They look as if they were dropped
in place by a race of giants. As a matter of fact,
folklore still refers to them in many parts of Europe as
'tombs of the giants'. Indeed, there are otherwise
rational persons (because they refuse to believe in
giants) who will look you in the eye and tell you that
alien creatures with advanced technology must have
levitated these things into place from orbiting
spacecraft. They are 'megaliths'—from the Greek, meaning
'large stones'. The most famous group of megaliths is
Stonehenge* on the Salisbury plain in southern
England, but hundreds of other, smaller, sites exist in
Europe from central Sweden down through Spain, France,
Italy, the Mediterranean islands, and modern Turkey. They
are also found throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle
East. Depending on the site, their construction has been
dated back to anywhere between five and two thousand years
BC. Many of the ones in Europe are closer to the earlier
date and are the oldest examples of European architecture.
Tempe, cited below, has been called the oldest such site
in the entire world.) Their builders are covered by the
term "protohistoric," meaning "just before recorded
history". We know very little about them except that they
spent an inordinate amount of time pushing very heavy
stones into place.
Scapa Flow (directly below)
*Stonehenge is the best-known example of "standing stones" in Britain, but there are many other displays of an amazingly rich and well-preserved Neolithic landscape as you move north into the islands of northern Scotland to the Orkney islands and then up to Outer Hebrides, where the Callanish Stones (image, right) display a noteworthy 13 primary monoliths in a circle about 13 meters in diameter. There are dozens of such sites, most of which indicate they were put up around 3500-3000 BC., more or less at the same as the Egyptians started building pyramids. Maybe it was an idea whose time had come in Europe. They served for rituals, as calendars, as tomb markers, as boundary markers, but yet once again we are puzzled by much earlier sites such as that of Göbekli Tempe (in modern-day Turkey).
Back to megaliths. There are basically two kinds of megaliths: dolmen and menhir. Both words are from Breton, a Celtic language spoken in an area of northern France where a great many of them have been found. Dolmen means "table stone" and menhir "tall stone". Thus, dolmen refers to a chambered construction, generally a flat table stone supported on three sides by upright slabs, with the fourth side open as an entrance to the chamber. In some cases there may also be a covered corridor leading into the chamber through the open side. The smaller stone slabs arrayed on either side of the entrance define the corridor leading to the main chamber. Originally, dolmens served as tombs, either for individuals or groups, and both chamber and entrance were covered over with cairns or earth.
As long as you're up there admiring the amazing stone slabs of the Orkneys, look at the recent reason the Orkneys are a major tourist attraction. The Orkneys contain the Scapa Flow, a harbor that played an important part in both World Wars, the Great War (1914-18) and the Even Greater War (1939-45). Indeed, the sheltered waters have played a vital role in travel, trade and war for centuries. Vikings anchored their longships in Scapa Flow more than a thousand years ago. In the 20th century, it was the United Kingdom's chief naval base during both World Wars. It was closed in 1956, but you can visit the indoor museum and look at the outdoor displays. The Orkneys are a large museum of Naval History of the 1900s.
In World War I, it was where the German navy scuttled their mighty High Seas fleet on 21 June 1919. British guard ships were able to beach some of the ships, but 52 of the 74 interned vessels sank. Many of the wrecks were salvaged over the next two decades and were towed.
Scapa Flow is the small harbor in the center in the image below. It is at 59° N. latitude, just below the arctic circle Here, you
have a smaller group of Scottish islands, the Shetlands, 125 km above to the NE; and the coast of Norway 500 km directly east.
The Orkney Islands surround Scapa Flow . The mainland of Scotland is below it.
The large body of water at the lower right is the Moray Firth, an estuary leading into the city of Inverness at the SW extremity and to
the river Ness and nearby Loch Ness.
Admiral Hans Hermann Ludwig von Reuter (1869–1943) was the German commander of the High Seas fleet. He ordered the scuttling of the fleet to keep the British from seizing the ships. The politics of the Nov.11, 1918 armistice were important. As the deadline neared for the German delegation to sign the Treaty of Versailles, admiral Reuter was sure his ships would be handed over to the victorious Allies. To prevent this, he ordered all 74 ships scuttled. All ships were ready for this. Within five hours, 10 battleships, five battlecruisers, five light cruisers, and 32 destroyers sank in Scapa Flow. The battleship SMS Baden, the light cruisers SMS Emden, SMS Nürnberg, SMS Frankfurt and SMS Bremse and 14 destroyers were beached when British watch personnel intervened in time to tow them to shallow water. Only four destroyers remained afloat. Nine Germans were killed in scuffles and were the last German war deaths of World War I.
