An exciting new perspective on prehistoric dolmens awaits readers of a new book by Professor Colin Richards of the UHI Archaeology Institute and Professor Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire.
Dolmens, a distinctive form of monument found across most areas of northern Europe, have long been considered to be a form of singled-chambered tomb consisting of vertical megaliths supporting a large, horizontal capstone.
Architecturally, however, they differ greatly from other Early Neolithic funerary monuments. Where dolmen have only three uprights it has been argued that they could not have housed chambers because the area under the capstone was open and unenclosed.
Although walling may have been used between the uprights to create a chamber no evidence for this has been found. In addition, cairns have been suggested to have been an important component of the monument, despite no trace remaining at the majority of dolmens.
It is the capstones that set the monument apart from known forms of chambered tomb. These enormous stones, often weighing over 50 tonnes, are perched on top of three or more supporting megaliths.
Not only were the capstones massive but they seem to have been treated in a very specific manner. Although the outer and upper surfaces are natural and weathered, the underside tends to be carefully shaped.
In contrast to the huge capstone, the supporting uprights seem to have been chosen for their slenderness. Many of these are also pointed meaning the capstone rests on the smallest part of the supports.
In their new book, Monuments in the Making: Raising the Great Dolmens in Early Neolithic Northern Europe, Professors Cummings and Richards argue that dolmens are not chambered tombs but should be considered a completely different form of monument.
The term dolmen, they suggest, covers a range of sites sharing a common architecture – the elevation and display of a substantial stone.
To the authors dolmens were not, at least in their primary form, tombs but “monumental constructions employing experimental and emergent technologies to raise huge stones, which, once built enchant those who come within their spaces.”
They were “installations of effect, magical and extraordinary in construction” which were “strategically positioned to induce both drama and awe” in those who encountered them.
Monuments in the Making: Raising the Great Dolmens in Early Neolithic Northern Europe by Vicki Cummings and Colin Richards is published by Windgather Press, priced £39.95.