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L’espace interne de la tombe : architecture, iconographie et rituel funéraire

The essence of the dolmen: the Architecture of megalithic construction

L’essence des dolmens : l’architecture de la construction mégalithique
Vicki Cummings et Colin Richards

Résumés

Cet article traite d’une forme de monument néolithique découvert en Irlande et dans l'ouest de la Grande-Bretagne. Les « dolmens » seraient un type distinctif de monument, dont la caractéristique première serait l’utilisation d’énormes pierres de recouvrement soulevées et juchées sur des supports verticaux plus petits. Ces monuments n’étaient pas érigés pour créer une chambre mais pour exposer des pierres importantes et d’étonnantes prouesses techniques. La construction de ces monuments pouvait faire acquérir ou perdre un important prestige social et cet article illustre en détail quelques exemples ayant clairement tourné à la catastrophe. Enfin, cet article suggère que la construction de dolmens puise ses origines en France, au sein de communautés jouissant d’une longue tradition dans la construction avec de grosses pierres. L’idée que ces monuments faisaient partie d’un « package » néolithique introduit en Grande-Bretagne vers l’an 4000 avant J.-C. est également remise en cause.

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1Résumé long
Cet article traite d’une forme d'architecture mégalithique appelée « dolmens », en se référant plus particulièrement à la Grande-Bretagne et à l’Irlande. Certains éléments caractéristiques d’un projet de recherche en cours qui approfondit la construction de ces monuments y sont décrits. Intitulé « La Construction de grands dolmens », ce projet étudie le phénomène de la construction des dolmens sous ses différentes formes, y compris les fouilles. Cet article sonde les idées à l’origine du projet et quelques observations préliminaires.

2Depuis les premières fouilles anciennes de monuments dans tout le nord-ouest de l’Europe, les sites qui furent connus plus tard sous le nom de « portal dolmens » (dolmens à portail), ont fait l’objet d’une grande attention. Dans la première moitié du vingtième siècle, les archéologues se sont penchés de plus près sur ces sites en établissant des classements typologiques et en effectuant des fouilles (Cummings 2009: 62-72, Kytmannow 2008: 20-25). Un important travail de classement typologique réalisé par Daniel (Daniel 1950) et Piggott (Piggott 1954) à partir de 1960 a permis d’établir des classements régionaux. Les monuments situés au Pays de Galles et en Cornouailles ont été classés dans la catégorie des « dolmens à portail » (Lynch 1969, 1972) tandis que le terme « tombe à portail » a été privilégié en Irlande (Ơ Nualláin 1983). La tombe à portail standard repose sur une structure composée de trois piliers avec des portiques hauts et une pierre postérieure plus basse soutenant une table massive en équilibre, dont l’extrémité plus lourde surplombe l’entrée (Ơ Nualláin 1983: 88). Un certain nombre de ces monuments ont été étudiés sur le plan archéologique, de nombreux autres ont été examinés par des spécialistes de l’archéologie antique et des archéologues tandis que d’autres n’ont rien révélé (Kytmannow 2008: 87-88).

3Le projet « Construction des grands dolmens » jette un nouveau regard sur les monuments qui ont été préalablement classés soit comme dolmens à portail, soit comme tombes à portail. Le premier élément distinctif d’un dolmen est l’utilisation d’une pierre de recouvrement massive. Des sites en Grande-Bretagne et en Irlande utilisent des pierres massives pour leur construction. L’exemplaire le plus imposant se trouve sur le site de Kernanstown dans le Comté de Carlow, où la pierre de recouvrement pèse 160 tonnes environ (Kytmannow 2008: 47). Les faces externes et supérieures des pierres de recouvrement des dolmens sont naturelles et érodées mais leur partie inférieure est soigneusement façonnée. Les piliers qui soutiennent la pierre de recouvrement massive sont un autre signe distinctif des dolmens. Il semblerait que des pierres étroites aient été délibérément choisies pour soutenir la pierre de recouvrement et de nombreux montants ont des sommets en pointe, ce qui signifie que seuls les points les plus petits soutiennent la pierre de recouvrement. L’effet est absolument extraordinaire et a amené à penser que l’un des rôles primaires des dolmens était d’exposer d’énormes pierres qui semblent flotter au-dessus du sol.

