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Prehistoric Ritual & Funerary Monuments

Prehistoric Funerary and Ritual Monuments in North East Wales

Over the last four years CPAT has been carrying out a survey on behalf of Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments of the prehistoric funerary and ritual sites - essentially the Neolithic tombs and Bronze Age round barrows, stone circles etc. - in their region. The most recent instalment of this work, which has now developed into a pan-Wales project carried out in conjunction with the other Welsh Trusts, has been in Northern Radnorshire. Other areas completed to date include The Upper Severn Valley (1997-98), Denbighshire and East Conwy (1998-99), and Flintshire and Wrexham (1999-00), within which over 1400 sites have been identified.

The work has been undertaken in order to improve the Sites and Monuments Record (SMR), standardise terminology and to monitor the present condition of the sites and their current protection status.

As with all lists and catalogues, the usefulness of the SMRs maintained across the country is going to be dependent on the quality of its categories and their definitions. One of the aims of the project has been to refine the definitions of site types so that they may be used right across Wales, allowing easier access to the data as a research tool.

Throughout history and prehistory man has sought immortality through the permanence of burial monuments and memorials, and the structures which form the subject of this study are the earliest which survive in our present landscape. Until the advent of the first farmers in about 4000 BC there had been no monumental architecture. It is likely that the earlier hunters on these hills had revered rocks, prominent hills and other natural features, but any artificial structures which they built had a fleeting life. With farming came a concern with continuity which found expression in the large stone or earth constructions which we know today as megalithic chambered tombs or long barrows and this interest in the monumental continued into the Bronze Age, though the form of burial monuments and the new ceremonial circles changed.

In the Early and Middle Bronze Age all such monuments are round and are generally smaller, reflecting social changes in which the communality of the Neolithic was succumbing to the pressures of an increasingly personalised and hierarchical organisation in which individuals held power. That society flourished in a benign climate which allowed an expansion of settlement and agriculture onto higher ground. When that climate deteriorated in the eleventh century BC that society in turn came under pressure and many of its traditions, notably the building of burial monuments and stone circles, were abandoned. Although the totality of that collapse may be questioned it is undoubtedly true that the monuments covered in this survey were all built before that critical watershed of 1100-1000 BC. Whether or not some continued to be used, it is more difficult to say.

The earliest surviving structures are the megalithic tombs which are found only in the Dee and Elwy valleys, with Tan y Coed, Cynwyd, being the best preserved example. They are all different in plan, but can be paralleled among the rather eccentric tombs of Breconshire. Those that can be confidently classified belong to a type known as Cotswold-Severn, which in north Wales probably belong to a Middle Neolithic. This region may therefore be seen as a secondary centre of farming, opened up at a later date than coastal areas such as Anglesey and Pembrokeshire.

Gop Cairn CPAT AP 89-C-137

Left: Gop Cairn, Flintshire © CPAT 89-C-137

The largest prehistoric monument in Wales is Gop Cairn, near Trelawnyd, Flintshire. The site measures 100m x 68m and is 12m high, and is of mostly stone construction. The cairn was partially excavated by Boyd Dawkins in 1886-7, when a shaft was dug in the centre down to the original ground level. However, despite these efforts no burials or finds were recovered.

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 520 sites identified to date, although the category encompasses monuments of varying construction and size. Reasonably well-preserved sites are recognisable as round mounds, sometimes with a surrounding kerb of stones. In upland areas, such as Ruabon Mountain, these tend to have been constructed of stone, whereas lowland sites, such as the impressive barrow at Cefn Coch, near Ruthin, would have been built from earth dug from an encircling ditch. In many cases centuries of ploughing has levelled the mound so that such sites may now only be recognised from aerial photographs as circular cropmarks known as ring ditches. Round barrows are often sited in dramatic locations, such as those along the crest of the Berwyn ridge, perhaps deliberately placed to be seen from or look out across a particular area.

Other damaged sites may be discovered in the course of modern development and may be recorded as ‘inhumations’ ‘cremation burials’ or as ‘cists’, the burial itself surviving when its covering mound has gone. However, excavations by CPAT at Tandderwen, near Denbigh, revealed that not every burial was covered, with several cremations having been simply placed within pits, while excavations at Hendre, near Mold, discovered an inhumation which had been placed within a natural mound. Cists are typically found in upland locations and consist of a ‘box’ formed by edge-set stones, usually with a capstone on top and normally covered by a small cairn. An unusual group of rectangular cists can be found at Moel Ty Uchaf, Llandrillo, which may be Iron Age or early medieval in date.

The distinction between burial or funerary sites, such as barrows, and ceremonial or ritual sites, such as stone circles, is not always obvious and indeed, as today, there is likely to have been some ritual element associated with burial practices. The ring cairn, a doughnut-shaped structure occasionally embellished with upright stones around the inner edge of the ring, is the focus of these ambiguities in the archaeological record and in Bronze Age practice, for excavation has shown that the activities carried out at these sites combine non-funerary and funerary rituals in equal, or approximately equal, measure. Such factors serve to emphasize that we are looking at a continuum and that excavated sites may reveal that over time, and some were used over several centuries, their roles may have subtly changed.

The stone's the fat one

Right: A typical standing stone © CPAT CS99/10/4

Although there are only eight recorded stones circles, they are amongst the more impressive monuments, such as Moel Ty Uchaf, near Llandrillo, on the western side of the Berwyns. The stone circle is believed to be a monument built for ceremonies and rituals distinct from human burial, although in small a small mound may be found in the centre. There are around 45 recorded standing stones, although they are often difficult to distinguish from later boundary markers, and while some may be over 3m high, most are far less impressive. The function of standing stones remains uncertain, although some are clearly associated with stone circles and others may have served as route markers. Other types of site which are normally judged to be ‘ritual’, stone rows and stone settings, are rare in this area.

Moel Ty Uchaf CPAT CS99-21-4

Left: Moel Ty Uchaf stone circle © CPAT CS99/21/4

Over the course of the survey it has become clear that certain areas appear to have held a particular significance during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, with notable concentrations of sites. These include, for example, a cluster of unusual and elaborate sites in the area surrounding Llandrillo, Denbighshire. Topographically the area is marked by a broadening of the Dee floodplain, surrounded by rolling upland to the north-west and rising to the Berwyn ridge to the south and east. Within this 6km section of the Dee valley are three chambered tombs at Branas Uchaf, Tyn-y-coed and Craig yr Arian, the Tyfos Uchaf and Moel Ty-uchaf stone circles, together with other, lesser funerary monuments. Moel Ty-uchaf stone circle is itself surrounded by a group of funerary monuments comprising two cairns and perhaps four cists. Each of these major sites possess characteristics which set them apart from others of their type. The area also includes the only decorated, carved stone within the study area, and a little further north lies the Maesmor Estate where an elaborately fashioned flint macehead was discovered in 1840. The macehead has widely distributed parallels, including one from the eastern tomb of the passage grave at Knowth, in the Boyne Valley, Ireland. Other areas of significance during this period appears to have been Ruabon Mountain, overlooking Llangollen, where a stone circle lies close to two standing stones and a group of burial cairns, together with the Brenig valley.

The completion of the project across Wales will for the first time provide a consistent record of this group of monuments and the resulting SMR data will be an accessible research tool for the general public. It is hoped that the pan-Wales study will be completed within the next four to five years and will be followed by an analysis of the results which will ultimately take the form of a publication.

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