An Island Decides: Megalithic Burial Rites on Menorca

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Mallorca and Menorca, the major Balearic islands, occupy, from a geographic perspective, a central position in the western Mediterranean. Nevertheless, this centrality also implies a certain remoteness from any continental coasts: eastern Iberia, northern Africa, southern France and Sardinia lie between 200 and 400km distant. This has been suggested as one reason why the Balearic islands were, in comparison with other western Mediterranean islands such as Sardinia or Corsica, occupied relatively late. According to the latest available data, the Balearic islands were only occupied permanently from the second half of the third millennium cal BC (Alcover et al. 2001; Lull et al. 2004; Mico 2005). But once firmly established at the beginning of the second millennium cal BC, the settled communities began the development of an outstanding megalithic or cyclopean architecture. For more than one hundred years, archaeologists have admired and drawn attention to the extraordinary richness of the prehistoric monuments of the Balearic Islands, not only in terms of size and number, but also the variety of structures still standing above ground (Ramis i Ramis 1818; Cartailhac 1892). Most notable are the famous tower-like talaiots, often compared with the Sardinian nuraghi or the torre of Corsica, the large boat-shaped constructions for funerary (navetes) or domestic purposes (naviformes), or the enigmatic taulas, a unique monument type whose best examples are found on the island of Menorca. Yet dolmens, funerary caves closed with cyclopean facades, rock-cut tombs, megalithic sanctuaries, defensive walls constructed with large blocks and orthostats also formed part of this apparent 'obsession' with monumental stone structures which continued up to the Roman conquest in 123 BC.

Paradoxically, one handicap of this impressive archaeological heritage has actually been its monumentality. Until a few years ago, the principal aim of most excavators was to uncover the building structures, rather than to investigate their contents or to understand the social context in which they were produced and used. Records of stratigraphic sequences or the systematic dating of archaeological contexts were exceptional. This situation began to change with the work of William Waldren, who investigated several sites in the Serra de Tramuntana, the mountain range along the northern coast of Mallorca (Waldren 1982, 1998). Moreover, recent research carried out at other sites, such as the ritual and funerary caves of Es Carritx and Es Mussol in Menorca, or the Talaiotic settlements of Son Fornes and Son Ferragut (Mallorca), has encouraged a substantial advance in understanding the archaeological sequence and social development of prehistoric Mallorca and Menorca (Gasull et al. 1984; Lull et al. 1999, 2001a, b, 2002; Castro Martinez et al. 2003). Other monuments such as dolmens and rock cut tombs have also received closer attention in recent years (Plantalamor & Marques 2001, 2003; Guerrero et al. 2003).

As a result of recent research, the Balearic islands offer a substantial volume of archaeological, anthropological and palaeo-ecological information. In relation to absolute chronology, for example, 781 radiocarbon dates are now available for Balearic prehistory, most of them achieved through AMS from short-life organic samples (Mico 2005). The new possibility of placing the different types of monumental constructions in a chronological sequence provides the necessary framework for analysing the relation between the megalithic architecture and the social, economic and ideological changes that took place. Moreover, it allows us to begin to see this trajectory of monumental building activities and social organisation against the background of the dynamics of the Bronze and Iron Age of western Europe and the Mediterranean. Rather than explaining the proliferation of megalithic or cyclopean constructions as a product of isolation, we should explore the possibility that they were responses to events taking place on the continent. …