4Si les dolmens avaient pour vocation de présenter de grandes pierres, devons-nous encore penser qu’il s’agissait de monuments funéraires ? De nombreux dolmens n’ont qu’un petit nombre de montants, ce qui signifie qu’il est bien difficile de les définir de « chambres ». Il a également été avancé que des cairns constituaient à l’origine une partie importante du monument, mais aucune trace de cairn n’a été trouvée dans de nombreux sites. On peut donc supposer que les dolmens n’étaient pas érigés originairement pour faire office de chambres à proprement parler. Mais les zones au-dessous de la pierre de recouvrement étaient souvent ouvertes aux éléments. Si les dolmens n’étaient pas érigés pour servir de chambres funéraires mais pour exposer des pierres particulières et présenter des prouesses techniques, l’attention se déplace sur le processus de construction. Un examen approfondi des rapports de fouilles sur ces dolmens, qui ont été étudiés attentivement, donne une idée sur la façon dont les dolmens étaient construits. À Carreg Samson, dans le sud-ouest du Pays de Galles, les recherches ont permis de découvrir la présence d’une fosse sous le monument, plus grande que la pierre de recouvrement, ce qui a induit à penser qu'elle pouvait être la source de la pierre de recouvrement, extraite in situ et ensuite soulevée et transformée en monument (Lynch 1975).

5La construction d’un dolmen était une entreprise monumentale, qui consistait à déplacer et à travailler des pierres massives. Il n’est donc peut-être pas surprenant que la construction de certains sites ait tourné à la catastrophe. À Garn Turne, dans le sud-ouest du Pays de Galles, une pierre de recouvrement de 60 tonnes a certainement été soulevée du sol à un moment donné, car les pierres servant de pilier se trouvent à présent au-dessous. Mais ce monument s’est effondré et il semblerait qu'il se soit écroulé pendant sa construction. Il est important de tenir compte des implications sociales dérivant de la construction de ces monuments. Ces projets ont probablement requis d’importants investissements et ont eu de sérieuses conséquences sociales pour les personnes impliquées (Hoskins 1986).

6D’où l’idée des dolmens vient-elle ? Les exemples continentaux les plus proches de ccs formes architecturales sont les monuments situés en Bretagne. La tradition de la construction avec de grandes pierres remonte au début du Néolithique et de nombreux monuments situés dans le nord-ouest de la France ont des similitudes frappantes avec les dolmens situés en Grande-Bretagne. Est-il possible que les populations ayant construit ces monuments en France aient inspiré d’autres populations à construire de monuments similaires en Grande-Bretagne ? On pourrait même affirmer que c’est la même communauté élargie qui a construit des sites dans cette région. De récentes études ont démontré qu’il n’était pas difficile de traverser la Manche et que des contacts réguliers avaient été établis entre les populations qui vivaient des deux côtés de la Manche. Il se pourrait même qu’elles aient fait partie de la même communauté.

7D’autres éléments intéressants trouvent leurs parallèles sur le continent. En Bretagne, les populations érigeaient des menhirs au début du néolithique. Une étude approfondie des dolmens situés en Cornouailles a dévoilé un aspect assez curieux. À Trethivy Quoit, par exemple, le monument construit autour d'une « pierre de fermeture » très grande et imposante, profondément enfouie avant de s’être cassée de façon nette dans la partie supérieure, aurait été une grande pierre debout. Par contre, le reste des montants de ce monument sont à peine enfouis dans le sol, et semblent avoir été montés comme un château de cartes. Cette configuration induit à penser que la pierre de fermeture était un élément primaire, le reste ayant été ajouté par la suite. Il est donc fort possible que ce site ait pu être un menhir, par la suite transformé en dolmen, un phénomène que l’on a retrouvé dans d’autres sites en Cornouailles. Cette observation est particulièrement intrigante si l’on tient compte de la proximité géographique de la Cornouaille et de la Bretagne.

