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Prehistoric Ritual & Funerary Monuments

Prehistoric Funerary and Ritual Monuments in Brecknock

The pan-Wales survey of prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments has now been completed in Brecknock. As before, the work has been undertaken in order to improve the Historic Environment Record (HER), standardise terminology and to monitor the present condition of the sites and their current protection status.


Right: Distribution of prehistoric funerary and ritual sites in Brecknock

The results from the survey show that Brecknock has a considerable number of important and well known sites. The survey has been checking all potentially relevant monuments and almost 1300 sites have now been visited, as a result of which the final total of prehistoric funerary and ritual sites recorded in the county is 624.

As in other areas, Bronze Age burial monuments make up the vast majority of the sites recorded by this project. The round barrows and burial cairns are by far the most numerous, with around 450 sites identified to date. Standing stones are also well represented with around 89 sites recorded, while other monument types, such as henges, cursus and stone rows, are present in comparatively small numbers.

Chambered tombs

 Ty Illtud

Right: Ty Illtud chambered tomb overlooking the Usk valley with the Brecon Beacons beyond. © CPAT CS05-08-18

The chambered tombs of Wales, comprising the communal tombs of the earliest, Neolithic farmers, are amongst the oldest surviving man-made structures. Brecknock has 17 known or possible chambered tombs in the south of the county, most of which are in the Black Mountains, including two at Ffostyll, and others at Little Lodge, Croes Llechau, Gwernvale, Mynydd Troed, Ty Isaf, Cwrt y Prior, Twyn y Beddau, Penywyrlod Talgarth and Penywyrlod Llanigon. Other well known sites include the tombs at Ty Illtud and Pipton.

Cursus Monuments

Cursus monuments are long and narrow ditched enclosures with parallel sides and closed ends, and are associated with ritual activity of Neolithic date, often being spatially associated with other funerary or ritual monuments of Neolithic or Early Bronze Age date. One possible cursus monument has been identified in Brecknock, lying close to the River Wye at Pipton.


 Carnau Gwynion

Left: Carnau Gwynion hengiform monument, Ystradfellte. © CPAT CS05-01-08

Henges are characterised by a circular area enclosed by a bank and (normally) internal ditch, and are perhaps the best known ceremonial monuments of the later Neolithic period. Only four henges or hengiform monuments have been identified so far, three of which are in the Brecon Beacons, including two sites close to Ystradfellte

Long barrows

The survey has identified only one possible long barrow, which is in the Black Mountains at Blaen y Cwm Uchaf, although its location is unusual for such a site.

Timber circles

Only a small number of timber circles have so far been identified in Wales, mostly from cropmarks, or from excavation. One possible site has been identified in Brecknock, during the excavation of a small circle of edge-set stones at Pont-ar-Daf.

Stone circles

Pigwn stone circle

Right: One of the two stone circle at Pigwn on Trecastle Mountain. © CPAT CS05-03-26

The stone circles of Wales are one of the more emotive groups of monuments, yet despite much study their role in prehistoric society is not well understood. Generally thought to date from the Early Bronze Age, they are assumed to have had a ritual function and are often located in association with other ritual and funerary monuments, such as stone rows, standing stones and barrows. Of the 17 possible sites recorded in Brecknock most have been damaged over the years, with stones having fallen or been removed. Among the more impressive sites are Cerrig Duon, which also has an avenue of small standing stones, Nant Tarw, which has two circles and a short stone row, and Pigwn, where there are also two circles with a possible stone row.

Stone rows

Saith Maen

Left: Saith Maen stone row near Dan-yr-Ogof. © CPAT CS05-08-14

A stone row is defined as one or more roughly parallel rows of three or more upright stones. There are ten potential stone rows in the study area, three of which are recorded as having been destroyed or lost. The surviving examples are of simple character, with no double rows, or avenues. On the whole stone rows are thought to belong to the early Bronze Age, although avenues may be Neolithic in date.

