The concept of moving or raising large stones for purposes ranging from marking boundaries to building tombs is natural enough to have risen independently in many cultures. However, one type of megalith does attract our attention.
The dolmen tomb occurs over a wide distribution in an arrangement that does not lead one to think of independent origin. The dolmen often occurs as a "stone table" consisting of a massive flat capstone lying horizontally on smaller upright stones acting as "table legs."
What make the dolmen unusual is that it usually is found surrounded by a mound or tumulus. Underneath the dolmen, one will again usually find a stone cist containing one or more burials. A large hole in one of the rocks, apparently symbolic in nature, will also be associated with the dolmen. The Marquis of Nadaillac commented on the unlikely possibility of this occuring independently:
We can understand how men were everywhere impelled to raise mounds above the bodies of their ancestors, to perpetuate their memory or to enclose their mortal remains between flat stones to save them from being crushed by the weight of earth above them. We may even, by straining a point, admit the idea that a large cist developed into a dolmen, but when in districts separated by enormous distances we see monuments with the wall pierced with a circular opening or combining an interior crypt with an external mound and dolmen, it is impossible to look upon these close resemblances as the result of an accidental coincidence, and equally impossible to fail to conclude that the men whose funeral rites were remarkable for such close similarity belonged to the same race.
Dolmens in Europe and eastern Asia appear divided mainly into Neolithic and Bronze Age categories. In some cases, iron is found in these tombs but often along with evidence that this metal was deposited only long after the dolmen was erected. This is different than in other areas such as India where megalithic burials are often associated with iron. Heine-Geldern thus thought there were two "waves" of megalith builders in Europe and Southeast Asia who were in fact linked.
The strongest evidence that would suggest the dolmen builders of Europe came from far away in the East is found in the megalithic fields of France. Here burials with jade, nephrite and jadeite (chloromelanite) hatchets and celts have been found.
Jade is not found in Europe and turns up only very far to the east. There is a difference of opinion on nephrite and jadeite. Some limited deposits have been found of both although most experts tend to agree that jadeite was probably imported from an eastern source. Nephrite deposits have been found with workshops in proximity although without evidence that the deposits had ever been worked.
The strongest argument against local mining of these minerals is that their use totally disappears after the megalithic age. Like the hard-fired pottery of Neolithic Iraq and Syria, and the early lashed-lug boats of Scandinavia, the jade tools vanish either due to the loss of a culture or to a lost trading source.
We know as a fact that with the rise of urban China, jade and nephrite became increasingly harder to obtain outside of that country. For example, in the Philippines, the situation with nephrite shows clear signs that the supply diminished over time.
We find jade, nephrite and jadeite tools also among the pile dwellings or "Lake Stations" of neolithic Switzerland. Remains from this culture included perforated clay spindle whorls and net sinkers similar to those found in the neolithic shell mound cultures much further east. The Lake Stations are naturally linked with the nearby pile dwellings of northern Italy.
The dolmen burials also contained tools made of fibrolite, another material not native to Europe, and Indo-Pacific cowries.
The neolithic Shandong and related coastal Korean cultures raised dolmens. Indeed, Korea has more dolmens than all the rest of the world combined. Today, the peoples of Sulawesi and Sumba in eastern Indonesia continue to build dolmen tombs although with some modern touches.
The traditional dolmens of this region often were combined with carved totemic menhirs.
In both Europe and Southeast Asia we find evidence in the Neolithic and Bronze Age of the cult of the axe. Blades with no signs of wear are found, often in large numbers, as burial items. Sometimes these tools appear purposely broken as if due to some form of ritual.
The mounds associated with dolmens can be either artificial or natural, and some of the former are massive having circumferences of thousands of feet and standing over 170 feet high. They remind us of similarly expansive shell mounds that were also used for burial.
In many ways, the dolmen resembles also the houses, and at times, semisubterranean houses built on mounds in the northern regions. The hole found in many of these monuments may represent an opening allowing the souls interned to exit the structure. However, it has also been theorized that dolmens were used to bury entire families using secondary internment, and that dessicated skeletons were placed through the opening. Often the local folklore connected with dolmens views them as homes made by little people, or by giants for little people.
Dolmen with opening from India
Also of interest is the fact that the megaliths of Europe though extensive and spectacular in scale are hardly mentioned at all by the ancient Greek and Roman writers, or even by early medieval chroniclers. They certainly were known as there is abundant evidence especially of Roman intrusion into these monuments. However, it was almost as the memory of these structures was thought to be better forgotten.
Paul Kekai Manansala