Like any other science, Archaeology uses a jargon that can be difficult to understand. This is a basic glossary for all the specific words normally used in books and websites devoted to megalithic monuments.
More or less straight row of standing stones
Allée couverte
See gallery grave
In the form of a human outline
The study of astronomical practices amongst ancient societies
Two parallel rows of standing stones or a grand ceremonial way bordered by ditches and banks of earth leading to a ceremonial centre such as at Stonehenge
Round or long mound of earth over burial chamber or deposit. Many different shapes and often surrounded by a ditch. A long barrow is an extended tumulus, an unchambered long barrow is a long tumulus without a burial chamber, and a chambered barrow is a tumulus containing a tomb, generally megalithic
Acronym for Before the Common Era, Before the Christian Era, or Before the Current Era. Date notation equivalent to BC (Before Christ).
Beaker people
Continental people who first entered Britain around 2600 BCE, their name coming from the distinctive and elegant pots that were often buried with the dead under round barrows. They may have been the first metal-users in the British Isles
The name given to the mixture of stones, mainly of dolerite, probably from the Preseli mountains of Dyfed, used at Stonehenge
Round tower-like drystone structure, confined mainly to the North and West of Scotland, and dating to the Iron Age
Alloy of copper (dominant) and tin or lead
Bronze Age
Period from around 2200 to 800 BCE, after the Neolithic and before the Iron Age, characterized by the use of bronze for the manufacture of tools and weapons
Burial chamber
The burial or funerary chamber is a stone or wooden construction greater than 2 x 1 externally and 1 x 1 m internally: these measurements distinguish it from the cist. The chamber usually contains collective graves, either inhumations or cremations; a single internment is much rarer
Round or long mound of stones, often covering chamber or burial (sometimes used for earth mound). Clearance Cairns are mounds created by clearing agricultural fields of stones
Cairn Circle
Ring of stones surrounding a cairn
Acronym for Common Era (CE), Christian Era, or Current Era. It is the equivalent alternative to AD (anno Domini, Latin for "in the year of the Lord").
Horizontal stone on top of chamber, passage or dolmen; dressed or otherwise
Chambered cairn
Chambered tomb covered with stones
Chambered tomb
Common form of tomb, comprising orthostats, sometimes with interstices filled with drystone walling, and megalithic capstone over burial chamber approached by passage
Small box-like square or rectangular burial place
Court cairn
Kind of long chambered tomb occurring in northern Ireland and SW Scotland. Generally more elaborate than horned cairns
Three standing stones, one at the back, two at the sides like an unroofed sentry-box
Lake dwelling, built on a small island which is often at least partly man-made
Burning of the dead, before burial or disposal. Ashes often placed in urns
A dolmen in Wales; a stone circle in France
Cup mark
Cup shaped depression carved out from stone. Often grouped together, they are the result of a repeated ritual gesture of unknown significance
Form of Neolithic burial practice in which limbs were separated from bodies before final interment. It is not clear whether the bones were first defleshed, or whether fresh corpses were dismembered
Simple megalithic burial chamber with three or more uprights and one or more capstones
Drystone walling
Walling built without any cementing material. The stones are arranged carefully in courses, with many smaller stones filling the gaps between
Gaelic for fortified place. To archaeologists meaning a small drystone fort, usually dating to the Iron Age or later, and found mainly in the west of Scotland
Entrance grave
Sometimes called Undifferentiated Passage Grave; no distinction between passage and chamber, within round mound
The practice of exposing corpses to the elements, perhaps on some kind of specially constructed platform
Setting of upright stones flanking the entrance to a chambered tomb
The two stones which adjoin the prostrate stone in a recumbent stone circle. The flankers are often the tallest stones in the circle
A hard glassy rock which flakes easily and can be worked to produce a sharp cutting edge. Used in prehistoric times for the manufacture of tools and weapons such as scrapers and arrowheads
(Cornish for cave). An artificial underground passage, usually by English and Irish prehistoric settlements and fortifications. It runs just below the surface of the ground and it is roofed with massive stone slabs. Its purpose is still unknown
The space in front of the concave façade of certain British, Iberian or Italian monuments. See also Giants' Tomb and court cairn
Gallery grave
Stretched rectangular megalithic burial chamber, beneath long mound
Giants' Tomb
(Italian: Tomba di Giganti),very long third-millennium megalithic tomb built in Sardinia, covered with blocks and with two wings on either side of the curved façade. Access to the monument is through a low entrance in a large sculpted stone
Grave goods
Funeral offerings placed inside or near a tomb. They are often the only means of establishing the time of construction of a monument, as the oldest remains are taken as being the nearest to that time
Stone, often a river or beach pebble, which has been used as a pounding tool. Identified by patches of damage on one or both ends
Head stone
The stone slab in the wall of a megalithic chamber which faces the tomb entrance
Almost unique Late Neolithic British earth enclosure of bank and ditch (usually internal). Class I has single entrance; Class II has two or more entrances. Apparently used for ceremonial purposes
