Random notes on the travels of a Welshman who has been allowed out to play after finishing his chores. OK so I don't travel with my Aunt, but I am usually under the adult supervision of my long suffering wife.
Hidden in a hollow in the landscape behind Tyn-y-Coed Farm is Capel Garmon Burial Chamber. This is of the Cotswold- Severn type of chamber, an unusual design for this area of Wales, and has created some debate on why it so far north.
The first excavation was undertaken by the then Ministry of Works in 1924. Late for such a monument as the antiquarians usually had a go in the 18th and 19th centuries. But something had to be done as trees were growing out of the mound, and damage caused in the 19th century by the tomb having been used as a stable. Following excavation the outline of the tomb was marked with stones showing the size of the mound.
The size of the cairn that covered the tomb would have measured 27m long and 13 m wide, and narrows towards it’s western end. The wider eastern end is thought to have had a false entrance, and the two arms would have created a forecourt that could have been used for ceremonies. It is this forecourt area that makes it similar to the Severn-Cotswold group of chambers further south.
Most of the burial mounds in Wales are aligned north-south, but Capel Garmon is orientated east-west. This suggests that migration of people or ideas from further south along with local practices may have influenced the design and siting of the cairn here.
The passage into the tomb leads to a divided space from which branches of to two other chambers. Excavations did not reveal many findings, probably because the chamber had been cleared to allow it’s use as a stable. A single piece of Ebbsfleet pottery was found in the passage, unworked flints and a a human bone were also excavated. The monument could have been in used for over 1500 years as two late Neolithic/early Bronze Age beakers were also found.
There is only one capstone remaining, but this is impressive in it’s size. I have no idea how they would have moved these massive rocks into place. The organisation and effort would have been tremendous. Despite the time since it was built, and the deprivations it has been exposed to, it is still possible to see the quality of original dry stone walling of the main chambers.
There are not many places where you can find evidence of more than 5000 years of continual human activity in such a small area. But on the eastern coast of Angelsey there just such a place. 5000 years set out in stone and human endeavour, both spiritual and pragmatic. Today Lligwy, hidden up a narrow single track road that only adds to the sense of isolation, is a group of buildings that include a Neolithic burial chamber, an Iron Age village and an old abandoned church.
Neolithic megalithic tomb chamber, comprising eight stones of differing shapes, all supporting a massive capstone, 5.9m by 5.2m and 1.1m thick. The capstone is estimated to weight 25 tons. The tome constructed over a natural fissure in the rock so that the chamber had a height of about 2.0m. The shear size of the capstone and the fact that it is built over the fissure gives the tomb a squat appearance. There is no trace of the original cairn, although over the centuries soil has crept up around the stones. The chamber was excavated in 1909, when two layers of deposits were recorded, separated by a layer of paving. The deposits contained unburnt bone, human and animal, pot sherds and some flints and the upper deposit was covered by a layer of limpet shells. Between fifteen and thirty individuals were represented in the tomb chamber. Some of the pottery appears to be Bronze Age and at least one of the layers may represent the re-use of the tomb (1).
About 400m away, hidden in a small woodland is another amazing find. The secret here is a small settlement with the foundations of the round huts, and perimeter wall still visible. Huge upright slabs of stone create the entrances to each building. When this was occupied is still not absolutely clear. Din Lligwy is a later Prehistoric type walled settlement set on the summit of a limestone plateau close to its precipitous northern edge. The internal buildings were cleared from 1905 onwards when significant quanties of Roman material were recovered, mostly of the late third-fourth century (2).
There are two circular buildings within the walls. Excavations within the hut areas revealed coins, pottery, glass and a small silver ingot (3). The other rectangular buildings may have been workshops or animal shelters.
The perimeter wall cannot be considered defensive and the settlement probably belonged to a farming community. That said the clearly defined outlines of the huts and other buildings can, with a little imagination, give a picture of how people lived so long ago. In fact the place feels much older than the 4th Century, and may well be as shards of flint have a been found on site. This is hardly surprising considering the proximity of the burial chamber.
