clay figure statues from 'Ain Ghazal, Jordan, 6750 - 6570 BCE

Neolithic Era: Cosmic and Terrestrial Maintenance

As the climate warmed, food sources became more plentiful and population numbers grew. An enormous communal effort and new inventions were required to assist and impress the spirit world to maintain cosmic and terrestrial harmony, and prevent a return of the perilous Ice Age. This effort shaped the beginnings of organized religion, agriculture, and science. It created the first divine beings or gods and the many pre-Axial religious beliefs, and rituals associated with them, traces of which are evident to this day.

Imagine how different the Neolithic world would seem from the stories told and passed on by the elders of life in the Ice Age. With a terrain rich in wild grasses and game, it was now often pleasant to leave cave and rock shelters and gather outside, to sit and look across grasslands where animals grazed in their thousands, or to gaze up to the luminous night sky. In this land of plenty, the relatively easy life of the forager became possible. But how long would it last? And how do we maintain it?

These became crucial questions. From then on it became important to appease the spirits to prevent a return to the blizzards, snow, ice and food scarcity. Now magic, ritual, and sacrifice are shared among thousands to invoke “Cosmic Maintenance.” An enormous communal effort was required to create new places to meet regularly to perform them.

Then it became necessary to feed the builders, craftsmen, and devotees and to ensure the availability of sacrificial offerings. This in turn gave rise to temporary and permanent settlements near the sacred sites, an advance in symbolic thought and the first gods, organized religion and a managerial religious elite, the domestication of plants and animals, and amazing feats of engineering.

The Neolithic Revolution – the change from hunter-gatherer to farming societies – seems to have happened in different places, in different ways. This is a very short overview of the findings from the Neolithic world in the Near and Middle East. Much remains still to be discovered.

From the Caves to a New Tiered Cosmos

Map of Neolithic sites in the Fertile Crescent area

Neolithic sites in the Fertile Crescent area.

Approximately 11,500 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age as the weather became warmer, some of our early ancestors in the northern region of what we now know as the Fertile Crescent began to move their places of religious ritual beyond the cave and rock walls. Göbekli Tepe is the first evidence to date of this transition. This extraordinary man-made place of worship heralds a new period of creative expression we know as the Neolithic (“new stone”) era.

Gobekli Tepe arial mockup

Göbekli Tepe (“Hill of the Navel”) in Southeastern Turkey was erected by hunter-gatherers in 9600–8200 BCE (ca. 11,500 years ago).

Gobekli Tepe Stone

Klaus Schmidt, of the German Archaeological Institute of Istanbul, says that once the pillars stood on the hillside “like a meeting of stone beings.”

Here, 7,000 years before Stonehenge, our ancestors, using only flint tools, carved massive pillars from a limestone quarry, then transported them as far as a quarter of a mile without the aid of wheels or beasts of burden. The tallest of these pillars are 18–20 feet in height and weigh up to 50 tons.

Each pillar is shaped like a stylized human being: its “head” like a capital T. Some have relief carvings on their “bodies” indicating arms, hands, belts and animal skin loin-cloths, others are decorated with animals then native to the area: bulls, foxes, cranes, lions, ducks, scorpions, ants, spiders, and snakes.

looking down on the Gobekli Tepe excavation

Göbekli Tepe, near Urfa, south-east Turkey, showing one of the large, circular, subterranean structures under excavation.

The pillars were erected to form circular or oval shapes ranging from 30 to 100 feet in diameter, each pillar standing an arm span or more apart connected to the next by a stone wall; two larger pillars stand within the center. Scholars feel sure these structures originally supported domed roofs; their semi-sunken pillars are load bearing and, left uncovered, limestone would too easily have been damaged from rain and wind.

These buildings would have been visible from a very long distance away yet there is no sign of habitation, so it seems certain that this was a meeting place used for religious and ceremonial purposes only. From the many animal bones that have been found it seems likely that once pilgrims reached Göbekli Tepe they made animal sacrifices. More recently, freestanding sculptures of animals have been found within the circles, a statue of a human and sculptures of a vulture’s head and a boar have also been excavated.

It is possible that hunter gatherers, who were now able to gather in larger numbers, erected these initiatory sites to perform multiple ceremonies of birth, initiation to adulthood, burial, ancestor veneration and shamanism; and perhaps also to ensure, through ritual, magic, and sacrifice, the collaboration of the spirit world and of their newly conceived gods of nature: the sun, wind, rain and soil.

