Tinkinswood Burial Chamber

IMG_6997 (1)Tinkinswood is a stonking big burial chamber by any stretch of the imagination. OK, maybe not in the same league as Maeshowe in the Orkneys, or New Grange in Ireland. But it’s still impressive. The only downside is that unlike the burial chamber at nearby Maesyfelin it does stand out as well. It’s not clearly defined on the brow of a hill. It lies there hulking, surrounded by trees that detract from its impact on the landscape. It seems to sulk in the shadows, and it’s only until you stand next to it does the size of the stones really impact.

 

Tinkinswood Burial Chamber 091217
Showing the forecourt and the east face of the chamber.

But how big is it? Let’s get a few statistics out of the way first. Built approximately 6000 years ago makes it all the more remarkable how they managed to shift the stones into position. Especially the cap stone, weighting an estimated 40 tons and measuring 7.4mx4.5m (or in old money 24x15ft) 1,2. No cranes in those days, and as a chap who struggles to use a wheelbarrow I’m in awe of these early engineers and the ingenuity and sheer ‘grunt’ that would have been necessary to source, transport and place these massive stones. How about a few more facts then. The chamber is thought to have been about 1.5m high, which may have allowed any ceremonies conducted inside to be help while standing upright 1,2. The cairn is then surrounded by a mound that today measures 40 x 18m (130 x 59ft), and may have coved the chamber as well. That represents a great deal of community planning and effort to raise such a monument.

Tinkinswood Plan
The plan of the chamber and surrounding mound (1).

Tinkinswood is more famous than neighbouring Maesyfelin, and seems to have attracted more attention maybe because of it’s size. Though I have to admit that Maesyfelin remains my favourite of the two. Over the years locals have used the surrounding mound as a quarry for stones, with the consequence the mound itself was ill-defined by the time it was formally excavated in 1914 by John Ward.  The excavation showed that it was built in the Severn-Cotswold tradition with a clearly defined forecourt facing east. The use of the chamber as a quarry has meant that the massive uprights supporting the capstone on the south side has disappeared. But the excavation revealed a dry stone wall revetment delineating the mound. This wall may have been as high as 1.3m3. This was rebuilt by Ward after the excavation in places in a Herringbone manner to distinguish it from the original. The capstone and uprights are local limestone and mudstone, and probably came for very nearby. There is a potential quarry site very near to the tomb to the north east,  but recent excavation does not support this4.  It has also been suggested that some of the stones may have been laying on the ground surface3.

Tinkinswood Burial Chamber 091217
View of the Southside of the chamber clearly showing the missing stones that would once have lined this side and support the capstone.

Ward’s excavation found a large quantity of human and animal bones. It’s been estimated that these represent at least 50 individuals, of which 8 a certainly juvenile, 16 male and 21 female1,3. Recent research carried out by the Cardiff University has indicated that the bones date from around 3700 cal. BC, which is relatively early in the sequence of chambered tomb construction and use in south-west of Britain4.

Tinkinswood Burial Chamber 091217
After the 1914 excavation Ward build a concrete pillar inside the chamber to support the massive capstone.

Neolithic pottery was also found during the original 1914 investigation of the chamber, some of which was found in the forecourt area. There is also evidence that the site has been used for many years with the discovery of fragments of Beaker style pottery from the late Neolithic3. Other finds include worked flint arrow heads. It also seems that the chamber has been used as a shelter during the early Iron Age and Romano-British extending into the Medieval periods. The whole area has been occupied over time, leaving reminders of past generations. A bronze age barrow has been excavated in the field next door4. But a look at the Ordnance Survey map shows many more links to the ancient past in the wider area.

After nearly 6000 years of existence it’s a shame to find out that there are some ignorant individuals around who really don’t or can’t appreciate the spirit of the place. In May of this year visitors witnessed a couple burning material inside the chamber itself. When challenged they seemed incapable of understanding the damage they were doing5. It just beggars’ belief sometimes. But this remains a special place for some. Each time I’ve visited there is always a votive offering, often a posy of flowers, left near the forecourt entrance.

Now of course I can’t finish this without introducing a couple fo local legends about Tinkinswood. The ancient structure is also known as Castell Carreg (“Stone Castle”), Llech-y-Filiast (“Slab of the Greyhound Bitch”) and Maes-y-Filiast (“Field of the Greyhound Bitch”). The latter two names is reminiscent of one of the names of Maesyfelin Chamber, less than a mile away, and may indicate that the chamber was once used as a kennel. But beware anyone who spends the night in the chamber alone on the nights before May Day (1 May), St John’s Day (23 June), or Midwinter Day. Anyone doing so would either die, become insane, or become a poet. Another legend says that a group of large boulders to the southeast of the site were once women who were punished for dancing on the Sabbath by being turned to stone.

  1. Nash, G. The Architecture of Death – Neolithic chambered tombs in Wales. (Logaston Press, 2006).
  2. Whittle, E. A Guide to Ancient and Historical Wales: Glamorgan and Gwent. (H.M. Stationery Office, 1992).
  3. Grimes, W. F. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Glamorgan: Volume 1: Pre-Norman Part I the Stone and Bronze Ages. (1976).
  4. Reynolds, F. A Site’s History Does Not End: Transforming Place through Community Archaeology at Tinkinswood Chambered Tomb and Surrounding Landscape, Vale of Glamorgan. J. Community Archaeol. Herit. 1, 173–189 (2014).
  5. Outrage at treatment of Tinkinswood ancient site – a letter to The GEM | News | The Barry Gem. Available at: http://www.barry-today.co.uk/article.cfm?id=113400&headline=Outrage at treatment of Tinkinswood ancient site – a letter to The GEM&sectionIs=news&searchyear=2017. (Accessed: 7th January 2018)

 

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