More megaliths – a visit to the Dolmens of Antequera

Entrance to the huge Menga Dolmen

Not far from our climbing base in Alora in Southern Spain we recently had a chance to see the Dolmens of Antequera. Antequera is one of those cute little Andalusian towns with white-washed walls and a Moorish Castle. But it has a far longer history dating back to prehistoric times. And huge megalithic tumulus graves to prove it.

It took us nearly an hour driving over winding country roads past rugged mountains, and another 20 minutes to cross the maze of alleys in Antequera’s Old Town. But then, the Dolmens of Antequera were well-signed and set up for large numbers of visitors.

During the last year we visited rather a lot of megalith structures on our travels: Only a few months earlier we saw the megalithic temples of Malta.

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2016

The Dolmens of Antequera have become a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016. With the global recognition comes the responsibility to make even prehistoric sites accessible to the average tourist.

Antequera Dolmens site museum

“Museo”, proclaims a sign on the modern white building, beyond which we already see a tumulus with an entrance of stone slabs. We rush towards the museum as it is afternoon by now and we aren’t quite sure how long it will be open. The homepage had been somewhat unclear about this – “Corona measures”, we had thought.

The museum building is surprisingly empty, the reception not staffed. A uniformed guard informs us that the museum isn’t open at all! But yes, we can visit the Dolmens of Antequera behind it. It turns out – with a bit of back and forth because it’s all in rapid Spanish – that the museum is brand-new and not formally open yet. But perhaps because we seem so baffled he leads us to an auditorium to see an animated video. It is about the construction of the Menga Tumulus, the larger one of the Antequera Dolmens.

The prehistoric Dolmens of Antequera

The UNESCO has protected three tumulus graves in and around Antequera: The dolmens of Menga and Viera, and the Tholos of El Romeral a few kilometres away. All of them belong to a prehistoric culture of hunter-gatherers who later turned farmers. The first of these people lived in the nearby mountains from as early as about 5000 BC. In the late Neolithic and in the Copper period they must have moved to the plains of Antequera and started farming. They may have built the Dolmen of Menga around 3800–3400 BC, according to scientists. The nearby and smaller Dolmen of Viera is of a somewhat lesser age, while the Tholos of El Romeral came much later – perhaps around 2500 BC.

A walk around the Dolmens of Antequera

Entrance to the Viera Dolmen in Andalusia

The visitor path leads from the (future) museum all around the park and the tomb hills. First we approach the Dolmen of Viera, the smaller of the two graves. It was hidden in the hill until 1903. The two brothers who discovered the megalithic tunnel structure inside the hill were Antonio and José Viera Fuentes. Hence the name, Dolmen of Viera.

Travel blogger Natascha inside the Viera Dolmen in Andalusia

The entrance is towards the east – pointing to the sunset on summer solstice. We know this kind of solar orientation from other megalithic sites, such as those on Malta, on the Outer Hebrides, or even Abu Simbel in Egypt. Quite obviously the rays of the rising sun on special dates have always been important to the builders of such structures.

A small tunnel of about 20 m leads into the Dolmen of Viera. At the end of the corridor a small grave chamber is separated by a kind of stone window. But the tomb itself is not wider than the hallway itself and just high enough to stand. The floor, walls, and roof of the tunnel all consist of large stone slabs.

Focus on a sacred landmark in the Northeast

Next we visit the Menga Dolmen, with a huge entrance gate consisting of towering stone blocks. They are nearly 3 m high and on top lies another gigantic stone slab forming the roof.

View over the Antequera Dolmens with the Peña de los Enamorados in the background

The entrance of the Menga Dolmen points to the north-east, an unusual direction. But once inside the Dolmen it becomes clear that for once, something other than the sun was the focus of the builders. Looking out, the gate frames an unusual mountain in the distance. The Peña de los Enamorados is a small, isolated mountain that looks like the profile head of a lying person. And quite distinctly so. Not like some rocks where you need a lot of fantasy to imagine a dwarf with a huge bag or a dancing elephant.

