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Durham University

Department of Archaeology


Publication details for Professor Chris Scarre

Scarre, Chris (2018). Megalithic people, megalithic missionaries: the history of an idea. Estudos Arqueológicos de Oeiras 24: 161-174.

Author(s) from Durham


The idea that the megalithic monuments of western and northern Europe were built by
a specific group of people who travelled long distances along the Atlantic seaways
was first proposed in the 18th century. It remained a dominant concept among 19th
century antiquarians and archaeologists and became a feature of diffusionist models
of Neolithic cultural interaction in the early 20th century. Opinions on the direction
of travel were varied, some favouring a north-south and others a south-north
movement of people. The ritual or religious character of these monuments was given
particular focus in Gordon Childe’s notion of ‘megalithic missionaries’. Connections
with the East Mediterranean also came to play an increasingly prominent role. The
development of radiocarbon dating in the 1960s gave rise to different explanations of
megalithic origins, emphasising regional sequences and indigenous social change. In
recent years, however, novel scientific techniques – stable isotopes, ancient DNA,
and improved dating methods – have given unexpected insight into the movement of
prehistoric populations. Studies of exotic materials such as variscite and jadeitite
have also renewed interest in maritime interconnections during the Neolithic.