A memory of the past
Image: Menhir in the stone platform of the API-2 of La Torre-La Janera (Huelva). Photographs and images from the photogrammetric survey, from Linares et al.
Professor Primitiva Bueno Ramírez outlines the findings of the standing stone site at La Torre-La Janera and what they mean for the understanding of Neolithic monuments on both the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe.
Primitiva Bueno Ramírez is a professor of prehistory at the University of Alcalá. She is one of three directors to have worked on the La Torre-La Janera standing stones, alongside José Antonio Linares-Catela and Juan Carlos Vera-Rodríguez both of whom are from the University of Huelva. This article is based on the research first published in the journal Trabajos de Prehistoria.
The megalithic site of La Torre-La Janera is located at the southern tip of the Spanish-Portuguese border demarked by the Guadiana River. Knowledge of the prehistoric standing stones in the area was not new, but it was a request by a local farmer to turn part of the forest on his farm into an area for avocado production that led the local authorities to sanction an archaeology survey first.
The 600-hectare site would soon be unveiled as the largest site of prehistoric standing stones, menhirs, dolmens and cromlechs on the entire Iberian Peninsula. The high concentration and multiplicity of architectures of the stones, coupled with the probable long diachronic sequence of the site will also revitalise discussions about prehistoric ‘monumentality’ and propose new readings of megalithism on the European Atlantic façade.
La Torre-La Janera is located 2.5km to the east side of the Guadiana River, in the space surrounding the Monte Gordo hill which, with an elevation of 155m above sea level, is the highest in the immediate area and is about 15km north of the current coastline.
On the Portuguese side are found the decorated standing stones (menhirs) of Lavajo I and the megalithic cists (small stone-built, coffin-like boxes believed to be used in burials) of Lavajo II and Cerro do Malhão. On the Spanish side there are two menhirs, two alignments of menhirs, five dolmens (an upright ‘tomb’ where menhirs support a flat, horizontal capstone), three tholoi (beehive-shaped underground tombs), eight megalithic cists, one quarry and four cist ‘necropolises’.
The few contemporaneous settlements found in the surrounding area are two occupation areas from the Late Neolithic-Copper Age and two fortified settlements from the Bronze Age. The new evidence from the site of La Torre-La Janera adds to the knowledge of the megalithic phenomenon in the area with key aspects to explore the processes of appearance, proliferation and diversification of menhirs, dolmens and other stone architectures in the southwestern Iberian Peninsula.
high density and diversity
The first systematic analysis of La Torre-La Janera has led to the characterisation of the visible megaliths, the delimitation of spatial groupings and the assignment of foreseeable functionalities.
The exceptional feature of the megalithic site of La Torre-La Janera is that it has all three types of monuments in the same area, which is not very common in the rest of the megaliths on the Atlantic European façade. The site stands out for the high density and diversity of greywacke megaliths and associated findings such as extraction areas, rock engravings, dry stone structures, etc., accounting for 485 elements in primary contexts, which form discontinuous assemblages with a prevalent distribution from the northwest to the southeast on peaks and slopes, according to two spatial patterns.
But despite the large numbers of stone architectures discovered, relatively few tools, such as quartzite hammers located mostly in the vicinity of potential supply areas and quarries, were found.
Menhirs are the most numerous documented elements: 526 are preserved in situ or lying in an archaeological context. This points to La Torre-La Janera as the site in the southwest of the peninsula with the highest concentration of menhirs with formats varied. A majority of the menhirs were found to be erected in the surroundings of the outcrops where they were provisioned or extracted, in the same locations or in the vicinity, similar to the huge Carnac standing stones site in Brittany, France.
Most of the menhirs are concentrated in 26 alignments and two cromlechs (stone circles) and are located on the slopes or tops of prominent elevations with a continuous profile. They are oriented northwest-southeast, north-south or east-west and contain vertical menhirs lying on foundation pits, burial mounds or perimeter structures and stone platforms.
The two cromlechs are located on the tops of hills with a clear horizon towards the east, from where the equinoctial and solstitial sunrises can be observed. The best-preserved stone circle is made up of nine lying menhirs, delimiting a circular space in a ‘U’ shape open to the east, measuring 17m by 14m.
Megalithic sites and settlements from the recent prehistory of the Lower Guadiana. Aerial image: Earthstar Geographics in ArcGIS Online Map Viewer, from Linares et al.
evocative practices and commemorative rituals
At La Torre-La Janera, the great menhir of API-2 (Comprehensive Protection Area – 2) stands out, located on a steep slope on the left bank of the Rocín stream. The support, at 3.5m in length and more than a metre wide and thick, has an elongated lenticular format and a pointed upper end. The western face is flat and the eastern irregular. It sits in a structure carved into the substrate. It is dry walled with obliquely arranged stones, reinforced laterally by a stone platform made up of two large parallel ‘walls’.
The dolmens, burial mounds and cists were built on sites with subvertical rocky crests of greywacke and must be funerary containers. Dolmens are the most common monuments of European megalithism, and are chambers built of stones, sometimes with an access corridor. The entire structure is covered with flat slabs and is contained within a tumulus. The tumulus is an artificial construction of earth and stones placed on top of the dolmen.
