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Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Bronze Age Quarrying at Carn Briw

Above:  satellite image of Carn Briw.  Look at the pock-marked texture of the land surface 
around the cairn.
Below: The cairn (somewhat damaged) is on the right.  The little pinnacle is a recent embellishment....

I have recently been looking again at Carn Briw, a Bronze Age (?) cairn on the highest point on the upland of Carningli in North Pembrokeshire.  It's a smallish conical mound in quite an isolated position, and the assumption is that it might have contained a cist grave or maybe several burials;  maybe it was the key burial site for the Bronze age community that lived in these parts.  There are at least a dozen round houses, ring cairns and other features in the vicinity.  The mound has been substantially rearranged over the centuries, probably by Dad's Army in WW2 (this was a lookout position) and by large numbers of small boys before and after WW2.

The mound might be classified as a round barrow if it was somewhere else -- but it has close relations in the three gigantic cairns on the summit of Foel Drigarn in eastern Preseli.

The land surface hereabouts is covered with a layer of broken rock debris -- this is essentially a periglacial blockfield with some glacial erratic material added for good measure.  The soil is thin and stony -- and between Carn Briw and the summit of Carningli literally thousands of angular boulders and stones break the land surface.

Above is a satellite image of the cairn.  As we can see, its northern section has been damaged.  But the most interesting thing about this feature is that it is made of stones up to 1m in length -- nearly all capable of being moved by one or two men working together.  Because the heath is dry here, and because there has been no peat growth to cover things over, we can see in striking detail exactly where the stones in the cairn have come from.  For a radius of about 50m from the cairn the land surface is pock-marked with pits and hollows, some of them 2-3m across and some up to a metre deep.  Some of them contain standing water after wet weather.  These are the Carn Briw Quarries -- the builders of the cairn were concerned above all else with economy of effort.  They took what they needed from as close as possible, probably spreading out further and further from the centre of their little circle as more and more stones were needed.

There is no evidence at all that certain stone types or shapes were preferentially used.


chris johnson said...

I am glad you put up a post about cairns, although I always believe this phenomenon was more recent than the Stonehenge period - more of a late bronze age thing, chieftains trying to impress via the size of their members.

I never saw the cultural dimension. Making a big pile of rocks demonstrates you have some power but it lacks mystery and I don't see how it might ever bring anyone in touch with a different plane however many mushrooms they ingested. There are a lot of cairns in the British uplands and they tend to look the same everywhere - so there is some kind of cultural binding factor at work.

Can anyone on this blog explain cairns to me? I confess I don't see the point

BRIAN JOHN said...

To the best of my knowledge, some of the small cairns in this area (assumed to be Bronze Age) are scattered about all over the place, and they are assumed to be clearance cairns. I know for a fact that some of these are not Bronze Age at all -- people were making clearance cairns on the flanks of Carningli in the early 1800's. But the ones on the summits and ridges seem to me to be authentic as burial sites -- some have been excavated and were found to contain cist burials. Cultural dimension? Surely just as strong as the cultural dimension of the round barrows scattered around on Salisbury plain and made mainly of chalk rubble and earth? The problem with these stone cairns is that they look rough and ready, and are easier for boy scouts to rearrange when they want to get shelter from the wind and rain......