A recent study suggests that one of the pillars may contain a record of a comet striking the earth about 10,950 BCE, an apocalyptic event that may have triggered the sudden “mini” ice age known as the Younger Dryas, leading to great loss of human life and the demise of the woolly mammoth.

“It appears Göbekli Tepe was, among other things, an observatory for monitoring the night sky,” explains Martin Sweatman, an author of the study. “One of its pillars seems to have served as a memorial to this devastating event – probably the worst day in history since the end of the ice age.”

Gobekli Tepe pillar stones

The animal images recall Paleolithic cave paintings and most probably do reflect hunter-gatherer religion and beliefs in the animal-spirit world. They include vultures and fantastic creatures such as a lizard or a frog with bared teeth.

A New Organizational Hierarchy

We know, through ground penetrating radar, that there are 20 of these circular enclosures. An estimated 500 people would have been required to move one pillar, and many more to accomplish all the construction and embellishments and attend to the crowds the site attracted. Specialist stoneworkers must have worked the pillars.

In order to accomplish this archaeological feat, an organizational hierarchy would have been imperative. Scholars speculate that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled the rituals that took place at the site. Shamans would still be looked to for guidance and from this already elevated position, they were perhaps able to take control. As community leaders – a priesthood of sorts – they would command the numbers of people needed to initiate this transformation: to create a new tiered cosmos beyond the cave walls.

A New Symbolism and the First Gods

To live within their new large communities, people of the Neolithic world needed to systematize their animistic world with a powerful symbolism that, although it signified abstract and supernatural concepts, was easy to remember and easy to transmit.

Scholars such as the French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin suggest that the massive pillar structures mark a “revolution of Symbols” – a “psycho-cultural” change enabling the imagination of a structured cosmos and supernatural world in symbolic form. Perhaps, for the first time, human beings imagine gods, supernatural beings resembling humans that exist in the other worlds.

Images were by now probably understood in a more iconographic way, reminding participants of the stories and myths of the time, as a totem might, or as a statue does in a modern church or temple. Sites as much as a hundred miles away shared this same imagery and more than likely people shared the same stories and religious ideas associated with it. Smaller but similar pillars with the same imagery, dating just after Göbekli Tepe were found at Nevali Çori, a settlement 20 miles away. Karahan Tepe, 63 kilometers east of Urfa in the Tektek Mountains, is a similar site that has as yet to be explored. Dated c. 9500–9000 BCE, it has a number of T-pillars as well as high reliefs of a winding snake and other carvings similar to those at Göbekli Tepe.

As archeologist Trevor Watkins writes “The great advantage of all this symbolic reference through physical artefacts was that, unlike speech, dance or ritual enactment, which is transient, the physical symbolism with which they surrounded themselves was always there, always reminding them, teaching their children. They had learned what the psychologist Merlin Donald (1991, 1998) has called ‘external symbolic storage’…Above all, these ideas about their world were systematic, categorical, discriminating, ordered.

“Such a systematic and symbolically rich world-view was ideal for providing the cultural underpinning that could be shared by all those in the community, for they lived in and by and through the symbolic references in their settlements. And finally, such a systematic and readily symbolised world-view was infectious, readily communicated and easily learned by others who had the same cognitive skills and the same need to cope with their new way of living.”

Burial Rites and Life After Death

Early Neolithic burial practices seem to indicate a belief in the spiritual presence and influence of deceased members of one’s group.

Graves were discovered at Nevali Çori, and the archaeologist Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute of Istanbul, who has been working with his team at Göbekli Tepe for over fifteen years, is reasonably confident that burials lie somewhere in the earliest layers. His team has already found fragments of human bone in the layers of dirt that filled the complex. This leads him to suspect the pillars represent human beings and that the cult practices at this site may initially have focused on some sort of ancestor worship.

Perhaps this functioned as the burial ground for the priesthood. It is the custom of shamanic societies to bury their elders and Shamans in ground already made holy or sacred by the ritual practices that had previously gone on there, even led at one time by the person buried there.

Jerf el Ahmar, an early Neolithic settlement in north Syria. The earliest of three successively buried ‘community buildings,’ which the excavator suggests was used both as a granary and for ceremonies. At the end of its use-life, a headless corpse (highlighted) was placed in the centre of the floor, the posts and roof were burnt, and the cavity was filled in.

