Monday, February 23, 2009

Megaliths as Rock Art

in Alentejo (South of Portugal)

Manuel Calado


This paper is based on the available evidence concerning standing stones, as well as broadly contemporaneous rock paintings and carvings in Alentejo.
Instead of the traditional perspective, which treats those manifestations as ontologically different – though, on some occasions, tries to compare them or find specific links between them – Rock-art and megaliths are here considered as parts of the same complex of the Neolithic “packet”, expressed by the development of symbolic devices, and interconnected by a system of beliefs around the validation of the role of man against nature, and, iconographically, mainly built upon schematic ways of representing the human figure.
Actually, we can argue that the very concept of “megalithic art”, creating a common ground between both megaliths and Rock-art, implies a restrictive view, because it highlights the most obvious similarities but hides the fact that, even when they have no carvings or paintings, standing stones are still Rock-art.
We argue that, in some sense, those symbolic and ritual manifestations share the same similarities and differences as painting, engraving, and sculpture in modern western art.

1. Introduction
In Alentejo, as well as in other European prehistoric areas, carvings, paintings and standing stones can be, on one hand, related with different historical contexts; but, on the other, they seem to be different adaptations of the very same purposes to diverse geographical conditions.
Actually, in Alentejo, standing stones keep an obvious dependence on the flat granite landscapes, carvings are only found on schistose water-eroded panels (in the main river bottoms), and paintings are restricted to the quartzite rock shelters (in mountain landscapes).

1. Distribution of menhirs and rock art in Alentejo

In Rock-art interpretations, it is quite well established that the panels were meaningful on their own; beyond the technical qualities like, for instance, the smoothness of the surfaces, the colour, the shape, the position, or the kind of rock was not selected at random. Finally, the landscapes where the panels are inscribed seem to be decisive for the location of the so called Rock-art sanctuaries (Bradley, 1997a, 1997b; Ouzman, 1998; Scarre, 2003).
For the standing stones it is clear, in Alentejo as elsewhere, that special points in the landscape were selected, together with peculiar shapes and types of stone.
Of course, conceiving the standing stones as a development of Rock-art implies a link going back to the Upper Palaeolithic, in a process of continuity (the Alqueva complex spans from the Palaeolithic until Iron Age) (Collado, 2003; Calado, 2003) and change (from naturalistic style, displaying mostly animals, to schematic style, representing mostly human figures).
Beyond the different meanings conveyed by the images, along with time, in accordance with the different ideologies and social formations, Rock-art, including megaliths, can be thought of as the result of a complex way of creating and negotiating a system of symbols, or, in other terms, a graphic language.
Through sharing the same mental ambiance as the Rock-art tout court, and eventually serving similar purposes, standing stones imply an important innovation in the way of graphically expressing ideas: they are three-dimensional and large scale symbols, announcing the future developments of the statuary and, in some way, the true megalithic architecture, represented by the dolmens.
The anthropomorphic nature of standing stones and the diverse ways they could be arranged together, seem to make them appropriate symbols for ritualising and performing social messages, in a process of increasing social complexity.
The symbolic potential of standing stones, meaningfully dispersed in the landscape – frequently arranged in articulation with conspicuous topographic and astronomic features - is, in some cases, amplified by the carved motifs displayed on them.
Again in modern terms, Rock-art, including standing stones, could be included in the category of landscape architecture or, still better, land art.

