Megalith by John Martineau (editor)
It was the 1965 publication of Stonehenge Decoded by Gerald Hawkins that piqued this reviewer’s conscious interest in megaliths. The potential significance of Stonehenge and other structures noted therein opened my eyes, and our first visit to England included an outing to Stonehenge and the opportunity to walk freely among the stones and touch them, marvel at their size, and wonder how ancient man was able to erect them and why. Hawkins’ conclusions were later criticized by others and later research has supported some of that criticism. Richard Atkinson, for example, suggested early on a number of impractical aspects of Hawkins’ theories. Nevertheless, the book was a best seller, whetting the public’s appetite for more, and more there continues to be. Astronomers and archaeologists have continued to debate through learned articles and books and popular magazine articles. Even National Geographic has produced print and video specials on megaliths.
Megalith: Studies in Stone is packed with brief descriptions of many of the most significant ancient stone structures and some far lesser known. A map of Great Britain with simple stippling for each site spreads thicker and darker as one’s eye wanders farther north toward Scotland. Stonehenge is the most famous, but more than “one thousand of them have been documented in the British Isles alone.” And, they are old, really old—3500 BC to 1500 BC. These authors examine each structure in terms of its astronomical alignment, method of construction, and potential purpose for erection. Discussions of the ways in which the antiquarians (think 17th and 18th centuries) perceived these structures are useful in comparison with modern research. John Aubrey and William Stukeley wrote early, vital accounts of the structures they saw across England. They both believed that “Druids were the original builders of these sites.” Stukeley wrote that Stonehenge “pleases like a magical spell.” Druids remain stuck in the modern mind. Witness the thousands who gather to watch the summer solstice at Stonehenge.
Modern scientists bring more modern methods to bear in order to develop a coherent explanation of the who, what, when, and how of each structure. Each discussion of a particular megalith is structured so that it will appeal to the reader with a casual interest and to the reader with a more serious interest. The context of each structure includes a discussion of the people who built it, the time period, how they may have moved the stones to that site, and speculation on its intended purpose. Line drawings complete with technical astronomical and mathematical information may appeal to the more serious reader. A final section, “Surveys of Stone Circles,” provides more detailed drawings and places a number of circles at the intersection of their latitude and longitude.
Megalith is a niche book geared to a limited audience. It is very well done with one minor caveat. That is, none of the eight authors who wrote the guts of this book or the editor who selected this information from “seven books in the Wooden Book series” actually defines a megalith. One may correctly infer that a megalith has something to do with building in stone and that these “structures” are ancient and large. They may consist of one stone or hundreds spread across vast areas. Avebury in England, for example, is so immense that a village has grown within its confines.
Taking note of the subtitle, Studies in Stone, the reader should approach this most informative book as an opportunity to study and learn. One should read it slowly and take time to digest the information before moving further along. It will be a rewarding read.