Prehistoric Architecture



Stonehenge / Wikimedia Commons


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

The term prehistory references the period before history was written down, prior to any kind of written explanation of culture and civilization.  This discussion covers architecture during the period we call the Late New Stone Age.  This is a very small segment or cross-section of prehistory.  Prehistory basically covers the Old Stone Age, Middle Stone Age, and New Stone Age (Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic ) periods, as well as portions of the Bronze and Iron Ages.  These ages refer to the materials with which tools were made during those periods.  So the earliest tools were made of stone and then people developed bronze and iron metal tools.  The Three-Age System was developed by Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, who was able to use the Danish national collection of antiquities and the records of their finds as well as reports from contemporaneous excavations to provide a solid empirical basis for the system. He showed that artifacts could be classified into types and that these types varied over time in ways that correlated with the predominance of stone, bronze or iron implements and weapons.1

How did people live and build before this period?  An architectural typology references a building type is usually an architectural form related to a function, such as train stations, airports, churches, schools, etc.  It involves the same type of architectural form repeated for a specific use.  Before the Old Stone Age (100,000-50,000 years ago), there were two basic typologies – caves and temporary dwellings.

Caves were natural rock-cut shelters.  They were not man-made.  They were natural forms usually created by the erosion of water in natural bedrock.  These are the earliest examples of human dwellings.  They had irregular forms as a result instead of any kind of regular or especially purposeful geometry.


Map of Lascaux Cave Interior Layout2

Lascaux02  Lascaux03

Lascaux Cave Paintings, c.40,000 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

The most famous caves – the Lascaux Caves – are in southwestern France.  We know these caves were inhabited by humans because of the paintings within them of the animals that were part of their daily life, which are prominently displayed in the paintings.  Images of themselves and their hands are also on the walls.  So they recorded their lives on the inside of these caves.


An artist’s rendering of a temporary wood house, based on evidence found at Terra Amata (in Nice, France) and dated to the Lower Paleolithic3

The second type of prehistoric building was a more temporary dwelling.  These were wood, tent-link structures made of wooden poles and branches covered with grass or animal hides.  These were light and easily constructed and dismantled.  They were used by people on the move, by nomads (hunters-gatherers and early pastoral people).

So what happened roughly about 10000-9000 BCE as people entered the Neolithic Period, or New Stone Age?  There were important climate changes – a considerable general warming of the Western European climate.  This is one of the things that led to people changing the way they lived.  As the climate got warmer, they were able to start farming.  These environmental changes led to social changes as well.  They had to stay in place to farm instead of being nomadic so that they could grow seasonally in cycles.  This led to stability and community development.  Also important was the domestication of animals to become part of the workforce.  These two things (climate change and animal domestication) led to a communal life.  This is when we see new types of buildings and construction.  The most basic was human shelter, and also just as important were sanctuaries (places of religious reference or commemoration).  Sanctuaries were temples or tombs (remembering the dead).  So the three different types of buildings at the time were houses, tombs, and temples.

Buildings were constructed markers of human dominance over nature.  Important to remember is that architecture reflected a change in the social environment in the form of communities.  Architecture is an expression of social change and position.  Nothing is created in a vacuum – we rely on, draw from, and become a part of our history.  The most famous cave structure in southwestern France, as previously noted, is Lascaux.  The interior is now closed to the public to prevent ruining the paintings.

Carnac01  Carnac02

Carnac Menhirs / Wikimedia Commons

The earliest examples we have of menhirs (enormous vertical stones) are in Carnac in Northwest France, which we see here in rows.  Menhir is the local word for “long stone.”  They are monolithic stones, meaning each stone is only one stone and not constructed of several in layers.  They are usually 16-30 feet high, the highest being 67 feet from the ground.  They date to 1500-1000 BCE and were erected with human and animal strength.

Mehirs are often placed into the landscape in rows such as seen above, though we don’t know why this was done.  We can only draw inferences as best as possible.  They may have been used for agriculture or to define boundaries in the natural landscape.  We only know that they did not naturally appear in this manner and required human intervention.  They still exist on farmland and are now protected.  Sometimes they are constructed in circles, such as these in Attlebury, England, or Stonehenge in Salisbury.  These are important markers of scale.