Hilltop enclosure fortified by one or more ramparts and ditches. Many contain the outlines of huts and were probably defended villages
Horned cairn
Partly enclosed façade of cairn; it can be at front and back
Burial of dead body (as opposed to exposure or cremation). Position may be extended, flexed or crouched, and prone, supine or on side
Term used to show the mutual visibility between sites, usually with the corresponding style of monument. May indicate a social and political relationship between neighbouring monuments and their people
Iron Age
Final period of prehistory, beginning around 500 BCE and lasting into the early centuries of the first millennium AD. Iron superseded bronze as popular material for the manufacture of tools and weapons
Ring of retaining stones against mound or cairn base
A stone across the top of two uprights like those on the sarsen circle and the trilithons at Stonehenge
From the Greek: "great stone"; sometimes wrongly used to describe megalithic monuments
Breton/Cornish word for single standing stone, but sometimes used loosely for other megalithic monuments. 'Men' means 'stone' and 'hir' means 'tall' or 'upright'
Middle Stone Age, between Paleolithic and Neolithic, from around 7000 BCE to 4500 BCE
Single stone block, monument or pillar. This word comes from the Greek monos(one) and lithos(stone)
Visual expression describing the vast imposing presence of a monumnet. The area of the tomb with maximum monumentality is usually that of the façade area. Here visual impact is greatest
Of either earth or stone pebbles, generally covering a burial chamber or deposit
Multivallate Hillfort
Hillfort defences formed by a series of banks and ditches
Period when settled farming superseded nomadic life, from around 4500 BCE to 2200 BCE
In Sardinia (Italy), a tower built in Cyclopean style, either simple or complex. It is the equivalent of the Corsican torre, and dates from the third millennium BCE
Very hard volcanic glass used for tools. It can be dated by measurement of thickness of its hydration layer on surface
Ogham (ogam)
Ancient alphabet, in which letters are formed of parallel lines which meet or cross a base-line. Possibly of Irish origin
Large stone or slab, set vertically in a structure
Old Stone Age, begins around 500.000 years ago and ends with the Mesolithic around 7000 BCE
Passage grave
Passage (sometimes with lateral chambers) leading to a broader burial chamber, often roofed, within round mound (which may be kerbed). Façaded forecourt entrance common
Stone slabs on passage and chamber floors. In a megalithic tomb, paving stones superimposed on each other may indicate several phases of use
Portal dolmen
Rectangular burial chamber which is narrower and lower towards back, with two portal stones at entrance. Mainly Irish and Welsh
Portal stones
Large stones forming the entrance to a structure, usually a tomb
Circular hole, often in entrance stone to chambered tomb, or made by semi-circular holes in facing contiguous stones. Also in orthostats and capstones Some writers refer to the hole of the spirit to indicate the symbolic function of the port-hole through which the soul of the dead could come and go
Promontory Fort
Hillfort formed by defending neck or natural promontory, inland or coastal
Cornish name for burial chamber or dolmen
Large bank of earth or stones or both forming the defence of a fortified site such as a hillfort
Recumbent stone circle
Unique Scottish and Irish circle with one large stone lying horizontally between two uprights
Stone wall designed to hold an earth rampart
Ring Ditch
A circular shaped monument, very smiliar in structure to a henge. Many have been discovered to be ploughed-out barrows
Rock-cut tomb
An underground monument hollowed out of solid rock, and generally designed to take a collective burial. Rock-cut tombs are frequently found in the Mediterranean basin
Sandstone lying on Wiltshire Downs, in England; used for Stonehenge and Avebury, though not exclusively
Fine-grained rock, altered after formation by heat or pressure or both, so that mineral content is in roughly parallel layers. It can therefore be split into thin plates
A design carved or chipped out on the slabs of Breton tombs. It is a highly version of an antropomorphic figure
Flat thinnish dressed stone
Stalled Cairn
Tomb-type found in the Orkney Islands which is very similar to the gallery grave design. The main chamber usually runs the length of the cairn and has lateral slabs (stalls) projecting from the chamber wall. These stalls divide the tomb into compartments whilst also supporting the high roofing slabs
Standing stone
Lone vertical stone; see Menhir
Monolith of modest size (less than 75 centimetres high) with one face only decorated with cut-away carving or low relief sculpture
Stone circle
Ring, which may not be circular, of spaced or contiguous standing stones; sometimes roughly (and very rarely completely) dressed
Stone row
Sometimes alignment. Line of regurarly spaced standing stones
From the Latin tumba, meaning a burial stone, simple or monumental. Generally it is used in very broad terms to denote megalithic graves
A structure made up of three stones: two uprights and a horizontal lintel. Three trilithons stand within the sarsen horseshoe at Stonehenge
Latin for mound or barrow; generally covers a burial, in a chamber (as in French use of word) or not
Wedge tomb
Irish type of chambered tomb which tapers slightly from entrance inwards beneath mound; sometimes with parallel outer walls either side
Many megalithic mounds in the southern Iberian peninsula, Sardinia and the British Isles present a concave façade with its two extremities ending in extensions known as wings or horns. They define a partly enclosed space descibed as the forecourt of a horned cairn. See also court cairn and Giants' Tomb.