In the past, the normal view would be that of the tumulus. The chamber would be accessed through the opening left by the corridor (usually facing east or east/ southeast). Nor can it be ruled out that some have been associated with evocative practices and commemorative rituals, involving (or not) the deposition of offerings, as has been confirmed in burial mounds in other peninsular areas. The dolmens are located either isolated or grouped together. The small size of the chambers and their structural variability are characteristic.
Enclosures with terraces and masonry platforms were also discovered. They are large open constructions articulated on staggered levels. Inside, structures with diverse functions and chronologies are concentrated: dolmens, cists, menhirs, etc. The three terrace enclosures identified (elliptical, ‘H’ shaped and ‘U’ shaped) share similar elements in that they are located on prominent hills, with wide visibility and great landscape perceptibility, whose peaks and slopes were topographically transformed. They are concentrated around the Rocín stream with spatial and visual inter-relationships; and house reused menhirs, fractured at their ends or split in half. The predominant supports are elongated lenticular formats ranging from 1.5m to 3m in length.
And finally, ten rock carvings were located in greywacke outcrops. Cups and incised circles and incised lines predominate. Some engravings are superimposed on natural erosion marks, taking advantage of linear grooves, longitudinal grooves and sinuous grooves, called flute or groove, but most are associated with megaliths.
a unique site
La Torre-La Janera is a unique site in the Iberian Peninsula.
Its location at the southern end of the European Atlantic façade offers an unprecedented situation, as megalithic necropolises are relatively rare in this area.
The stone architectures and other manifestations associated with them refer to different chronological stages of late prehistory, coexisting monuments with different functions and technical traditions.
However, there is a generalised symbiosis between the natural formations and the megaliths, embodied in features such as the connection of the ‘monumentalised’ spaces with the referent elements of the landscape: the Guadiana river and the sea, as both the mouth of the river and the Atlantic Ocean are visible from part of the site.
It shows in the selection of the location of the megaliths based on the availability of outcrops from which to capture and extract large homogeneous blocks and in the integration of rocky crests as architectural devices and symbolic elements in their natural state, through their transformation into monuments or through the presence of engravings.
The fusion between the natural and the anthropic gives La Torre-La Janera its own character, with most of the monuments having a ‘rough’ and ‘simple’ appearance. This fact may be due to two complementary possibilities: the probable antiquity of the site, originating in a phase of archaic megalithic architecture of menhirs; and the continuity of a construction tradition and technical identity maintained in the area around the greywacke megaliths.
The natural-anthropic binomial is recurrent in the megalithic monumentality of western Europe from the Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age. The oldest constructions tend to be located next to prominent rock outcrops and in evocative landscapes that contain previous symbolic landmarks, possibly arising by emulation, imitation or competition with Nature, among other motives.
The Neolithic menhirs of La Torre-La Janera could have been inspired by the rock formations of the area and adapted their sizes to the detached and/ or outcropping blocks on the surface. They could be erected as markers of spaces, transit zones and natural accidents.
The alignments and cromlechs reveal the existence of open monuments with more complex forms and functions. They were erected in prominent locations with wide visibility of the landscape that connected them spatially with the surrounding relief, horizon and sky, as is common in this type of grouping, possibly linked to the control of the cycle of the seasons and the observation of astronomical events.
a memory of the past
The dolmens, burial mounds and cists were built around vertical rocky outcroppings, forming the external walls and structures. They must have functioned as houses of the dead and ritual places, containing the remains of ancestors and offerings. The collective erection and communal activities carried out by the communities of Bajo Guadiana around the menhirs and dolmens could have served to establish the territory of ancestors, foster intergroup bonds of cohesion and create a memory of the past.
The presence of megalithic enclosures, platforms, and cists could attest to the durability of the site as a ritual/ ceremonial centre in advanced chronologies. They were located in previous places, reproducing approaches, continuing techniques and reusing menhirs from earlier sites.
The complex processes of ‘monumentalisation’ of the architectures and spaces of La Torre-La Janera have generated a megalithic landscape with a strong territorial imprint, in which natural and cultural elements are reconciled.
Its discovery provides new arguments that reinforce the interpretations of Atlantic megalithism as one of the oldest human phenomena aimed at the transformation and anthropisation of territories. Consequently, the site broadens the horizon of knowledge of the megalithisms of western Europe and the potential for research in the southwest of the peninsula. The uses of megalithic architectures are varied and even vary over time at the same site. Dolmens are basically funerary sites, but we know that some monuments were not only burial places, but also places of worship. It is reasonable to think that they may have been so at some times and at others they may have had other uses. The site most identified as a solar calendar, the famous Stonehenge, has a very important phase of funerary use.
La Torre-La Janera’s position at the southern end of the Atlantic façade increases the geographies for the discussion of some of the most outstanding problems on the genesis and chronological sequence of the monumentality of the great stones, in the case of the establishment of their links with the sea routes, the diachrony of its validity, the weight of architectural evolutions on a smaller and larger scale, or the connectivities that manifest the ways of building and organising these territories.
Primitiva Bueno Ramírez
Professor in prehistory
University of Alcalá
José Antonio Linares-Catela and Juan Carlos Vera-Rodríguez
Department of History, Geography and Anthropology
University of Huelva