Having got on a roll with dolmen Pic(s) Of The Days, I decided to put some little-known examples from Spain into the mix (also, I wanted to get something there on the Pic Of The Day Map).
Spain is rich in Neolithic remains. Here I present dolmens in the Parque Megalítico de Gorafe. The “Gorafe Megalithic Park” and surrounding area is home to 240 dolmens. Most are rather un-sensational, but they preserve a range of types in the development of megalithic tombs. And the open-access park itself is a model of cultural heritage preservation for an isolated collection of easily destroyed monuments, and for presentation with durable, unintrusive signage.
The most impressive dolmen in the park is number 134, some 40 m below the canyon cliff edge, but still about 100 m above the Rio Gor.
Number 134 combines elements of various megalithic tombs. It appears to be a mashup of dolmen, wedge tomb, and passage tomb features.
I don’t think you get this on the bus tour; but there is a nice dirt road along the canyon top, and a car pull-off below with a trail up to number 134 (along with 132, 133, 135, and 239).
Because I am about to attend the “Celtic Worship” service at University Baptist Church, I decided to make an additional brief POTD post of domens in Ireland, as a continuance to what has now become a short series of dolmen pics. But are they dolmens? North European megalith-admirers have a lot to work with and have created an array of categories, such as the “portal tombs” featured in yesterday’s post.
Perhaps the most wide-photographed “dolmen” in Ireland is more officially known as Poulnabrone Portal Tomb. Resembling the form of most Middle Eastern dolmens, it stands majestically in the weird landscape of The Burren, in County Clare. Portal tombs have entrances flanked by tall megaliths supporting the roof, and Poulnabrone fits that description. The parallel sides of the chamber, however, are constructed of multiple megaliths while Jordanian examples usually have a single stone on each side.
You might well see Poulnabrone Portal Tomb on a bus tour, but off the main road over the hills but not far away are other “dolmens” even more evocative of the ones in Jordan. An example is the Parkanbinnia tomb (above). These are called “wedge tombs” because the sides generally converge slightly away from the entrance—which is too low to enter standing and, presumably, thus does not rate the designation “portal.”
Finally, moving to the east side of Ireland, the Brownshill Dolmen has the largest capstone known. It is also officially a portal tomb.
Brownsville Portal Tomb is also easily reached by passing bus tours. But you should still get a car . . .
Ballykeel Dolmen is off the beaten path (making it a “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” listing), nestled between some residences outside of Newry, Northern Ireland. The site is protected and fenced with a gate an explanatory sign (more portable than intended on our visit), but it is underappreciated and visited only by those that know they want to go there.
The dolmen lies at the east end of a cairn (pile of stones and dirt) that was built up to and around it in antiquity. It proved a pleasant spot for a sunset picnic dinner in May 2016 with a former student (then studying at Trinity College, Dublin). Takeaway fish and chips (from Fiships in Camlough, Newry) hit the spot!
Unlike middle eastern dolmens, which are almost universally “trilithions” made from two parallel vertical slabs and another spanning their tops, Ballykeel and many other so-called “portal tombs” in Ireland have a tripod of megaliths supporting the roof slab with one pair of supports forming the entrance “portal.”
If you ever visit Ireland, do it with a car. That way you can find and enjoy great out-of-the-way and mysterious sites like Ballykeel Dolmen.
Dolmen scholar James Fraser’s work was featured in a Jordan Times article yesterday that I shared on Facebook earlier today. In his honor I present this related POTD post. Dolmens are megalithic structures known in northern Europe and elsewhere, but are especially numerous in hills adjacent to the Jordan River, particularly (and almost exclusively) on the east side in the country of Jordan.
These dolmens have been variously interpreted, but are almost certainly tombs dating to the Early Bronze I period (about 3700-3000 BC). Under this interpretation, the mystery is why some, but not all, Early Bronze I settlements have dolmen fields nearby.
David Maltsberger and I conducted the Irbid Region Dolmen Survey, Jordan, in 2012-2013, with a primary interest in dolmen orientation. During the work, I concluded that dolmen construction was determined by the type of bedrock present (and suspected that orientation was largely a function of the terrain and slope). David and I met James Fraser when we presented our study at a conference. He was finishing a dissertation on dolmens and kindly shared his research with us. It has now been published as Dolmens in the Levant, PEF Annual XIV, 2018.
Fraser beat us to the punch on the geology issue and added the astute observation that dolmens were used as family tombs for EB I settlements in areas of hard bedrock, while other EB I settlements carved family tombs into their softer geological substrate. There is one place where both types of tombs exist side-by-side; at Dahmiyah, overlooking the Jordan Valley.
At Dahmiyah, a number of dolmens have “porthole” entrances (above), in which a framed opening is carved through the closing slab. This feature doesn’t make much sense functionally. But this odd entrance mimics the openings of nearby carved cave-tombs from the same period. In other words, it represents a cultural continuity even with a change of tomb type.
Unfortunately, difficult access does not prevent exploitation of the hillsides there. The area is now a quarry —the tragic fate that threatens many dolmen fields (that hard bedrock is still in demand). Indeed, dolmens are disappearing from the landscape at an alarming rate . . .
