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22 June 2010
India's megalithic village of the dead

There's no clear path to Hire Benakal in the hills north of the Tungabhadra River in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. On a gentle slope are scores of dolmens made of slabs of granite 10 feet tall and weighting 10 tons or more. The monuments were built over more than 1,000 years spanning the southern Indian Iron Age (1200-500 BCE) and Early Historic (500 BCE-500 CE) periods, and there are more than 1,000 of them across nearly 50 acres, from modest rock enclosures to mausoleum-like tombs.
     Historical sources are vague, but Hire Benakal's existence may have been documented as early as the 1850s, and the site was first examined in detail by historian A. Sundara of Karnatak University in the 1960s. In 2007, University of Chicago anthropology graduate student Andrew Bauer conducted the first systematic survey of the site and its environs. It was long thought that the Iron Age people of India were nomadic, making a megalithic site such as Hire Benakal difficult to explain. But recent surveys, including Bauer's, have turned up many settlements, including two within a mile of Hire Benakal, that show the people lived in villages and practiced agriculture and pastoralism. "The site appears to be a principal center of culture in the region," says Sundara.
     Closer to the center of the site, the megaliths grow in size and are more likely to have been carved or shaped, indicating the prominence of those who built them. Some of the dolmens do have a porthole that may have been used to deposit ashes or remains inside, though no human remains have yet been found. It is still unknown how the massive dolmens were erected, but many of the monuments at Hire Benakai have fallen, under the weight of their stones, erosion of the ground underneath them, or because of the livestock that still roams through the site. I
     Bauer has concluded that Hire Benakal was more than just an isolated cemetery; it was also a part of an active landscape, and a place where social status and inequality first began to develop. "We really understand the site much more in context now, because I surveyed all around it," he says. It was important socially and is absolutely overwhelming to the eye. If it were not so remote, Hire Benakal might be a national treasure.

Source: Archaeology (June 2010)

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