8Cet article a pour vocation de mieux faire connaître le phénomène des dolmens situés en Grande-Bretagne et en Irlande, en se concentrant non pas sur les détails d'un classement typologique mais sur l'effet global que ces monuments ont créé. Le projet « Construction des grands dolmens » s’attachera dans les années à venir effectuer des fouilles sur des sites caractéristiques afin de mieux comprendre ces sites.

Introduction

9In this paper we discuss the form of megalithic architecture that we describe as ‘dolmens’. We argue that these are a particular type of monument found specifically in Britain and Ireland. In particular we describe some of the key elements of a larger and on-going research project which is investigating the construction of these monuments. The project, entitled ‘Building the Great Dolmens’, is exploring the construction of dolmens in a variety of different ways, including through excavation. This paper outlines the underlying ideas behind the project and some preliminary observations.

A background on portal dolmens

10Since the earliest Antiquarian investigations of monuments throughout north-west Europe, those sites which later became known as ‘portal dolmens’ have been the focus of considerable attention. This is because these are visually distinctive and impressive sites, landmarks in their own right before their antiquity was fully understood. The best-known site in south-west Wales, Pentre Ifan (see fig. 3), was visited and discussed by many Antiquaries with accounts of the site dating back to 1603 (Grimes 1948). Along with Arthur’s Stone on the Gower, it was also the first monument to be protected by law under the Ancient Monument’s Act of 1884 (Grimes 1948: 11). In the first half of the twentieth century, archaeologists began to investigate these sites more thoroughly, developing typological classifications and conducting excavations (see summaries in Cummings 2009: 62-72, Kytmannow 2008: 20-25). Important work on typological classifications by Daniel (Daniel 1950) and Piggott (Piggott 1954) were developed into regional classifications from the 1960s onwards. Monuments in Wales and Cornwall were classified as ‘portal dolmens’ (Lynch 1969, 1972), while in Ireland the term ‘portal tomb’ was preferred (de Valera & Ó Nualláin 1972, Ó Nualláin 1983). ‘The standard portal tomb is based on a tripod design with tall portals and lower backstone supporting a massive roofstone poised with its heavier end above the entrance’ (Ó Nualláin 1983: 88). Also of significance is the ‘doorstone’ between the two portal stones, which closes off the entrance (de Valera & Ó Nualláin 1972: xiii). Variations on this description include sites with a second, smaller chamber at the back, and sites with sillstones or no doorstone between the portals (Kytmannow 2008: 5).

11While a number of these monuments have been investigated archaeologically, many sites were either investigated by Antiquaries or early archaeologists, and others have produced no finds (Kytmannow 2008: 87-99). Only a small number have seen large-scale, recent excavation. Pentre Ifan (Grimes 1948), Dyffryn Ardudwy (Powell 1973) and Carreg Coetan (Rees 2012) have been excavated and are fully published, although these sites did not produce large numbers of finds. Kytmannow (2008, chapter 6) has recently produced an thorough summary of what we know about these monuments, but it is also important to note that at all of these excavations, the focus was on the chamber area, and the primary aim of excavation was to acquire material to understand the use of these sites as burial monuments. It is this issue which we will discuss in more detail below. It is also worth highlighting the fact that there are only a very limited number of radiocarbon dates from these monuments (23 in total), of which 65% are from Carreg Coetan and Poulnabrone (Kytmannow 2008, chapter 7). These all date the use of these monuments and not construction.

The essence of the ‘dolmen’: big stones

12The ‘Building the Great Dolmens’ project is looking afresh at the Neolithic monuments of Britain and Ireland, many of which have previously been classified as either portal dolmens or portal tombs. We are advocating an approach which abandons close typological studies of the minutiae of architectural form and instead we are focusing on broad similarities in design and effect. As we outline below, this takes the emphasis away from the ‘portal’ element of these monuments, hence our choice of the word ‘dolmen’ to describe these monuments. We are using this term not in its European sense, but as a specific form of monumentality relating to the sequence in Britain and Ireland only.

