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Building the Great Dolmens

Dolmens are one of the best known, yet least understood, types of monument in Britain and Ireland. These monuments have seen virtually no modern excavation or investigation, and we still have no definite date for the construction of these monuments, although there is the suggestion that this was at a potentially early date in the Neolithic (Cummings and Whittle 2004; Kytmannow 2008). If this is the case, dolmens may well be the earliest form of monumentality in Britain and Ireland and may be able to inform our understanding of the transition to the Neolithic. In addition to this we have little understanding of how these monuments were constructed, even though some dolmens employ enormous stones. These were extraordinary feats of engineering, where people were quarrying, hauling and lifting stones that were up to 150 tonnes in weight. It is also obvious that many dolmens were architectural failures, in the sense that at some sites the capstone was never successfully placed on top of uprights, yet this idea of monumental failure, and its impact on society, has not been explored in any depth. Moreover, we have only a very limited understanding of how these sites were used once they were constructed, either successfully or unsuccessfully. Did people abandon monumental failures, or did they use them as if they were successful constructions? And did these sites all start off as burial chambers, or was this a 'secondary' use? The other key element of the project involves thinking beyond typological classification. We advocate a critical approach to the traditional monument typology of Britain and Ireland by focussing instead on the construction processes involved, and the overall ‘effect’ that people were trying to achieve when building these sites, instead of the minutiae of typological classification. Since this is the case, some sites that have not been previously classified as dolmens will need to reclassified and considered as part of our project. Overall, then, a project addressing all these issues is being conducted in order to understand this crucial class of monument, and potentially the beginnings of monumentality in Britain and Ireland.


Cummings, V. And Whittle, A. 2004. Places of special virtue: megaliths in the Neolithic landscapes of Wales. Oxford: Oxbow.

Kytmannow, T. 2008. Portal tombs in the landscape: the chronology, morphology and landscape setting of the portal tombs of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. Oxford: BAR.

Project Lead/Contact

Vicki Cummings

Collaborators and Partners

Professor Colin Richards (University of Manchester)

Clients or Funders

British Academy £8600
Royal Archaeological Institute £2000

Public Outputs

Cummings, V. and Richards, C. forthcoming. The essence of the dolmen: the architecture of megalithic construction. Préhistoires Méditerranéennes.


2013 Investigation of dolmens in north Wales

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