2. In the beginning…

The assumption that standing stones are the oldest megalithic monuments in Europe has received, in the last decade, a wide range of evidence. In the first half of the eighties, the confirmation of the reuse of broken menhirs in the structure of some Breton dolmens, opened Pandora’s box of new observations, all pointing in the same direction: the current list of menhirs in dolmens, in Brittany, sums up to some dozens of cases, drawing a picture that leaves no space for doubts about the relative antiquity of standing stones, at least in that particular area (Cassen et al., 2000).
In Iberia, partly as an effect of those discoveries, the revision of old data, together with new excavations – and guided by new insights and methodologies – revealed a similar situation, confirming a wider distribution of the phenomenon: menhirs have been, here as in Brittany, reused in the construction of dolmens (Calado, 2004).
On the other hand, the few absolute dates available - obtained from materials embedded inside the sockets of the menhirs – tend to confirm the early chronologies of this kind of monuments (Oliveira, 1997; Gomes, 1994; 1996).
It means that – at least in Brittany and Iberia- if we conceive the standing stones (alone or grouped) as part of the megalithic architecture, they must be placed in the very beginning of the chain.
In other words, when the first menhirs were erected, the idea of dolmen was probably not yet born.

3. The context

Menhirs seemingly arose in a period when very strong changes were taking place in different parts of Atlantic Europe: the last communities of hunter-gatherers were experiencing the impact of a revolution in almost all the levels of their way of life (economies, technologies, beliefs), in the sequence of a process which started some thousand years earlier, in the Eastern Mediterranean area.
Actually, though the main domesticates – cereals and ovicaprids - have certainly been brought from that nuclear area, as well as pottery and eventually polished stone, some of the most distinctive features of western Neolithic seem to have no counterparts in the eastern Mediterranean and, among those original features, menhirs are obviously the most striking.
In general terms, one of the notorious novelties of the Neolithic revolution, is the importance of anthropomorphic motifs, in opposition to the dominant zoomorphic figures of previous periods (Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic); in the Levant, those representations appear usually in the form of clay or stone figurines, which seem to be very rare in Central and West Mediterranean, as well as lime plaster statues, completely absent from these last areas.
In Iberia, painted and pecked motifs on rock panels, broadly attributed to the Neolithic or the Early Bronze Age, are dominantly centred on the human figure: usually, they are very schematic images, associated with geometric motifs (mostly circles and waving lines).

2. Painted anthropomorphic motif in the rock shelter of Gaivões (Arronches)

3. Carved anthropomorphic motifs of the Alqueva Rock art complex

Menhirs, in any case, do not find parallels in the East, though in a few sites in the Anatolian Peninsula anthropomorphic pillars have been found (Cauvin, 1999; Verhoeven, 2002; Lewis-Williams, 2005) which could be, in some way, the pristine ancestors of the European menhirs.
Another important feature of most of the Neolithic cultures is the emergence of monumentality, expressed in many different ways. Some of the cultic buildings in the Near East, as well as earthen structures, most of them funerary, in Western Europe, share with menhirs the same basic character: they involve a significant amount of work to be built, and all of them finally display a strong sense of distinctiveness and power.

4. Questions of meaning
There is no general agreement about the meaning or the function of menhirs; anyway, most authors tend now to accept that they are, in some way, anthropomorphic figures. This idea is reinforced by comparisons with the statue-menhirs that have spread, in different parts of Europe, in the subsequent millennia, until the Iron Age (D'Anna, 2002 a, b, c; Philippon, 2002; Bueno e Balbín, 2002, 2003).
Actually, it is possible that all the menhirs were basically conceived as statues, with more or less explicit anthropomorphic details.

4. The single standing stone of Monte da Ribeira (Reguengos de Monsaraz)

Of course, the reference to the human body is not contradictory to the other meanings and functions frequently attributed to the menhirs, as, for instance, territorial marks, religious items or mnemonics substantiating social structures.
Whatever the meanings they had – and it is very plausible that they conveyed different messages - we assume that primarily they were symbols, in a similar way as the motifs of the Rock-art.
As anthropomorphic symbols, menhirs might eventually relate to the cult of the ancestors, possibly as a result of the establishment of lineages in a society experiencing ever-increasing complexity.