While scanning for high ground from which to get a better overview pic of the Belevi Monument, my adventure companions and I noticed something odd about the adjacent hilltop. It had a very uniform dome-like summit, as would be expected for a man-made tumulus . . . but tumuli generally are built up on flat ground rather than on top of a natural hill. Yet, it seemed that a ring wall surrounded the uniform summit . . . or was that a natural rock outcropping? Zooming in with photographic technology made it obvious: we had to climb the hill, heat and limited time notwithstanding.
A quick review of resources indicated just enough water for the anticipated rigor of the climb and to avoid a time-killing return to the vehicle. Up we went.
Sure enough, a wall surrounded the summit; so well-built that we wondered if it could be modern. But clambering up the last steep bit to the base, we could see that it was ancient and of elegant quality. Climbing over the wall would be difficult and of uncertain gain at that point (on the E side), so we split up and walked around the circuit.
Tumuli are built so as to obscure the entrance for tombs contained therein, so we were not hopeful. But Shane, who went clockwise, found a tunnel opening on the south, enclosed and originally concealed by the circuit wall but now accessible.
Finding an entrance was very exciting but unexpected. As the Belevi Monument did not require underground exploration equipment, we were without proper lights and, in my case, a good camera for unlit tight spaces. Still, the tunnel beckoned and in we went.
The tunnel was constructed, apparently, by cutting down from above and then lining the passage thus made with masonry and roofing it over with large cut slabs before debris was piled and rounded above. This nearly straight and level passage led for about 20 yards (18.3 m) to an anteroom space and two successive burial chambers—the second at approximately the center of the tumulus. Unfortunately, the sides and roof of the tunnel were coated in a greasy black soot, which evidently came from a burned tire. What moron would lug a tire up this hill and then torch it in the tunnel? This can only be explained by Rule One.
So, blackened by the tire fire residue, we arrived at the burial chambers. The first is approximately square with fine stone walls featuring “crown molding” along the tops. The roof is formed by four large blocks laid across the corners as though a second tier of wall masonry was rotated 45 degrees. The effect is somewhat like the recessed ceilings popular in recent American home construction. While it is very interesting in appearance (and hard to photograph) its structural function relieves pressure on the thus-reduced roof space.
A problem in tumuli, pyramids, cairns, and other big piles over chambers is the resulting pressure on the roof slabs of the latter. The same problem occurs for any spanned space with significant structural loads. The arch is the most common way of dealing with this from the Roman period on.
Another technique is found in the innermost burial chamber of the Belevi Tumulus, which is smaller and more rectangular. It has a “corbelled arch” roof, in which each successive course of masonry is slightly inset to the center. In this inner chamber, a hole in the roof gave access to a relieving chamber above. From it a small tunnel led to another relieving chamber over the outer burial chamber. Relieving chambers are another way of “relieving” roof pressure, as they are slightly smaller and help transfer to the load to the walls rather than the roof of the chamber below. The most famous relieving chambers are those in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Such chambers are usually not visible and provide potential hiding places for treasure. It is likely that the holes giving access to the relieving chambers at Belevi were created by treasure hunters, whether ancient or modern.
Access to the relieving chambers through the hole in the center of the inner chamber roof was a challenge—imagine the scene in Moana, where she escapes the cave through such a hole! For us it was only possible by boosting, using each others’ shoulders as a ladder, and wriggling through the tight hole (I split open an elbow and resolved to lose some girth). Given the coating of black tire tar, we did not emerge as deftly or cleanly as Moana. Getting back down was a tad more exciting still. In case anyone wonders, there was no physical treasure, but the exploration itself was a priceless enriching Adventure.1
The Belevi Tumulus (38.0142° N, 27.4675° E)
True enrichment only comes with learning, so it was incumbent upon the Adventurers to research the site. As it happens, the tumulus was known already in the 19th century and sporadically investigated by Austrian and German archaeologists between 1933 and 1971.2 The date of the tumulus remains uncertain, but the early Hellenistic period seems the most probable. Thus, it is roughly contemporary or slightly earlier than the Belevi Monument below.
A nice quarry from which stones for the tumulus’ construction were taken can be seen near the entrance passage. Great skill went into the design of the circuit wall, as the stones of lower courses have grooves on their upper surface into which bosses on the bottom of the higher courses fit. This feature prevented outward collapse from the force of the tumulus bulk inside and above the wall—another engineering marvel of this well-constructed tomb!3
A scatter of squared blocks on the summit of the mound suggest a monument stood there, high above the local terrain. But to whom? There is no sarcophagus or inscription to identify the owner. Clearly a person of some import, they remain unknown and without even the speculations that accompany the occupant of the Belevi Monument over which their final resting place silently looms.
Thanks for reading!
1 Shane McInnis, so enthralled by the experience, made a pronouncement claiming the tumulus as his own.
2 See (in German), Sandor Kasper, “Tumulus von Belevi,” Archäologischer Anzeiger (1975): 223-32.
3 See (in English!), George L. Bean, Aegean Turkey 2d ed. (London: Benn, 1979), 149-50.