Megaliths are enormous stones used by prehistoric civilizations to construct impressive monuments without the use of concrete or mortar. The word ‘megalith’ comes from two ancient Greek words: mégas, which means ‘giant’ and lìthos, meaning ‘stone’. Even though we can’t always clearly understand the reasons and history behind their existence, these incredible structures allow us to travel back in time and to reflect on the early past of humankind, and are inspiring sites to visit at least once in a lifetime. Every one of these ancient stones has interesting and fascinating stories to tell. From the world-famous Stonehenge to the mysterious spheres of Costa Rica, here are some of the world’s most incredible — and beautiful– megalithic structures to visit.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986, Stonehenge is without doubt the most famous cromlech – a circle of megalithic stones – in Europe, and one of the most visited attractions in the UK. Located near Amesbury, in Wiltshire, its name literally means ‘hanging stones’. The actual position of the megaliths was restored between 1901 and 1964, when every stone was straightened or reinforced with concrete to recreate the site’s original circular shape.
In recent decades, there’s been much speculation over the original purpose of Stonehenge’s construction, in 3100 BC. Theories are numerous: some say it functions as an astronomical calendar while still others think it may have been used as a site for ritual human sacrifice!
According to several legends, giants brought the stones from distant lands to create Stonehenge; isn’t it fascinating that some myths held that the massive stones had healing powers? This megalithic circle has always been surrounded by mystery– and since it’s only a few hours away from London, it’s an easy site to visit.
Just outside the visitor center, you can step into five Neolithic houses furnished with replica axes, pottery and other objects; these allow you to get a real feeling for what everyday life might have been like for the ancient people who built Stonehenge.
Carnac Stones, Brittany (France)
Around the village of Carnac, in Brittany, the biggest collection of megaliths in the world – alignments, dolmens, tumuli and menhirs – takes us back to 4500 BC. These prehistoric standing stones, amounting to more than three thousand when counting those situated within La Trinitè-sur-Mer, were erected by the pre-Celtic peoples of Brittany. At Carnac, there are three major groups of stone rows (alignments), which probably formed a single group and then split up when the stones were removed and used for other purposes.
Since these incredible stones stand in perfectly straight lines, local legends claim they were marching soldiers, turned into stones by the magician Merlin.
A more rational explanation? According to researchers studying the site, the megaliths could have been used as a primitive earthquake detector, but there are also several theories about it being a huge lunar observatory or even a calendar. In the commune of La Trinité-sur-Mer, a much smaller group of stones known as Petit-Menec is nestled in the woods, covered by ivy and moss. If you’re looking for a unique adventure that combines mysterious megalithic structures and fresh air, Carnac is a great choice. Its beautiful beaches are well worth visiting, and the Quiberon peninsula nearby is famous for wind-surfing and sailing.
Tombs of Giants and Nuraghi, Sardinia
Sardinia is already well-known for its enchanting beaches and deep blue sea. But if you’re after a peaceful, wild place tucked well away from those crowded holiday destinations, you might want to visit the majestic stone monuments scattered around the island. Several different kinds of megalithic structures grace this gorgeous Mediterranean island: menhirs (singular standing stones), cromlech (similar to those found in Stonehenge) and dolmens (composed of three or more stones).The Tombe dei Giganti – meaning ‘Tombs of Giants’, a name given to the site by the locals, but nowadays frequently used by archaeologists – are impressive dolmenic structures, built in the 2nd millennium BC as collective graves and located in various Sardinian regions. We particularly recommend visiting those that stand in Arzachena, in northwest Sardinia.
Read related: Spotlight on Montefeltro, ItalyNuraghi are Sardinia’s most well-known symbol and the main type of megalithic structure found on the island. A trip to Sardinia is not complete without a visit to one of these extremely evocative monuments. According to the experts, there were originally more than 30,000 nuraghi, although only 7,000 still stand today. The exact use of the Nuragic structures is still unknown: they may have served as religious sites, tombs or even fortresses.
Dolmens of the North Caucasus, Russia
Megaliths and stone labyrinths have also been discovered in the Caucasus Mountains, 50 km north-east from the Black Sea. While these are not as famous as the European constructions, they are equally mysterious and intriguing. Archaeologists believe they were built between the 2nd and the 4th millennium BC, and previously unearthed dolmens continue to be found on both sides of the Western Caucasus. This makes the site even more fascinating as new discoveries are still underway. Despite their similar appearance to the sorts of structures we’ve highlighted in England, France and Italy, these Russian dolmens are of unknown origin. Experts are still developing theories about who build them and for what purpose.
Diquìs Stone Spheres, Costa RicaOver 300 petrospheres – the term used by archaeologists to refer to spherical man-made objects – are located on the Diquìs Delta and on Isla del Caño, in Costa Rica. While their exact significance remains uncertain, they have been attributed to the extinct pre-Columbian indigenous culture of Diquìs.
According to ancient myths, these perfectly rounded stones came from the sunken town of Atlantis. Since June 2014, the Diquìs Spheres are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Despite the fact that “archaeo-tourism” is still a new concept in Costa Rica, the museum FINCA 6 in Palmar Norte, which holds the largest collection of these stones, is gaining in popularity. Could the Diquìs Spheres be an excuse for planning your next trip to the charming Central American nation?
Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites, South KoreaDolmens can be found in East Asia too, and one of the biggest collection is situated on the Korean peninsula, which is said to contain more than 40% of the world’s dolmens, summing up these three important archeologic sites. Korean megalithic monuments date to around 1,000 BC: they are far more recent than the others we covered in this article. Objects excavated nearby suggest that they were mainly used as tombs.
Read related: 7 Top Things to See & Do in Seoul, South Korea
Due to the increasing number of tourists traveling to Korea to see these megaliths, the sites of Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa are slowly becoming national symbols: ones that celebrate Korean pre-historic culture and its inhabitants.
About the Author
Anna Maria Colivicchi is an Italian writer who is interested in travel, art and food. She lived in Rome and in the UK, which is her home away from home. You can follow her on Instagram to see more of her stories and photos.