At Tell Qaramel in northern Syria, one of the oldest known settlements (ca. 11,000–9650 BCE), skulls were found either in groups or alone, some plastered with clay to recreate the face, which was then painted skin-color and placed in a specific area, presumably for veneration or at least remembrance. Bodies were buried in the flex in-utero position perhaps ready to be born anew in the spirit world. Children who died young were buried intact, which leads scholars to think that adult brains may well have been eaten at death as a way to pass on the deceased’s essential qualities to the living.

Jericho was originally founded by sedentary foragers/collectors in the Natufian Period some 12,800–10,500 years ago, predating Çatalhöyük by 3,000 years. Excavations revealed sometimes up to nine human skulls buried beneath the floor of these Neolithic houses. Their faces were modeled in plaster often with inset cowrie shells for eyes and painted representations of hair and other facial features. Plastered skulls were also found at other sites, for example in Kfar HaHoresh in the Nazareth Hills of Lower Galilee in Israel and in Beidha, near Petra in Jordan.

4 Molded skulls

Skulls from Tell Aswad, a late eighth-millennium BCE settlement in southern Syria. A large hollow has been “dedicated” for use as a burial place by the deposition of a cluster of human skulls. The facial features are modeled in clay and colored; some have a black line (eye-lashes) across the closed eyelids.

clay statues with wide eyes

Some of the 32 clay figure statues from ‘Ain Ghazal, Jordan, 6750–6570 BCE. Found in specially dug pits beneath the floors of houses, each is about 3 ft. tall and could stand up. With their staring eyes outlined with bitumen they suggest supernatural “seeing.”

Religion Stimulates the Birth of Agriculture

Göbekli Tepe interior

Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe and other recently excavated sites in the Near East lead scholars to question the long-standing idea of the Neolithic Revolution, invented by V. Gordon Childe in the 1920s, that agriculture, stimulated by population growth, gave rise to organized religion. Scholars surmised that the earliest monumental architecture was possible only after agriculture provided Neolithic people with food surpluses, freeing them from a constant focus on day-to-day survival. Instead these amazing sites lead them to conclude that the reverse was also true: the transformation to organized regional religion gave rise to farming.

After the hunter-gatherers finished building, they and others probably congregated for worship, funerals and initiations. To feed everyone they would initially have gathered and brought in wild grains and grasses. Einkorn wheat, a forerunner of domestic wheat, grows wild in the region and scholars suggest that some of the grain might well have fallen along the way as people travelled there year after year. Once it grew it was picked and eventually became domesticated.

“Communal ceremonies come first,” says Ian Hodder, an archeologist working at Çatalhüyük. “That pulls people together.”

The sudden climate change of the Younger Dryas may have also forced people to come together to find new ways to produce and maintain crops of wheat and grasses. In this new agrarian world families became larger as many hands were needed to plant, harvest crops, and take care of livestock.

It may well be that as more and more land around Göbekli Tepe was farmed to exhaustion and laid waste, this caused the site’s eventual demise. In 8,000 BCE, during this shift to agriculture, Göbekli Tepe was buried, according to Klaus Schmidt of the German Archeological Institute of Istanbul, “deliberately – not in a mudslide. For some reason the hunters, or the ex-hunters, decided to entomb the entire site in soil. The earth we are removing from the stones was put here by man himself: all these hills are artificial.”

Replicating the Cave Experience

The Neolithic Shamans no longer had to rely on the natural topography of each cave, but designed and built their own structures, repeating the cave experience. In their book Inside the Neolithic Mind, David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce assert that “In doing so they gained greater control over the cosmos and were able to ‘adjust’ beliefs about it to suit social and personal needs.”

Elevation map of Çatalhöyük

Elevation map of Çatalhöyük Southern Anatolia, Turkey. Partial excavations of this mud ‘town’ in the 1960s revealed 14 building levels dating between 7250–6250 BCE. (Original drawing by Nadine Grosgurin, from Çatalhöyük, Ed. Tallandier, 1971.)

The limestone caves in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey were thought to have been the initial homes of a hunter-gatherer society who, once the weather improved, moved about two day’s journey away. There they built a Neolithic settlement known as Çatalhöyük. Over the span of 1,000 years people continuously inhabited the site, rebuilding their houses atop one another, creating a mound (“hoyuk”) some sixty feet high.

Çatalhöyük once accommodated an average of 6,000–8,000 people. Not surprisingly people built homes reminiscent of their caves, creating spaces of symbolic architecture which still reflected their close connection to a three-tiered cosmos and spirit world.

