As we walked along the grassy path, the stone monument stood solid, like an upturned boat, surrounded by a field of wildflowers and glowing in the late afternoon sun. We’d come to visit the Naveta d’es Tudons, one of Menorca’s best known prehistoric monuments, a burial chamber that dates back to around 1000 years BC, built by the people we know as the Talayotic culture.
The Naveta d’es Tudons (Naveta being the Catalan word for boat) was excavated by archaeologists in the 1960s, when they discovered the remains of over a hundred men, women and children who had been laid to rest here together with some of their personal possessions, such as metal hair ornaments or spear heads. Once a body was placed inside the tomb, it was sealed and later the bones and skull would be moved to one side to make way for the remains of the next person.
All over Menorca you’ll find similar burial chambers, towers and settlements that are unique to the island and are now being preserved with the aim of having them declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since Menorca is an island where stone is readily available, the buildings of the Talyotic culture were left alone for us to visit today, unlike other places where the stone would have been taken over the centuries for other buildings.
On our visit to Naveta d’en Tudons, we noticed how well it had been restored to its original appearance, all except the final stone that seemed missing from the parapet at one end. Local legend has it that two giants sought the hand of the same girl and so to decide between them, each was set a task. One was to build a Naveta, the other to dig a well and whichever could complete their task first would win the hand of the girl.
When the giant building the Naveta was carrying the final rock to place it in position, he saw his rival at the bottom of the well who had just struck water, and in his anger threw down the stone and killed him. Realising what he had done he ran away, so that the girl was left with neither suitor, and of course this explains what happened to the final stone to complete the Naveta d’es Tudons.
While the entrance to the Naveta d’es Tudons was sealed, on another day Zoe Dawes and I were able to go inside a similar tomb at Rafal Rubi where there are two Navetas built close together. These Navetas had not been restored and had a tumble-down appearance of a pile of rocks, since the upper story of the Naveta had collapsed and the stones seemed to have disappeared.
At the south Naveta of Rafal Rubi we clambered through the small, but finely cut square hole to stand inside, under the roof of huge stone slabs. Inside the tomb, it felt rather bare and bleak (probably not helped by the pouring rain), with all remnants of the past taken away to reside in one of the island’s museums. Around the square opening was a lip, cut by expert stone masons, to keep the entrance stone in place that would seal the tomb.
Without our guide, we would never have found this site, hidden away down a grassy path and surrounded by meadows and farm land. It reminded me of how Stonehenge, now complete with splendid new visitor’s centre, must have looked a hundred or so years ago when it was just part of the farming landscape, surrounded by grazing animals.
We moved on to the second of the two Navetas, the northern one, where again the upper chamber had collapsed, but this time we didn’t go inside. Due to the pouring rain, it was not much of a day for lingering so Zoe and I made our way back through the olive trees and stone walls to the road.
In addition to the burial chambers like these Navetas, there are many conical structures around Menorca named Talayot, after the Spanish word atalaya or watchtower. It is from these that the Talayotic culture got its name and these towers demonstrate that the people had come together to live in larger settlements, with a highly organised culture.
At Torre d’en Galmes, I was able to see some of the conical Talayot towers which seem to have doubled as living space with a watch tower on the upper level. The Talayots were normally situated within a settlement and also within sight of each other, so it is thought that they might have been used as a network to signal from one to another in times of danger.
Another unusual feature of the settlements around Menorca are the Taules or T-shaped rocks made of a slab of stone embedded in the ground with another rectangular stone on top. The name Taule comes from the Catalan word for table, perhaps a table where giants would eat. Rather than being a balancing trick, I observed how a slot had been made in the upper rock to allow it to slot into place on the pillar rock, illustrating the advanced skills in working stone of the Talayotic people. These Taules are thought to have some religious or ritual significance, perhaps representing the horns of a bull or religious beliefs, just as Christians use a crucifix as a symbol of their religion.
At Torre d’en Galmes I was able to sense the scale and organisation of the Talayotic settlements, with circular stone enclosures enclosing an inner courtyard, with different chambers and rooms built around the circle for sleeping, storage and keeping animals. The society was clearly well organised with a system of channels to collect rainwater and transport it to the underground reservoirs called Sitjots.
In other places around the site, huge slabs of rock were balanced on stone columns to make shelters that could have been used as storage chambers, topped with roofs of leaves and branches.
I wondered why such large slabs of stone had been used in this way to create walls and roofs, since the effort involved to transport them and lever them into place was so enormous. However Zoe, who knew the island well, explained that Menorca is an island with plenty of stone but very little wood, so stone was used in the same way as huge oak beams might have been used elsewhere in Europe for building.
If you visit Menorca, I hope you’ll take time to visit at least some of these unique prehistoric monuments and settlements that are dotted around the southern half of the island. There are 32 sites that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage proposal and maps are available from the tourism offices around the island. You can also find more information from the www.menorcaarqueologica.com website who arrange regular group tours to see some of the main sites.
Museums in Menorca that cover the Talayotic Culture
While in Mahon, I also visited a couple of museums to learn more about the Talayotic culture.
Ca n’Oliver – Centre d’Art i Història Hernández Sanz
In the Ca n’Oliver house in Mahon there was an interesting exhibition in the basement about the Talayotic culture and on display in one of the rooms were household pots and grinding stones, which were part of the collection of the house’s owner. Carrer Annuncivay 2, Mahon.
The Museum of Menorca in Mahon
The Museum was under renovation when I visited in May 2016, with most galleries closed, but they did have a temporary exhibition about the Talayotic culture which was free. Once the whole museum reopens, you’ll find galleries that cover the whole fascinating history of Menorca from the first inhabitants to the 19th and 20th centuries, including all the Talayotic history. Museo de Menorca, Avinguda del Doctor Guardia, Mahon.
More articles about Menorca
Visitor Information for Menorca and Mahon
If you need a guide to show you the sites of Mahon and Menorca, I can highly recommend Luis Amella of Menorca Guides
Thanks to Menorca Tourism for hosting my stay in Menorca, in a project in partnership with Spain Tourism, Menorca Tourism and Travelator Media