5. Menhirs as Rock-art
We suggest that menhirs arose as a peculiar development of Rock-art, the origin of which can be traced back, at least, in the European world, to the Upper Palaeolithic.
In fact, in European Palaeolithic art, we can already find some possible ancestors for the three-dimensional character of the menhirs; for instance, the feminine figurines or, in a broader sense, some mobile art artefacts.
The strongest innovation, in the dawn of Neolithic times, is eventually the scale of the menhirs; the other obvious difference - if we conceive menhirs as anthropomorphic symbols - is the extreme lack of naturalistic character, an innovation that is shared by most of the Neolithic motifs in Rock-art.
The scale of the monoliths has frequently led investigators to classify them as some kind of architecture, which can be apparently appropriated with megalithic enclosures, but does not work so well when we are faced with megalithic alignments or with single menhirs.
We must remember, however, that architecture and sculpture are just modern classificatory concepts and menhirs could be, from our point of view, something in between.
The sequence, observed in some European megalithic areas – Brittany, Alentejo and Algarve – starting with menhirs and ending with dolmens, could, in this order of ideas, be translated as a derivation from sculpture to architecture, though keeping some of the same basic implications and meanings.
The amount of labour implied in the outstanding size of some menhirs (as well as dolmens) evokes another important feature of the Neolithic cultures: monumentality.
This aspect keeps a close relationship with the new set of attitudes towards nature, namely the trend to change landscapes, inherent to the Neolithic economy itself, or the need to establish anchors in space, as a result of the changes in the social use of the resources.
In contrast with other forms of Neolithic monumentality, megaliths are based on the use of raw stones, suggesting a peculiar validation of the materiality itself and thus keeping a strong link with an important feature of Rock-art (Scarre, 2003).
Though conceived as symbols on their own, the menhirs could also be used as canvases to paint or carve other symbols; as we shall see, groups of menhirs could also be arranged in the landscape in order to build, in a larger scale, other sets of symbolic features. In this level, menhirs evoke geoglyphs.

6. Alternative symbols, alternative landscapes
Menhirs are not a ubiquitous manifestation: contemporaneous societies, sharing similar developments, did not invest in the same kind of monuments.
The different choices could be explained, in some cases, by the differences in the availability of raw materials. However, though material constraints could explain some absences, there are plenty of situations where we are obliged to find answers in different directions.
In the case of the menhirs of Central Alentejo, the notorious cultural specificity of the phenomenon, in the context of Iberia, can be attributed to a specific cultural background, substantiated on the Sado-Tejo late Mesolithic communities (Calado, 2002; 2003; 2004).

Actually, though menhirs were not present in the Sado and Tejo estuaries – areas without available stone blocks – we have some evidence pointing to the use of wooden posts in the construction of ritual structures that show some formal similarities to the layout of the Alentejan megalithic enclosures (Calado, 2004).
But if we enlarge a little more our scope, we find some intra-regional singularities, still poorly understood, that could address other questions: in Alentejo, menhirs seem to be strictly related to the granite outcrops, with virtually no exception; in the schist landscapes, we only find carvings, confined to the bottom of the main rivers (Calado, 2003); in the quartzite areas, the artistic manifestations are reduced to the paintings; in a mountain environment, with preference for the rock shelters (Oliveira, 2003).
This panorama allows us to stress the role of the landscape, and the different symbolic meanings it could convey, as an active partner in the genesis of Rock-art: carving, painting and sculpting seem to be dependent on quite different raw materials (and landscapes), though it would be also possible to find in these differences some different historical trajectories.
When we map this realities, we can easily conclude that they are not perfectly adjacent: in Alentejo, we find large areas – with prehistoric occupation - without menhirs, carvings or paintings, suggesting that at least some of them could have "served" large territories where the appropriate natural conditions were not available.
For the moment, only the Rock-art complex of the Guadiana (in parallel with the Tagus) seems to have started in Palaeolithic times; paintings and menhirs are likely to be more circumscribed within specific times and cultures.
Apparently contradicting what is stated above, we find almost no links between the motifs carved on the menhirs and those carved or painted in the other contexts. We have already suggested a Late Mesolithic genesis for part of that peculiar set of motifs, reinvented and amplified in a process of social fission, responsible for the regional Mesolithic-Neolithic transition (Calado, 2003; 2004).

