Designed to enchant: the great dolmens of Neolithic northern Europe

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The word ‘dolmen’ – derived from the Breton taol maen (‘stone table’) – is regarded as a folk term for Neolithic monuments that consist of a massive capstone supported by three or more upright stones, or orthostats. Archaeologists have sought to subdivide these monuments into more precise typological categories, but Vicki Cummings and Colin Richards, the authors of Monuments in the Making, politely suggest that they are wrong to do so. Is it time to reclaim the word? Chris Catling reports.

When you look at a monument like Pentre Ifan in Pembrokeshire, what do you see? Back in 1951, writing in A Guide to the Prehistoric and Roman Monuments in England and Wales, Jacquetta Hawkes saw a massive wedge-shaped capstone almost ‘floating in the air’, held aloft by three slender orthostats. She observed that ‘the structure is in reality given a slightly fantastic air by the very narrow points on which the capstone rests; it appears improbable that so little can support so much’. Current visitors to the site, however, are met by an information board that states that ‘what we see before us today are the bare bones of a burial chamber that would originally have been covered with an earthen mound’ (phrasing that is echoed by the entry for the monument on Cadw’s website, In ‘Megaliths, Memory and the Power of Stones’ (2010), moreover, Chris Scarre characterises Pentre Ifan as ‘the denuded chamber’ from a mound that would have been radically different in appearance from the present monument.

This view – that all dolmens are the relics of monuments designed for burial – has led archaeologists to invent a whole raft of new typological terms, including megalithic tomb, sub-megalithic tomb, demi-dolmen, chambered tomb, portal tomb, portal dolmen, Type 1 and Type 2 passage grave, and gallery grave. Some of these are further subdivided into ‘simple’, ‘classic’, and ‘devolved’ forms, while some structures have defied categorisation altogether. This shift in terminology has had the effect of turning attention away from the monument’s form to consideration of its function, with the sole apparent purpose of the structure being to create a stone chamber to hold human remains.

Gwern Einion’s steeply sloping capstone stands against a dramatic sky in Gwynedd. What was the purpose of dolmen monuments like these, and were they always denuded stone frames, or had they originally been covered by mounds of earth? IMAGE: V Cummings and C Richards

This bewildering array of analytical terms has gone well beyond typology, and has also been harnessed to the task of tracing cultural influences. The perceived similarities and differences between the different tomb types has been used to suggest cultural connections between the various Neolithic peoples of Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, France, Portugal, and Spain; to suggest trade and migration patterns and routes; and to construct chronologies of monument-building and ‘Neolithisation’ (the adoption of Neolithic lifestyles). A separate strand of analysis, prevalent in the 1930s, concerned the shape and form of any covering mound – long or round – and the implications for cultural diffusion and chronology.

Not everyone has been convinced by these approaches, however. Tatjana Kytmannow, in Portal Tombs in the Landscape (2008), argued that the typological boundaries were fluid and that ‘it is rather easy to turn a simple dolmen of the Carrowmore variety [named after the Carrowmore Megalithic Complex in Co. Sligo] into a portal tomb and vice versa’. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Shee Twohig, in Irish Megalithic Tombs (2004), says that ‘in the south [of Ireland] many sites classified as portal tombs seem never to have had a portal feature’. The same can be said of Cornish ‘quoits’ which, according to Kytmannow, ‘obviously owe a lot to portal tombs [but] lack portals’.

Writing in 1951, Jacquetta Hawkes described the Pembrokeshire monument of Pentre Ifan’s massive wedge of stone as almost ‘floating in the air’. IMAGE: V Cummings and C Richards

Barbara Bender, in Stone Worlds (2007), objected to ‘the dry typologies into which megalithic structures in all their infinite subtle variation have to be squeezed’, while Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright, in their chapter on prehistory in the Pembrokeshire County History (2016; see CA 324), came close to rejecting all these sub-categories, along with the endless arguments over which monuments belong to which categories, offering the terms ‘raised stone’ or ‘propped stone’ as alternatives.

Dolmens on display

Carreg Samson’s supporting orthostats have no post-holes or packing stones: in a feat of Neolithic engineering, the uprights are held in place by the weight of the covering capstone. IMAGE: V Cummings and C Richards

Now Vicki Cummings and Colin Richards, in their recently published re-examination of megalithic architecture in northern Europe (see ‘Further reading’ at the end), have taken the final step, asking us to recognise that some dolmens (their preferred term) were never encased within mounds or cairns at all – rather, their purpose was first and foremost to create a display. The authors describe dolmens in terms of wonder, enchantment, power, and dramatic effect; they are spectacular, amazing (in the true sense of causing astonishment), and more than a little bit magical – all terms that we are familiar with in the work of people interested in mysticism and the occult, but not often used by archaeologists.

