Irish Portal Tomb


Newgrange (courtesy of

Avebury Henge - which has 2 stone circles!

There were 3 main phases of circle building:

Phase 1(before 3000 BC): circles from this time period tended to be over 33 yards/30 meters in diameter.  
A majority from this phase were located on the hillsides around the Irish Sea.  Typically there was a single
wider gap to mark the entrance.  Some also had a single standing stone outside the ring.

Phase 2 (2600 BC): the stones from this era have rings which are more perfected than were creatd in the
first phase and the circles were less consentrated on the Irish Sea.  Rings like The Ring of Brodgar in the
Orkney Islands and Stanton Drew in England were over 98 yards/90 meters in diameter.  Styles ranged from
from simple single rings to concentric rings.  The number of stones used varied from area to area.  Some
contained avenues which lead into the circle or circles.

Phase 3 (2000BC-900BC): by this time fewer stone circles were built, and they were not on as grand a
scale, generally.  Many stone cirlces were completely abandoned by 900 BC.




Neolithic Megaliths-
Size Does Matter

Because of size, and the use
of stone, Megaliths (lit.:  Big
Stones) are the most
common remain from these
Neolithic peoples.
Bronze Age Megaliths -
more than just tombs
Celtic Contributions -
Forts and Ceremonial
Court/Cairn Tombs:
These are the oldest of the
Neolithic monuments.  It is
simply a multi-chambered
tomb covered with earth.  It
generally faces East, has an
external courtyard and were
used for multiple
generations.  The name
stems from a court area from
which the tombs itself is
accessed. In Ireland formerly
known as horned cairns.  
(Ireland, Scotland, Wales)
Single Burial/Cists:
These are very simple
graves - a pit filled with the
deceased's ashes or body
and maybe some pottery.  
The simplicity of these
graves, and the reduced
occurrence of megalithic
graves, implies a more
egalitarian society.
(Ireland, Scotland, Wales)
Hilltop and Promontory Forts
Most of the Kingdoms (or
Tuath in Ireland) had
hilltop forts which may
have been used as
permanent residences for
the leader or just for
emergency purposes.  
They are typically built on
a hill or a cliff and
surrounded by a stone
wall. Some also refer to
these as Oppida. (Ireland,
Cornwall, England,
Portal Tombs:
Also called dolmens, they
consist 3 or 4 tall side walls
with 1 or 2 huge capstones
on top.  The capstone
generally leans one
direction, leaving one side
open which had been
covered by a smaller stone.
(Ireland, Wales, Scotland,
Wedge Tombs:
They have a single
entrance, which usually
faces South-West. They
are most commonly found
in Connaught, Munster,
Ulster and the northern
part of County Clare in
Ireland.  Much of the time,
they were in the uplands,
where many of the more
pastoralists and their
flocks inhabited, before
the bogs.  (Ireland)
Also called duns, these are
unique to Scotland; they
are considered round
tower fortifications by some
archaeologists and homes
to others.  A typical Broch
is about 65 feet in diameter
with walls that are 10 feet
thick.  These 10 foot thick
walls are actually hollow
with flat storage spaces.  
There are usually stairs
leading to higher floors,
but most are not well
enough preserved to see
these upper levels.  They
are consistently located
near farm land and water
and can easily be
defended.  They were
probably a way to also
demonstrate social status
of specific families.
Passage Tombs/Mounds:
They are comprised of a
central chamber with a
passage leading into it
covered with an earthen
mound.  They tend to have
art; the walls inside and out
have swirls, eye-patterns and
other designs.  Newgrange in
County Meath (see right) is
one of the most famous
examples. (Image from )   Many of
these tombs and mounds
have large stones
surrounding and inside them
with carved images of
zig-zags, spirals, triangles
and others possibly
representing the sun and
moon.   The passage tomb at
Knocknarea in County Sligo
is the legendary burial place
of Queen Medb (Ireland,
England, Scotland, Wales)
A henge is a circle in the
earth; we assume they
were used for ceremonial
purposes.  They are
created by scraping out
the center of a circle to
form a ridge on the
circumference.  Many
henges show organized
cremation of animals as
well as the use of wooden
and/or stone posts.  
(Ireland, England)
Royal Sites:
Emain Macha, now Navan
Fort, is an excellent
example of this type of site.
 This is a circular
enclosure, 143 feet in
diameter, with a mound in
the center.  This specific
site was the seat of power
for the Ulaid. (You may
recognize the name of this
tribe from Cu Chulainn,
who was a king of Ulaid.  If
you don't, then be sure to
check out our Pantheon
page!) The enclosure had
circles of wooden poles
which were taller as the
neared the center and the
roof over the whole was
thatched. (Ireland)
Long Barrows:
These are some of the
earliest Neolithic burial
mounds; very simply they are
communal graves used
between 4000-3000 BC.  
They are typically 99 feet
long with walls of chalk.  
People were laid to rest in
their own side chambers,
facing eastward. (England)
Round Barrows:
These are circular
mounds, typically used to
bury community leaders.  
They are often several in
a line off of a Neolithic
Long Barrow.  There are
quite a few different
subsets of the round
barrow.  The first three
are bell  bowl and disc
barrows, all of which have
a mound surrounded by a
ditch.  The names
describe the shape of the
mounds.  It has been
theorized that disc
barrows are usually for
women and the bell ones
for men.  The other 2
remaining types are pond
barrows, which have a
depression carved out of
the center and are
surrounded by a bank,
and saucer barrows which
are just flatter and
surrounded by a ditch.
Underground cellars,
specifically found in
Orkney, typically have long
underground passages
which lead to a round
chamber. The purpose is
still unknown. (Scotland)
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Stone Circles and Rows:

