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The Explanation of Culture Change conference

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How did the megalithic monuments come about?
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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That was, in a way, a response to the problem that, okay, if all this stuff is earlier and it's happening locally, how does it happen? And the same problem presented itself at an earlier date with these wonderful megalithic monuments because you have a tomb like Maeshowe in Ireland as a very good example, the passage grave with the long entrance passage and then a very beautiful built chamber. But in Brittany there were some that are, in fact, a good deal earlier than Maeshowe, but very similar in plan, some of them, with a long entrance passage, not all of them built of huge stones which is how the Megalith gets its name, but some of them built of dry stone walling and so how did these come about? And I developed a sort of theory to try and explain that, because interestingly you find these on the Atlantic coasts. You don't find them much inland in Southern Germany. You don't find them in the Baltic - in the Balkans. So as farming spread and it's still clear that farming did spread from - from Turkey probably into Europe, sites like Nea Nikomedia first and so on, as farming spread to the - to the North West, and we have plenty of evidence for houses and tell mounds, it seems that settlement became less well established, less permanent on the fringes on the Atlantic Seaboard and perhaps the monuments began to take on a larger significance in the houses, and the monuments began to have a major social role. So there's just a germ of an idea of how this monumentality is particularly appropriate in those areas, it's the social focus, and therefore this wasn't something that was learned from the South East but something for which there may have been processual reasons to develop in the - in Iberia and in France and in Ireland and in Scandinavia. And so I wrote one or two articles to - to that effect, and really, in a way, I was working, trying to work towards new kinds of explanation, social and economic explanations, and towards a kind of social archaeology because really there was a huge gap left, how do you explain these things happening earlier in Europe than in the heartlands of civilisation, which Gordon Childe had written about.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 2 minutes, 47 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009