, the general meaning of megaliths includes any structure composed of large stones which includes tombs and circular standing structures. Such structures have been found in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and North and South America.
Their origins and purposes have tantalized experts and ordinary people for centuries. There is a general consensus that many were built in the Neolithic and early Bronze Ages.
Those found in India date from the first centuries of the Christian era. The megaliths on Easter Island, in the South Pacific, probably are contemporary with the Medieval period of Europe.
The general speculation as to their purposes is that megaliths were used for religious activities, burial sites, and astronomical observatories for the sun and other celestial bodies. Some megaliths are said to possess supernatural or electromagnetic forces.
Megaliths are classed in two general categories: "dolmens" and "menhirs." Dolmens, also called "chamber tombs," usually contain one or more chambers or rooms in which the dead were buried. Some dolmens also contain long, stone chambers or halls which connect different rooms. These long chambers also are referred to as "Long tombs" and "passage-graves." Long tombs are prevalent in Wales, Scotland, and England; while passage-graves are mostly found in Ireland and western parts of Britain. Tombs which are covered with earth to form mounds are called "tumuli" (the plural for "tumulus").
There is evidence that dolmens were used for other purposes besides burying the dead because remains of bodies have not been found in all of them. Therefore, some dolmens may have served only as temples for the dead. However, there are signs that ritual sacrifices and even cannibalism occurred within some dolmens. It is thought prehistoric man believed the spirit resided in the head, therefore, breaking open the head might have been an attempt to free the spirit. If some dolmens served as temples then most likely religious activities and gatherings occurred within them too.
Menhirs are large standing stones, or groups of standing stones, arranged in circles, or cromlechs, and henges. A bank or ditch that surrounds the circular henges which distinguishes them. There is always one or more entrance to them.
Standing stones, especially those containing holes, were thought to have supernatural or magical powers to heal or hurt. Ill people would crawl through the holes hoping to restore their health. Sick children were passed through the holes hoping the magic of the stone would heal them. Women desiring to become pregnant, or seeking other wishes, would hug the stones, and even crawl through their holes at times.
The stones' reputation for having supernatural forces have over the centuries made them desired gathering places for witches. During the trial of the Aberdeen witches of Scotland, in 1596, the accused confessed to dancing around a gray stone at the foot of Craigleauch hill. The Lancaster witches were said to have met at the Hoar Stones in Britain's Pendle Forest during the 17th. century. Another meeting site was the Bambury Stone of Bredon Hill.
Fairies were said to reside in some of the stones, and some people left them gifts to gain their favor. Some menhirs have devil and others legends associated with them. Among these are the Rollright Stones of the Cotsworlds in England were witches met until the middle of the 20th. century.
Some menhirs are believed to have 'earth energy' emanating from them. Photographs have shown this energy as light radiating from the stones. Some researchers believe the stones' creators imbued this energy within them for sacred and psychic purposes. Some psychics do not want to be around the menhirs at night because of their abnormal powers.
Researchers have reported when placing their hands on the stones they received electric shocks strong enough to knock then down.
The greatest and oldest of all megaliths still exist on Carnac, in the countryside of Britiany. Of the estimated original 11,000 only 3,000 still stand arranged in avenues, dolmens, mounds and cromlechs. One dolmen, covered with a tumulus, has been dated back to 4700 B.C.