Early Neolithic 4000 BC -> 3300 BC
I was in Cardiff this weekend for the Europa Conference on People, place and time in Neolithic and Chalcolithic Europe and took the opportunity to visit two burial chambers I had been wanting to see for some time, Tinkinswood and St Lythans. They are about two and a half miles apart and easily accessed from Duffryn Lane not far from St Nicholas, six miles west of Cardiff ( OS map references ST 092733 and ST 100722, respectively).
Both monuments are managed by Cadw and have rather fun wind-up interpretative audio guide units on site that give a decent background summary in a choice of Welsh and English covering the topics The Neolithic Period, The Tomb Builders, Building a Tomb and Explore and More. Be warned though: the audio content is much the same at both sites with just a few subtle detail differences in the second topic.
The archaeology bit
Tinkinswood was constructed in the early Neolithic period around 6000 years ago and when it was excavated in 1914 it was found to hold the remains of more than 50 people along with pottery fragments and worked flint. The capstone (more of which in a moment) weighs around 40 tons, which is around the same as an articulated lorry, apparently. It poured with rain during my visit and naturally I sought shelter within the chamber which gave me chance to marvel at the vast roof and how it could have been raised into its position all those years ago without the help of modern machinery – and to be grateful that after the excavations a supporting pillar was added. At that time also the outside walls were re-clad in a herringbone style which I also saw a few weeks ago at Stoney Littleton (see previous entry). Outside the chamber is a stone-lined pit, the function of which is unknown although it has been suggested that bodies were collected or processed there, perhaps excarnated (defleshed), prior to deposition in the chamber itself.
I found St Lythans to be the more photogenic of the two monuments although it was challenging in the heavy downpour that persisted pretty much until I left. It is known locally as Gwal-y-filiast which translates rather wonderfully as ‘the kennel of the greyhound bitch’ and it does have a bit of a doghouse-like feel to it. In fact, in the 19th century it was used as an animal shelter and I can testify that it was quite fitting as a human shelter on the day of my visit. The chamber, which also dates back to the early Neolithic, is only a small part of the original monument, some of the remainder of which is just visible from the gate to the field and apparently measures around 24 metres long by 11 metres wide. The capstone here weighs 35 tons and the chamber as a whole has a pleasing dolmen appearance even though it would originally probably have looked more like the earthen-clad Tinkinswood tomb. Similarly, human remains and pottery were recovered from the site during antiquarian investigations. Whereas Tinkinswood is situated on a level and fairly unobtrusive location within the present day landscape, St Lythans is more impressively and visibly located on a hill top and its lack of mound has the effect of making it stand out all the more.
Returning to the capstones and the Europa conference, a project is currently under way by Dr Vicki Cummings of the University of Central Lancashire with Professor Colin Richards of the University of Manchester looking into Building the Great Dolmens of Britain and Ireland. It seems that a dolmen can be defined as ‘a careful way of displaying a big stone in a distinctive way’ that ‘sometimes also creates a burial space’ and one thing that has been found in sites investigated so far is that the capstones may have originated at the location of the dolmen and been raised above supporting stones in situ rather than being transported in from elsewhere. Examples of this are Pentre Ifan and Carreg Samson in Pembrokeshire which, when excavated, were found to lie within big pits thought to have been the original location of their capstones. As well as in west Wales there are concentrations of dolmen in Cornwall and much of Ireland and it will be very interesting to see how this research pans out particularly in terms of the potential interpretations concerning the significance of special locations and monuments in the Neolithic.
As the rain was setting in at Tinkinswood I did wonder if I would end up having to spend the night there. Had I done so and it had been the night preceding May Day, St John’s Day or Midwinter Day, according to folklore, I would have either died, gone raving mad or become a poet. Also, had I danced there on the Sabbath, I could have ended up being turned to stone like the other poor women who now stand silently as boulders south of the tomb. At St Lythans meanwhile it is said that the field it inhabits is cursed and nothing grows there (this certainly doesn’t affect the grass however which was knee-high and thriving when I visited). Had I visited on Halloween I could have wished for anything and had it granted by the stones so I must remember to return on 31 October to do that. Meanwhile on Midsummer’s Eve the capstone is said to spin three times, which I would love to see. This is my favourite bit of folklore for St Lythans, another Welsh name for which is Maes-y-Felin which translates as ‘The Mill in the Meadow’.