First of all, let’s ask, what is a dolmen, anyway?
Dolmens are single chamber, megalithic funerary structures that generally consist of two or more standing stones (called orthostats) with a capstone on top. They were often set into hills or covered in earth to form barrows.
Most of these structures, which are peppered all over Western Europe, are from the Early Neolithic, that is, 4,000-3,000 bce, or around 6,000-5,000 years ago, though some are from as late as the Early Chalcolithic.
Before talking about the dolmens themselves, let’s talk about the area of Antequera. It is in a lower lying depression, surrounded by El Torcal National Park to the South (a varied range of Karst mountains), La Peña to the East (which I will discuss later), and then several series of high hillocks to the North and West. The area would have been very different 5,500 years ago, around when the dolmens were built. Paleoenvironmental evidence from the area suggests there were many lakes and ponds, and dense pine and oak forests. Many types of herbs and flowers flourished in the damp climate, and pastures and dry copses of olive trees like the picture above were much rarer at the time.
Humans left their mark on the area, as several other sites have been found surrounding the two main dolmens, though whether or not all of these sites are contemporary to each other is still unknown. The point being, it was a rich area that saw quite a bit of human activity and modification during the mid Neolithic era.
The Dolmen de Viera is the older of the two dolmens we are going to talk about here. When it dates to is unclear, but experts say between 5,800 to 4,500 years ago. As with the majority of European megalithic tombs, this dolmen is oriented just south of the summer rising sun (azimuth of 96 degrees).
As with many neolithic, so termed ‘animist’ societies, this type of concordance with solar activity was common, and not only seen with megalithic structures. The question always asked is ‘why?’ when examining these orientations, but that is a very complicated answer, and we will leave it for another article. Suffice to say that the Dolmen de Viera follows the same kind of pattern that is expected from a society that viewed its world as cyclic and reccurrent as opposed to linear.
As you can see the interior of the structure is lintelled and high enough for an average height person to walk down. It is (conincidentally enough :p ) considered a corridor tomb which ends in a funerary chamber. In short, it is a giant, elongated container under a mound of earth.
The tomb was found empty and looted, however since megalithic funeral rite across the continent was ritualized and strictly repetitive down to details, we can make some assumptions about what Viera was used for; burials at this time were collective and often times dozens of skeletons are found inside these chambers. However, it is not necessarily that they were all interred simultaneously, but also possibly of varying generations. Bodies were laid out on the ground, other, older skeletons often shoved out of the way to make room for the newly dead. These corpses were always accompanied by grave goods, from tools to shoes to arrows and knives or bowls.
If the Dolmen de Viera is typical of the structures across the continent, then the Dolmen de Menga is the complete opposite. It is still a corridor tomb that is under a barrow mound with a chamber at the end, but that is where the similarities end.
First of all, it is huge. The slabs used to create this dolmen are positively enormous and the amount of labor that must have gone into its construction moreso, especially considering it was built in the 3rd milennium bce. It reaches a height of 3.5m in the atrium, truly impressive, and also boasts three large pillars, presumably to help bear the weight of the capstones. But they also give the space more the feel of a temple, and experts are currently postulating on Menga’s possible other uses aside from only the funerary.
Second of all, in the atrium we can find an almost 20m deep shaft dug into the sandstone that is in alignment with the three pillars.
It is unclear what the purpose of this shaft would have been. It is a rather unusual element in a megalithic structure such as this. But, also, as this dolmen was previously excavated to some degree in 1847, it is not clear if the shaft was explored by or caused by the previous excavation.
Lastly, this dolmen faces Northeast (azimuth of 45 degrees) unlike most of dolmens. This notable difference from other similar structures is due to the presence of La Peña, which dominates the skyline and is directly in front of the mouth of the Dolmen de Menga.
It is assumed that La Peña, due to its distinct appearance as a human face and also the positioning of the Dolmen de Menga, played a large role in the area’s prehistoric culture. In the ‘chin’ of the mountain archaeologists have also uncovered a post paleolithic cave which has a myriad of early human drawings.
It does seem that the opening to Menga faces directly to this cave, but whether or not the neolithic society who made the dolmen were aware of this cave is unknown.
There is a third structure, the Dolmen del Romeral, but that is a very different structure that is almost 1,500 years later than the two dolmens we have visited here, and so, we will visit it another time.
For now, stay megalithic my fellow archaeologists.
If you want more information about the Dolmenes de Antequera, you can visit the website of the Conjunto Arqueolóico right here.
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