Scapa Flow was the main anchorage for the British Grand Fleet for most of WWI, but in the interwar period this passed to Rosyth, further south in the Firth of Forth. Scapa Flow was reactivated when WWII started as the base for the British Home Fleet. Its natural and artificial defenses were strong but in need of improvement, and in the early weeks of the war were strengthened with additional blockships.
World War II is now what attracts much historical interest to Scapa Flow. It was where the first German attack on British Forces took place. Commander of German submarines, Karl Dönitz, devised a plan to attack Scapa Flow within days of the outbreak of the war (WWII began 1 September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland). Strategically, the Dönitz plan would displace the British Home Fleet from Scapa Flow and slow their North Sea blockade and give Germany greater freedom to attack the Atlantic convoys that were supplying U.S. munitions to Britain. The Dönitz plan was also a symbolic act of vengeance, striking at the same location where the German High Seas Fleet had scuttled itself following Germany's defeat in WWI. Dönitz picked captain Günther Prien for the task; the raid was on the night of 13/14 October 1939. The tides were high and the night moonless.
On 14 October 1939, the British fleet anchored at Scapa Flow included the Royal Oak, a WWI battleship (built in 1908). She was torpedoed by German submarine U-47. Of Royal Oak's complement of 1,234 men and boys, 835 were killed that night or died later of their wounds. The loss was the first of five Royal Navy battleships and battlecruisers sunk in WWII. The loss of Royal Oak did little to alter the numerical superiority of the British navy and its Allies but it had a great effect on British wartime morale. Before the sinking of Royal Oak, the Royal Navy had thought Scapa Flow impregnable to submarine attack, but the U-47 showed that the German navy could bring the war home to British waters. This shock led to rapid changes in dockland security and the building of "Churchill barriers" around Scapa Flow.
The wreck of Royal Oak is an official war memorial. She lies almost upside down in 100 feet (30 m) of water with her hull 16 feet (4.9 m) beneath the surface. In an annual ceremony marking the loss of the ship, Royal Navy divers place a White Ensign underwater at her stern. Unauthorized divers may not approach the wreck, as per the Protection of Military Remains Act of 1986.
Building Churchhill Barriers (four causeways to block access to Scapa Flow meant a large labor force, which peaked in 1943 at over 2,000. Much of the labor was provided by 1,300 Italian P.O.W.s captured in the desert war in North Africa; they were moved to Orkney starting in early 1942. In 1943, the Italian prisoner-laborers built an ornate Italian Chapel, which still survives and is a tourist attraction (images,right and below).
Of human interest is that the chapel was made from very sparse materials. It was in the form of a tin tabernacle: two Nissen huts joined end-to-end (aka as "Quonset hut" in U.S. English). The workers put plasterboard on the corrugated interior and the altar and altar rail were both made from concrete left over from work on the barriers. Most of the interior decoration was by Domenico Chiocchetti (1910-1999), a prisoner from Moena in the Italian Dolomites. He painted the sanctuary end of the chapel; fellow prisoners did the interior. They created a facade out of concrete, concealing the shape of the hut so that inside it all looked like a church. The light holders were made from corned beef cans. The baptismal font was the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete. When prisoners were released shortly before the end of the war, Chiocchetti stayed on to finish the newly consecrated chapel. By profession, he was a painter, mostly of religious images, in his hometown of Moena. He returned some years later to touch up the chapel. The chapel is impressive, as was he.
We needed to salvage the ships at Scapa Flow as long as atomic testing was going on. Modern instruments need
"low-background steel", steel produced prior to the detonation of the first nuclear bombs in the 1940s and '50s. The "atomic age" began with the "Trinity" test on July 16, 1945, at Alamagordo, New Mexico in the U.S. That was the first explosion of an atomic bomb. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the nuclear testing in the early years of the Cold War raised background radiation levels across the world. Steel was contaminated with radionuclides since it used atmospheric air. Scapa Flow was a good source of low-background steel, many ships built before the atomic age, all in one place, easy to get at.
Low-background steel does not suffer from nuclear contamination. Such steel is used in devices that need the highest sensitivity for detecting radionuclides. Devices that require low-background steel include geiger counters, medical apparatus, scientific equipment in photonics, and aeronautical and space sensors. When atmospheric nuclear testing stopped, background radiation dropped to near natural levels, and special low-background steel was no longer necessary for most radiation-sensitive uses. Modern brand-new steel has a low enough radioactive signature that it can generally be used in such applications.