1. The massive capstones at Arthur’s Stone, Gower, Wales (top left), Carrickglass, County Sligo, Ireland (top right), and Kernanstown, County Carlow, Ireland (bottom images)

photos by Vicki Cummings and Colin Richards

13We suggest that the first key element of a dolmen is the use of a massive capstone. This has been noted by previous authors, and we argue it is the most important component of a dolmen. Sites in both Britain and Ireland employ some massive stones in their construction (fig. 1). For example, Garn Turne in south-west Wales has a capstone that weighs approximately 60 tonnes (Barker 1992: 29). Carrickglass (the Labby Rock) in County Sligo, Ireland has a capstone weighing 70 tonnes, and the largest is at the site of Kernanstown (Brownshill) in County Carlow, where the capstone weighs around 160 tonnes (Kytmannow 2008: 7). These capstones are not only massive stones, but also very distinctive stones. The outer and upper surfaces of the capstones on dolmens are natural and weathered, however the underside is carefully shaped. This means that when people were quarrying large boulders, they were leaving the upper surface untouched, but shaping and dressing the underside of the stone. This was achieved in different ways: by flaking off large pieces of stone or by pecking. At two large dolmens in Ireland, for example, it is possible to see pecking marks on the underside of the capstone (fig. 2). Excavations at Garn Turne in south-west Wales also produced a large assemblage of flakes of the capstone, which had been removed from the underside of the capstone in order to create a flat surface.

2. Dressed capstones at Goward, County Down, Ireland (top images) and Brennanstown, County Dublin, Ireland (bottom images)

photos by Vicki Cummings and Colin Richards

14Another key component of dolmens is the uprights which support the massive capstone. Bearing in mind that many capstones weigh over 50 tonnes, people seem to have deliberately chosen slender stones to support the capstone. Furthermore, many uprights have pointed tops which mean that only the smallest points of the uprights support the capstone. Moreover, many dolmens are only supported by three uprights, even though there are more stones in the chamber. This suggests that people were trying to balance massive capstones on the smallest number of supporters, and having the smallest areas touching. This creates the most extraordinary effect with these monuments, and has led several authors to suggest that one of the primary roles of dolmens was the display of huge stones (fig. 3), where stones seem to almost floating above the ground (Richards 2004a, Whittle 2004). The essence of a dolmen, then, is the display of a large capstone, where the technical ability of the builders is demonstrated by balancing of this stone on the smallest points of the supporting stones as possible.

3. Pentre Ifan, south-west Wales (top left), illustrating how the capstone is supported by the smallest points of the uprights. The open chambers at Llech y Dribedd (top right) and Carreg Coetan (bottom right), both in south-west Wales, and at Proleek, County Louth, Ireland (bottom left).

photos by Vicki Cummings and Colin Richards

Are dolmens chambered tombs?

15If dolmens are all about the display of large stones, should we still assume that these were burial monuments? Certainly we know that some of these monuments were subsequently used as such, as evidenced by the presence of human remains in some of those that have been excavated. However, the question is: were they originally designed as chambered tombs?

16Many sites have only a small number of uprights, which means that, in their current form, it would be hard to describe them as ‘chambers’. There have been suggestions that drystone walling was used in between the uprights in order to create a chamber area (at Pentre Ifan for example: Grimes 1948), although no evidence for this has ever been found. It has also been suggested that cairns would originally have been an important part of the monument. Certainly, a few sites do have the remains of very small cairns. However, most sites have no trace of a cairn. Elsewhere it has been suggested that many dolmens never had a cairn at all, and at others, it was just a small platform around the monument (Cummings & Whittle 2004). There is also the real possibility that cairns were added at a later date, and we certainly know that these sites were the focus of activity for many millennia (Kytmannow 2008). The addition of a small cairn at some sites would be entirely in keeping with alterations to Neolithic monuments found throughout Britain and Ireland (Cummings 2009, chapter 4). Unlike on the continent where there is good evidence that cairns or mounds surrounded the chamber and thus potentially assisted in supporting the capstone, there is therefore only very limited evidence for this in Britain and Ireland.. While it could be argued that some cairns have been robbed out over the millennia, it is special pleading to suggest that this has happened in all cases, especially when other forms of monument near to dolmens (such as court cairns) have surviving cairns virtually untouched.

