Share this article with friends
by Alexander DMITRIEV, Head of the Black Sea Archeological Inspectorate, Board of Conservation, Restoration and Maintenance of Historical and Cultural Monuments, Krasnodar Territory
The last builders of the dolmens (from the Breton to/, table, and men, stone) died off thousands of years ago. Relentless time has blotted out from human memory the name of the tribe that built them, and onrushing events have overwhelmed the idea that drove ancients to move around stone slabs each weighing many tons. Nothing-decayed manuscripts, or enigmatic symbols on stones, or hoary legends-can now tell the full story. The dolmen mystery spawns swarms of hypotheses. The less people know about the history of these structures, the more fantastic explanations they tend to offer.
Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author.-frf.
Dolmens, or megalithic structures (from the Greek mega for large and lithos for stone), were commonly built in the northwestern comer of the Caucasus starting in the mid-third millennium B.C. to the early second millennium of the pre- Christian era. Cossacks who used to settle here in centuries past called them Giants', Granddads', or even Devil's Homes. For highlanders, they were anything out of dwarfs' homes, caves, ancient burial tombs or skeleton repositories. Legend tells us about wily dwarfs who duped dumb giants into building strong stone homes for themselves.
Megaliths dot the mountain landscape in an area extending for almost 400 km from Anapa down south to the village of Ochamchiri in Abkhazia along the Black Sea coast and for 70 km from the shoreline to Maikop deep inland. Elsewhere, dolmens occur on a much smaller area. Ancients put them up in river valleys, foothills, on mountain slopes, and mountain tops. In Abkhazia, they stride up to 1,000 m above the sea level. The stone giants stand alone or are scattered haphazardly over the place, or else arranged into intricate patterns, as on the Ozereika riverside, a short distance from Novorossiisk, or form symmetrical compositions, as on the Zhana River, at Gelenjik. They are strung out in files along mountain ridges and watercourses, or fall into regular rows. Wherever they might be, you feel stranded in a petrified city.
In 1818, Tetbou de Marigny, a Frenchman in Russian service, was dispatched to establish friendly and commercial relations with the Shapsugi and Natuhai tribes who at the time settled in the area between present-day Novorossiisk and Sochi. Reaching the Pshada River, he caught sight of six dolmens, which he carefully described and added a highlander legend about their origin as an entry in his diary. He ventured a guess that the "monuments" "served as tombs for a tribe that lived in the Caucasus in times long past". In the 1830s, drawings of these monuments were made by the Swiss scientist, Dubois de Montperet, and the English scout,
James Bell. Years later, they were described by Alexei and Praskovya Uvarov, both honorary members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and several other scholars. Knowledge about the mysterious structures was building up slowly, bit by bit. In 1951 through 1952, IvanAkhanov, Director of the Local History Museum in Gelenjik, unearthed 27 dolmens buried under mounds, which were, however, subsequently destroyed to make room for vineyards.
An enormous contribution to the study of the Caucasian dolmens has been made by Vladimir Markovin, a Doctor of History. Beginning in 1966, he has taken measurements, made drawings, and drawn up descriptions of hundreds of such structures in the Kuban area and on the Black Sea coast.
In our days, the World Archeolog-ical Congress Foundation has launched an international program to explore, restore, and use these Caucasian monuments. The program is coordinated by Viktor Trifonov, a Doctor of History.
In the 4th to 1st millennium B.C., dolmen building was a widespread practice on the coasts of the Baltic, North, and Mediterranean seas and in the territories of modem India, Korea, and Japan. Typically, a dolmen consisted of four upright slabs capped by a flat-lying fifth slab, or cover, and really looked like an enormous table.
In Bulgaria, dolmens are, for the most part, enclosed in tower-like stone structures, and so they are in Psynako, near Tuapse, as well as some dolmens at Gelenjik. Stone structures having a central chamber of parabolic (Li-shaped) layout in plan and a wide passage leading to it have survived on Minorca, an island in the Balearics. The dividing wall between the chamber and passage has a round orifice. Similar structures occur in the dolmen complex on the Ozereika River.