Bull heads
Bull horn benches

Plaster “bulls’ heads” were found in the walls of Çatalhüyük, or were set in rows on benches in the northern halves of some houses. The bulls’ heads were often decorated.

Honey-combed rectangular houses of mud brick were joined together by common walls, their flat roofs providing walkways and an area where, when weather permitted, much of daily life took place. Access to each home was via a ladder through its ceiling from an open roof-entrance. Once inside, moving between rooms was possible only via small openings 28–30 inches high, so people were obliged to crawl or bend low in order to move deeper into the structure.

According to David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, “In effect, the roofs of the town created a new land surface, probably, we argue, a replication of the cosmological level on which people lived their daily lives. … descent, limited light and the need to crawl through small openings between chambers are akin to the experience of moving through limestone caves. … The cosmos and its animals were embedded in the house.”

The Ice Age shamans of Altamira or Lascaux used their caves’ natural shapes to create three-dimensional spirit bison or horses that float in and out of cave walls, moving in torchlight with a multitude of man-animal-spirits and animal-spirits. Here in Çatalhöyük, three dimensional forms – bulls’ heads, wild rams’ heads, breast-like shapes and leopards – loom out into the room, creating a focal point, an altar where the act of worship is apparent. Several significant figurines and wall paintings from this site are displayed in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey.

Rock painting of a body running through a band of dots

From a wall painting at Çatalhöyük depicting many human figures grouped around a wild bull. This man carries a bow and possibly wears a leopard skin at his waist, which is flying as he runs – or is he perhaps imbued with the power of the leopard, or both?

Çatalhöyük: Transcendence through Death and Rebirth?

Indeed many of the rooms so far discovered are shrines. Their walls are painted with striking imagery: a giant bull surrounded by diminutive human beings, a sprinting figure wearing leopard skin, or vultures with wings expanded and the corpses around them headless. These images were often repeatedly plastered over and recreated in a way that appears to emphasize the act of image making. Perhaps, like their Paleolithic ancestors, these people still saw the creative act as as a way to transcend to the spirit world through the permeable membrane of walls that stood between not only spaces but states of being. The anthropologist Maurice Bloc noted that many of the images are violent and favor powerful animals; or birds that symbolize transmigration. It’s as if the transition to a new stage or state was experienced as violent but necessary; it suggests that through death and rebirth, it was possible to see oneself and others as part of something permanent and life-transcending.

crudely made statue of a woman seated on a throne

Among the statuary discovered are many female images that may remind us of Paleolithic venus figurines. Perhaps a goddess of fertility or particularly of grain. The figure above, seated between two felines, was found buried in a grain bin which stored crops.

Hodder doesn’t think that Çatalhöyük was a matriarchal society, “There was a balance of power. If one’s social status was of high importance in Çatalhöyük, the body and head were separated after death. The number of female and male skulls found during the excavations is almost equal.”

Honoring Ancestors

Ancestors were obviously highly valued. Floors inside the dwellings are subdivided into discrete levels or platforms and, like the artificial wall columns, were often painted in symbolic red ochre. Sometimes up to sixty skeletons have been found underneath a floor. Bodies were flexed before burial, and often placed in baskets or wrapped in reed mats. Disarticulated bones in some graves suggest that some corpses were left in the open air for a time before the bones were gathered and buried. In some cases, graves were disturbed and the individual’s head removed from the skeleton and subsequently used in ritual. Some skulls were plastered and painted with ochre to recreate human-like faces, a custom also seen in Neolithic sites in Syria and at Neolithic Jericho.

Hodder says in The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük “The ability of the shaman or ritual leader to go beyond death and return gives a special status, and would be especially important in a society in which the ancestors had so much social importance. By going down into a deep room in which the dead were buried, the ritual leaders could travel to the ancestors through the walls, niches and floors.

Beliefs and Customs Journey West – the First Scientific Revolution

As land became exhausted people were obliged to move to newer pastures. Now they could travel not only with their families but taking their animals, and, most importantly for us, their customs and beliefs with them. Some moved westwards, settling in what we now know as Europe, around the Danube; others went south-west to Italy and surrounding areas. About 4500 BCE they arrived in Brittany, western Portugal, and Holland eventually journeying on by sea to Britain and Ireland.

The many megaliths help us trace our ancestor’s voyage westwards. Like Göbekli Tepe and other earlier sites, these were created not for domestic but for religious purposes. These gigantic structures are thought to be predominantly burial places, perhaps for the most celebrated members of a family or farming community.