17At other dolmens in Britain and Ireland the chamber area is quite different. At sites such as Dyffryn Ardudwy in Wales, for example, the dolmen is virtually a sealed box (Powell 1973). If it was designed as a chamber, deposits would need to have been added either during construction, or once constructed in very small quantities that were pushed through the cracks between stones. Neither of these options implies this was a functional burial space, and this is quite unlike the chambers of chambered tombs such as Clyde cairns, court cairns, Cotswold-Severn tombs or passage graves, where the chambers could easily have been accessed repeatedly for the deposition of human remains. Thus, it is possible to suggest that dolmens did not, in their primary phase, create chambers for burial as such. Instead, the areas beneath the capstone were often open to the elements (fig. 3), or completely sealed.

18A set of sites in Ireland further support this idea. There are a small number of ‘double dolmens’ in Ireland, with a number of possible double sites in Britain, although all of the latter have collapsed. Double dolmens comprise a small dolmen at the back of the monument, the capstone of which is used in place of a backslab and which supports a massive capstone which creates a much larger dolmen at the front. These double dolmen clearly reveal that the addition of the large capstone is structurally secondary to the earlier and smaller dolmen, but as yet we do not know whether these monuments were built all in one go, or whether the larger, second dolmen, was added on at a later date. What these sites do show is that once again, the creation of a chamber area was not the primary concern. One of the most extreme examples of this is the double dolmen at Auchnacliffe in County Longford, Ireland, where an enormous capstone has been added onto a smaller dolmen (fig. 4). The larger capstone is supported only by the smaller capstone and a single upright, which does not create a chamber area at all. Instead, this configuration creates a spectacular visual site where the emphasis seems to be on the elevation and display of this massive stone. Therefore, we would argue that the primary function of dolmens was not as burial chambers, although it is clear that many sites were subsequently used as such. This would mean that all investigations of the contents of the ‘chambers’ are therefore investigations of the secondary reuse of these sites.

4. Auchnacliffe, County Longford, Ireland

photos by Vicki Cummings and Colin Richards

Construction processes: the pit

19If dolmens were built not as burial chambers, but as displays of particular stones and feats of engineering, this shifts emphasis onto the construction process itself. In recent years there has been considerable interest in the construction of megalithic architecture. There has been a renewed interest in the quarry sites for a range of different forms of megalith, including chambered tombs and stone circles (Bukach 2003, Darvill 2009a, Richards 2004b, Scarre 2004, 2009a, 2009b). However, very little work has been done on the construction of dolmens. Superficially, these would appear to be simple constructions, involving just a smaller number of stones. We should not underestimate the amount of effort required to construct these monuments, however. The largest dolmen in Ireland, Kernanstown, had a capstone weighing around 160 tonnes. Just getting this stone off the ground would have been an enormous task involving hundreds of people.

