Neolithic Research

Neolithic dolmen study on shortlist for Research Project of the Year

Professor Colin Richards' investigation into Neolithic dolmens is up for the title of the Current Archaeology's Research Project of the Year, with voting now open to the public.
Pentre Ifan, South Wales. (Professor Colin Richards)
Pentre Ifan, South Wales. (Colin Richards)

An investigation into Neolithic dolmens is in the running for the title of the Current Archaeology’s Research Project of the Year, with voting now open to the public.

Designed to enchant: the great dolmens of Neolithic northern Europe was led by the UHI Archaeology Institute’s Professor Colin Richards and Professor Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancaster.

Gwern Einion, Wales. (Colin Richards)
Gwern Einion, Wales. (Colin Richards)

Dolmens are a distinctive form of monument found across northern Europe and have long been considered to be a form of single-chambered tomb.

Architecturally, however, they differ greatly from other Early Neolithic funerary monuments. It has been argued dolmens 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 most dolmens.

It is the capstones that set the monument apart from other forms of chambered tomb. These enormous stones 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.

Picture: Colin Richards
Carrickglass, Ireland. (Colin Richards)

Professors Cummings and Richards argue that dolmens are not chambered tombs but should be considered a completely different form of monument – one concerned with the elevation and display of a substantial stone.

They suggest that 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.

Carreg Samson. (Colin Richards)
Carreg Samson, Wales. (Colin Richards)

The Current Archaeology Awards are decided by public vote, which is now open at

The poll closes on February 1, with the winners announced at the Current Archaeology Live! 2023 conference, in London, on February 25.