On the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, dolmens were built from close-fitting slabs, while in Portugal and Spain they are larger and cruder than their Caucasian counterparts. The banks around Caucasian megaliths covered over by mounds are very much like those gallery graves, buried under mounds, in Denmark and France. Entrances to stone sanctuaries on the islands of Gozo and Malta resemble the portals of Caucasian dolmens. They, too, have walls with round apertures. Man- made grottos hewn into cliffs on the island of Sicily have trapezoidal niches looking like the portals of single-and multi-stone megaliths in the Caucasus. For all these similarities, nowhere in the world were the details of these structures worked as carefully as in the Caucasus, and the diversity of their unique forms and designs is unmatched elsewhere.
Dolmen designs varied from composite structures built from individual slabs or stone blocks, to solid monoliths cut out of a cliff or a single huge stone block, to jointed and trough-shaped, hewn from a cliff or stone block and covered by a lid- like slab. It was commonplace to build dolmens directly at the site of suitable materials. The chamber of a Caucasian megalith is typically accessed through a small, usually rounded hole made in the front wall, or through a secrete manhole closed by a mushroom-shaped plug weighing about 100 kg. The plug caps were covered with decorative ornaments in the form of concentric circles and various protrusions in the center. Stone walls run from the portals of many structures to block approaches to them when the megaliths were piled over by mounds.
Portals have been observed to face where they get more sunlight or toward open space. On the Pshada River flowing south, structures standing on its left bank have their entrances on their southwestern sides, while those on the right bank have them on their southeastern sides.
Several structures have come down to our day with ornaments and individual drawings having survived on their walls. The greatest attraction is the large slab megalith on the Zhana River. Its front wall is provided with a relief likeness of a portal, its side faces extending parallel to the side walls formed into a real portal. Their butt-
end faces are covered with parallel zigzags winding down from top. Inside the chamber, the rear wall has a wide zigzag band under the ceiling. The remaining three walls have bands of triangles in the same place. The lines are strikingly regular and clear, suggesting the hand of a skilled craftsman. Another two Caucasian monuments (one already in ruins) had a similar ornament combination.
The dolmen with an attached portal in the Shirokaya Shchel township, near Gelenjik, has a truly amazing design. A second portal is shown in relief on the front wall. The top comers of the front slab have a pair of projections each.
Similar elements were discovered in two monuments in the Tuapse area.
A curious pattern is cut in the front slab of the monument at the La-zarevsky township, a short distance from Sochi. It is composed of horizontal and vertical zigzags joining at an angle, a rectangle decorated with parallel lines, and a circle with a cross, which the ancients associated with the
Sun. The front slabs of many structures are covered on the outside with salient horizontal lines.
Who built the megaliths, after all? We only have archeological materials to attempt an answer. The vast number of diverse finds has enabled research scientists to identify several archeological cultures in the Northern Caucasus, traceable to the ancient population of the region.
The Maikop culture* is dated to the early Bronze Age (3rd millennium B.C.). Settlements and burials associated with it have been discovered in the Kuban area and Stavropol Territory They also occur in coastal areas, near Novorossiisk. Mounds at the Novo-svobodnaya Village contain burials in dolmen-like stone tombs dating to the late stage of the Maikop culture.
Another culture is traced back to the 25th through 14th centuries B.C. It arose around the megalith-building tradition and, by implication, extended across the territory where they still stand to this day. Appropriately, it is called the Dolmen Culture. All that remains of the epoch a thousand years long are a few human settlements, insignificant remnants of original burials in stone tombs, and occasional burials out of them. This is plainly not enough to get even a scant idea about the everyday life and culture of the population that has left these monuments behind.
Scientists are trying to find out whether the Dolmen Culture stemmed from the Maikop Culture or was completely extraneous, which tribes were its forerunners and proponents, and who were its successors. Some believe that the succession of cultures is linked with migration of tribes, and others hold that the Caucasian population had been immobile until the 19th century and argue, on this assumption, that the megaliths were built by the forefathers of the contemporary Adygeis and Abkhazians who still lived in this area as recently as last century It is highly unlikely that over the long span of 5,000 years, with Eurasia's ethnic map having been redrawn several times, the Northwestern Caucasus has remained untouched.
