What are menhirs and dolmens and what is the difference between the two types of megalithic structure?

THE menhirs hey dolmen I'm among the megalithic monuments most characteristic of Neolithic European (VII-III millennium BC) and therefore belong to the final phase of Prehistory, between the establishment of agriculture and livestock farming and the beginning of metalworking. While menhirs are simple monoliths, i.e stones driven vertically into the groundoften of considerable size and weight, in the case of dolmens there are two or more large vertical stones surmounted horizontally by a further stone with the function of architrave. When menhirs and dolmens form complex structures (circular or aligned) they are called cromlech and the best known example is Stonehenge, in England. Having made this brief summary, let's delve deeper into the issue and also see the spread of dolmens and menhirs in the world.

What are menhirs and what does their name mean

Menhirs are gods monoliths (single stones) fixed vertically in the ground. The term derives from Breton language (a Celtic language spoken in Brittany, in northwestern France) and was used by archaeologists starting in the 19th century. It means “long stone”: men (stone), e hir (long).

Despite being widespread in many parts of the world, menhirs are particularly concentrated inAtlantic Europewhere one flourished in the Neolithic great megalithic culture. In fact, most of them are found in France and in British Isles. The construction of these monuments began in the Neolithic era, but in Europe it continued at least untilBronze Age (3rd-2nd millennium BC).


The simplest menhirs simply see the presence of the stone stuck in the ground, while others have been decorated with engravings. Some rather well-known examples are statue-menhirswith decorations anthropomorphic.

The groups of menhirs, aligned or arranged in a circle, are called cromlech (For example Stonehenge in England, which features both menhirs and dolmens). This term, deriving from Welsh (another Celtic language spoken in Wales), literally means “curved stone”: crwm (pronounced crum, meaning “curved”) e llech (pronounced sheh, “stone”).

Archaeologists think that these monuments were used to delimit sacred areasor that they constituted phallic symbols linked to fertility of the earthor even that they were the fulcrum of the ancestor worship. This last theory finds particular confirmation in the anthropomorphic representations of the statue-menhirs, widespread in Sardinia, Corsica, Trentino, Tuscany, Iberian peninsula, Brittany and in some placesCentral-Eastern Europe.


What are dolmens and what does their name mean

Dolmens are characterized by the presence of at least two stones fixed vertically in the ground which support a third stone placed horizontally in the manner of architrave. The term with which these structures are designated (literally “flat stone”) is also from a Celtic language, but it is unclear whether it is Breton, Welsh, Irish or Cornish (spoken in Cornwall, in southwestern England).

These constructions, more complex than menhirs on an architectural level, demonstrate the degree of cohesion And organization of the Neolithic societies that created them. In fact, to move and place the large stone boulders it was necessary to coordinated work of hundreds of people (just think of the magnificence of the cromlech of Stonehenge, composed of a succession of dolmens). This could all be linked to population growth due to the formation of the agricultural society. Such a commitment of manpower and work would have been unthinkable for Paleolithic societies, composed of hunter-gatherer bands of a few dozen members.


Dolmens also probably had a religious function, perhaps linked to natural cults, but some structures were certainly used as graves. Some dolmens in fact simply constituted the central chamber of a burial mound, intended to contain the remains of particularly important members of ancient prehistoric societies. Once the earth of the mound was removed (either due to subsequent modifications or archaeological excavation), the stone structure of the dolmen remained visible.