5. Plan of the mesolithic shell-midden of Romeiras in the Sado Valley; it shows the horse-shoe shape of the setting, similar to those of the alentejan megalithic enclosures.

6. Bas-relief motifs carved on a menhir from the enclosure of Vale Maria do Meio (Évora)

Another point that suggests the cultural specificity of each Rock-art "kingdom" is the virtual absence of Neolithic Rock-art in the Escoural cave, even if we know that it has been the scene of an Early and Late Neolithic occupation. Escoural is located only a few miles from Almendres.

BRADLEY, R. (1997a) – Rock-art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe. London: Routledge.
BRADLEY, R. (1997b) – Symbols and signposts – understanding the prehistoric petroglyphs of the British Isles. In RENFREW, C.; ZUBROW, E. (Eds.) The Ancient Mind. Elements of cognitive archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.95-106.
BRADLEY, R. (1998a) – Architecture, imagination and the Neolithic World. In MITHEN, S. (ed.) – Creativity in Human Evolution. London: Routledge.
BRADLEY, R. (1998e) – The Significance of the Monuments. London: Routledge.
BRANDHERM, D. (1995) – Os chamados “báculos”. Para uma interpretação simbólica-funcional. Trabalhos de Antropologia e Etnologia, Porto, 35, p.89-94.
BUENO RAMIREZ, P.; BALBÍN BEHRMANN (2002) – L’Art mégalithique péninsulaire et l’Art mégalithique del a façade atlantique: un modèle de capillarité appliqué à l’Art post-paléolithique européen. L’Anthropologie. 106, p. 603-646.
BUENO RAMÍREZ, P.; BALBÍN BEHRMANN, R. (2003) – Grafias y territórios megalíticos en Extremadura. Muita gente poucas antas? Origens, espaços e contextos do Megalitismo. Actas do II Colóquio Internacional sobre Megalitismo. Lisboa: IPA, p. 407-448.
CALADO, M. (2003) – Entre o Céu e a Terra. Menires e Arte rupestre no Alentejo Central. In CALADO, M. (Ed.) – Sinais de Pedra. Évora: Fundação Eugénio de Almeida.
CALADO, M. (2004) – Menires do Alentejo Central: génese e evolução da paisagem megalítica regional. Lisboa: Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa (Tese de doutoramento policopiada) (
CASSEN, S.; BOUJOT, C.; VAQUERO-LASTRES, J. (2000) - Eléments d’architecture. Exploration d’un tertre funéraire à Lannec er Gadouer (Erdeven, Morbihan). Constructions et reconstructions dans le Néolitique morbihonnais. Propositions pour une lecture symbolique. Chauvigny: Association des Publications Chauvignoises.
CASSEN, S.; L’HELGOUAC’H, J. (1992) – Du Symbole de la Crosse: chronologie, répartition et interprétation. Revue Archeologique de l’Ouest. Rennes, 5, p.223-235.
CAUBET, A. (2002) – Naissance de la grande statuaire dans l’Orient ancien. In PHILIPPON, A. (dir.) – Statues-menhirs, des enigmes de pierre venues du fond des ages. Rodez: Éditions du Rouergue, p. 224-239.
CAUVIN, J. (1999) – The Symbolic Foundations of the Neolithic Revolution in the Near East. In KUIJT, I. (Ed.) – Life in Neolithic Farming Communities. New York: Kluwer Academic, p. 235-261.
D’ANNA, A. (2002a) – Les statues-menhirs: des dieux ou des homes? In PHILIPPON, A. (dir.) – Statues-menhirs, des enigmes de pierre venues du fond des ages. Rodez: Éditions du Rouergue, p. 252- 257.