Dolman01  Dolman02

Dolmen in Ireland (left) and Dolmen Barrow in Portugal (right) / Wikimedia Commons

Menhirs were also manipulated by taking two vertical menhirs and placing another horizontally atop them – often repeated in a circle or line.  This created a dolmen – two vertical menhirs supporting another laid horizontally over them.  These usually indicated tomb locations.  They would often be covered with a mound of Earth, known as a barrow.  These created a kind of sanctuary, a form of commemoration of the dead.  This is very interesting architecture because it reflects a sense of community as well as a sense of the unknown – what happens after death.  Hidden under these barrows were “houses for the dead.”  There was a very important structural system used here – the post-and-lintel system.  We use the same words today for the sides of the door (jambs) and the piece or structure over the top (lintels).  This remains the most common structural system today.

Stonehenge01  Stonehenge03

Stonehenge Close View (left, Wikimedia Commons) and Wide View with Ditch (right)4

Stonehenge is still one of the most mysterious structures in the world.  It is still being excavated, and we do not know what its function truly was.  It probably had numerous functions.  It is a monument in ruin today in southern England near the town of Salisbury, about 30-40 miles west of London in a relatively flat plain.  It was built over the course of many years, from 2750 to 1500 BCE, in different phases.  There is a large circle, and the circle is defined by a ditch.  The entire circle is approximately 320 feet in diameter.


Stonehenge Plan5

The circle was dissected by an axis.  This is a combination of circular and axial (linear) planning.  The circle is broken by a street originally lined by menhirs.  The heelstone was a single menhir that stood alone, also surrounded by a small ditch.  This is oriented specifically to the sun.  On the summer solstice (the longest day of the year), the sun rises over the heelstone.  The most basic organization of such structures was based upon what people saw happening in the sky.  Things on the ground are related to the cosmos – the sun, moon, and positions of stars.  There are also four holes marked by four stones in a rectangle that represent the rising and setting of the moon.


Stonehenge “Altar” / Wikimedia Commons

At the very center was an altar (as we reference it) with the altar stone that must have had some kind of spiritual significance, surrounded by a circle of stones and five dolmen menhir structures.  The outer circle was a series of post-and-lintel structures, and the inner altar area contained the same structure types in a horseshoe shape around the altar and opening to the sun around the summer solstice as the axis goes through the center.  These are 25-30 feet tall, and there are many theories as to how the stones were moved to this location after being quarried in Western England near Wales.  The menhirs were likely erected with animal power and rope-and-pulley systems.  Scaffolding was likely built around each stone so that the lintel stones could be raised above them.  These stones were relatively crudely quarried and carved, but they have also been weathered with age and exposure to the elements.


Mortise-and-Tenon Joint / Wikimedia Commons

Optical refinement was used to account for the human eye and how people see scale.  Each lintel is slightly angled in, wider at the top and angled at the bottom.  At certain distances it gives the impression of being vertical instead of angular.  The vertical menhirs were also angled so that they were wider at the bottom and smaller at the top.  The lintels were not simply placed on top of the menhirs but were attached using mortise-and-tenon joints.  Each of the vertical menhirs has a tenon and each of the lentils has two mortise holes to fit atop the tenon to provide stability.  This shows sophistication in the construction.

The site is off-limits today and people must walk around it.  It open once per year on the summer solstice.  It will likely not be restored but simply preserved for protection.  It was an open-air observatory with no evidence that it ever had any type of roof or covering.  Burials have been uncovered within the circle and cremations were known to occur, indicating that it was also a funerary site.  It is also thought to have been a place of healing, which was very common in early historic structures.  It was useful for predicting seasonal changes as well.  It may also have been part of a ritualistic celebration of nature and the circle of life.  These multiple uses indicate both practical and spiritual/religious functions.

Stonehenge06  Stone Henge, Wiltshire, engraved by Robert Wallis 1829 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Stonehenge Painting by John Constable (left) and Engraving by Robert Turner (right) / Wikimedia Commons

As the name implies, this is a henge monument, and there are many others (though this is the most well-known today).  Others exist as well in various locations.  There are many remnants on agricultural land all over Southwestern England still today.  The henge was a construction typology as well.  It has inspired many artists and there are many renditions, particularly in the 19th century such as from John Constable and Robert Turner who were inspired by the romantic nature of the ruins (particularly the sky as seen dramatized above).  The painting and engraving present a mysterious quality that reflect the unknown construction and the folklore of it.