Thirteen stone rows have been identified in Brecknock, nine of which are in the Brecon Beacons, including the avenue of stones associated with the Cerrig Duon stone circle and a row of three stones close to one of the Nant Tarw stone circles. One of the more impressive sites is the Saith Maen row which, as the name suggests, consists of seven stones, two of which are now fallen.

Standing stones

Fish stone

Left: The Fish Stone at Penmyarth near Crickhowell. © CPAT CS03-53-12

Standing stones are defined as single, or occasionally paired, upright stones, generally assumed to belong to the Bronze Age. Their very nature, however, inevitably means that they can easily be confused with later features such as boundary markers, gateposts and rubbing posts, and it is of course possible for them to have been reused as such. The function of prehistoric standing stones remains uncertain although they would appear to mark significant places, and may be associated with routeways or boundaries. Some are found in association with stone circles, as outliers, and a large recumbent stone close to the stone circle at Gelli Hill may fall into this category.

Around 140 potential standing stones have been recorded in the county, many of which still survive, although some have been destroyed, moved, or have fallen. Although most of the stones are between 0.6m and 2m in height there are three exceptionally large stones in the Crickhowell area, the tallest of which is the so called Fish Stone at Penmyarth, which is an impressive 4.5m in height.

Their general locations would appear to give some further credence to the suggestion that at least some may have been erected as route markers, with a significant number of stones sited close to routes crossing the uplands, either in a pass, or close to one.

Stone settings

A stone setting is the term applied to an arrangement of upright stones that is not readily identifiable as either a stone row, a stone circle or any other well-defined type of megalithic monument. They are difficult to define, to date and to interpret, and although 13 potential sites have been identified.

Round barrows

Pwll y Cig cairn

Right: A small upland cairn at Pwll y Cig, near Ystradgynlais. © CPAT CS04-52-08

The term round barrow encompasses a range of stone and earth-built funerary monuments which may also have had a certain ritual significance. As noted above, the burial monuments of the Early Bronze Age comprise the vast majority of sites recorded by the survey. When excavated, round barrows are normally found to cover burials, either inhumations or cremations, placed within a pit or, more commonly perhaps in upland areas, a stone-lined cist. The nature, composition and size of barrows is subject to considerable variation, although their construction materials usually reflect the local geology, so that upland sites are normally in the form of stone-built cairns, while lowland sites are typically earthen mounds surrounded by ditches. The majority of sites now appear as simple earthen or stone mounds, although a number have significant distinguishing features. Some cairns, termed ‘structured cairns’, are notable for their more elaborate construction, perhaps with well-built kerbs of larger, or edge-set stones. There are over 500 round barrows or possible round barrows of various forms recorded in Brecknock, most of which are stone-built cairns.

Ring cairns

Sand Hill ring cairn

Left: A particularly large and impressive ring cairn at Sand Hill, near Ystradfellte. © CPAT CS05-03-34

Ring cairns, comprising raised circular ring banks enclosing flat interiors, may not be primarily burial monuments, and can often be confused with hut circles, small circular enclosures, embanked stone circles or even badly robbed barrows. Excavations have demonstrated that they were used for rituals connected with the burial of charcoal and other deposits, perhaps ancillary to burials, and that human bones were only deposited there at a later stage in their individual histories.


Most prehistoric burials were normally covered by a mound, yet simple cist burials are known throughout Wales, particularly in upland areas. The lack of surviving evidence for a covering mound should not, however, always be taken to indicate that none originally existed. Nine cists are known in the county, all of which have been disturbed, and none retains a covering capstone.

Mynydd Pen-y-fal cairn and cist

Right: A cist within a cairn on Mynydd Pen-y-fal, Crickhowell © CPAT CS03-41-10

Ring ditches

Ring ditches are normally identified from cropmarks, or occasionally during excavations, and consist of one or more concentric ditches without visibly surviving internal mounds. To date, 13 cropmark ring ditches have been identified in the majority of which lie close to the River Wye at Pipton. Considerable variation exists in the diameter of the ring ditches, with those in Brecknock ranging between 6m and 20m. Ring ditches of this size are likely to represent the ploughed out remains of round barrows, although the smaller sites could be the remains of prehistoric huts.

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