What this term
describes is self-evident,
but some of their aspects
may not be.  Some circles,
especially in Ireland, had
tangent rows of stones.  
Others had concentric
circles or intersecting
circles (between the
henges and the circles,
did you ever think that
geometry class would be
so handy?).  Since I
assume you want to hear
more, specifically about
Stonehenge, click here.  
(England, Ireland,
Scotland, Wales)

Ritual Stones:
Towards the end of the
Pre-Roman Celtic era an
increasing number of 7
foot tall carved stones are
seen.  They are commonly
covered in the traditional
swirling, spiral patterns.
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Irish Portal Tomb
Although some date to the
bronze age, others date to
the Neolithic period.  
These are basically rows
of standing stones.  They
are generally aligned in a
NE-SW pattern like Bronze
Age wedge tombs. In
Ireland, 3 stone
alignments are the most
common. (England,
Ireland, Scotland)
An underground,
man-made, stone lined
passage. Archaeologists
have no standard theory
on why they were made.  
The word is from the
Cornish for cave.  
(Cornwall)  Please feel free
to check out the picture
from Chris Tweed at

The basic forms used to decorate
megalithic monuments (left to right)

  1. dot/cupmark
  2. line
  3. circle
  4. quadrangle
  5. arc
  6. zigzag
  7. wavy line
  8. spiral
  9. oval

Picture courtesy of Chris Tweed


Neolithic Irish Court Tomb

Other Unusual Monuments/Stones

Lia Fal - "The Stone of Destiny". Originally next to Newgrange, it has been moved about 400 feet from presumed original location.
Gwidden-Ganhebon - according to the Welsh Annals "The Triads of the Island of Britain", on these megalithic stones you can read the arts and sciences of the world.
The Stone of Enigmas - lost to us in the modern world, but these same Welsh Annals state the great astronomer Gwydionap Don was buried here.

Ffynnon Rhedyw - the oldest known sacred well sites in Wales.  It is located in in Llanllyfni, near Caernarfon.  The Gwynedd Archaeological Trust is working on restoring the site, creating information boards, etc. in 2006.  This was an important site, and in fact was a pagan pilgrimage spot en route to Bardsey island.