Menorca’s ‘houses of the dead’ reveal these ancient secrets

From atop Menorca’s megalithic stone towers, watchers would have witnessed the tides of history roll across the island with the successive waves of the ancient Mediterranean superpowers—the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans.

But long before those heavyweights stepped ashore, the island’s humble pioneers carved out a life on the windswept, largely treeless landscape. Those towers, called talayots, were built from the raw material those first inhabitants and their descendants found in abundance—blocks of limestone. By simply making do with what they had, the Menorcans created a legacy set in stone.

To most, Spain’s Balearic Islands may be better known for the jet-set beach destinations of Ibiza and Mallorca. But tranquil Menorca, the easternmost link in the chain, combines that natural beauty with a unique treasure trove—the archipelago’s greatest repository of ancient architecture. Within these towers and other “cyclopean” structures—made from unhewn, mortarless stones—lies an island history knit together over a millennium, leaving its mark on the Menorcan landscape and identity.

The earliest signs of this distinctive architecture are tied to burial mounds that probably date to 2000 B.C. Those simple megalithic tombs, or dolmens, eventually gave way to the first cyclopean constructions—dwellings shaped like upside-down ship hulls called navetasaround 1600 B.C. Four hundred years later, talayots, derived from the Arabic talaya (“watchtower”), sprouted up and lent their name to the Talayotic island culture that created them.

The widespread rise of these unique truncated cones coincided with the growth of local communities. Starting from a talayot center, a settlement gradually fanned out, and over time new building designs appeared: taula shrines that to some evoke the Stonehenge pillars, circular dwellings, and extensive walls.

(Read about Stone Age megalithic monuments in Great Britain.)

Today these remnants of the Talayotic Menorcan culture are a candidate for UNESCO’s World Heritage List, a designation of global cultural value. (The decision had been scheduled for a June meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Russia but has been postponed due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.)

Architectural legacy

Experts divide this fruitful culture that endured for nearly 2,000 years into four periods, its long run ending in 123 B.C., the year a Roman fleet conquered the island along with Mallorca and began to colonize them. It changed the course of Menorca’s history, but its architecture remained, and in some cases was used even up until the Islamic period, which began in the 10th century.

The buildings stand out not only for their diversity but also because the island has one of the world’s highest concentrations of archaeological sites, ranging from the foundation blocks of small dwellings to well-preserved village centers. In an area of just 270 square miles, Menorca has a total of 1,574 inventoried spots.

The island “is home to 9 percent of Spain’s Assets of Cultural Interest, with just 0.13 percent of its land,” according to Margarita Orfila, an archaeology professor who co-authored the World Heritage application. Inclusion in the list would elevate the island’s international profile, enhance conservation measures, promote new research, and foster tourism beyond the busy summer season.

With their sheer numbers, the icons are also omnipresent. “In the rest of the world,” Orfila points out, “most comparable archaeological landscapes are in national parks or reserves, where there is little human activity, and they aren’t prominent.”

But throughout Menorca, and particularly in the nine proposed areas for designation, there is “an exceptional living archaeological landscape, which is fully integrated with daily life in 21st-century Menorca.” The colossal stones stand among fields of crops and grazing cows and sheep, seemingly murmuring ancient tales about the island’s first inhabitants. 

Island identities

But who were they? “They came from the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula or the area [in today’s France] around the Gulf of Lion,” suggests Joaquim Pons, an archaeology specialist at the Island Council’s Department of Culture. The conclusion is based on two factors: prevailing winds and currents would have carried boats to the islands, and Menorca’s burial sites are oriented toward the sunset—the same as those around the Gulf of Lion, whereas in the rest of the Mediterranean they’d face sunrise.

“They reached the coast of Menorca in the second half of the third millennium B.C. aboard rudimentary boats, along with some domesticated animals and basic utensils,” he adds. “Perhaps they decided to undertake such a risky journey because they were fleeing hostile situations on the mainland.”

The perilous sea voyage took them to a rocky and largely unfertile land with limited resources where a tough life awaited them. According to studies of graves using carbon dating and DNA analysis, half of the children under five years old died of disease, and although adult life expectancy could reach 50 years, it usually did not exceed 25. Those same studies revealed a dietary surprise: despite being surrounded by the sea, they consumed no fish or seafood, instead relying on meat, grains, and legumes.

With settlements clustered inland and the shoreline reserved for burials—which gradually moved closer to the sea and eventually into coastal cliffs—it was as if the sea was sacred, an infinite expanse that merged with the sky in a place akin to the afterlife.

