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The term ‘Megalithic’, from the Greek words mega (big) and lithos (stone) is usually used to indicate constructions and manifestations of prehistoric architecture characterised by monuments built by large coarsely cut blocks of stone. The oldest testimonies for such structures go back to the late Neolithic (4th millennium B. C.) and carry on up to the Bronze Age (1,300-1,200 B. C.). The main types of constructions that we can identify are: dolmen; menhir; cromlech (a group of menhirs forming a curved line); stone alignments (series of menhirs in a straight line). Their area of diffusion is widespread; from the Atlantic coasts of Europe to Scandinavia, northern Africa, the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe up to the Caucasus and Asia, India, Korea and other regions of the Far East. There is controversy regarding the purpose of the megaliths and the people who erected them first. The theories that their diffusion areas were Bretagne, Crete or the Aegean islands have been abandoned. Today it is believed that they were erected autonomously by different primitive peoples, far away from each other in different geographical areas. It is difficult to identify their function; they could be reference points, boundaries indicators, centres of pagan rites, astronomical instruments, tombs, altars. They are surrounded by a sense of mystery; they have been the object of continuous cults in the past, so much so that the Church saw the megaliths as the abode of pagan spirits and tried to abolish them through laws and edicts (the emperor Theodosius II in 435 A.D. forbid rites around the stones; Charlemagne in 780 ordered the destruction of the stones worshipped by the people.) After vain attempts such cults were absorbed into the official religion and they became symbols of Christianity.
In Italy the megalithic phenomenon touched regions such as Liguria, Piedmont, Sardinia, Sicily and Apulia, where its full development was reached during the Bronze Age with the building of dolmens and menhirs.
The dolmen (from Breton t(a)ol ‘table’ and men ‘stone’) is the most famous and widespread type of megalith; it is made of a horizontal lithic slab supported by two or more stones vertically inserted in the ground (orthostate). The first functional theories described dolmens as sacrificial altars. Following the discovery in some of these structures of skeletons and earthenware, the theory of a sepulchral function seemed to become established, although not consistently. We can distinguish various kinds of dolmen; the Trilith, made of two vertical and one horizontal slabs; the passage grave, which gives access to a sepulchral chamber; the gallery grave (allĂ©e couverte), where the sepulchral chamber is divided on the inside by lithic slabs placed diagonally to the construction axis. Dolmens could be open or covered by a mound of stone and earth. In this instance they are also called ‘specchie’, term from the Latin ‘speculum’, used to describe a sighting point; therefore these structures had a function of discovery and defence.
Among the Italian regions Apulia is certainly the richest with such megaliths, mostly situated in three areas: the coastline in the province of Bari, an area to the north of Taranto and, most of all, Salento. The types of monument vary quite a lot; we go from the gallery graves around Bari and Taranto, made with large slabs and in some cases with internal divisions of the chamber, to the small rectangular or polygonal structures in Salento, made by only one cell and built by both blocks and slabs. In some cases the funerary chamber is preceded by a dromos, a kind of corridor that leads to the cell. The dolmens in the Apulia territory generally date back to the Bronze Age; they are made of local calcareous stone, that is carparo (calcarenite) or Lecce stone and they are less than a metre tall. Except in some cases, such as Bisceglie and Corato, they all have an access open towards the East, according to an East-West axis connected to the rising and setting of the sun. This is why between 1600 and 1700 some theories were formulated defining such structures as astronomical observation points, with the purpose of checking lunar phases, forecast eclipses and as a proper solar calendar on which to mark celestial events.
The menhir (from the Low Breton men ‘stone’ and hir ‘long’) is a kind of megalithic monument made by a monolithic pillar, with an almost geometrical or irregular shape, mostly left coarse, vertically planted in the ground, also called pietrafitta. The dimensions can vary quite a lot, so much so that in Northern Europe some specimens exceed 20 metres of height. They were probably erected starting from the Neolithic era, although the thoroughly detailed manufacturing of most of them refers to tools used in the more recent Iron Age. Meaning, function and purpose of the menhirs are not clear yet; sepulchral steles, signals to delimit a territory, important meeting or battle points for villages. Today the most accredited theory gives these megaliths a ritual/religious function and identifies them as simulacra of the cult of the sun or as monuments connected to the cult of fertility of the goddess-mother Earth, widespread in the Neolithic era; this hypothesis is supported by the orientation of the wide sides, that look towards the East and the West and they are always lit by the sun from dawn to dusk. Some scholars date the origin of menhirs to more recent eras, such as the Roman times, which allegedly used them as signals for the Roman Centuriation to be set up along the main road axes. According to other studies they date back to medieval era both for the thorough manufacturing characteristics that some of them present, both for some archaeological associations (in this instance the theory of prehistoric menhir later Christianised would be proved wrong).
Apulia is rich with menhirs, especially in the Salento and the Bari areas, with some typology differences between these two areas. The menhirs in Salento have a geometrical shape associated with a more thorough manufacturing technique, they have sharp or round corners, well-squared sides and they are almost all made of Lecce stone, a common calcareous local material. They are all set inside holes dug in the rock with their wide sides oriented towards East and West. There are not certainties on the functions of such structures and the absence of systematic archaeological surveys on the typology and building characteristics of pietrefitte, together with the lack of protection and preservation don’t help with their definition. Besides the phenomena of vandalism occurred throughout the centuries on the menhirs, we must also consider the numerous cases of reuse of these pillars as rural or urban structures without any connection to their original context. Many menhirs were demolished due to the fact that according to some popular myths they hid a treasure. Others were destroyed towards the end of the 18th century when many lands were cleaned of stones in order to farm them or to widen roads. Cults and rites connected to the ‘litholatry’ (cult of the stones) professed and spread in Apulia as well as in other regions, were opposed by the Church which tried to fight them ordering the destruction of these pagan simulacra. The results were not as hoped; therefore the Church changed its strategy and ‘Christianised’ the menhirs by imposing the symbol of the cross carved on the sides or a stone or iron cross placed on the top. With the cross on menhirs were called Osanna; often churches were built nearby in order to reinforce the link between the pagan and Christian cult. Menhir became shared patrimony of Christianity; still today, during Palm Sunday, in some towns in Salento there are processions that end nearby menhirs where olive branches are blessed.