Prehistoric Architecture Terminologies

Updated on December 3, 2019

Menhir

A menhir (from Brittonic languages: maen or men, "stone" and hir or hîr, "long"), standing stone, orthostat, lith or masseba/ matseva is a large manmade standing stone. Menhirs may be found only as monoliths, or as part of a collection of similar stones.

parque de los Menhires, A Coruña, Spain
parque de los Menhires, A Coruña, Spain | Source
Source

Dolmen

A dolmen is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, normally consisting of two or more perpendicular megaliths shouldering a large flat horizontal capstone, although there are also more complicated variants. Most date from the early Neolithic (4000–3000 BC).

Poulnabrone portal tomb, Ireland
Poulnabrone portal tomb, Ireland | Source

Tumulus

A tumulus is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Tumuli are also known as barrows, burial mounds or kurgans, and may be found throughout much of the world. A cairn, which is a mound of stones built for various purposes, may also originally have been a tumulus.

Construction of a megalith grave
Construction of a megalith grave | Source

Deer stones

Deer stones (also known as reindeer stones) are ancient megaliths carved with representations found mostly in Siberia and Mongolia. The name comes from their carved depictions of flying deer. There are many speculations to the reasons behind their existence and the people who made them.

Deer stone site near Mörön in Mongolia.
Deer stone site near Mörön in Mongolia. | Source

Passage grave

A passage grave (sometimes hyphenated) or passage tomb consists of a narrow passage made of large stones and one or multiple burial chambers covered in earth or stone. The building of passage tombs was normally carried out with megaliths and smaller stones; they usually date from the Neolithic Age.

A simple passage tomb in Carrowmore near Sligo in Ireland
A simple passage tomb in Carrowmore near Sligo in Ireland | Source

Cove

A cove is a tightly concentrated group of large standing stones found in Neolithic and Bronze Age England. Coves are square or rectangular in plan and seem to have served as small enclosures within another henge, stone circle or avenue features. They consist of three or four orthostats placed together to give the impression of a box. An opening between the stones, oriented south-east is also a feature.

Cove, Part of the South Inner Circle of Avebury in Wiltshire, England.
Cove, Part of the South Inner Circle of Avebury in Wiltshire, England. | Source

Fulacht fiadh

A fulacht fiadh are burned mounds, dating from the Bronze Age, located in Ireland. These are the few lasting examples consist of a low horseshoe-shaped mound of charcoal-enriched soil, and the heat broke the stone, with a cooking pit positioned in a slight pocket at its centre. In ploughed fields, they are seeming as black spreads of earth scattered with small sharp stones.

Reconstruction of a fulacht fiadh at the Irish National Heritage Park in County Wexford, Ireland
Reconstruction of a fulacht fiadh at the Irish National Heritage Park in County Wexford, Ireland | Source

Stone circles

Stone circles are usually arranged in terms of the shape and size of the stones, the span of their extent and their population within the local area. Although many theories have been advanced to explain their use, usually around providing a context for ceremony or ritual, there is no consensus among archaeologists as to their designated function. Their construction often meant considerable communal effort, including expert tasks such as planning, quarrying, transportation, laying the foundation trenches, and final construction.

Swinside stone circle, England
Swinside stone circle, England | Source

Stone ship

The stone ship or ship setting was an early burial custom in Scandinavia, Northern Germany and the Baltic states. The grave or cremation burial was surrounded by slabs or stones in the shape of a ship. The ships vary in size and were erected from c. 1000 BC to 1000 AD.

The two greatest stone ships at Anund's barrow in Sweden.
The two greatest stone ships at Anund's barrow in Sweden. | Source

Cup and ring marks

Cup and ring marks or cup marks are a form of prehistoric art found mainly in Atlantic Europe – Ireland, Wales, Northern England, France (Brittany), Portugal, Finland, Scotland and Spain (Galicia) and in Italy (North-West, Sardinia), Greece (Thessalia) as well as in Scandinavia (Denmark and Sweden) and Switzerland (Caschenna site - Graubunden).

Typical cup and ring marks at Weetwood Moor, in the English county of Northumberland (Google Maps)
Typical cup and ring marks at Weetwood Moor, in the English county of Northumberland (Google Maps) | Source

In archaeology, kerb or peristaltic is the name for a stone ring built to enclose and sometimes revet the cairn or barrow built over a chamber tomb.

In megalithic archaeology, a port-hole slab is the name of an orthostat with a hole in it sometimes found forming the approach to a chamber tomb. The hole is normally circular but square examples or those made from two adjoining slabs each with a notch cut in it are known. They are common in the gallery graves of the Seine-Oise-Marne culture.

Orthostat

An orthostat is a large stone with a more or less slab-like shape that has been artificially set standing (so a cube-shaped block is not an orthostat). Menhirs and other standing stones are technically orthostats although the term is used by archaeologists only to represent individual prehistoric stones that form part of larger structures.

The gowk stane at Laigh Overmuir.
The gowk stane at Laigh Overmuir. | Source

Gowk stane

The name gowk stane has been applied to certain standing stones and glacial erratics in Scotland, often found in prominent geographical situations. Other spelling variants, such as gowke, gouk, gouke, goilk, goik, gok, goke, gook are found.