D’ANNA, A. (2002b) – Les statues-menhirs en Europe à la fin du Néolithique et au début de l’Âge du Bronze. In PHILIPPON, A. (dir.) – Statues-menhirs, des enigmes de pierre venues du fond des ages. Rodez: Éditions du Rouergue, p. 196-223.
D’ANNA, A. (2002c) – Statues-menhirs? Stèles? Dalles anthropomorphes? Ou simplement sculptures préhistoriques? In PHILIPPON, A. (dir.) – Statues-menhirs, des enigmes de pierre venues du fond des ages. Rodez: Éditions du Rouergue, p. 52-53.
D’ANNA, A.; LEANDRI, F. (2000) – Les alignements de menhirs du Sartenais. Préhistoire Anthropologie Méditerranéennes, 9, p. 123-131.
D’ANNA, A.; MARCHESI, H.; TRAMONI, P. (2000) – Le site mégalithique de Renaghju à Sartène. Préhistoire Anthropologie Méditerranéennes, 9, p141-146.
GOMES, M.V. (1994) – Menires e cromeleques no complexo cultural megalítico português – trabalhos recentes e estado da questão. Actas do Seminário “O Megalitismo no Centro de Portugal”. Viseu, p. 317-342.
GOMES, M.V. (1996) – Megalitismo do Barlavento Algarvio – Breve Síntese. Setúbal Arqueológica. 11-12, p. 147-190.
LEWIS.WILLIAMS, LEWIS-WILLIAMS, J.; PEARCE, D. (2005) – Inside The Neolihic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods. London: Thames and Hudson.
OLIVEIRA, J. (1997) – Datas absolutas de monumentos megalíticos da Bacia Hidrográfica do Rio Sever. In BALBÍN, R.; BUENO, P. – Actas do II Congreso de Arqueologia Peninsular. TII-Neolítico, Calcolítico y Bronce. Zamora: Fundación Rei Afonso Henriques, p. 229-239.
OLIVEIRA, J. (2003) - A arte rupestre no contexto megalítico Norte-Alentejano. In CALADO, M. (Ed.) – Sinais de Pedra. Évora: Fundação Eugénio de Almeida.
OLLADO GIRADO, H. (2003) - Un nuevo ciclo de arte prehistórico en Extremadura: el arte rupestre de las sociedades de economía cazadora recolectora durante el Holoceno inicial como precedente del arte rupestre esquemático en Extremadura. .In CALADO, M. (Ed.) – Sinais de Pedra. Évora: Fundação Eugénio de Almeida.
OUZMAN, S. (1998) – Towards a mindscape of landscape: rock-art as expression of world-understanding. In CHIPINDALE, C.; TAÇON, P. (eds.) – The Archaeology of Rock-art. Cambridge: CUP, p. 30-41.
PHILIPPON, A. (2002) – L’Homme en Grand. In PHILIPPON, A. (dir.) – Statues-menhirs, des enigmes de pierre venues du fond des ages. Rodez: Éditions du Rouergue, p. 8-17.
SCARRE, C. (2003) - Monumentos de pedra “rude” e pedras troféu: a relação com os materiais nos megalitos da Europa ocidental. In CALADO, M. (Ed.) – Sinais de Pedra. Évora: Fundação Eugénio de Almeida.
VERHOEVEN, M. (2002) – Ritual and Ideology in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B of the Levant and Southeast Anatolia. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 12, nº. 2, p. 233-258.
ZVELEBIL, M. (1998) – What’s in a Name: the Mesolithic, the Neolithic, and Social Change at the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition. In EDMONDS, M.; RICHARDS, C. (Eds) - Understanding the Neolithic of North-Western Europe. Glasgow: Cruithne Press, p. 1-36.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The bends of the rivers

in Amazonia.

In Marajó - the largest fluvial island in the world, located in the mouth of the Amazonas river - a cluster of marajoara settlements, distributed along the banks of the Camutins river.
Notice the concentration of cerimonial mounds, close to the most expressive bend of the Camutins.