The Stone Age: Architecture & Structures

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Have you ever looked at the massive structures of the Stone Age and wondered ''why did they build that?'' If so, read this lesson to learn more about popular Stone Age architecture and the purpose of the various structures.

Stone Age Architecture

Have you ever made card houses, precariously placing each card on thin supporting cards - and usually knocking them all down in the process? Imagine doing this with slabs of rock. Now imagine doing this with slabs of rock that weight up to 100 tons! This is how the Stone Age people built a lot of their structures - though not quite as haphazardly as stacking cards. Let's take a look at how and what Stone Age people built during the first period of human history.

Henges

These first people primarily used stone for building - which is where the age gets its name from - but also used wood, clay, mudbrick, and limestone. The Stone Age is often remembered for the use of megaliths, or quite literally, huge rocks. These megaliths are found in a variety of structures, most notably in Stonehenge, the massive henge in Britain that has up to 25 ton megaliths. But Stonehenge is not the only one of its kind. Henges, simply circles of stone or wood usually in a circular ditch, are quite common in the Stone Age and seem to have had some kind of religious or astronomical significance.

Illustration of Stonehenge
Illustration of Stonehenge

Dolmens

People focus on Stonehenge so much, in fact, that they often forget there are other Stone Age structures all over the world. One of these types is the dolmen, which is your basic card-house structure that has two (or more) supporting pillars with a capstone on top. Dolmens is a wide category as it includes a variety of different structures, which we will talk about briefly. The dolmen with the largest capstone is the Brownshill dolmen in Ireland, with a capstone weighing about 100 tons - about 16 elephants' worth!

The Brownshill dolmen

Dolmens were often connected to one another using a cairn, or hand-made rock pile, kind of like a long rock fence. While dolmens themselves have two pillars supporting the capstone, some have two pillars at the front that create a doorway of sorts, and these are called portal dolmens. Scholars are not entirely sure how dolmens were built since Stone Age people did not have cranes or other technology, but think they probably used rope and cattle to hoist the huge capstones on top of the other rocks: how they kept the pillars from falling is another question.

So what is the purpose of a dolmen in the first place? Most scholars agree that dolmens were used as burial chambers for the Stone Age people. What better way to protect your dead than to pile giant rocks on top of them? Dolmens with multiple chambers for burial are called passage tombs and were common through Europe and Britain in the Stone Age. Barrows, in particular, which are simply passage tombs covered with an earthen mound, are interesting to study. The longest barrow is the East Kennett Long Barrow which is as long as a football field!

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