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The Neolithic Chambered Tombs of Breconshire

A Guide to the Neolithic Chambered Tombs of Breconshire


© CPAT 3393-0078

Right: The chambered tomb at Ty Illtud © CPAT 3393-0078

Neolithic chambered tombs are found throughout Europe and are amongst the oldest surviving man-made structures, built as the communal burial places of the earliest farmers. Tombs of this date are known across Wales, although Breconshire has an unusual concentration in the south-east of the county, on the lower slopes of the Black Mountains and the slopes overlooking the valleys of the Wye and Usk.

All of the Breconshire sites fall within a class generally referred to as ‘Cotswold-Severn Tombs’, so named because their distribution is predominantly focused around the Severn Estuary, in south-east Wales, the Cotwolds, and parts of Somerset, Wiltshire and Berkshire. The Cotswold-Severn chambered tombs are trapezoidal, stone-built cairns which vary considerably in size from only 15m in length to over 50m. The basic plan includes one or more chambers built of large, upright slabs and covered by a capstone, which were accessed via passages that may also have used upright slabs, together with dry-stone walling. These allowed repeated access to the chambers during the life of the tomb and may have been blocked and unblocked a number of times.

The chambers were buried beneath a mound of stone, the shape of which was defined by dry-stone revetment walls which retained the cairn material. At the wider end of the tomb the walls turned inwards to form a forecourt, which may have been used for ceremony and ritual. Frequently the forecourt was blocked by a large, upright slab, or false portal, giving the impression of chamber beyond.

Although most of the chambered tombs which have been excavated appear to have been built in a single phase, there are a some which seem to incorporate an earlier, round cairn, as at Ty Isaf, while the cairn at Pipton seems to have been lengthened after its initial construction. The excavations at Penywyrlod Talgarth and Gwernvale have both produced dates of around 3,900 cal. BC, indicating that they are amongst the earliest examples of this type of tomb in Britain as a whole.

The tombs are often viewed as ‘houses of the dead’ which were in use over a protracted period, the chambers being sealed and unsealed a number of times. Although one might assume that ceremony and ritual may well have played a part in their use, supporting excavated evidence is scarce, with most sites only producing a small number of objects, with occasional pottery vessels and a few stone tools. It is often thought that the alignment of prehistoric monuments was of some significance and while this may be true the only common feature of the Breconshire tombs is that they are all positioned towards the eastern half of the horizon, though without an obvious relationship to the position of the sun at any particular time of the year.

Access

It is a sad fact that only four of the chambered tombs have any formal public access: Gwernvale, Mynydd Troed, Penywyrlod Talgarth and Penywyrlod Llanigon. However, permission to visit the remaining sites may be sought from their respective landowners and information is provided for each of the tombs. With the exception of Gwernvale, the sites are all on farmland and visitors should follow the Countryside Code:

  • Be safe – plan ahead and follow any signs
  • Leave gates and property as you find them
  • Protect plants and animals and take your litter home
  • Keep dogs under close control
  • Consider other people

To download a PDF copy of the guide click here


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