A Megalithic Mystery: What Are Dolmens?

Dolmens are megalithic structures often dating from the Neolithic period, that can be found in locations around the world.

These giant ancient structures consist of a capstone placed upon supporting stones. In many cases they required a high level of societal cooperation for the moving and construction of these incredibly large monuments.

While the exact purpose of dolmens is still up for debate, theories ranging from places to communicate with the afterlife to tools for ancient astronomy practices have been raised as possible explanations.


Fascinating examples of dolmens dating from many thousands of years ago can be found in the UK, with dolmens in Cornwall and Wales dating as far back to 2400 BC.

prehistoric dolmen
The exact methods used to erect the massive stones remain a topic of debate and mystery. Some theories suggest the use of simple machines, logs, or a large labour force.

Myths and legends have arisen around these ancient structures, and they have become a part of the cultural heritage of Britain through the ages. 

An Achievement in Ancient Engineering 

Building dolmen structures was no easy achievement. Many of these structures are incredibly large in size and incorporate carefully placed stones that weigh tons.

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Large capstones were moved into position and placed atop vertical support stones. Just moving these excessively heavy stones would have required the participation of many people, in some cases it is thought hundreds of people.

Theories have been raised as to how these stones were transported to dolmen sites, including ideas such as sleds and log rolling techniques. 

prehistoric dolmen
A dolmen is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, typically consisting of two or more upright stones supporting a flat horizontal capstone.

Building a dolmen also required a level of understanding of physics and engineering. This was needed to ensure that a dolmen had structural integrity and could support the weight of the stones and of the earth that was mounded around many dolmen sites.

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In some cases, burial chambers were also dug underneath the dolmens themselves. In these instances, it is thought that burial pits were dug before the stones were put in place.

The Secrets of the Dolmen

One of the greatest mysteries of dolmen structures is the answer to the conundrum of why exactly they were built.

Many of these structures would have taken an exceeding amount of time and effort, exemplified by a case in Wales in which an ancient dolmen would have required two hundred people to lift its capstone into place. Yet, the exact purpose of these ancient structures remains somewhat of a mystery. 

prehistoric dolmen
Many dolmens are considered to be at risk due to factors like natural erosion, human activity, and agriculture. Efforts are being made in various countries to conserve these important historical structures and recognize them as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Many researchers agree that these megalithic structures held religious or spiritual significance to ancient people. As bones have been found in a number of dolmens, the idea that they served as ancient tombs or burial mounds has been suggested.

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Dolmens Shrouded in Mystery

Furthering this, it has also been theorised that dolmens served as part of rituals or beliefs pertaining to ancestor worship or communication with a spirit world that was part of early religious and spiritual belief systems.

prehistoric dolmen
In various cultures, local legends and folklore have sprung up around dolmens, often attributing their construction to giants, fairies, or other supernatural beings.

In the case of some dolmen structures which contain the remains of only one person, the idea has been raised that they served as elaborate tombs for only important members of ancient societies, while in other cases dolmens contain multiple human remains and appear to have operated as a more communal gravesite.

The fact that dolmens existed so long ago, and that some contain human remains, grave goods and funeral artefacts, suggests that the idea of an afterlife may have developed at this early point in history. 

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Alongside theories pertaining to tombs and death rituals, some believe that dolmens were used as the site of a variety of ancient spiritual, religious, and cultural rituals. This includes the idea that they functioned as an element in right of passage rituals. 

prehistoric dolmen
Building a dolmen required significant effort and organization, indicating that the communities that built them had social structures capable of coordinating labor-intensive tasks.

As with many other Neolithic megaliths, it has been hypothesized that dolmen were created as part of explorations of astronomy and the relation of celestial elements to the Earth. In multiple cases, the passages for access into dolmen structures face either the rising or setting sun at certain points in the year that may have held certain significance to ancient people. 

It has also been speculated that dolmens with long and narrow passageways may have been constructed to function as ancient astronomy observation tools.

prehistoric dolmen
A Neolithic portal tomb which excavations in the 1980s showed to date from around 2500BC. It consists of a single capstone supported by 6ft high portal stones.

Investigations have been conducted into whether the specific shape and formation or these passages created some level of a telescope effect, enhancing to a certain degree what was visible in the night sky.

From Cornwall to South Korea 

While there are some impressive examples of ancient dolmens in the UK, the building of these structures was not isolated to Britain.

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Similar structures exist as far away as India, South Korea, Sicily, Russia, and Canada. Korea especially has a large number of ancient dolmens, with roughly 40% of all the world’s ancient dolmen structures located there.