The orientation of the Dolmen of Menga not towards the sun but towards an unusual landscape element is quite unique in prehistoric buildings in Europe. It had presumably a spiritual dimension. In the summit area of the Peña mountain, near the chin of the rocky “head”, there is also a site with simple Neolithic paintings. The Shelter of Matacabras, scientists think, also served as a sanctuary.

Standing stones of the Dolmen of Menga

Traveller walking inside the Menga Dolmen

In contrast to the Viera Dolmen, the Dolmen of Menga gets wider and higher as we enter it. It forms an oval chamber with standing stone pillars, up to 6 m wide and 4 m high. Again, the walls consist of dozens of standing stone slabs. Between them, there is barely a gap.

The prehistoric people who built the dolmen must have perfected a technique of pulling these stones into standing position. They even managed to erect the megaliths perfectly fitting with each other. Some of the long stone slabs forming the roof are said to weigh 180 tonnes each. They had to be large enough to rest on opposite walls of the room because Neolithic cultures could not yet build arched roofs.

Model of the Menga Dolmen in the Antequera City Museum
Model of the Menga Dolmen in the Museum of Antequerea

In the middle of the room there is also a deep well (or shaft), but it is unclear what it was used for. In fact, scientists know very little about the Dolmens of Antequera. The Dolmen of Menga seems to have been open and visible all along. Its first written mention was in 1530, and since the 1840s it has attracted visitors and scientific exploration. The modern archaeologists did not find any burial objects or other Neolithic remains.

The megalithic cupola in the Tholos of El Romeral

Ancient fake cupola of El Romeral in Andalusia

The third prehistoric burial site near Antequera is the Tholos of El Romeral a few kilometres closer to the conspicuous Peña Mountain. In Greek antiquity, a tholos was a round temple with a cupola – and that is indeed what this tomb looks like inside. However, it is almost as old as the other two, probably from the Copper Age (around 3200–2200 BC). The prehistoric builders of that time still lacked the architectural skills for a real cupola.

A long corridor of more than 20 m leads into the hill. This time, the side walls consist of small layered stones. However, it is again large stone slabs that form the roof of this corridor. At the end, the round grave chamber is also built in drywall technique. Above our heads, the stones gradually creep inwards, as if to form a dome. But different from later domed buildings, this one does not have a capstone to hold everything in place. Instead, the Chalcolithic builders again placed a huge stone slab on top as a roof! And they repeated the same in a second, smaller round chamber behind the first.

Opening to the ancestral home

Inside the Tholos de El Romeral

Coming out of the corridor from the Tholos of El Romeral, we notice the avenue of pine trees ahead. From the prehistoric tomb, it leads in a straight line towards the highest peak of the nearby Torcal mountain range. Again, this is remarkable: Like the dolmen of Menga, the Tholos of El Romeral has an unusual orientation. It opens not to the East and to sunrise, but to a landscape feature that must have held spiritual importance. These mountains, we have read in the Antequera museum, were the earliest dwelling places for Neolithic people in the region. Later farming societies who had moved into the plains around Antequera probably still looked to the mountains as the realm of their ancestors.

Is it worth visiting the Dolmens of Antequera?

We were in the area for climbing, and since it was a rainy day and we could not climb, we were looking for alternatives. Since we always try to visit UNESCO sites and are also interested in prehistoric sites, we found the Dolmens of Antequera worthwhile. However, the site currently only consists of green hills with a chamber or corridor made from stone slabs. You walk in, marvel at the size of the stones, and walk out again. For most people it would probably not merit a longer detour or excursion. Antequera is a pleasant town, though, and the town museum has some Neolithic finds, too. Once the on-site museum of the Dolmens of Antequera is officially open there may be enough to see to spend a few hours. There is a downloadable guide available at the site, which enhances the experience.

cobbled street in Antequera, Andalusia

How to get to the Dolmens of Antequera

We went by car but it is perfectly possible to walk from the town centre. To the Dolmens of Menga and Viera it is about 1,5 km from the centre and a little more from the station. The Tholos of El Romeral, however, is about 3 km further east in the outskirts of town.

NB: We were not sponsored for our travel to Antequera. Visiting the Dolmens of Antequera is free of charge, for the time being.

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23 Comments

  1. Both are such fascinating sites and I’d no idea they were in Spain. El Romeral is amazing to photograph, you did the place justice! Unesco sites are always interesting to visit around the world.