Standing stone

A Menhir is a standing stone (left). Sometimes it stood alone and sometimes in rows, such as at Carnac in Brittany. The menhirs were perhaps set up not only for burial, but to honor a major action by a leader, as a lasting memorial of his victory, for example.

Dolman - stones forming a table

The Dolmen was a structure like a “table” of stones created by a capstone – weighing up to 50 tons – on top of three or four standing stones. The structure would then be buried, creating an artificial cave.

Passage grave made from stone

“Passage Graves” is the name archeologists give to a structure created by a Dolmen with a passageway towards it built of standing stones and capstones. These would also be buried. There are “Gallery Graves” of the same structures without the Dolmen.

Farmers now needed to own the land they worked, so burial places for their ancestors, with large structures not only honored them but established their presence by indicating: “this land is ours, our ancestors are here too, and we will protect it.” The dead were now regularly buried along with the everyday things they had used in life, ornaments, weapons, pottery, that presumably might be needed in the next world.

Almost 5,000 years after Göbekli Tepe was abandoned and 3,000 years after Çatalhöyük’s demise, the actions that would solve the main problems we faced once we left the caves were now systematic and ritualized. The problems were the same: how long would life as we know it last? And how do we maintain it? The idea of a tiered cosmos held fast and it seems certain that in the minds of our ancestors, communication with the spirit world was still the only way to solve these problems.

The Shamans’ role was perhaps more complex now. Communities were much larger and people spent more time outside where the vast horizon and immense heaven may well have made these other worlds seem much more distant. But the early priesthood was up to the task: the spirits became gods, these gods required worship, ritual and sacrifice from the whole community. Huge structures had to be created to contact them. Continuity here was dependent upon continuity with the ancestors who, buried under these structures, were most likely intermediaries to the gods. Only through the expenditure of enormous effort by hundreds of people, both the living and the dead, could these gods be reached.

These ritual leaders needed to maintain control. Able to achieve altered states of consciousness and travel to these other worlds, they now began to modify aspects of their route in order to share them with the community at large. Drums and chanting, echoes, light and dark would now be used in organized ritual, and the Neolithic Scientific Revolution began.

Temples of Malta: A Scientific Breakthrough

At the foot of Sicily are two islands, Malta and Gozo, where more than 23 megalithic temples once stood. The construction of these temples spanned over a thousand years of continuous building and elaboration, from about 3700 BCE until around 2400 BCE. Today, they are in various states of ruin ranging from a few foundation stones to four amazingly intact temple complexes: Ggantija, Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, and Tarxien, and a fifth subterranean site, Malta’s Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum.

Malta’s Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum interior

Malta’s Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum – A 3-story underground temple.

Like a cave, openings at Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum seem designed for dramatic lighting. Light plays on the curved walls and spaces in a way that make shapes and shadows seem to be seen then unseen. At the Winter Solstice, light penetrates through the original entrance into a ceremonial hall within the heart of the Hypogeum and on through an elaborately carved chamber into a small room now known as the Holy of Holies, once overlooking the burial place for some 7,000 corpses, their bones painted with red ochre.

The Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum is a 3-story underground necropolis and temple of complex chambers. Archeologists estimate that the builders used antler picks, stone hammers, and obsidian blades to work through solid limestone bedrock and remove 2,000 tons of rock to create this underground temple. Once inside, the feeling is of being inside a womb, its surfaces are smoothly finished and some decorated with red-ochre spiral patterns, at times interwoven with a honeycomb pattern similar to those found in Paleolithic cave paintings and associated with one of the three universal stages of the trance state.

A most remarkable feature of the Hypogeum is a chamber known as “The Oracle Room” the ceiling of which, according to Glenn Kreisberg, a radio frequency spectrum engineer, “appears to have been intentionally carved into the form of a wave guide.” The experience is extraordinary and otherworldly. A spoken word uttered in a wall niche possesses exceptional acoustic qualities.

The voice is magnified a hundredfold and can be heard throughout the entire structure, echoing for up to 8 seconds. We can imagine the effect when the oracle, god or spirit being spoke and the words came thundering through the dark, mysterious place.

The Paleolithic caves in France and Spain would have included spaces with similar acoustic characteristics, but Ħal-Saflieni marks the earliest example of how our ancestors deliberately used sound to reach alternate states of consciousness, and most likely to affectively instill social cohesion and compliance in the general population. This characteristic would be evident in the later Neolithic structures, such as the Newgrange passage tomb and megalithic cairns. And scholars such as the Emeritus Professor Iegor Reznikoff suggest that the acoustic nature of Ħal-Saflieni is a link between the Palaeolithic painted caves and Romanesque chapels.

statue of a woman sleeping

“Sleeping Lady” one of the figurines found in the Hypogeum.