20A close examination of the excavation reports of those dolmens which have been thoroughly investigated provides an insight into construction processes at dolmens. As noted above, very few dolmens have seen large-scale, modern excavation. However, the monument at Carreg Samson in south-west Wales was fully excavated to a high standard (Lynch 1975) and the excavator found a pit underneath the monument. This was larger than the capstone and Lynch suggested it may have been the source of the capstone, which she suggested was quarried in situ, and then lifted up and turned into a monument (Lynch 1975). The same could be argued for Pentre Ifan, also in south-west Wales, although this was not excavated to such a high standard so the evidence is more ambiguous (Grimes 1948). At other sites which have not been excavated, a pit is clearly visible at the site. At Arthur’s Stone on the Gower in Wales the monument is located within an enormous pit, which may well have been dug in order to extract the capstone (see fig. 1). Similar pits can be observed at many other dolmens and it is possible to suggest that one of the key features of dolmen architecture is that these were monuments that were created by digging out a large stone, shaping the underside of that stone and then lifting it up in situ to create a monument. Elsewhere it has been argued that the capstones were already important locales in the landscape prior to construction (Cummings & Whittle 2004, Tilley 1994).

Monumental disasters

21The construction of a dolmen was a monumental undertaking involving moving and working massive stones. Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that the construction of some sites went horribly wrong. At Garn Turne in south-west Wales the 60 tonne capstone was definitely lifted off the ground at some stage as supporting stones now lie underneath it. However, this monument is now collapsed, and it seems likely that it collapsed during the construction process. It appears that the entire monument collapsed backwards, pulling over the portal stones at the front: various slabs lying around the monument suggest that the monument was never finished and that the builders simply walked away once it had collapsed (this monument is currently being excavated by the authors and we will therefore have more information on this site in due course). Other sites show evidence of monumental disaster. The capstone at Kernanstown in County Carlow was successfully raised off the ground at the front of the monument, and the builders were able to support the capstone with uprights. However, at the back of the monument, which one would normally expect to see also lifted off the ground, the capstone remains earthfast (see fig. 1). It seems here that the builders were unable to complete this monument. Other sites are incomplete or collapsed, and while it is clear that some of these have collapsed more recently, many may well have never been completed due to the sheer scale and size of the task of building with such mammoth stones.

22It is important to consider the social implications of building these monuments. In order to construct a dolmen, people would have had to have planned ahead. They would need to arrange for a large group of people to come together at a particular point, they would need rope, rollers, grease and traction, and they would need large quantities of food to feed those involved in construction (Joussaume 1985: 102-3, Richards 2004a, and see McFadyen 2006). This may have involved years of negotiations between social groups, the accumulation of food and the gathering together of resources. There may have been considerable investment in these projects, then, with serious social consequences for those involved (Hoskins 1986). Such events could perhaps be paralleled with potlatch ceremonies amongst the Northwest Coast groups of America: a successful potlatch meant that the organiser of the event gained considerable power and prestige in society (Kan 1989). A failed potlatch, however, was a social disaster for the organiser with dire consequences for him and his kin group. We must also consider the religious implications of a failed monumental construction. All of this would have meant that the construction itself was highly significant, with much riding on the success, or failure, or this process.

European connections

23If dolmens were initially all about a process which brought together different communities in order to build with and display significant stones, one key question is: from where did this idea originate? Specifically in relation to the British and Irish sequences, there has been an on-going interest in the origin of aspects of the Neolithic package and/or Neolithic people, culminating in a debate revolving around the issue of indigenous adaption verses colonisation (Cummings & Harris 2011, Sheridan 2010, Thomas 2008). It has long been assumed that the idea of dolmen construction came over as part of the Neolithic around about 4000 BC (see Whittle et al. 2011 for precise dates for the start of the Neolithic in Britain). However, we would like to challenge this assumption by highlighting several strands of evidence.