Village des Bories, France / Wikimedia Commons

In southern France is a complete reconstruction of what a village might have looked like in roughly 2000 BCE based upon fragments collected and studied by archaeologists and historians.  The village is known as the Village des Bories, from Latin boarium (a stable for oxen).  However, these types of structures were used for everything.  They were used for both human and animal shelters as well as for storing grain and food.  They have a beehive shape in the same form as their ovens at the time.  Each of the structures was made of local stone (relatively thin and small, quarried locally).  They are roughly laid in horizontal courses (a course being a horizontal layer of stone).  They were not perfectly laid because they were not perfectly cut and had to be laid and fit together as best as possible.

Bories02  Bories04

Bories Stone Hut Interior (left) and Corbeled Arch (right) / Wikimedia Commons

To get this beehive shape, they corbeled the stone.  A corbel is a stone that projects out slightly from the wall.  They corbeled each layer slightly inward to create a fault vault.  In architecture, a vault is a curving masonry surface.  Masonry would comprise a curving stone or brick ceiling.  The stones were corbeled, and there was a large stone placed at the top to close it (a capping stone).  No mortar was used as there was no cement.  This was dry construction and the walls stand because of their own weight (gravity).  This was done for all domestic structures, some as high as fifteen feet wide and twenty feet high.  Shelves, as well as fireplaces, were made by cutting into the thickness of the wall.  Everything necessary to live in a village communally used this technique.


A Malta Temple Complex / Wikimedia Commons

Also of note are the prehistoric temple complexes in Malta.  The one shown here used a combination of corbeled and post-and-lintel construction, two types of structural systems previously mentioned.  This is a large complex of numerous rooms arranged around an axis.  There were spaces outside of each structure that curved in a space called an apse:  a curving space most commonly seen in later church architecture.  It was where the altar was placed in the church at the end of the aisle.


Malta Temple Complex Post-and-Lintel Threshold / Wikimedia Commons

This series of curving spaces (apses) had thresholds leading from one space to the next.  Each apse contained an altar, and there were niches in the wall for offerings where rituals took place to celebrate nature, fertility, the dead, healing from the power of the temple, etc.  These were not homes or tombs but instead were structures used as temples and dedicated to their gods and goddesses – the supernatural, those things outside of Earth that they felt controlled their lives.  These were constructed by exterior and interior walls of large irregular blocks with rubble filling between them.  There was no exterior decoration as the focus of their temples was on the inside, not the outside.  These temples are marked by a post-and-lintel system and the walls were created by using corbeling to create corbeled vaults for each space.


Malta Temple Complex Stone Decoration / Wikimedia Commons

Stones in the thresholds were decorated in celebration of moving from one space to the next.  Sometimes to the posts-and-lintels were pitted or with floor-level stones decorated, as seen above.  Decoration was centered on thresholds to mark one space from another on the inside as opposed to the outside.  Think of these as constructed caves – architecturally built caves.  They were constructed and planned cave-like spaces, likely taken from the idea of caves with hidden interior spaces.  Natural formations (caves) were designed and shaped here by humans into a regularized, repeated pattern generated by a series of lines (axes).

Prehistoric architecture consisted of three primary building types that were and still are fundamental to architecture:  1)  Houses (residences of the living);  2)  tombs (residences of the dead and the world beyond, the unknown);  and 3)  temples or sanctuaries (residences of the gods/goddesses or divinities, those unknown entities that seem to control the world around us).


1Peter Rowley-Conwy, From Genesis to Prehistory: The Archaeological Three-Age System and Its Contested Reception in Denmark, Britain, and Ireland (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 22.

2Claude Bassier, “Lascaux Cave Topographical Layout”, Les Témoins de la Préhistoire,, 2014.

3Boundless, “Paleolithic Architecture”, Art History Volume I: Prehistoric-1400 (New York: Boundless, 2014).

4Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe, “Stonehenge”, Sacred Places, Sweetbriar College, (Accessed 2012).

5Gareth Pollard, “Odessa History”,, 2004.

From a lecture by Dr. Nora Laos, Lecturer of Architectural History, University of Houston (09.09.2013)