One temple has a hidden stairway between rooms, leading archeologists to believe some rooms would have been hidden, presumably reserved for the priesthood. In the other places small “windows” in the walls that link one area inside the temple with another, or with an exterior shrine, are commonly called Oracle Holes. Some scientists think that people would have come to the temple to get questions answered or dreams interpreted by some unseen voice of authority.

Mnajdra South Temple acts as a solar calendar, engineered so that the sun rises directly through the main portal on each Equinox. Imagine what it took to construct and place this monumental building so that it tracked the time for the whole year. The importance of predicting the movement of the constellations obviously went beyond agricultural concerns, though the temple was also the place where surplus food was stored and rationed.

These temples were originally roofed, perhaps with corbelled stones, though no one knows for sure. Vision blocking screens, hidden rooms between walls, oracular openings and restricted access to certain areas, all indicate that these were sacred, secret, and magical places created by the priests and myth-makers. Archeologists can tell from the door fixings evident in some temples that the intention was to keep people out, not in. In other words, entrance and exits were restricted. The keepers of these temple systems had control and they wanted to be sure that they, and no one else, maintained it.

In the documentary, Legacy of a Lost Civilization: Extraordinary People of the Temples of Malta, DrDavid Trump and Richard England state “As the most important structure and the center of the community, the temple was the base of authority. …  It was probably a center for food distribution and where surplus was stored.  Healthcare, education and worship would all have been part of the function. From the large forecourts and concave stage-like facades, we can imagine that much of the daily activity of the community took place in front of the temple: priests or priestesses stepping forth from the dark interiors to address the crowd from time to time.”

Tarxien Temple Complex

From the Tarxien Temple Complex – 3600–2500 BCE

The feet and skirt of a female statue seen in the South Temple

The above statue seen in the South Temple at Tarxien would have stood about seven feet tall. The positioning of the larger anthropomorphic figures within the temples indicate that these statues may have been objects of worship.

Bull in stone relief and block with goats and sheep reliefs

Many of the stones inside the Temples of Malta were decorated with mysterious designs. Spirals were carved again and again in different sizes and forms. They often look like the coil of a snail shell or tendrils of a vine. Abstract spirals and animal reliefs, such as the bull, goats and pig above are found on temple surfaces.

Malta figurines

Beautifully carved images of deities, fat women who remind us of the Venus of Willendorf, standing and seated figures were found in all the temples, some of them with sockets for changeable heads. Some are portraits whose heads incline skywards. Pottery was also found in exquisite shapes and decorated with detail.

These temples provide evidence that early Neolithic culture included knowledge of architecture, astronomy and audiology a thousand years before the Egyptian pyramids. As people migrated, this knowledge traveled with them, over thousands of years and thousands of miles.

Gavrinis and Newgrange: Cultural Diffusion

On the small uninhabited island of Gavrinis off the coast of Brittany is a stone burial chamber built around 3500 BCE. It appears to be an earth mound with a diameter of 164 ft. (50m), but covers a cairn or stone mound which itself covers a burial chamber. To reach the chamber one must walk down a low, narrow 46 ft.-long passage whose walls are decorated with carved symbols, such as axe heads, horned animals, swirls, snake-like patterns and spirals. The burial chamber is covered by a 17-ton stone slab and is also decorated with drawings including one of a bull.

Burial mound

Burial mound at Gavrinis Larmor Baden, Morbihan, Brittany, France.

 burial chamber at Gavrinis

Views of the passageway to the burial chamber at Gavrinis. At the Winter Solstice, the sun shines down the passage and hits the back wall.

Similar to Gavrinis, but a very much larger passage tomb, is Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland. Constructed between 3300–2900 BCE, scholars estimate it took a workforce of 300 people about 20 years to complete.

These spots were not just burial places, monuments or temples for the dead. They were structured to harness the sun at the time most important to these early peoples: the Winter Solice, when through supplication and ritual they and their ancestors would honor the god, who in turn would return to revive the world, after the long, dark winter. At Newgrange on December 21st a transom opening above the entrance lets in the rising sun and beams of light illuminate the entire passageway straight down into the heart of the mound to an artificial cave, the corbelled roofed chamber where the burned bones of the ancestor were placed.

