It remains unclear when, why and by whom the earliest dolmens were made. The oldest known are found in Western Europe, dating from c. 7,000 years ago. Archaeologists still do not know who erected these dolmens, which makes it difficult to know why they did it. They are generally all regarded as tombs or burial chambers, despite the absence of clear evidence for this. Human remains, sometimes accompanied by artefacts, have been found in or close to the dolmens which could be scientifically dated using radiocarbon dating. However, it has been impossible to prove that these remains date from the time when the stones were originally set in place.
It has long been assumed that all chambered monuments were encased within a mound or cairn. In the case of dolmens this would mean that the stone frame was only visible because the mound had weathered, or been robbed, away. There is very little supporting evidence for this, however; sometimes you find a small platform of cairn material around the base of the dolmen, but often there is nothing at all. Rather than the material having been removed at a later date, it seems much more likely that these fantastic constructions with their impressive capstones were meant to be admired, not obscured. Dolmens are visually spectacular sites, with a design geared far more towards ostentatious display than the practicalities of a burial space.
This deliberate working of the surfaces makes dolmens the earliest form of monument in Britain and Ireland to incorporate quarried and shaped stones. While excavating at Garn Turne Major we found debitage created when its huge capstone was flaked into shape using massive hammerstones. Dating back to 3790-3640 cal BC, this represents the oldest-known evidence of stone-working in Britain, pre-dating Stonehenge by around 1,000 years.
One thing that became clear during the course of our investigation is that things did not always go to plan when building these monuments. There are many surviving examples of dolmens where problems in the construction process can be seen. Garn Turne Major was apparently never completed after its capstone collapsed. At Brownshill the builders seem to have had even greater difficulty getting their project off the ground: perhaps overambitious in estimating the weight they would be able to lift, ultimately the workmen had to make do with only elevating the front part of their record-breaking capstone, while to this day the rear remains firmly rooted to the ground.
Chocks away: raising the capstone How did people manage to shift such enormous stones 6,000 years ago? During the Neolithic period, building materials for monuments were most likely moved using a combination of ropes, levers, wooden rollers, and grease, with people and possibly animals such as oxen providing the muscle. When constructing a dolmen, however, no such shifting was required.
"structure consisting of a large, flat, unhewn stone resting horizontally atop three or more upright ones," c. 1600, from Welsh, from crom, fem. of crwm "crooked, bent, concave" + llech "(flat) stone." Applied in Wales and Cornwall to what in Brittany is a dolmen; a cromlech there is part of a circle of standing stones. 041b061a72