Dolmen – a tomb or a work of art?

Trevethy Quoit in Cornwall – a dramatically angled capstone Wikipedia Commons

Dolmens, quoits, passage graves, portal tombs, long barrows, round barrows – there are many English names for megalithic monuments. And then there are hunebeds in the Netherlands, Hunengräber in Germany, granja in Portugal and Spain, dolmeni in Bulgaria and dysse in Denmark etc, etc. Little wonder people look for a catch-all international word to cover them all. But is ‘dolmen’ the right word?

In 1960, the archaeologist Professor Glyn Daniel wrote: “In France it is the custom to refer to all megalithic tombs as ‘dolmens’ … But for English readers the word ‘dolmen’ can only mean a single rectangular or polygonal chamber.”

The word ‘dolmen’ comes from the Breton ‘stone table’ and is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as “a group of stones consisting of one large flat stone supported by several vertical ones, built in ancient times.” These days, however, it seems that the word has been hijacked internationally to describe all kinds of megalithic monuments from menhirs to hunebeds; and at the same time to imply that all prehistoric stone structures were built as tombs to house the dead.

Fact or fiction?

Pentre Ifan, Pembrokeshire Wikipedia Commons

In 1951, archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes described the Pentre Ifan dolmen in Pembrokeshire as “a massive wedge-shaped capstone, almost floating in the air, held aloft by three slender orthostats.”  Visitors to the site today, however, are met with an information board stating “what we see before us today are the bare bones of a burial chamber that would originally have been covered with an earthen mound.” But is this true?

In their 2019 book “Monuments in the Making”, archaeologists Vicki Cummings and Colin Richards dispute this idea. They argue that dolmens had another purpose entirely and should be considered as monuments in their own right. Archaeologists have wrongly paid more attention to the function of the monument than to its form – the contents instead of the stones. Therefore any prehistoric structure with a capstone supported by upright orthostats must have been a tomb, and its only purpose was to hold human remains.

Works of art

Countless menhirs, stone circles, henges etc found in many parts of the world testify to early man’s fascination with the large stones they found lying in the landscape. This book suggests that neolithic people were so impressed (“awestruck”) by the largest of the massive boulders that they raised them up to create a display – a kind of early art installation.

The authors quote Andrew Fleming, who wrote in the journal Man in 1973 (‘Tombs for the Living’) that dolmens “far from being containers for the dead, were quite deliberately designed to rivet the attention of the living.” Whether this dramatic effect was intended as an act of worship to an unknown god, as a message to other tribes, or just as “art for art’s sake”, remains a matter for speculation.

Moreover, if the massive stones were meant to be seen, then it also follows that the capstones would not all have been hidden within mounds of earth.

Eskilstorp, Skåne, Denmark – an enormous capstone, too large for a tomb? Wikipedia Commons

Arguments put forward by the authors to support their theory include:

  • many capstones are far larger than they would have needed to be if they were intended to provide a roof for a tomb, particularly one which would have been hidden from view.
  • Some of the largest capstones are placed at an angle so that they can more easily be seen by a person standing on the ground (e.g. Pentre Ifan, Trevethy Quoit)
  • In many cases the underside of the capstone has been dressed (decorated) with cup marks, which would have been a waste of time if the stone was hidden from view
Trevethy Quoit in Cornwall – a dramatically angled capstone Wikipedia Commons

Making the evidence fit

During an excavation, archaeologists naturally tend to look for evidence of past human activity such as bones, pottery, tools, flints, etc. If a dolmen contains no ancient artefacts, archaeologists tend to explain away this absence of evidence in convenient terms such as “No traces of bones were found in the tomb, raising the possibility that they were subsequently transferred elsewhere”; or again “very little of the material that formed the mound remains”. The archaeologist Tatyana Kytmannow states that Cornish dolmens “obviously owe a lot to portal tombs. Nevertheless they lack portals”. (Although she also admitted that “it is rather easy to turn a simple dolmen into a portal tomb or vice versa”)

Dating the contents, not the stones

Focussing on human artefacts also assumes that the structure was erected at the same time as the burial. Unlike stones, artefacts can be accurately dated. This ignores the possibility that the stones may have originally been raised much earlier, and the dolmen later re-used and extended to form a more substantial tomb. There is evidence at Gunderslevholm in Denmark and at other sites in northern and western Europe that some free-standing megalithic structures constructed in the early Neolithic period were encased in an earthen mound at a much later date.

Not all dolmens are tombs

In many ways the theories put forward in this book are at odds with ‘mainstream’ archaeological ideas about neolithic monuments, the people who built them and the purpose for which they were built. For example, a quick (and admittedly unscientific) search on Google shows that the words ‘dolmen’ and ‘tomb’ are used interchangeably.

So is a dolmen a monument in its own right or “all that is left” of a tomb? “Monuments in the Making” puts forward an intriguing theory that demands further investigation.

Alun Harvey


Vul alstublieft uw commentaar in!
Vul hier uw naam in

Deze site gebruikt Akismet om spam te verminderen. Bekijk hoe je reactie-gegevens worden verwerkt.