Nevertheless, the authors present a well-argued case that we are doing the builders of these extraordinary monuments a disservice in not recognising dolmens as astonishing works of architecture that still have the power to make us stand in wonder some 6,000 years after they were first conceived and built. With approval, they quote Andrew Fleming, who wrote as long ago as 1973 (in ‘Tombs for the Living’, in the journal Man) that ‘it seems quite clear that these tombs, far from being merely containers for the dead, were quite deliberately designed to rivet the attention of living individuals’.

The Tinkinswood burial chamber, west of Cardiff in the Vale of Glamorgan, is an example of a dolmen that was subsequently encased within a massive long cairn, turning it from a freestanding monument into a chambered tomb in which the remains of at least 40 people were buried. IMAGE: V Cummings and C Richards

Surely, you would think, the matter should be easy enough to resolve through archaeological excavation, but unfortunately there has been little enough scientific investigation of such sites. Furthermore, when archaeologists have looked for evidence, they have found considerable disturbance from people digging in the past for fairy gold, buried treasure, or passages to the underworld – and, more prosaically, from continual ploughing, which significantly affects the ground beneath and around dolmens. Where excavation has taken place, the results are often ambiguous and difficult to interpret, as Frances Lynch discovered at Carreg Samson, Pembrokeshire, in 1968. Frances had hoped to find in situ deposits in the internal chamber area to help with dating, but instead discovered that the soil had been extensively disturbed, containing only a few smashed sherds from a single pot, some flint flakes, and a few small fragments of bone, from which it was not possible to obtain a radiocarbon date.

The authors also cite the example of Gunderslevholm, one of 364 recorded dolmens in the Zealand region of Denmark, of which 202 are covered in mounds. Did the remainder have mounds that have disappeared over time due to stone-robbing and erosion? At Gunderslevholm, the excavators found that the dolmen chamber was surrounded by a spread of boulders and stones up to 1m in height, held in place by kerb stones. Some have argued that this material represents the remains of a cairn that once covered the entire structure. Others have argued that the capstone would always have remained visible and that the mound would only have reached its base. Others still have argued that the stones exposed by the excavators once formed a platform around the orthostats and capstone, which remained freestanding and visible. A fourth possibility is that this is a multi-phase monument and that any enclosing mound could have been a later work.

Eye-catching designs?

Recent fieldwork elsewhere has looked for evidence of enclosing mounds: at Kit’s Coty House in Kent; at St Lythans (Maes y Felin) in South Glamorgan; at Carreg Coetan in Pembrokeshire; and at Trethevy Quoit in Cornwall. These investigations have uncovered intriguing evidence traces of a plinth-like ring of carefully laid stones encircling and framing the dolmen. At Trethevy, the freshly quarried greenstone was used to create a platform with larger blocks at the base and smaller broken pieces at the top – surely designed to be seen, because the colour and brightness of the greenstone would have provided a visual contrast with the dark granite slabs of the dolmen. At Carreg Coetan, the diameter of the ring (8-10m) meant that any theoretical mound would have had a very steep slope to cover the capstone completely – not impossible, but unlikely.

Gunderslevholm under excavation, showing the boulders and split stones forming a platform around the dolmen. PHOTO: Torben Dehn and Sven Hansen

At Dyffryn Ardudwy, Gwynedd, the 2ft-high plinth was found to have been formed mainly of large water-rolled stones, specially selected and carried some distance. Similar low rings of rounded or angular stone have been found in Ireland and at Trollasten in southern Sweden, where some 6,000 pottery sherds and hundreds of broken flint axes (dating from the early and middle Neolithic) were found on the surface and within the stones. From this evidence, it could be argued that these plinths formed part of the architecture of the monument, and that they were designed to frame the dolmen, perhaps serving as an offering platform and functioning as a barrier that wrapped around the central dolmen to keep onlookers at a prescribed distance.

The Dyffryn Ardudwy dolmen illustrates another key point in the argument for free-standing dolmens. A second dolmen stands a short distance to the east, and this is enclosed by an extant cairn. The fact that some tombs do have substantial surviving mounds while others do not needs an explanation. It is difficult to imagine a process that could have made some monuments more prone to the loss of a mound or cairn than others, and it is far more likely that such dolmens were intended to be visible. There is, however, evidence at Gunderslevholm and at other sites in northern and western Europe that some free-standing megalithic structures constructed in the early Neolithic period were subsumed and encased in a substantial mound or cairn at a much later date – a point to which we will return.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 390. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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