    1. I did not realize there are also megalithic temples in southern Spain, just like the Gigantja in Malta. The Dolmens of Antequera are fascinating. I hope though they can be better organized.

  2. You were so lucky to visit the Dolmens of Antequera and see them without any other people around. They are a popular touristic attraction in normal days. It’s fascinating to see how the dolmens have been built, without any use of modern tools. It’s good to know that there is a new museum that will tell the story of the Dolmens. I like that Spanish are so friendly and try to help you, even if the museum was not yet open when you visited.

    1. Dear Joanna, I think, once the museum is open, visitor numbers will go up. But it is not one of the famous sites in Andalusia. So I think, compared to the Alhambra or the Mezquita the Dolmens will stay a relaxed place for visiting.

  3. You made me really curious about the Dolmens of Antequera. We’ll be in Spain at the beginning of June this year and I’d love to visit this part of Andalusia. It must be interesting to find out more about the culture of these prehistoric people who inhabited these mountains.

    1. Dear Anda, we enjoyed our visit to the Dolmens of Antequera. However, if you have only limited time in Andalusia, it is not a must-see, I would say. The area around is beautiful – so if you are driving you could include it quite easily.

  4. We are headed back to Spain soon but sadly will not make it to the Andalusia area. I can see why we might want to visit Antequera and the Dolmens of Antequera. I am always fascinated by sites like this when I think about the engineering to create things like the standing stones. Certainly an interesting UNESCO site – even if smaller than most.

    1. Dear Linda, where are you going in Spain? Andalusia was definitely worth its time. The Dolmens of Antequera are one of the least visited UNESCO sites in Spain, I guess. Posts about the big sites, like the Mezquita and the Alhambra will follow!

  5. This is fascinating to me, simply because of its age and the incredible stone work. I love to see ancient ruins – and this is really not even “ruined” at all! Magnificently preserved, in fact. Heading to Andalusia in a couple months with a home base in Marbella so I may just check this out while I’m in the area!

  6. I am not really familiar with Antequera but this is an interesting read. Thank you for sharing with us your experience. Just like you — we try to visit all UNESCO sites too. Thank you for managing our expectations. We look forward to seeing the structures and the stonework. 🙂

  7. I’m always looking for such unique places. The landscape is quite interesting. I have never heard of this place before. I’m glad I came across your blog.

  8. I haven’t heard of this yet but it reminds me of some of the ruins you see in south of France or Italy and their forts which are tunnelled under the hillside. I think i’d like this, I really enjoy just walking and enjoying surrounding areas so don’t mind if it is just the chambers.

    1. Dear Nicole, it might look similar, but I think the Dolmens of Antequera are much older than the forts of Itlay and Spain. And they are built with heavy stone slaps.

  9. All of these prehistoric megalith structures have awed me. The builders of the Domens intrigued me much more! Bravo to them and to everyone who contributes to the preservation of these historic sites.

  10. I’d never heard of these Dolmens before but it looks like you discovered something quite fascinating. It is just the kind of hidden gem my husband and I look for while traveling. Just the history of these sites is amazing. I wish we knew more about why they were built!

    1. Dear Tami, obviously it was for some ceremonial reasons connected with the sun. But yes, it would be fascinating to know more about the actual rituals and ways of living.

  11. This is absolutely fascinating and I’m a bit sad that I didn’t have the time to visit the Dolmens during my visit to Andalusia in November. My guide in Malaga told me about them but I was there only for two days which I spent in the city. But since I missed out on a couple of fascinating spots, I’ll probably be back very soon – and then, I’ll also make it to the Dolmens.

    1. Dear Renata, I am sure you would enjoy a visit to the Antequera Dolmens. Just make sure that you get as much information about them as you can before going there. It pays to have a good idea what you are seeing. There is not much on-site information. Once the museum is open this might be better.

  12. I’ve been to Andalusia several times and haven’t heard of Dolmens of Antequera yet. What a great place and town. I want to go there next time. It’s great that you described it precisely. Great to know that it’s a UNESCO site. Maybe I haven’t heard about it as I was in the area in 2015.

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