The first settlers buried their dead collectively in hypogea, caves dug into the rocky terrain, or in dolmens, probably following the traditions from their ancestral homeland. The grave goods and the use of collective burials suggest a society that lacked hierarchy.

Soon, though, the islanders would tap into the ubiquitous stone, which ultimately lead to the island’s first cyclopean constructions, some of them unique to Menorca.

The first of these was the naveta dwelling (Catalan for “small ship”), shaped like an inverted boat. It typically measured between 16 to 66 feet long by 10 feet wide, providing shelter for large families. Inside they cooked and warmed themselves around a central fire, sitting on stone benches attached to the walls.

Throughout this period, known as the Naviform (derived from “naveta”), between 1600 and 1200 B.C., the population settled in small villages and focused on agriculture and livestock. These societies also learned to extract copper from their prehistoric mines and, by mixing it with imported tin, they forged a highly versatile material for making tools and utensils: bronze.

House of the spirits

Although they continued to use hypogea, they soon began to build monumental naveta tombs, with the Naveta des Tudons being the best known. “The similarities between the naveta houses and the funerary navetas force us to think of a symbolic translation,” Joaquim Pons says. “The ‘houses of the dead’ took on the exterior form of the ‘houses of the living.’”

These naveta tombs were always built far from the village and out of view. “The world of the living was separated from the world of the dead,” Orfila explains. Later on, the dead were buried in caves carved into ravines that crisscross the island, and gradually those were made ever closer to the coast, as if to bring the dead to the sea.

(What new research on mummies in Spain’s Canary Islands reveals.)

In the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age, between 1200 and 500 B.C., an increase in population brought about a landscape transformation in the form of the talayots, which required a colossal collective effort to build, a sign of advancing civilization.

In the centuries that followed, another unique Menorcan feature emerged: the taula (“table” in Catalan) in a horseshoe-style enclosure. Seen as a place of worship, with an apse-like floor plan and cyclopean walls, the taula was at its center, a T-shaped slab structure four or five meters (13 to 16 feet) high. “The ritual and religious function of these shrines,” says Orfila, “is documented by the presence of fire, the remains of sacrificed animals, and bronze statuettes, as well as the direction they face.”

“It is a rather peculiar fact, echoed in the [southwest] orientation of tombs in the French region of Languedoc, where the island’s first settlers may have come from,” says Antoni Ferrer, an archaeologist at the Menorcan Institute of Studies. All but one of the taulas (of the 31 documented, seven remain standing), on the other hand, face south.

The late British archaeoastronomer Michael Hoskin theorized that the structures were built in places with an uninterrupted view of the southern horizon and might have been oriented to observe the seasonal Centaurus constellation. 

In a later period, another design revolution in the island’s prehistoric architecture appeared in the concept of a dwelling with a circular floor plan, organized around a central courtyard, bound by six columns. Built with double-faced walls and a clay and earthen roof, they’re more complex than the naveta houses. Some even had cisterns to collect water.

End of isolation

At the same time, cyclopean walls began to proliferate around the villages. The Mediterranean was then in the process of being colonized by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans. For the Menorcan society that had lived in peaceful isolation for centuries, the sea represented a way to achieve wealth through trade, but it also brought the dangers of pirates and the fleets of rival powers.

From the fifth century B.C. onward, many young men from Menorca and Mallorca, skilled with slings, were recruited as mercenaries by the Punic armies, until they were absorbed by Rome after the fall of Carthage: “Both islands,” says Ofila, “came to be called the Balearic Islands, a name derived from the Greek baleo, which means to throw.”

Historical sources refer to the Balearic slingers, including Strabo in Geographica: “[T]heir training in the use of slings used to be such, from childhood up, that they would not so much as give bread to their children unless they first hit it with the sling. This is why [Roman commander] Metellus, when he was approaching the islands from the sea, stretched hides above the decks as a protection against the slings.”

Talayotic culture came to an end in the final years of the second century B.C., giving way to a long period of Romanization that would end with the invasion by the Vandals in A.D. 455 The Byzantine Empire took over the island in 534, and in 903 it was the turn of the Moors, who remained for 400 years until the arrival of King Alfonso III of Aragon.

From the 14th century onward, the descendants of the Talayotic people emulated their ancestors by building mortarless walls as boundaries for farms. Today a veritable “great wall” of Menorca remains—about 11,000 kilometers (nearly 7,000 miles) of these beautiful walls snake through the island, the same distance that separates its town of Ciutadella from Santiago de Chile in South America. Through its most essential material, the island connects its present to its prehistoric past, the eternal bond between the Menorcan people and their land.

This story was adapted from National Geographic’s Spain edition.

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