The Tinkinswood Burial Chamber 

It is believed that dolmen developed in different areas of the world independently, creating a fascinating glimpse into the varied cultural practices of developing civilizations and views on developing religions and spiritual beliefs. 

prehistoric dolmen
Tinkinswood burial chamber

However, despite their wide range of construction, the UK is still the site of some historically important and equally fascinating dolmen structures. 

Nestled in the valley of Glamorgan in the Welsh countryside, the Tinkinswood Burial Chamber is a dolmen structure estimated to have been completed six thousand years ago. The chamber is made with a large capstone supported by several smaller upright stones, measuring over seven metres in length and over four metres in width. The limestone capstone alone weighs over a whopping forty imperial tons.

920 Separate Human Bones

Placing the capstone is estimated to have taken at least two hundred people and the burial chamber is thought to be one of the largest examples of such a structure in all of Europe.

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While the stone structure itself is large, the overall area including the dirt mound that extends behind the structure is even bigger, measuring an impressive forty metres by eighteen metres in size. Predating Stonehenge by close to a thousand years, the Tinkinswood Burial Chamber wasn’t always a lonely structure, it is instead believed that it was incorporated into a Neolithic village.

When the site was excavated in 1914, it was also found that the chamber wasn’t the final resting place of just one person but held the remains of 920 separate human bones, which indicated that as many as forty people were laid to rest. 

The diversity in the age and sex of these bones, alongside evidence of bell beaker style pottery and exposed bones has led to the theory that the chamber was used for an extended period of time, possibly all the way up until the early Bronze Age. 

Over the years, myths and legends arose around the Tinkinswood Burial Chamber including one that warns that anyone that spends the night at Tinkinswood before St. Johns Day or Midwinter Day, is destined to either go mad, die, or become a poet. 

Trethevy Quoit 

Found near St.Cleer in Cornwall, Trethevy Quoit offers another impressive example of a Neolithic dolmen structure.

prehistoric dolmen in Cornwall
Standing 9 feet (2.7 m) high, it consists of five standing stones capped by a large slab and was added to the Heritage at Risk Register in 2017.

The 10.5 ton cover slab and support stones are believed to have once been covered by an earth mound that made the entire structure over six metres in diameter. Standing at over two metres high, it is theorised that the dolmen once held religious or spiritual purposes for the ancient people of the local area.

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Trethevy Quoit isn’t the only point of historical significance in the nearby area. Not far from the ancient dolmen structure are three stone circles dating from the Bronze Age known as The Hurlers. In modern times, the dolmen itself has gained the affectionate nickname ‘the giant’s house.’

Chûn Quoit

Another Dolmen found in Cornwall, Chûn Quoit, claims the title as one of west Cornwall’s best preserved dolmen structures. The ancient structure is complete with a mushroom-domed capstone that is just over three metres in length and almost three metres in width.

Chun Quoit dolmen
Like the other quoits, the quoit was probably covered by a round barrow (35 ft in diameter), of which much evidence abounds. It was a closed chamber and its mushroom-domed capstone measures 3.3 m (11 ft) by 3 m (10 ft), with a maximum thickness of 0.8 m (2 ft 7 in).

Placed atop a ridge overlooking moorland, the capstone of Chûn Quoit is supported by stones that make the entire structure around two metres tall. Chûn Quoit, like many other dolmen structures in Britain is thought to have once been covered by a mound of earth and to have had a south-east facing passageway that provided access into the structure.

Myths and folklore have been created around the presence of Chûn Quoit. One story tells of the structure as the final resting place of an ancient giant. The story goes that after the giant, Old Denbras, was killed during a wrestling match, his body was entombed within the dolmen on the site of his favourite seat facing out to sea. 

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Chûn Quoit, much like Trethevy Quoit, is close to other ancient sites, including standing stones, an Iron Age hillfort, other dolmens, and the ancient site of Carn Kenidjack.

Chûn Quoit is believed to date back to 2400 BC and is the only dolmen in the West Penrith region to have retained its capstone as it was originally placed. 

A Cultural Monument Thousands of Years in the Making 

Dolmens became a key part of the Neolithic landscape and offer a fascinating glimpse into the culture and society of ancient civilizations. These large structures required a high level of social cooperation and cohesion in order for them to be constructed and demonstrated a knowledge of engineering concepts in these ancient populations.

 While the exact purpose of dolmens isn’t conclusively determined, it is widely agreed that they held high cultural significance in the Neolithic world.

Many are believed to have acted as tombs, while theories have also been raised regarding the relationship of these ancient structures to the cycles of the moon, sun and stars. Built thousands of years ago, dolmens still capture the imagination of people today.

From their beginnings in the early days of civilisation to the folk tales that arose around them, to the mysteries they still hold today, these structures are monuments in the cultural landscape of both Britain and the wider world.