Tag Archives: chambered tomb

The Dwarfie Stane

?Neolithic 4000 -> 1800 BC


Beautiful Hoy

The Dwarfie Stane is an enigmatic rock-cut tomb located on the beautiful island of Hoy in the Orkney Islands.  Hoy is the second largest of the islands at 57 square miles and has a wonderfully unspoilt feel to it.  The north and west of the island are hilly and reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands and the landscape quite takes your breath away when you first encounter it, particularly on a sunny day when the light and colours look quite magical, as they did on the day I visited.  Hoy, meaning ‘High Island’ from the old Norse ‘Haey’, is reached by ferry from Houton on the mainland.  A short drive, taking in Betty Corrigall’s grave en route (see link below), brings you to a small, signposted area of off -road parking and across the road a short walk through the heather, much of it boarded, brings you to a large and conspicuous lump of sandstone.


The archaeology bit

The Dwarfie Stane

The Dwarfie Stane

The sandstone block measures 8.5 metres long by 4 metres wide and 2 metres high. It is potentially the only example in Britain of a rock-cut tomb.  I say ‘potentially’ because its actual origin and purpose is much debated, although the Historic Scotland interpretation sign in situ favours its Neolithic credentials. Unfortunately, there are no reported finds from the site and no excavation has been recorded. Typologically it resembles examples elsewhere in Europe of Late Neolithic rock-cut tombs, such as those in Portugal and Sardinia.  Equally though it is thought it could perhaps result from Bronze Age endeavours, and another possibility is that it was a much later Christian hermit’s retreat.  Location-wise it would seem to suit all of the above as it is situated alone within a valley amongst imposing hills and beneath a large rocky outcrop known as the Dwarfie Hammars. Its size and stony form stand out within the surrounding expanse of heathland and the Dwarfie Stane would have been easy to locate and impressive within the landscape in prehistoric times, as it is now.  Equally, its isolation would have served a hermit well.

Side chamber with 'pillow'

Side chamber with ‘pillow’

Whatever the original purpose of the chamber, it comprises an entranceway measuring around 1 metre square off which there are two chambers, one one either side. The one on the right-hand side notably contains a built-in stone ‘pillow’ resembling those seen in saints’ beds in Northern Italy.  It is not known whether all the features of the Dwarfie Stane are contemporary and it has been suggested that the ‘pillow’ was the work of a 19th century stonemason and geologist called Hugh Miller who carved his initials in the right-hand cell during a visit. There is also a large slab of sandstone outside the entrance which previously blocked it and indeed there are records of the tomb having been sealed in the 16th century. Of course, we can’t be sure when it was first blocked or how many episodes of sealing and unsealing there may have been over the centuries or millennia. It is certainly a sizeable block of stone though and moving it would not have been something undertaken lightly (as it were).

The Dwarfie Stane & Dwarfie Hammars behind

The Dwarfie Stane with the Dwarfie Hammars behind

If the Neolithic origins are given credence it would have been a hugely impressive feat to have hollowed it out with nothing but stone and antler tools. A supporting view for a Neolithic origin of the stone comes from Audrey Henshall who in the 1950s and 60s, in conjunction with Hampshire-born Professor Stuart Piggott (mentioned in my previous entry on Petersfield Heath), conducted an extensive survey of the chambered tombs of Scotland. She described the Dwarfie Stane as ‘the ultimate devolution within the Bookan sub-group of Orkney-Cromarty chambered cairns, rather than evidence for direct contact with the Mediterranean, where similar tombs exist’.

Historic graffiti

Over the years many people must have visited the Dwarfie Stane for one reason or another. As well as Mr Miller the stonemason, another known visitor was Major W Mounsey, a former British spy in Afghanistan and Persia, who spent a couple of days and nights there and left his mark in the form of Persian graffiti that can be seen to this day saying, ‘I have sat two nights and so learnt patience’ along with his name in Latin. The stone is even mentioned in Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate.

More recently, the Dwarfie Stane has been included in a study of the acoustics of Neolithic monuments by Dr Aaron Watson and the Monumental Creative Heritage Interpretation team with some interesting results. People listening on the roof of the stone perceived the stone itself to be shaking at some sound frequencies generated within but it is thought this was illusory. Furthermore, loud sounds produced outside the stone echoed ‘like thunder’ in the surrounding landscape. These findings open up fascinating possibilities for how such experiences may have been understood and exploited in the Neolithic and their role within their surroundings. More information on the project can be found via the link below.


Legend has it that two giants were imprisoned in the Dwarfie Stane by a third one who wanted to be master of the island of Hoy. However one of the imprisoned giants ate his way out (and in fact the roof has been repaired with concrete, it is thought following a break-in rather than break-out) thus foiling the third giant’s plan. The name Dwarfie Stane has parallels with ‘dwarf stones’ in Iceland and Norway.

Further reading









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Tinkinswood & St Lythans

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 burial chamber

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.

St Lythans

St Lythans burial chamber

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’.





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