Swirls and diamond designs on large stones

Spiral and diamond designs at Newgrange recall the trance state visions of the Paleolithic shammans. We have no way of knowing whether the high priests of the Neolithic era continued to pursue altered states of consciousness, or whether the significance of these signs were by then seen more as magical symbols.

Stonehenge: The Power of Coincidence

Evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers first built on the site that would become known as Stonehenge as early as ca. 8,000 BCE. Three or four large Mesolithic postholes, about 2.5 feet in diameter appear to have been erected in an east-west alignment, presumably for ritual purposes. But why there?

New findings by archeologist Professor Michael Parker Pearson and his team at the Stonehenge Riverside Project seem to have found the answer. When a trench was opened up across the final part of what is now known as the Avenue, a grooved pathway was discovered between two parallel banks about 40 feet apart with internal ditches. It begins at the entrance to the structure and terminates at what used to be another stone circle known as Bluestonehenge by the River Avon.

Stonehenge from the air

An ancient ceremonial pathway linking Stonehenge and the nearby River Avon was unearthed in 2013 during work to close the road alongside the monument.

The Avenue was caused by peri-glacial erosion, at the end of the last Ice Age. It was 0.3 miles long and about 98 feet wide and coincidentally marked the solstice sunrise line – the longest and shortest days, so vital to Neolithic farmers. But how could our ancestors have known the cause? As is still often the case for modern man, a coincidence was perceived as a sign from the heavens.

When we stumbled across this extraordinary natural arrangement of the sun’s path being marked in the land, we realized that prehistoric people selected this place to build Stonehenge because of its pre-ordained significance. … Perhaps they saw this place as the center of the world.” said Pearson.

Aerial view of Stonehenge

About 5,000 years ago Stonehenge was very different from what we see today. It consisted of an outer bank, ditch, inner bank and a huge circle of 56 erect bluestone blocks, each weighing about 4 tons. A recent examination of the stones, the pits in which they were erected, and about 50,000 bone pieces collected from under the pits, revealed surprises. Over a period of 500 years the dead were cremated and their bones buried under these bluestones. Occipital bones vary in thickness: they are thicker in men than in women, and from these we know that this was a cemetery for both males and females, and included five children. Parker Pearson and his team feel that the dead were likely some sort of elite dynasty, or family of aristocrats that ruled over Stonehenge for 5 centuries, between 3,000 and 2,500 BCE.

The four-ton bluestones, which take on a vaguely gray-blue color when wet, are only to be found in Preseli Hills in West Wales about 180 miles away. It is estimated that 79–80 of these stones were originally brought to the site perhaps as part of a migration of Welsh Neolithic culture towards the east. Some scholars have suggested that the stones were brought over because of a belief in their healing powers; bluestones in Wales were tested and found to have a sonic property – they ring when they are struck and have a number of tones, which may have contributed to the reason. Others think it is more likely that the stones represented the identity of these immigrants, saying in effect, “We are the descendants of people from over there. A thousand years ago we came from over there and we are here now. We and our ancestors belong here and on this land.”

“You might image that they are an embodiment of the specific dead people in whose honor they are being raised, or of the people who raised them. The sense is that the stones actually are people,” says Professor Julian Thomas of the University of Manchester.

In about 2500 BCE Stonehenge underwent major rebuilding work and the bluestones from Bluestonehenge appear to have been incorporated into its expansion. Five sarsen trilithos (pairs of uprights with a lintel across each) were erected within a gigantic circle composed of 30 huge, squarely shaped sarsen stones, each joined by lintels fitted together with mortice and tenon joints. The creation of such sophisticated joints and perfect geometry is unique for this period in history and unique to Britain in plan and design.  The structure was very likely roofed, though no details remain. Some of the bluestones were later removed, leaving the final setting, the remains of which can be seen today.

setting sun through the stones at Stonehenge

Stonehenge stood in a key position on the axis of the sun’s solstice in what Pearson and his team discovered was a ritual landscape. About two miles to the north of the stone circle is what is known as the cursus – an earthwork enclosure that stretches over a mile and a half. Although created about 500 years before, the enclosure seems to have played an important role at the time of Stonehenge: marking the boundary of the sacred landscape of the dead and the land for the living.

