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Prehistory - Religious & Ceremonial

Click to a larger version of Gop Cave and Rock Shelter: photo © Mick Sharp

Gop Cave and Rock Shelter: photo © Mick Sharp

Animal bones discovered inside the limestone shelter and caves date back over 70,000 years to before the end of the Great Ice Age. A rubble-walled enclosure built against the rear face of the shelter contained the remains of at least 14 people buried at different times throughout the Neolithic period, 4-5,000 years ago. Burials were also made over the remains of an adjacent ritual hearth and in the western cave. The hilltop above the limestone cliff is crowned by the largest artificial mound in Wales, second only to Silbury Hill in Britain. Along with nearby tumuli, Gop Cairn and the rock shelter formed an important ceremonial focus during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods.

Click to a larger version of Lligwy Burial Chamber, Anglesey (Cadw): photo © Jean Williamson

Lligwy Burial Chamber, Anglesey (Cadw): photo © Jean Williamson

Bones of men, women and children were placed in a partly rock-cut pit beneath this massive limestone slab supported by eight low stones. Along with the remains of 15 - 30 Neolithic people there were animal bones, flint implements, pottery and a bone pin. Offerings are still made within the chamber which has something of the atmosphere of a natural limestone cave or shelter.

Click to a larger version of Camster Long Cairn, Caithness (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Camster Long Cairn, Caithness (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Two free-standing, Neolithic round cairns were later incorporated within a new cairn over 60m long. The entrance passages to the burial chambers were extended through to the SE flank of the enclosing cairn which was finished off with a horned forecourt at each end, that on the NE being equipped with a stage or ritual platform. This complex, long-lived monument was in use during the 4th and 3rd millenniums BC.

Click to a larger version of Barclodiad y Gawres Burial Chamber, Anglesey (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Barclodiad y Gawres Burial Chamber, Anglesey (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Caves were decorated in prehistory and so too were some types of megalithic tomb, notably in Brittany and Ireland. Inside this Irish-style passage grave on Anglesey, a complex and sophisticated scheme of abstract art covers selected stones of the entrance passage and chambers. One smooth, figure-like stone covered with pecked chevrons, lozenges and zigzags, is reminiscent of decorated slabs thought to represent a goddess which are found in some of the Breton tombs.

Click to a larger version of Bachwen Burial Chamber, Gwynedd: photo © Mick Sharp

Bachwen Burial Chamber, Gwynedd: photo © Mick Sharp

Simple cup-marks are more likely to be found decorating British tombs than the full range of Megalithic Art. The upper surface of Bachwen’s capstone bears two grooves and 110 cupmarks with another eight on the eastern side. A sheep’s skull lying in the exposed burial chamber adds to the sepulchral tone.

Click to a larger version of Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber, Pembrokeshire (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber, Pembrokeshire (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

As at Bachwen, the core of Pentre Ifan is a type of stone chamber known as a portal dolmen, but it is a much more complicated monument. The chamber was set in a low square cairn, perhaps with two projecting horns and a semicircular forecourt. At a later stage a façade of uprights stones (left) was built in the forecourt, and the cairn was extended northwards to create a Cotswold-Severn-type trapezoidal long mound. The rising moon cares little for these complexities of style and ritual.

Click to a larger version of Capel Garmon Burial Chamber, Conwy (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Capel Garmon Burial Chamber, Conwy (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Capel Garmon is a classic Cotswold-Severn tomb with a trapezoidal long cairn ending in a horned, rectangular forecourt with a false entrance at the ENE. The burial chamber, divided into three compartments, is entered by a passage leading from the long southern side. The far, western end of the chamber was broken into for use as a stable in the 1850s. Frost coats the capstone and ground surface while fallen leaves bask in the relative warmth of the subterranean chamber.

