People are generally amazed by the pyramids of Egypt and by Greek and Roman temples. Impressive as they are, you can find another way to appreciate human use of stone. While some might call them primitive, I experience pure awe at the sight of wedge tombs, ring forts, and portal tombs.
Many of these are older than the pyramids, and their architectural forms seem to have grown organically from the earth in harmony with the surrounding environment. You can find over 90 such structures in the Burren, in northwest County Clare, Ireland.
This is a large area (approximately 250 square kilometers) of limestone pavement that looks how one might imagine the surface of the moon. Of the many Neolithic structures, the most famous is the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a portal tomb between 2700 and 4500 years old.
The twelve-foot-long capstone of the dolmen is supported by two portal stones that raise it to 6 feet in height. A low sill stone crosses the entrance, which faces north. The size of the dolmen, relative to others in the area, suggests that it had great significance to the residents of the area and probably belonged to the family of a high-ranking chieftain.
In Irish Poll na mBrón means “hole of sorrows,” which reminds us that this is a place where the dead were buried. Excavations in 1986 and 1988 revealed that 16-22 adults and 6 children had been buried beneath the dolmen. The archaeologists also found a polished stone axe, a bone pendant, quartz crystals, weapons and pottery.
The discovery of a Bronze Age era skeleton of a newborn baby buried outside the entrance indicates that the Poulnabrone Dolmen was the focus of ritual and religious ceremony into the Celtic era.
Dolmens, wedge tombs, and other Neolithic architectural forms exist in many countries. While we can’t be sure if their purposes were similar, it’s remarkable that people in the Middle East, Russia, Sweden, India, Korea, and other farflung places, created such structures.
To stand or sit near the Poulnabrone Dolmen and contemplate it offers the chance to feel connected both to humans who lived here several thousand years ago and to those around the world who acted on the impulse to build simple but powerful stone structures that symbolized something deep within them.