= = = = = = = = = = = = = End of 'Scapa Flow' = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Although dolmens clearly had a funerary purpose and, hence, probably played a significant part in religious rituals and other ceremonies of the Neolithic peoples who built them, there is much less unanimity of opinion on the function of free–standing menhirs, such as the circle at Stonehenge or the spectacular group of megaliths in the Orkney islands in northern Scotland, as noted above. They may have served as boundary markers, clan identification, or as ceremonial sites. Some of them, Stonehenge, for example, are astronomically exact, and probably functioned in ceremonial capacity at certain times of the year, such as at the solstice or equinox. Some menhirs might even have been phallic symbols connected to fertility rites. Both menhirs and dolmens have been found decorated with spirals or zig–zag designs. Wooden monuments existed, as well, but, these have been much more vulnerable to the ravages of time than their stone cousins.
(Image directly above - megalithic architecture on the island of Malta. Of particular interest is the "Submarine monolith in the Sicilian Channel" between Sicily and Malta.)
Speculation on who built the megalith monuments of Europe, and why, has varied over the last few centuries. Scholarly research, employing modern dating methods, have put to rest a number of earlier theories, such as that they started on Crete in the third millennium b.c. and spread out from there. Many monuments along the Atlantic coast of France are, in fact, older than similar ones on Crete. In the 17th century there was also a short–lived theory that was quite ready to hold that the Romans built them as they spread across Europe a mere two thousand years ago, or that Celtic druids had built them as sacrificial altars. These ideas are clearly mistaken.
There has also been some discussion over whether the megaliths originated with a single Neolithic people or arose spontaneously at the hands of different tribes at various times and places. Earlier archaeology even spoke of an age of "the coming of the megalith builders," as if a single people, obsessed with the idea of erecting monuments to itself, had spread across Europe and then faded into the obscurity of preliterate history. That idea is not widely held today, however. The tendency now is to think that the megaliths are a product of the so–called "Neolithic Revolution". This term refers to the period during which hunting and gathering cultures slowly changed over to more stable societies based on agriculture and animal husbandry.
This change started in the Middle East in the 9th millennium b.c. and spread westward into Europe by the 6th millennium b.c. Giving up a nomadic way of life meant that villages could be built, places where entire generations of inhabitants would come of age and pass away, and where there is passing away there has always been —much earlier than even these Neolithic peoples— a human tendency to mark that passage. Thus, the monuments were probably put in place over quite a wide span of time by various peoples who perhaps had no idea that other tribes were doing the same thing a thousand miles distant.
(Image directly above - megaliths on the island of Sardinia)
The presence of the megaliths has fascinated us, true, but has also attracted the hostility of the Christian religion over the last two thousand years. They were often seen as holdovers from paganism, and, as such, a number of them were destroyed. In many cases, however, they were Christianized, that is, crosses were inscribed on them, so they might serve as Christian altars.
They have been built in our own times, too, but not in Europe. Inhabitants of Madagascar have been seen to erect dolmens and menhirs by the oldest 'hydraulic' technology in the world —human sweat. So much for the claim that megaliths could not have been moved without the aid of extraterrestrial technology.
The heel of the boot of Italy, Apulia, is rich in megaliths, particularly dolmens: Giovinazzo, Santa Sabina near Brindisi, Altamura, and Minerrini di Lecce near Otranto are a few of the many sites. (Also, there are a few dolmen in Sicily dated to around 2900-2100 BC. One group is on the slopes of Mount Castellaccio near Messina.) Perhaps the best preserved and most easily accessible dolmen in the south of Italy is in an orchard just off the autostrada to Bari, a few minutes' walk from the rest stop/filling station named Dolmen di Biscieglie [photo at the top of this page]. It's on the northbound side, so if you stop on the way down to Bari you will have to walk under the autostrada and come up on the other side. Walk out the back of the rest-stop and follow the signs. A small park has recently been built around it and the site itself is marked by a small plaque to "our unknown forebears". It is a lonely, potentially eerie, site and if you are given to searching for affinity with the ages, this is a good place to sit and think about a few dozen villagers four or five thousand years ago who built this tomb for their dead and then went back to their daily routine and puzzled over life and death just the way we do today.
[Also see the photos of Bronze Age nuraghi settlements and 'tombs of the giants' on Sardinia by clicking here. The general article on Sardinia (click here) may also be on interest. Also see the entry on Malta for information about similar structures there; particularly see this link to "Submarine Monolith in the Sicilian Channel." ]