Beyond the cursus further north is Durrington Walls, a henge 20 times the size of Stonehenge surrounded by a ditch 18 ft. deep and 30 ft. wide that stretches for a mile around the perimeter. The apparent reason for the location of Durrington Walls, its avenue and timber circles, is that nature had created geo-physical features that, just like at Stonehenge, are naturally astronomically aligned. Pearson and his team excavated there and found at least two other ceremonial circles. The better preserved, ‘Southern Circle’, resembled Stonehenge but was built out of wood. Antler picks used for digging and left near the site indicate that it was built over the same period.

Since wood doesn’t last forever, Pearson and team believe the ceremonial circle at Durrington Walls represented life for these early ancestors, while the indestructible Stonehenge represented eternity, and was therefore for the ancestors.

The wooden circle aligns to the sun’s setting in the west – here remains of excessive feasting have been found: half-eaten animal bones and waste covered the site, leading archeologists to conclude that significant ceremonies took place such as marriage rites with feasting, dancing and celebrations of life and fertility. They would be back there nine months later when a new generation would be born and both the human and animal cycle be renewed.

Outside this henge Pearson’s team found an area that contained well over 1,000 wooden houses, 14 x 14 ft. square, each with a central fireplace. These findings and the fact that avenues connect Stonehenge and Durrington Walls to the river Avon have led to the theory that the river linked the “domain of the living” – marked by the timber circles and houses upstream at the Neolithic village – with the “domain of the dead” marked by the stone circle of Stonehenge.

How and why did they do it?

Scholars think that Stonehenge may well have been expanded as a reaction to a long period of violent conflict between east and west Britain, with the stones from southern England and west Wales, symbolizing different communities. As Pearson pointed out, building Stonehenge required everyone “to pull together” in “an act of unification”.

In common with so many Neolithic peoples, for the thousands who participated in the rituals of Stonehenge, tremendous physical effort and struggle seem to have been part of their religious duty, “it’s the labour that counts” says Pearson. “We are looking at an age when devotion was really important. This is just one of a whole series of spectacular earth-moving and stone-moving events that Neolithic people were not just capable of, they wanted to do it. I think that is the missing part of the equation: that is, if you have the will you can move mountains. And they clearly did.”

The much larger super-hard “sarsen” stones came from Marlborough Downs over 19 miles away. Each stone weighed more than 25 tons. About 50 sarsen stones remain though there are thought to have originally been many more. Each stone is shaped and joined, crafted like wood, requiring expert stoneworkers and exceptional engineers. Every stone’s rough surfaces had to be smoothed with stone hammers, though only a few have carvings, which look like daggers and axes. The sarsens varied in length so they needed to be buried at different lengths to make the top level for a roof. They had to be hauled up a ramp to a pivot point made of tree trunks and finally pulled vertical.

It’s estimated that up to 4,000 people met together in Stonehenge to celebrate the solstice and pay respects to the ancestors and gods. Tooth enamel isotope analysis of animal teeth reveal that people came from as far away as Scotland, even perhaps the Orkney Islands at the other end of the country from Stonehenge. It meant travelling with your family and animals by foot and boat for 700 miles; a journey that would have taken the best part of a month.

This huge scale of ritual and festivities ended when a fundamental shift in the beliefs of society took place. The large communal labor force was no longer required; the dead were no longer cremated but were now individually buried in mounds with their valued possessions.

Until then stone was the most precious commodity they had. It had helped them survive for thousands of years.  But from about 2500 BCE the world started to change. Visitors arriving from mainland Europe brought with them a new technology and a new culture.

The Amesbury Archer: The Dawn of Metallurgy

In a burial site three miles from Stonehenge, archeologists found a 4,500-year-old skeleton, buried with over 100 artifacts. This was no ordinary man. The Amesbury archer died between 2470 and 2280 BCE. Analysis of the archer’s tooth enamel suggests he may have originated as far away from Britain as the foothills of the Alps.

Previously excavated European burial sites from this period revealed skeletons buried along with one or two objects, ten maybe at most, but over 100 artifacts made this the richest grave so far excavated in Europe. The objects included a stone belt buckle, tiny copper knives, arrowheads and small copper daggers; and two identical gold ornamental hair clasps – among the earliest gold objects to be found in Britain.

These strangers could take a rock and melt it, then turn it into something entirely new and shining like the sun. To the people of Stonehenge they must at first have seemed like magicians. As it reaches its peak, this new metallurgy changes nearly everything – personal wealth and status becomes paramount. The age of massive stone monuments has come to an end, metal makes people think about new ways of interpreting the same age-old questions – who are we and where are we going?

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