Many people know about the henges and stone circles of the Neolithic and later periods. It is perhaps less well known that in ancient times large numbers of other megalithic structures were erected, which still astound archaeologists to this day. Here we try to answer some common questions about the mysterious dolmens.
What is a dolmen?
A dolmen is usually defined as a single-chamber megalithic structure, typically formed from a large horizontal stone slab (the capstone or table) resting on two or more upright slabs. In archaeological terms, they are a type of stone-built chamber tomb.
Some larger megalithic structures are also referred to as dolmens – they have multiple capstones and whole rows of uprights supporting them. In archaeological terms, they are more likely to be described as passage graves / gallery graves / portal tombs.
Many dolmens were covered with earth or small stones to form a tumulus (earth mound) or a cairn (rock mound). In many cases, this covering is no longer present, having eroded away or been removed, leaving the megalithic stone ‘skeleton’ behind. Other dolmens are likely to have been built purely as stone structures, without any cover material.
What’s in a name?
The word dolmen is thought to derive from the Breton t(d)aol meaning ‘table’ and men or min meaning ‘stone’. It has also been associated with the Cornish word tolmen, meaning ‘hole of stone’.
Other names for dolmens include…
- Quoits – a later Cornish term
- Cromlechs – a term sometimes used in the UK, from the Welsh words for ‘bent’ and ‘slate’
- Hunebedden or Hunebeds – a term used in the Netherlands meaning ‘giant’s bed’
- Goindol – a term used in Korea meaning ‘supported stone
Above left: Lanyon Quoit, Cornwall, Britain | Above right: Brownshill dolmen, Ireland
Above: Havelte hunebed, the second largest in the Netherlands
Where were they built?
The world’s largest concentration of dolmens is found in the Korean peninsula, with over 35,000 dolmens – nearly 40% of the world’s total. The Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa sites are themselves home to over 1,000 dolmens. Some of the Korean dolmens are grouped together in ‘cemeteries’ of between 30 and 100 dolmens in close proximity.
There are around 3000 dolmens in the Western Caucasus (southern Russia). These are known for the precision of their construction. Most of them contain a perfectly formed circular hole in their front wall. Stone plugs have also been found, which were used to block the portal hole.
In Europe, dolmens are mainly found in coastal regions of the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. They are found in southern Scandinavia, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Malta and Bulgaria. Today, France is known to have around 4000 dolmens remaining.
Elsewhere, dolmens are found in other Asian and Middle Eastern countries, such as Japan, China, India, Iran, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. They are also examples in North Africa, and some examples that have been found in the Americas.
Above left: Caucasus-style dolmen | Above right: Dolmen on Ganghwa Island, South Korea (image by Taewangkorea, Wikimedia Commons)
Where are the largest dolmens?
The world’s largest single capstone is said to be the Dannanapeta megalithic dolmen near Amadalavalasa in India. It is 36 ft in length, 14 ft in width and 2 ft thickness, and is of early Iron Age origin.
In Europe, the single-capstone dolmen with the heaviest capstone is reputed to be Brownshill dolmen in Ireland, weighing around 150 tonnes (see image above).
The dolmen presumed to be the largest in the world is located near to Yeosy city in Jeollanam-do, South Korea, at least according to Wikipedia.
The largest dolmen in Europe is said be the Menga dolmen at the Antequera Dolmens World Heritage Site in Spain (see video below). Described as a “long barrow form of dolmen” (Wikipedia), it has a 25-metre-long subterranean gallery lined with 32 stone slabs, each around 4 metres tall. The stones originate from a nearby quarry and the largest stone weighs 180 tons. The dolmen also has a perfectly circular well at its far end.
The best-preserved dolmen in Europe – and the largest in France – is said to be La Roche-aux-Fées, or The Fairies’ Rock (see image below). Described as a passage grave, it is located in Brittany and its entrance is aligned with the rising sun at the winter solstice.
Above: La Roche-aux-Fées, Brittany, France
When were they built?