Maeotians*, who lived in areas around the Sea of Azov and on the Don River, where no dolmens have been found, are counted among the Adygeis' ancestors, too. Moreover, had dolmens been built by the Adygei-Abkhazian historical community that
* See: S. Korenevsky, "An Atlantis in the Northern Caucasus", Science in Russia, No. 5, mi-Ed.
* See: Ye. Beglova, "Maeotians: History Retraced", Science in Russia, No. 4, 1999.-Ed.
really lived in the same area for 5,000 years, their national epic would, no doubt, have left more reliable reference to dolmens than the funny fairytale. It is, therefore, impossible at this time to establish the ethnicity of the megalith builders. The outward likeness of the monuments scattered over a large area is no proof that they were built by the same tribe.
Anyone glimpsing a megalith for the first time wonders in amazement how people could transport the enormous slabs (the largest of them weighing 20 to 30 tons) and install them in place. Megalith building certainly was a challenging undertaking, but still within the powers of ordinary humans. Not unlike the ancients, Cossacks in the Akhtyrskaya Village, out stump-grubbing in the wood, stumbled upon a dolmen, which they brought to their village and set up in front of the village council building. Sometime afterward, the dolmen was transported to the Kuban Army Museum of Ethnography and Natural History. The technique the Cossacks used differed but little from that of the ancient builders.
We leam from encyclopedias that a dolmen is a tomb for multiple burials. Indeed, the remains of a dozen, or several dozen people are commonly found in Caucasian dolmens. At the time of construction, however, one or, more rarely, two or three bodies were interred. More were added later. On a cue from last- century explorers, it was believed, quite wrongly, that bodies were buried in dolmens in a sitting position. Actually, it was the folded up position, common for Bronze Age burials, with knees tucked in to the chin and arms, bent in elbows, pressed against the body Or else, disconnected bones from another burial were brought in and placed in a compact pile.
Megaliths could not be used for mass burials for the following reason. A total of about 2,500 structures of this type have been cataloged in the Caucasus over all these years. If this number is doubled, to account for some megaliths lost without a trace and others yet to be discovered, and spread over a thousand years, the result is a mere five structures a year over an area of 15,000 km2. The question then is where did the ancient builders bury hundreds of thousands of their kinfolk? Nor could megaliths serve as tribal tombs, as many researchers hold. A few tombs would clearly not be enough to have all the tribe's dead in. What principle applied in selecting the chosen few? The wealthiest, perhaps? This rule had previously been followed by the Egyptians, Scythians, and some other ancient
races. The richer and nobler a deceased was the bigger his tomb or mound. As for the dolmens, they all were of almost identical design. Their size varied depending on available materials and historical period, becoming smaller overtime. Besides, all known chamber-type burial structures intended for use by successive generations had larger and more convenient entrances.
It has been suggested that the idea of dolmen construction arose among the local population by analogy with traditional burial practice in caves or stone troughs. This hypothesis has not, however, been confirmed by archeological materials. The cave tradition has never been followed in the area in question. Stone tombs had only one, sepulchral function and were always hidden in the ground or in rocks to make access to the chamber as hard as only was possible.
Large-scale construction of look-alike structures did not start by trial and
error, but revealed well-established forms and traditions. Vladimir Mar-kovin has persistently argued that the dolmen construction idea was imported from the Mediterranean lands as distant navigation was spreading. First planted on the Black Sea coast, it penetrated deep into the mountains and northward to the Kuban area. It was not just a passing vogue, but a new ideology rooted in a so far unknown worship or religion that required believers to build dolmens and for some reason became dominant among the local population.
Surviving ancient records contain myths about the creation and organization of the world. Different peoples composed different myths, and yet nearly all of them divided the world into three parts: the top realm was inhabited by gods, the middle was peopled by humans, and the bottom was the nether world, a home for the dead, or more correctly for the souls of the deceased,
deep underground. According to ancient beliefs, it could be entered through cracks in the ground, crevasses, holes, and caves in the rocks.
Vk: do not know exactly which religious concepts were embraced by the dolmen builders. It is not improbable that the opening in the portal served as a door for the souls to enter the Kingdom of the Dead. Rather than put a dead body inside, it was enough to unplug the hole to let the soul into the nether world. The deceased, abandoned by his soul, could then be buried elsewhere.