24First, the closest continental examples of similar architectural forms are the monuments of Brittany (Scarre 2011). Here, the tradition of building with big stones goes back to the start of the Neolithic and there are many monuments in north-west France which have striking similarities to dolmens in Britain. These monuments are described as ‘passage graves’ or ‘long cairns’ in the literature (Scarre 2011), but the important element here is that the main chambers share the same architectural configuration as dolmens in Britain and Ireland. Indeed, it is possible to argue that in some cases the chambers in the Breton passage graves and long cairns are primary and that these chambers should also be called dolmens (but not in the sense that others have used this term, e.g. Joussaume 1985). In some of these cases dolmens were then converted into passage graves, and long mounds added. There are always issues surrounding dating construction sequences, but it seems almost certain that many Breton chambers pre-date 4000 BC, with dates possibly in the first half of the fifth millennium BC (Cassen et al. 2009, Scarre 2011: 137-45). Is it possible that the people building these monuments in France inspired people in Britain to construct similar monuments? It is even possible to argue that it was essentially the same broader community building sites across this area. Recent studies have shown how easy it would have been for people to cross la Manche (English Channel) and there may well have been regular contact between people living either side of la Manche (Garrow & Sturt 2011). Indeed, they may well have been part of the same community, and this connection could well have pre-dated 4000 BC and the introduction of the rest of the Neolithic package. It is therefore possible that there was close community interaction either side of la Manche, with communities building dolmens prior to the introduction of other aspects on the Neolithic on the British and Irish side.

25Second, there are other interesting components to dolmens, which have continental parallels. In Brittany, people erected menhirs from the start of the Neolithic. There are a number of standing stones in Britain and Ireland, but this was clearly a long-lived tradition that continued well into the Bronze Age. None have so far been dated pre-4000 BC. However, a closer examination of the Cornish dolmens reveals an intriguing aspect of these monuments. At Trethivy Quoit, for example, the monument is constructed around a very large and substantial ‘doorstone’ (fig. 5). This doorstone is deeply bedded and prior to the top being snapped off, would have been a large standing stone. In contrast, the rest of the uprights in this monument are barely bedded in the ground. Instead, they are propped up very much like a house of cards. This configuration suggests the possibility that the doorstone was primary, with the rest being added on at a later date. There is the genuine possibility, therefore, that this site might have been a menhir which was then converted into a dolmen. This is repeated at other sites in Cornwall, notable Zennor Quoit (fig. 5). Again, it is possible to argue that these sites were inspired by the Breton sequence, and may well pre-date 4000 BC. This observation is particularly intriguing bearing in mind how close Cornwall and Brittany are geographically.

5. The dolmens at Trethivy Quoit (left) and Zennor Quoit (right), Cornwall, showing the central doorstone (or menhir)

photos by Vicki Cummings and Colin Richards

Conclusions

26In this paper we have advocated an understanding of the dolmens of Britain and Ireland which focuses not on the details of typological classification, but on the overall effect that these monuments created. In particular, we have drawn attention to the massive capstones that were quarried, dressed and then lifted up and displayed in situ. These capstones were also displayed in very particular ways, showing off the spectacular feats of engineering that occurred during construction. Indeed, we have argued that the important element of dolmens was the bringing together of people to participate in construction, with important social implications riding on the success, or failure, of construction. We have also suggested that the use of these sites as burial monuments may have been secondary. The key to exploring this issue will be a focus on construction processes instead of use. This is one of the aims of the ‘Building the Great Dolmens’ project and over the next few years we will be excavating key sites and attempting to answer this question. Certainly there is more work to be done on the origins of dolmens in Britain and Ireland, but there are strong indications that this was a form of monumentality that originated in Brittany. Whatever the date and origin of dolmens, these were powerful statements in stone which remained important places in the landscape for thousands of years.

27Acknowledgements. We would like to thank the conference organisers for inviting us to speak and for being wonderful hosts in Aix-en-Provence. Guillaume Robin provided help and support before, during and after the conference. The paper has benefitted from discussions with Serge Cassen, Robert Hensey, Luc Laporte, Sam Moore and Guillaume Robin.

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Référence électronique

Vicki Cummings et Colin Richards, « The essence of the dolmen: the Architecture of megalithic construction », Préhistoires Méditerranéennes [En ligne], Colloque | 2014, mis en ligne le 25 novembre 2014, consulté le 27 avril 2017. URL : http://pm.revues.org/944

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Auteurs

Vicki Cummings

School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, PR1 2HE, Angleterre — vcummings1@uclan.ac.uk

Colin Richards

School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL, Angleterre — colins.c.richards@manchester.ac.uk

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