Dolmens are often the oldest monuments in the countries where they are found.
They are thought to have been built between the 5th and 1st millennium BCE, with most dating from the early Neolithic period (4000–3000 BCE).
The oldest dolmens known are found in Western Europe, including in Brittany in northern France, dating from c. 7,000 years ago.
The numerous dolmens on the Korean peninsula are comparatively more recent, having been dated to between the seventh century and third century BCE.
To note, these datings are usually based on pottery or human remains found in the vicinity of dolmens. As these artefacts and remains could have been deposited at a later time, potentially the dolmens themselves could have been built even earlier. As an example, some researchers believe that the dolmens in the Russian Caucasus may be 10,000 to 25,000 years old.
Finally, dolmens (as tombs) continue to be constructed in some parts of the world – such as the island of Sumba, Indonesia—up to the present day.
Who built them?
It is not clear which people or culture erected the dolmens.
Logically, they would have been built by Neolithic (New Stone Age) peoples, and later by Bronze Age cultures. Possibly by early farming communities, who joined forces to erect the megalithic monuments.
In the Western Caucasus, the dolmens are related to the Maykop culture, some of whom were metalworkers on the shores of the Black Sea.
In north central Europe, archaeologists believe the Funnelbeaker culture may have built the dolmens, as their characteristic ceramics, beakers and amphorae with funnel-shaped tops were found in dolmens.
There is also the idea that dolmens were built by giants. This assumes that it would have taken people of large stature to move the huge stones. In addition, there is folklore that they were created by fairies or supernatural spirits.
Whoever built the dolmens, it worth noting that considerable technological skill would have been needed, not just to move the large stones, but also to achieve the precision seen in the construction of some dolmens. Some of the stones may have needed transporting large distances to the location where the dolmen was erected.
Above left: Depiction of builders of La Roche-aux-Fées | Above right: Reconstruction of Funnelbeaker house (image by melalouise, Wikimedia Commons)
How were dolmens built?
According to Britannica.com…
“Although there is no direct evidence for how these sites were built, researchers assume that the builders used timber, rope, cattle, and a large number of people to maneuver the stones into place. For the most part, the dolmen builders seem to have known what they were doing, as many dolmens are still standing in the 21st century”.
There are also other theories about how large megaliths were moved and erected by ancient peoples. For example, some researchers have suggested that the stones used to build the Egyptian pyramids were moved by levitation, potentially using sound or vibration. Perhaps the dolmen builders made use of similar techniques?
Why were dolmens built?
Here are some of the possibilities, starting with the prevailing theory…
- Dolmens may have been built as tombs or burial chambers for the ruling elite. There is evidence of human burial in some dolmens, but some groups of dolmens contain no evidence of human remains. Overall, there is a lack of evidence that this was the sole and original purpose for constructing dolmens.
- Linked to the above, one theory posits that the dolmens of the Western Caucasus mountains were eternal meditation chambers for Vedrus sages; places where the souls of the ancestors could share their wisdom with visitors. Local legends also suggest that these dolmens may have been the houses of dwarves.
- Dolmens may have functioned as sites of ancient cult worship, for example to an earth or fertility goddess. Or a cult of the sun. There is also evidence of feasting – perhaps associated with rituals or commemorations – outside of the monuments.
- Related to the above is the idea they were ancient initiation chambers.
- Dolmens may have been used as vaults or safes of stone, to store food, metals or other precious items, to protect them from people, animals and the elements. Artefacts such as pottery, animals bones and metal objects have been found in dolmens.
- Lastly, dolmens could have been ancient ‘bomb shelters’ to protect ancient peoples from chaos in the heavens, such as the close passage of comets or a meteor shower.
Given the various sizes and types of dolmen in different countries and regions, it is conceivable that dolmens were built for more than one reason, or at least were used for more than one purpose by different peoples over time.
The largest dolmen in Europe (and the world?): Dolmen de Menga, Spain…