Most probably, megaliths played a central part in the local population's religion, as sanctuaries opening doors into the underworld (lower world).
Accordingly, the portal symbolized the front door and the hole imitated a cave. The cult was maintained by trained attendants (priests or witch doctors?) who performed the prescribed ceremonies, and builders, although the two functions could be fulfilled by the same people.
The content of the burial chamber had a special role. Ancestor worship could hold a central place in the extinct people's religion. The stone tomb could contain the remains of a tribe's founder, a generally venerated man who was a mediator between the world of the living and the nether world. A sanctuary took quite some time to build and could hardly be timed for the death of a particular person.
In all probability, the remains of a long-deceased ancestor were placed in
a recently built dolmen, where a limited number of burials took place thereafter. Human remains were placed inside, through the opening, from which the plug had been removed.
Construction of megaliths stopped at about the mid-second millennium B.C. Moreover, desecration of the sanctuaries began at or before that time. The complex in the headwaters of the Ozereika River was destroyed, along with a number of others. Significantly, the structures standing in the open have survived in a better condition than those piled over with mounds or enclosed in towers. Most likely, destruction started on the fringes of the area. The priests had to defend the contents of the sanctuaries against desecration. Part of the ritual, the opening of the entrance to the chamber, was probably performed in secret. At about that time, locals started building semi-monolithic dolmens with secret and fake (false portal)
entrances. Gradually, dolmens ceased to be used in their sanctuary role, but burials in half-ruined dolmens continued until the late Middle Ages.
Why did the dolmen culture decay, after all? Two reasons may be named: change of the population and change of ideology (religion).
Many theories about the origins and purpose of dolmens have been put forward in recent years. Amateurs and even rare specialists in various areas of science and engineering endow them with supernatural qualities in power generation, medicine, space communications, and much more. So far, not one of these theories has, however, been corroborated by scientific experiments or precise measurements of physical properties, save for personal emotions and guesswork. In my fifty years of "close contact" with the ancient sanctuaries, I have not, I must confess, experienced anything super-
natural, have not sensed my energies surge or ebb, have not suddenly fallen ill or recovered because of them. I have always seen them as no more than stones that have taken in enormous human efforts, as traces of a mysterious idea that drove people to exert themselves.
As they built dolmens people hoped they would last forever. Water, drop by drop, is chipping away at the stones. Vegetation, landslides, and stream bank erosion are inflicting enormous damage on the monuments. Wind, frost, rain, and summer heat are contributing to the destruction, year after year. Over time, the slabs break up:
local sandstone has much foreign matter, which often is not as durable as the rock and is washed out faster by water. Slab surfaces get pitted. Some people are prone to take them for a map of the starry sky, calling these utterly natural defects "cup-like
recesses", allegedly carved out by human hands. To prove them wrong, we sliced a piece of slab broken off a dolmen, and left it in the open. Pits began forming as little as a year after. Dolmens were destroyed in olden times already on ideological grounds. After some more time their chambers were broken into by robbers. In the Middle Ages, their stone banks and towers were taken apart to line mounds with. Russian settlers in the 19th century used their slabs to build houses, churches, and bridges, and to fashion them into millstones. In Soviet times, 10 structures were destroyed at Novorossiisk and at least 35 at Gelenjik to clear the ground for fruit gardens and vineyards, pine nurseries, and logging operations. In our day, ignorant tourists are making campfires in them and write graffiti on their slabs - in chalk, oil paints or with hammer and chisel. UFO watchers and Anastasievites* sweep out the chambers to clear away what they call "litter" (actually, residues of the cultural level), depriving archeologists of the last remaining chance to make investigations or take unadulterated samples for analysis.
In short, whoever comes to see the dolmens for whatever purpose is to remember, above all, to take care not to harm these unique ancient monuments, Preservation of the dolmens would be helped by a federal program, enjoining their exploration and restoration, and establishment of protected territories.
* Admirers of a character from V. Megre's "Anastasia".-/lu//i.
Permanent link to this publication:
LRussia LWorld Y G