As you walk from the road to Din Lligwy you pass Lligwy Chapel in the field to your right. This is now a ruin, but in its setting it is difficult to ignore as it over looks Lligwy Bay to the north. It’s close proximity to bothe burial chamber and Iron Age settlement adds it its gravitas. Little is known about it’s origins and dedication as the written history is very sparse. The oldest parts of the chapel date from the first half of the 12th century, and it is mainly built of rubble stone, with very little dressed so tone visible in its walls.
Following years of Viking raids many churches on Anglesey in north-west Wales were built in stone and the Norman influence also dictated more permanent buildings as they sought to gain control of the island. It has been suggested that the chapel may originally have been a memorial chapel, or connected to a royal court nearby (4). Though after the Normans gave up trying to secure the island Gruffudd ap Cynan (d 1137) and his successor Owain Gwynedd (d. 1170) built many churches on the island, and Capel Lligwy fits in with this time frame (2). Equally it may have been built to serve an expanding population in medieval times (5). Despite this, it seems to have remained as a chapel of ease rather than become a parish church in its own right. There may be something in this theory as there are no burials around the church.
That said the 19th-century antiquarian Angharad Llwyd claims that a fox had once taken shelter in the ruins, and when it was dug out, a vault was discovered, “containing several human skeletons, which crumbled into dust, when exposed to the air”. She added that further exploration of the vault then revealed “a large mass of human bones, several feet in depth” (6). Whatever the history, it is just that now – history. Despite the fact that we live in a world of access to instant fact and disinformation, there are still mysteries that Amy never be fully explained. Now where is my time machine?
A few weeks ago Aunty and I were careering around West Wales adding to our list of 100 things to do in Wales and our last expedition of the week was a short walk up into the Preselli Hills. These hills are. It especially high, or difficult to climb, but they do have a mythical past and may have been important to the people who,lived here during the Neolithic period. Evidence of this is still present in the number of cromlech scattered around the area, and especially Pentre Ifan. However, it is thought there is more to these hills. The stone outcrops visible throughout the area are thought to be the origin of the Bluestones used in Stonehenge.
Now Stonehenge is nowhere near the Preselli hills. It’s about 180 miles away in fact. The second and most dramatic stage of Stonehenge started around 2150 BC when about 82 bluestones were used in its construction. It been acknowledged for some time that the likely source of the bluestones is the Preseli mountains. Recent advances in geological,sciences have been able to pinpoint the origin of some of the stones specifically to Carn Goedog. A paper published by Bevans and Pearce provide evidence based on compatible element geochemistry and Principal Component Analysis’ which has recently been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests that although there are at least two geographical sources in the Preseli Hills and perhaps more, Carn Goedog is the source of the numerically largest group of dolerite orthostats. Carn Menyn, for a long time the favourite site for the spotted dolerite bluestone quarry, was found not to be a match for any of the Stonehenge bluestones.
So how did the stones get from here to there?
There are two main theories. One proposed and supported by Brian John and discussed in a series of lectures proposes that the stones were carried from West Wales towards the Stonehenge area via a Glacier that flowed eastwards up the Severn Estuary. When the glaciers melted the stones were left in situ. The bluestones were then collected from around the area and used in the earlier stages of Stonehenge.
The more mundane theory of carriage of the stones by glacier is feasible, but I preference the heroic version that has these stones, some weighing 4 tonnes each, dragged on rollers and sledges to the headwaters on Milford Haven and then loaded onto rafts. From here they were carried by water along the south coast of Wales and up the rivers Avon and Frome, before being dragged overland again to near Warminster in Wiltshire. The final stage of the journey was mainly by water, down the river Wylye to Salisbury, then the Salisbury Avon to west Amesbury. This astonishing journey covers nearly 240 miles. Once at the site, these stones were set up in the centre to form an incomplete double circle. But a reconstruction recently showed exactly how difficult this would have been with the technology available during the Neolithic period.
I supposed you make your own choice on how they really were transported. Either by by nature or man. Which ever way it happened, the remoteness of the hills is striking, along with the views over the sorrounding valleys. As ever in The Welsh hills the weather can change. One minute the sun was shining and the next the wind came up and it rained hard, only for the sun to come out again five minutes later.
