If I needed proof beyond his writings of Oxford professor Barry Cunliffe’s theory that from the Neolithic onwards Europe’s Atlantic seaboard shared a common culture, I found it lately amongst the wheat fields and evergreen oaks of north-western Spain’s province of Zamora. I was to be staying in the area over the Easter and one of the outings I had planned was to visit some of the region’s surviving megalithic monuments. In one fine March afternoon I took in four passage tombs, and if it wasn’t for the scorching sun and warm, sweet, thyme-scented breeze blowing from the mountains, I could have been standing somewhere in Ireland marvelling at the ingenuity of my stone-age ancestors.
In the public mind megalithic monuments are associated with three areas: Britain, Ireland and Brittany. In Britain we find Stonehenge and Avebury in the south, and Maes Howe and Callanish in the north. Ireland has the Tara complex, Newgrange and dozens of celebrated dolmens, standing stones and circles. Brittany is famed for is elaborate and mystical alignments such as Carnac. We have this idea of Iberia as quintessentially Mediterranean and our clichéd notions of its historical associations range from the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and the Romans to the Moors, El Cid and the conquistadores. But Iberia has a proud and extensive megalithic past. It is also more than likely that the first European megaliths were constructed in Portugal and the culture associated with them spread up the Atlantic coast from a node or “hot spot” there six thousand years ago.
Passage tombs were communal graves consisting of a circular chamber accessed by way of a passage, and would probably have been connected with a single ruling family or a tribe’s elite. Their construction would have required the coming together of the entire community, which speaks of Neolithic society’s growing capacity to organise labour, coral resources for large projects and the fact that the arrival of farming afforded the increased leisure time and calories necessary to accomplish significant deeds not directly related to survival. Passage tombs and other megalithic monuments spoke of a culture imbued with religious belief and a strong interest in the afterlife. As well as important foci for ancestor worship and magical rites they served the purpose of status symbols and the marking of territory. They were among the first large signposts of human activity to be added to the landscape and transmitted the message to neighbouring tribes that: “This is our land. We’ve been here for generations. Our dead are here with us. We have the wherewithal to build mighty monuments. The gods are on our side”.
The first area we visited was Granucillo, a tiny village lying to the south of the Sierra Carpurias mountains. Just on the edge of the village, and at the centre of a small plain, we found the passage tomb, Las Peñezuelas (meaning something like “the small stones”). This tomb’s passage was no more than a couple of metres long and led to a horseshoe-shaped structure made up of a dozen or so quartzite orthostats, i.e. upright stones. Some of the orthostats were larger than a person and must have cost considerable effort to transport and erect. The chamber was about four yards across at its widest point. It was excavated in the 1930s and again in 1985, and rebuilt a few years later. Across the river that runs through Granucillo and beside the Romanic abbey of San Adrián lay the second passage tomb. Smaller than Las Peñezuelas, San Adrián also differed from the latter in being built on an artificial hillock. The mound-upon-mound effect must have been an impressive sight back in the day when the chamber would still have been roofed and covered in a tumulus. As well as being smaller, San Adrián gave the impression of also being sturdier than its sister across the river. Additionally, San Adrián boasted a lintel stone which needed to be crossed before entering the chamber. In this sense I was reminded of Newgrange.
We then traversed the Carpurias mountains via a narrow and winding pass. This twenty minute drive was one of the most scenic routes I’ve ever followed in Spain: the Carpurias are wild and untouched, and with a wealth of chaparral flora springing from their almost crimson soil. Eagles and storks circled overhead and the sweet scent of lavender and rosemary filled the car. At the large and handsome village of Arrebalde which clung higgledy-piggledy to a steep slope, we stopped to ask for directions and after a little effort located our third passage tomb, El Casetón de los Moros (“The Big House of the Moors”), off a dirt track which branched off a side road leading north. Because of its setting — on a promontory that emerged from the fragrant chaparral — this was my favourite of the day’s passage tombs. Setting was everything to our megalithic ancestors. Notwithstanding the precision with which standing stones such as Stonehenge were placed, passage tombs and other types of graves were hardly thrown down without a thought either. All the passage tombs we visited that day had their entrances facing exactly south-west and if one observed their relationship to the landscape in which they were set it was clear the amount of thought that had gone into choosing that perfect location. Las Peñezuelas was the focal point of its small, hill-enclosed plane. San Adrián aligned with a nearby “nick” in a mountain peak. El Casetón de los Moros stood above the valley below like a beacon and seemed to align with a snow-capped mountain far to the north-west. El Casetón de los Moros was the largest of the passage tombs we saw, and its size and positioning were obviously intended to inspire respect and admiration. Five thousand-plus years later the effect hasn’t worn off.
To get to our final passage tomb we skirted the mountains along their northern side, arriving at the village of Morales del Rey. Here the passage tomb, El Tesoro (“The Treasure”), was on the edge of the village and disappointingly formed the focal point of a run-down picnic site. The tomb hadn’t been as comprehensively restored as the others we had seen and appeared sunken into the ground. It was difficult to appreciate the height of its orthostats, but in circumference El Tesoro was just a large as its brethren scattered around the mountains. Although not as impressive in itself, the setting of El Tesoro was possibly the most impressive of the four we had seen that day. It stood at the dead centre of a U-shaped range of hills, aligning perfectly with the ends of the U’s arms.
It’s incredible to think in the case of passage tombs that the beliefs that spurred their construction as well as the technical know-how to transport and erect the stones (the “cultural package”) travelled all the way up the Atlantic coast from Portugal to the Shetland Islands. One speculates as to how this might have happened. The old answers provided by the archaeology of the early twentieth century were population movements or invasion — or a mix of both. While a steady trickle of settlement from Iberia northwards, especially in the case of groups of farmers or pastoralists, was probably responsible for conveying knowledge of agriculture to Britain and Ireland, there doesn’t seem to have been any single wave of Neolithic men and women taking with them the shared culture of the Atlantic seaboard. We also know from genetic studies that a great proportion of the pre-farming hunter-gatherer stock of the British Isles were not displaced by the new arrivals of the Neolithic. It seems more likely that trade and commerce and maybe the odd opportunistic spot of colonisation spread the cultural package around the Atlantic area.
In his book, Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 BC to AD 1500 (2001, Oxford University Press), Barry Cunliffe shows how a common culture prevailed along Europe’s Atlantic coast from at least the Neolithic until Rome’s influence began to be felt in Iberia, Gaul and Britain a couple of centuries BC. Trade links were remarkably strong between the various regions, with all sorts of goods from the north turning up in the south and vice versa. Communication was by sea and river and our ancestors’ skill at boat building and navigation is to be hugely admired. The next question to ask is how peoples from as far apart as modern day Cadiz and the north of Scotland managed to communicate. We know that by the Bronze Age, Celtic languages were being spoken all over the Atlantic zone, but prior to this? Was there a common proto-Celtic, spoken from Iberia to Ireland? Or was the proto-Celtic that had its birth in the south of the Iberian peninsula (the first written evidence of Celtic comes from a Tartessian stela) a lingua franca used for trading, political and religious purposes (in the same way English might be used nowadays between Chinese and German businessmen striking a deal)?
All these question came to me as I stood in the burning Spanish sun examining a passage tomb that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a misty bog in Ireland.