When Is A Dolmen Not A Dolmen?

By Bernie Bell

Pics by B& M Bell

Back in 2015, Mike and I went to a talk given by Professor Colin Richards of the UHI Archaeology Institute – I think the title was ‘When is a dolmen not a dolmen?’ – if not, it was something like that!  After the talk, I accosted Prof. Richards and we talked of stony things and places – but there were others wanting to speak with him, so I backed away and sent him an email with some more witterings, as follows…..

“Here are the pics. of the two stone circle sites we visited in West Cork.  The first page, and the first pic. on the second page, are of a place called Mill Little.  An extra-ordinary place.  ‘Atmospheric’ doesn’t cover it!  Notice the whirly hill behind, that’s the rock, not plough marks.

The second lot of pics. are of a place called Kealkil.  This is the one which we both felt had very much a feel of Stenness about it.  It’s in an amazing situation.  The pic. of the view of a nearby hill, through the two biggest stones – well – there it is!  If you ever get the chance – West Cork – around Glengarriff – is a place to go!  It’s hoochin’ with sites.

The final pic. is an added bonus – Gairsay through the upright stones of that place with the stones on Eynhallow!  Don’t know what it’s called, (if anything), don’t know what it is.  I realise that there may have been another stone, which would change the fact that Gairsay lies neatly between those two upright stones, but…..well….we like to see it that way.  Another example of a hill, or mound, viewed between two stones, as at Stenness.  Maybe yes, maybe no, but we like to see it that way!  Also a nice juxtaposition with the view of the hill through the Kealkil stones.

And….Carrowmore Neolithic Cemetery in County Sligo, Ireland –   Do look out for how the man-made structures reflect/echo/draw attention to the two mountains of Benbulben and Knocknarae. 


When is a dolmen not a dolmen? When it’s a cromlech or a quoit?  I do think it’s worth looking at what may be the difference between what is being expressed/intimated by the slim, ‘floating’ capstones, and the chunky, stumpy capstones.  To me they are so different, I can’t help thinking that they are saying, or expressing, or pointing to, two different…….concepts/approaches.  The ‘floaty’ ones, tho’ very heavy, look so light, and they mostly go to a ‘point’, which is raised – directing us to the sky, lifting us with them. The stumpy ones, are stumpy!  Feet firmly planted. Sitting there.

Anyway. That’s my ramble for today.  I don’t know what you’ll make of the structures in these pictures but I recommend – if you can – to go to West Cork and find some of the sites there. 

This is something of what I thought about these structures which people took great trouble to make and which make folk go “Ooooo” when they see them.  They lift and open people – maybe just long enough to let some light in.  Just, maybe, things which are bigger than ourselves – not for a purpose – but, just…..to remind us that we are bigger than ourselves.”

Not all these images are of dolmens, but the idea still stands that these sites were not necessarily only places to place the dead.  Not by a long way.  Making a statement – big – impressive – making us wake up a bit and take notice. 

Poulnabrone Portal Dolmen, standing there, in the bare moonscape of the Burren – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poulnabrone_dolmen – just – look at it!

And today, I received the latest post by Sigurd Towrie on the UHI Archology Institute blog, telling of a book by Prof. Richards and Professor Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire……

My thoughts on this subject are just my thoughts, whereas Prof Richards and Cummings worked on a thought-full and also thoroughly researched and well-presented re-appraisal of the structures known as dolmens.

New ideas in Archaeology are always refreshing.  It really would be best if you read Sigurd’s blog, then buy and read the book and – as the dormouse in Alice said “Feed your head!”

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