Passage graves, statues and standing stones: megaliths and social identities in prehistoric Scotland and Ireland

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Richard Bradley


This paper contrasts two ways of thinking about the passage graves of Scotland and Ireland and the relationships between them. The first considers their characteristic structure in terms of architectural style, chronology and distribution. It seems that these features are closely integrated with one another, and in the past this method has led to the idea that the people who built the monuments formed part of a single network. That approach has much in common with Childe’s conception of a culture. For many years it was employed in discussion of monuments on either side of the Irish Sea. An alternative approach is to consider the meanings that could have been attached to particular structural devices. The feature that  connects many of these monuments is the use of standing stones, either as components of the kerb delimiting a cairn, or as a ring of freestanding orthostats enclosing the other elements. These stone settings are rarely discussed, but comparison with the evidence from other parts of Atlantic Europe suggests that they could have been regarded as statues, even though they lack obvious anthropomorphic elements. The same idea is present in British and Irish folklore. It raises the possibility that there were conceptual links between these different styles of architecture and that they lasted over a considerable period of time, during which individual sites were modified and reused. Thus the factor that links these different monuments may have been the idea that rings of upright stones stood for living creatures. Whether they ‘represented’ particular figures in the past, ancestors or mythical beings we shall never know, but the use of these images on both sides of the Irish Sea could have fostered a shared identity among the people who used these monuments.

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How to Cite
Bradley, Richard. 2010. “Passage Graves, Statues and Standing Stones: Megaliths and Social Identities in Prehistoric Scotland and Ireland”. Journal of Neolithic Archaeology 12 (2).