Click to a larger version of Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow, Oxfordshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow, Oxfordshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

The cruciform burial chamber of Wayland’s Smithy opens onto a straight façade of impressive sarsen slabs at the, broad, south end of a wedge-shaped mound some 55m N-S and retained by a stone kerb. Built around 3400BC, the long mound held a secret from three to four generations earlier when, over a period of less than ten years, the remains of at least 14 people had been placed inside a wooden burial mortuary house resembling a small ridge tent or possibly a ‘large, lidded, wooden box’ similar to the massive oak chamber excavated at Haddenham in Cambridgeshire. Three flint arrowheads lay with the bones in such a way as to suggest they had claimed three victims and bones from other Neolithic tombs, such as[Ascott-under-Wychwood in the Cotswolds, have arrowheads embedded in them. After an interval of 40 years or more a small oval mound was built over the wooden structure and then both were engulfed by the long mound of the next generation. Wayland, lame smith to the Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon gods, is associated with the monument and sites and legends in the area may have provided Tolkien with inspiration for his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Click to a larger version of West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Situated 20 miles further down the Ridgeway to the SW, West Kennet may have provided the inspiration for the final phase of Wayland’s Smithy. The trapezoidal, earthen mound is over 100 m long and has a façade of sarsen stones at the east end. The passage and five burial chambers housed the bones of over 40 adults and children, some arranged in family groups. Skulls and long bones showed signs of having been removed from the tomb periodically and it is possible that they were used in ceremonies at nearby causewayed camps such as Windmill Hill. Bones and other sacred materials may also have been held in a separate structure, or in pots placed in the entrance forecourt before their final deposition in the house of the dead. The tomb is now believed to have been in use for burials for only 10-30 years around 3640BC. After a pause of 100 years, its passage and chambers were deliberately filled with chalk rubble and earth containing occupation debris or the remains of funerary offerings including fragments of over 250 pottery vessels. Eventually the forecourt was filled with sarsen boulders and massive slabs erected to close the tomb.

Click to a larger version of Grey Mare and Her Colts Long Barrow, Dorset: photo © Jean Williamson

Grey Mare and Her Colts Long Barrow, Dorset: photo © Jean Williamson

Seen grazing contentedly at the head of a dry valley on the South Dorset Ridgeway, the Grey Mare and her Colts are the megalithic remains of a chambered long barrow. The capstone has fallen, but other stones of the chamber and slightly curved façade remain in place, while kerb stones are visible at the edges of the badly denuded long mound. A 19th-century tenant of the land reported finding many human bones, along with fragmented ancient British pottery, amongst the stones. Gorwell, the barrow’s less romantic alternative name, is part of a group of five chambered long barrows in the area. Sarsen slabs were brought up onto the Ridgeway from the Valley of Stones via a dry valley around which the tombs cluster.

Click to a larger version of Coldrum Long Barrow, Kent (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Coldrum Long Barrow, Kent (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

A hesitant cloud contemplates acting as a temporary capstone to Coldrum’s burial chamber. Projecting from the east end of a rectangular long mound dramatically situated on a low ridge, the chamber may have been approached via paved steps and entered through a porthole-shaped stone. This end of the ridge has been quarried and some of the local sarsen stones which retained the mound have slipped downhill onto the terrace below. The remains of at least 24 small, long-headed Neolithic individuals - male and female ranging from new-born infants to adults - have been found packed into the stone box along with pottery fragments and a flint saw. Mostly the bones had been de-fleshed and separated before interment, but one whole skeleton was found in the 19th century and reburied in Meophan churchyard. This gave the vicar of Trottiscliffe cause to complain he had been robbed of his oldest parishioner. One skull had been placed on ‘a stone shelf supported by two blocks of ironstone.’ The bones display family similarities and, based on the design of the Medway tombs, it has been suggested that the people at Coldrum were part of a tightly knit group from Scandinavia or Germany who crossed the North Sea and travelled inland up the river. Ironically, most of their remains were stored in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons which was hit by a German bomb in 1940.

Click to a larger version of Maen y Bardd Burial Chamber, Conwy: photo © Mick Sharp

Maen y Bardd Burial Chamber, Conwy: photo © Mick Sharp

Stripped of its covering mound, this small portal dolmen stands high on the western slopes overlooking the Vale of Conwy. The Stone of the Bard is situated just above a prehistoric and Roman route linking the valley with the north Wales’ coast via a mountain pass. The surrounding area is rich in the remains of prehistoric farming, settlement and ceremony, and the burial chamber, standing open to the winds, is a poignant reminder of those Neolithic people who lived and died on these ruggedly beautiful hills.

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