Bevins, RE, Ixer, RA and NJG Pearce. 2013. Carn Goedog is the likely major source of Stonehenge doleritic bluestones: evidence based on compatible element geochemistry and Principal Component Analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science
Tucked away on a small, narrow road in northern Pembrokeshire is the fantastic Neolothic Cromlech of Pentre Ifan. It is arguably one of the most spectacular tomb within Wales. I have to admit to being a little sneaky with this one. Aunty is not a great fan of Neolithic Tombs, and so while we were driving around The Pembrokeshire National Park we just happened to be passing. Built about 5500 years ago, the community commitment must have been significant during its construction. However, today we cannot know what inspired its design, nor the function to which it was put.
It is situated near the top of a gently sloping hill above the river of Afon Nyfen, nestling under the Presili Hills where the bluestones used in Stone Henge originated. The size and height of the capstone are easy to gauge with Aunty standing underneath. The capstone is over 16 feet long and based upon my bias that Neolithic people were backward and possessed a poor understanding of engineering, I can’t for the life of me guess how they raised this behemoth onto the supporting uprights.
It has been suggested that the monument, temple, call it what you will was built in two stages. The first phase included only the capstone, uprights and a small low cairn. The second phase then enclosed the whole into a mound that stretched down hill. However, this is controversial and there is no evidence that this is so, and it could equally have been built in one go (1).
Cadw have produced a neat CGI video with an interpretation of how Pentre Ifan may have looked when it was complete. Click here.
Like so many other mystical places the Wales Pentre Ifan has been linked with stories tell that the Tylwyth Teg (Fair Folk of Faeries) may be seen dancing about Pentre Ifan, appearing as little children dressed in clothes similar to soldier’s uniforms and wearing little red caps.
And of course not surprisingly Pentre Ifan isn’t without its Druidical connections, it was believed to have been one of their favourite places in all the land. In the oak groves there was a tradition that there was once a flourishing pagan school for neophytes and rather than being used for burials or sacrifices the dolman, when fully enclosed, became a chamber of initiation – the interior being called the ‘Womb or Court of Ceridwen.’
1: Nash, G. (2006) The Architecture of Death. Logaston Press.
Hidden behind the school in small village of Dyffryn Ardudwy is one of the largest Neolithic ritual burial monuments in north Wales. On a west facing slope it comprises two east-west orientated, portal dolmen-type chambers that open up-slope to the east.
The chambers are set within a well-defined phased cairn, which is roughly trapezoidal in shape and aligned SW-NE. When taken together this is an impressive site, and when covered fully by the stones must have been an impressive sight. One clearly designed to awe the visitor, and emphasise the distinction between the land of the living and the after life.
This monument was first excavated in 1960 and was one of the first where multi-period building was recognised and was central to the understanding of the portal dolmen group in the UK and Ireland (1). Portal dolmens are the most common type of tomb in this part of Wales. They stand in the centre of farmland, a focus for the community almost like parish churches of today. The forecourts belonging to the two chambers are oriented eastwards towards the uplands of Merionethshire.
Archeologists have identified two clear construction phases, each phase comprising a chamber and associated cairn. The earliest section of the monument was the smaller western chamber, probably originally a portal dolmen incorporated into an oval or round cairn mound, similar in morphology to nearby Gwern Einion. The first monument phase — the western chamber — comprises a rectangular stone chamber 2.5 m × 1 m which is closed-off with a blocking slab (forming a distinctive H-plan setting). Both the chamber and the forecourt area were enclosed by an oval cairn measuring c. 8.5 m × 9 m. East of the blocking slab are the remains of a well-defined V-shaped forecourt that contained what seems to have been a shallow pit. Within the pit were found Neolithic shards belonging to several vessels.
To accompany the earlier western chamber was a larger eastern chamber, located around 10 m to the north-east. This is a large trapezoidal cairn constructed of rounded boulders made from water-lain local Palaeogene and Neogene rocks (referred to as the Cambrian grits) and measuring 28 m × 15 m, encloses both chambers and the original western oval cairn. When excavated no bones were found in the older western chamber, and those in the eastern chamber came from a Bronze Age cremation burial placed there at a later date. Two small finely polished plaques made from Mynydd Rhiw stone were found in the eastern chamber. Their purpose remains unclear (1).