TWh – August 31, 2022, LiveScience.com reported that archaeologists found a large megalithic ceremonial complex, La Torre-La Janera. Located in the southwest of Spain, it dates from the Neolithic period. Early reports indicate that it may be one of the largest megalithic sites in Europe.
Megaliths in Europe have many different shapes. Some megaliths form stone circles. Others formed linear rows and still others are tombs. Most European megalithic complexes contain only one stone structure. Distinctively, La Torre-La Janera has many types of stone structures.
Archaeologists have known of the presence of standing stones at this site since 2018. The farmer who owned the land wanted to develop the site as an avocado farm. Before the farmer could do so, a land survey had to take place to determine its possible historical significance. ArtNews.com reported that the survey had identified the ceremonial complex. Some of its stones are still buried under the ground. Further studies in 2020 and 2021 revealed the size and structural variety of the site.
La Torre-La Janera is located roughly in the vicinity of Huelva, Spain, near the Portuguese border, on a hill. The hill is close to where the Guadiana River meets the Atlantic and offers stunning views of the area.
La Torre-La Janera covers 1,500 acres (607 hectares). Its builders placed it on the sides and on top of a small hill. Archaeologists have found 526 menhirs at the site. The different types of stones varied in height from three to ten feet (0.91 to 3 meters). Its larger stones are isolated and the smaller ones form enclosures, mounds, rows of stones, circles of stones and tombs.
In Europe, these menhirs are called menhirs and stone circles, cromlechs. Archaeologists call standing stones with a large “roof” slab a “dolmen”. They believe that the ancients used these dolmens as tombs. The coffin-shaped stone structures are called “cists”. Archaeologists believe that these cistus are intended for the storage of human remains.
La Torre-La Janera, however, has not yet delivered any human remains. Archaeologist, José Antonio Linares-Catela, said they have not yet excavated all the graves. He suggested that the acidic soil could have dissolved the skeletal remains.
The variety of megalithic structures
Some stones had a territorial function, others a ritual function. The aligned stones probably had an astronomical function. Some stones form tombs.
Linares-Catela told LiveScience, “This pattern is not common in the Iberian Peninsula and is truly unique.”
Few other Iberian sites have the diversity of megalithic structures found at La Torre-La Janera. Linares-Catela is part of the team of archaeologists studying the site. He said the stone structures had varied functions. Linares-Catela described La Torre-La Janera as a “megalithic shrine of homage, worship and memory to ancestors of long ago”.
Many European megaliths are aligned with sunrise at the winter solstice. At La Torre-La Janera, linear rows and cromlechs are aligned with the sun. Dolmens are usually aligned with both solstices and equinoxes.
The people who built La Torre-La Janera placed several of its menhirs in 26 alignments. These menhirs and two cromlechs sit on top of the hills, a position that would allow a clear view of the sunrises at the equinoxes and solstices.
The Guardian spoke with the professor and co-director of the project, Primitiva Bueno. She discussed the variety of megalithic structures at the site.
Primitiva Bueno said: “Finding alignments and dolmens on a site is not very common. Here, we find everything together – alignments, cromlechs and dolmens – and it is very striking.
Nobody knows a reliable way to assign a precise date to the construction of the megaliths. The dating of tree rings has no relevance for stone structures. Sometimes potsherds found at the site can be linked to a known specific culture and time period, and radiocarbon dating requires organic material.
In general, graves are the most credible source of organic matter in megalithic complexes. Not all graves will have skeletal material yet, as some remains may have dissolved.
If skeletal material is found in any of the graves, archaeologists can radiocarbon date these remains. From these remains, an estimate of an approximate time period for the death of the tomb dweller can be determined. Currently, no human remains have been found at La Torre-La Janera, so precise dating of this site beyond the Neolithic remains impossible at this stage.
Northwestern France as a possible origin of European megaliths
The Smithsonian magazine estimated the total number of stones in all European megalithic sites at around 35,000. They stretch from the Baltic coast of Sweden to the Mediterranean and date from the Neolithic to the Copper Age.
Carnac in Brittany, France has the largest megalithic complex in Europe. It has 10,000 menhirs “aligned in rows”. Stonehenge, in the southwest of England, is the best known.
Archaeologist Bettina Schulz Paulsson has re-examined radiocarbon dating of European megaliths. Of all the European megaliths, only 2,410 had material for radiocarbon dating. The human remains found in the chambers formed the basis of this radiocarbon dating.
His analysis concluded that people in northwestern France began building these megaliths after 4500 BC. Maritime routes spread this style across Europe. As the style spread, different regional styles also developed.
Paulsson provided the following timeline. Around 4500 BCE, people started building megaliths in northwestern France. From 4500 to 4001 BCE, megalithic buildings spread to the coastal areas of modern France, Portugal, Spain, and the Mediterranean. From 4000 to 3500 BCE, people constructed passage tombs on the Atlantic coasts of modern-day Britain, France, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. From 3499 to 3000 BCE, megalithic structures began to appear on the German coast and in Scandinavia.
Monument complexes have markings on some stones. The differences in these marks could indicate whether different cultures built the European megaliths. If these marks had stylistic similarities, it might suggest a common Neolithic coastal culture.
Paulsson speculated that sea travel spread the construction of megaliths. Interestingly, these marks represent boats in one place. This place is the proposed point of origin, northern France.
Note: The presence of similar megalithic complexes along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Europe suggests sustained contact and exchange between peoples. This cultural exchange would require ships capable of navigating the Atlantic in the Neolithic period. If contact was overland, megalith complexes would more often occur inland. Maritime travel along the coasts would probably have been more common than ocean navigation. However, sailing to Britain and Ireland would have involved more than coastal voyages. If Paulsson’s conclusions are supported, they paint a different picture of the Neolithic in Europe.