Inuksuk

Cairns are used as trace markers in many parts of the world, in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops, near waterways and on sea cliffs, as well as in barren deserts and tundra. They differ in size from small stone markers to whole artificial hills, and in complexity from movable conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures and intricate feats of megalithic engineering. Cairns may be painted or otherwise decorated, whether for increased visibility or religious reasons. An ancient example is an inuksuk, used by the Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. Inuksuit are found from Alaska to Greenland. This region, above the Arctic Circle, is dominated by the tundra biome and has areas with few natural landmarks.

Inuksuk gardens at Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada
Inuksuk gardens at Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada | Source
Part of the Kerlescan alignment in Carnac, Brittany
Part of the Kerlescan alignment in Carnac, Brittany | Source

Stone row

A stone row (or stone alignment), is a linear arrangement of upright, parallel megalithic standing stones set at intervals along a common axis or series of axes, usually dating from the later Neolithic or Bronze Age. Rows may be individual or grouped, and three or more stones aligned can constitute a stone row.

Carnac stones, Menec alignment, at the western end
Carnac stones, Menec alignment, at the western end

Carnac stones

The Carnac stones are an exceptionally dense collection of megalithic sites around the village of Carnac in Brittany, consisting of alignments, dolmens, tumuli and single menhirs. More than 3,000 prehistoric standing stones were hewn from local rock and erected by the pre-Celtic people of Brittany, and form the largest such collection in the world.

The Manio quadrilateral arrangement.
The Manio quadrilateral arrangement. | Source

Manio quadrilateral

Manio quadrilateral is an arrangement of stones to form the perimeter of a large rectangle. Originally a "Tertre tumulus" with a central mound, it is 37 m (121 ft) long and aligned to the east of northeast. The quadrilateral is 10 m (33 ft) wide to the east, but only 7 m (23 ft) wide at the west.

Cromlech near village Dolni glavanak, Haskovo District, Bulgaria
Cromlech near village Dolni glavanak, Haskovo District, Bulgaria | Source

Cromlêh

A cromlêh is a megalithic altar-tomb, made of rough stone. They are distinguished from dolmens by being located within a stone circle. William Borlasedenoted the terminology in 1769. A good example is at Carn Llechart.

Tumulus

The long barrows consist of an earthen tumulus, or "barrow", sometimes with a timber or stone chamber in one end. These monuments often contained human remains interred within their chambers, and as a result are often interpreted as tombs, although there are some examples where this appears not to have happened.

Inside one of the Chambers of the barrow
Inside one of the Chambers of the barrow | Source

Stone circle

A stone circle is a monument of standing stones arranged in a circle. Such monuments have been created in many parts of the world throughout history for many various reasons. The best-known tradition of stone circle construction transpired across the British Isles and Brittany, France in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

Stonehenge, Amesbury, United Kingdom
Stonehenge, Amesbury, United Kingdom | Source

Taula

A taula (meaning 'table' in Catalan) is a Stonehenge-esque stone monument found on the Balearic island of Menorca. Taulas can be up to 3.7 metres high and consist of an upright pillar (a monolith or several smaller stones on top of each other) with a horizontal stone lying on it. A U-shaped wall often encloses the structure.

This is a taula from the site of Talatí de Dalt about 4km west of Maó.
This is a taula from the site of Talatí de Dalt about 4km west of Maó. | Source

Passage grave

A passage grave or passage tomb consists of a narrow passage made of large stones and one or multiple burial chambers covered in earth or stone. The building of passage tombs was normally carried out with megaliths and smaller stones; they usually date from the Neolithic Age.

Tustrup-dysserne, the largest passage grave in Eastern Jutland, is an example of Funnelbeaker culture circa 3200 BC.
Tustrup-dysserne, the largest passage grave in Eastern Jutland, is an example of Funnelbeaker culture circa 3200 BC. | Source
Trilith in Stonehenge
Trilith in Stonehenge

Trilithon

A trilithon is a structure consisting of two large vertical stones supporting a third stone set horizontally across the top. It is commonly used in the context of megalithic monuments.

Stele, Ogham stone in Ratass Church, Ireland
Stele, Ogham stone in Ratass Church, Ireland

Stele

A stele is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected in the ancient world as a monument. Gravestelae were often used for funerary or commemorative purposes. Stelae as slabs of stone would also be used as ancient Greek and Roman government notices or as boundary markers to mark borders or property lines.

Damb

A damb is a type of archaeological mound (tumuli) found in the Baluchistan region of Iran and Pakistan.

Megaliths of Carnac: Introduction". menhirs.tripod.com. Retrieved 2010-05-06.

Sheridan, Alison. "Megaliths and Megalomania: An account and interpretation of the development of passage tombs in Ireland". The Journal of Irish Archaeology. 3: 17–30.

William Borlase (1769). Antiquities, Historical and Monumental, of the County of Cornwall. S. Baker and G. Leigh. Retrieved 12 April 2013.
Cope, Julian (1998). The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-millennial Odyssey Through Megalithic Britain : Including a Gazetteer to Over 300 Prehistoric Sites. Thorsons Pub. p. 281. ISBN 978-0-7225-3599-8.

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