(Dolmen at Kerbourg, Loire-Atlantique, France)
A dolmen is a prehistoric megalithic building consisting of one or several large capstones (tables) placed on vertical stones that serve as feet (orthostats). The whole was originally covered, maintained and protected by a heap of stones and earth named tumulus. The dolmens are generally interpreted as funerary monuments that housed collective graves.
European dolmens were built between the late fifth millennium BC and the late third millennium BC. Those from the Far East were built in the first millennium BC.
For some researchers, alongside these megaliths, there were the wooden dolmens.
In their present state of degradation, the dolmens are often presented under the guise of simple tables. They have been long time considered as pagan altars, but it is indeed burial chambers and tumulus galleries (artificial mounds), the furniture part (fill) has been eroded over the centuries. Their architecture often includes a corridor of access that can be built in dry stone or tiles. The burial chamber, with variable shapes (rectangular, polygonal, oval, circular …), can also be preceded by an anteroom. In some dolmens, the entry door has a cut in one or more vertical panels.
Dolmens morphology may vary depending on the region; and do we observe, for example in the dolmens from Loire-Atlantique, the central hallway leads to several rooms, from either side, forming one or two transepts and significantly complicating the plan of burial.
In Brittany, in the Paris region, and in other countries, in some inordinately long dolmens, the room and the corridor have the same width and merge. They are covered with several tables and are called “gallery grave“. The complexity and importance of monuments may be such that some tumuli cover several dolmens, as the great cairn of Barnenez (Finistère, France) covering eleven burials corridor, some megalithics, and others with dry stone vaults, corbelled …
In contrast, the Cevennes region is rich in graves of the genus chest, often shale slabs and dry stone without corridor, and under a low cairn, sometimes gathered in large numbers in a necropolis peak.
Simple plan of the dolmens (without aisle) abound in some regions with several thousand units.
Types of dolmens
- Angevin dolmen, or portico dolmen, facing east.
- Angoulême dolmen, with square or rectangular room.
- Languedoc dolmen, facing west or southwest.
- The corner dolmen.
The dolmens were reusable collective graves. This explains why, in some dolmens, we have discovered the remains of hundreds of people and furniture from different periods (Neolithic, Copper Age, bronze, iron, or even later periods). A bit like our family tombs, dolmens could serve much longer than today and it is certain that some graves had used for centuries.
The term “collective burial” does not necessarily imply that it is a tomb for all: in view of the amount of bones sometimes quite low in discovered largetombs – prestigious monuments -, we asks if some were not reserved for a privileged group of the community.
The interpretation as a tomb, should perhaps not be generalized. Some dolmens did not deliver human remains of sepulchral type, but this may be a result of taphonomic phenomena, erosion, looting, haphazard old excavations, or illicit excavations. When it opened, the dolmen under the tumulus of Mané-er-Hroeh, Locmariaquer contained no human remains.
As to the tumulus, it has not only a protective use of the burial chamber, but probably also a signaling function, even ostentatious: a large, paremented tumulus, imposed its mass to visitors, it was to inspire respect for the place and confer a certain prestige to the community that had erected.
Furthermore, several archaeological finds (offerings, altar, driveways, etc.) suggest that these monuments have had a religious function. Even well after the great period of erection of megaliths in Europe, the Celtic peoples have, it seems, sometimes used for religious purposes, but do not make them for the builders, as affirmed the first celtomanes researchers from eighteenth and nineteenth century, which linked systematically megaliths to the Gauls and Britons.
Fifty thousand dolmens have been reported worldwide, including twenty thousand in Europe.
They were very numerous in some parts of France and, while some have disappeared, there are still more than 4,000 scattered in sixty departments. To simplify the implementation of dolmens in France, one can start from the west, with Britain, then down by the Poitou, then join, further south, the limestone from Quercy and Aveyron and, finally arriving in the Mediterranean seaside, in the Languedoc and Roussillon (Campoussy – Arboussols, etc …). They are numerous in Aveyron (1000 dolmens), Brittany, Quercy (800 dolmens) Ardèche (800 dolmens in this one department), Poitou-Charentes and Languedoc-Roussillon (at least 700 dolmens). Provence accounts a hundred.
It is also found in Ireland, Wales, notably the portal dolmens or passage graves in the English counties of Devon and Cornwall. In Portugal, there have been spectacular sights of Upper Alentejo, near the town of Evora. In southern Spain, the remarkable sites of Antequera, which are among the most impressive and oldest dolmens in the world.
In Belgium, where one identifies 120 remains of dolmens and menhirs, like those of Oppagne and Barvaux-sur-Ourthe, megaliths of Wéris domain, near Durbuy (the Weris dolmen and menhirs and stone circles which have persisted in the same region) and burials underground rock cave, Blancs Cailloux of Mousny-lez-Ortho, the standing stones of Neerwinden and Manderfeld, the tombelle of Tourinnes-Saint-Lambert, and into a Brussels commune with the Tomberg, tumulus destroyed in the eighteenth century, but there are traces of the inventory of objects it contained.
In Scandinavia, Northern Germany and the Netherlands, these remains are called hunebed or hunegraf. North Africa and India contain such remains and, more modestly, Syria, Ethiopia and the Crimea. In Tunisia, the necropolis with dolmens from Djebel Gorra, located near the small town of Thibar on the road to Téboursouk, presents two to three hundred recognizable megalithic graves.
Korea holds, alone, 30,000 dolmens, of various types, high during the first millennium BC and using evolutionary techniques. They are also found in Japan, but much more recently. The dolmens are absent from the American and Australian continents.