DOLMENS ("stone table" in Breton, from dol, "table," and men, "stone"), ancient chambers built of a number of undressed vertical stone slabs (orthostats), usually weighing several tons, supporting a single flat capstone. In its original state the dolmen was covered over with a heaped-up mound of earth or small stones retained by an external ring of stones (tumulus). The disappearance of the encompassing mound since antiquity has given dolmens their typical table-like appearance. The stone chambers were intended to contain human remains and as such dolmens are regarded as places of burial. The dolmen is the most common of a series of monuments of proto-historic date called megaliths (structures built of massive undressed stone blocks), notably stone circles, standing stones (menhirs), and cists in cairns. Dolmens have been found across the world (see Joussaume) indicating that this form of burial was reinvented in different cultural centers. The idea that dolmens reflect patterns of diffusion (e.g., G. Elliot-Smith, who believed that the megaliths of Europe were built by wandering Egyptians) is no longer held by scholars. Burial in dolmens, or within stone cairns or tumuli, is characteristic of the southern Levant during much of the late fourth and third millennia b.c.e.
They are characteristic of regions where the geology does not provide natural caves or where the rock is difficult to quarry. Dolmens usually appear in groups ("fields") and they number in the hundreds. Some of the best examples are known from the Golan Heights and Transjordan (where there are fields of between 300 and 1000 each). In Palestine most of the dolmens have been found in the north, with isolated examples known further south (e.g., at Yiftahel). However, cairn and tumuli burials are known in southern Palestine as well, but their stone-built burial cists lack the monumental orthostats and massive capstones of the dolmens. An interesting field of tumuli with cist burials of this sort was investigated at Ramat ha-Nadiv in the Carmel Hill range. The oldest dolmens in the Near East are said to come from el-Adeimeh, 9 miles (15 kms.) southeast of Jericho, which was believed by Stekelis to be the cemetery of the Chalcolithic site of Tuleilat Ghassul, but there is uncertainty about this dating and they are more likely to be from the Early Bronze I. A series of extraordinary dolmens was investigated at Ala Safat in Transjordan, some of which had chambers that were accessed through stone slabs hewn with portholes. These too are dated to the Early Bronze Age. A correlation between the distribution of dolmen fields and Early Bronze Age settlements was pointed out by Vinitsky for the Golan. In the Golan a major study of dolmen fields was undertaken by Epstein, who noticed five types based on methods of construction and on the state of their preservation. Previous studies on dolmens have concentrated on typology, function, and date, but in-depth studies of dolmen landscapes have yet to be undertaken and may very well reveal evidence for various forms of social stratification. At er-Ramthaniyyeh in the Golan, for example, one "free-standing" type of dolmen existed within a field which otherwise only had tumuli-dolmens. Variation in monument type has also been noted by Greenberg within the dolmen fields of the Transjordan, as well as within the tumuli field at Ramat ha-Nadiv, suggesting the existence of a hierarchy within the populations they served. The general consensus of opinion is that dolmens served populations from a non-sedentary pastoralist background. Dolmens are notoriously difficult to date. The earliest artifacts found in them are dated to the Intermediate Bronze Age (eb iv; circa 2000 b.c.e.), but it seems likely that they were periodically reused or rebuilt for burial purposes throughout the protohistoric period, beginning with the Early Bronze i (late fourth millennium b.c.e.) and culminating with the Intermediate Bronze Age which was probably the last period in which the practice of dolmen construction persisted; this would account for the fact that most of the artifacts (mainly weapons, pottery, and some jewelry) found in dolmens date from this period.
M. Stekelis, Les monuments mégalithiques de Palestine (1935); F. Turville-Petre, "Dolmen Necropolis Near Kerazeh, Galilee," in: Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement, 64 (1931), 155–66; D. Bahat, "The Date of the Dolmens Near Kibbutz Shamir," in: iej, 22 (1972): 44–46; C. Epstein, "Dolmens Excavated in the Golan", 'Atiqot (English Series), 17 (1985): 20–58; K. Yassine, "The Dolmens: Construction and Dating Reconsidered," in: basor, 259 (1985), 63–69; R. Joussaume, Dolmens for the Dead: Megalithic-Building Throughout the World (1988), 251–58, Chap. 9: "The Near East"; M. Zohar, "Rogem Hiri: A Megalithic Monument in the Golan," in: iej, 39 (1989), 18–31; C. Dauphin and S. Gibson, "Ancient Settlements in their Landscapes: The Results of Ten Years of Survey on the Golan Heights (1978–1988)," in: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, 12 (1992–1993): 7–31; L. Vinitsky, "The Date of the Dolmens in the Golan and Galilee: A Reassessment," in: Tel Aviv, 19 (1992), 100–12; R. Greenberg, "The Ramat Hanadiv Tumulus Field," in: Y. Hirschfeld (ed.), Ramat Hanadiv Excavations (2000), 583–614.
[Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]