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Friday, 11 October 2013

Pentre Ifan


Just for fun -- and as a reminder that we do have some rather good megalithic monuments in Pembrokeshire, here's an old water colour of mine, dating from 1996.  "Pentre Ifan, Early Morning."  It used to hang on the wall of the Eco House in Newport -- I discovered it in a filing cabinet when we were clearing out the office the other day.....

46 comments:

chris johnson said...

Roughly a mile from Rhosyfelin as the crow flies. Hardly surprising to find signs of activity in the neolithic along the river bank.

TonyH said...

Do you agree that the horizontal megalith's angle is at any rate somewhat mirroring the angle of the upland behind it? I thought it very noticeable on my first visit recently.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- my theory is that the jolly folks who built Pentre Ifan and other tombs used to pop down into the Brynberian Valley every now and then for a BBQ or maybe a spot of hunting or fishing....... pleasant camp site down there, out of the wind and next to a twinkling brook.

Tony -- don't agree with that "morror image" idea. The angles are all wrong. Pure fantasy.

TonyH said...

Not if you stand where I was standing. The angles seemed remarkably similar to me. I have a photograph taken underneath the horizontal capstone which shows a marked similarity in the detail of both capstone and upland, to such an extent that hardly any gap exists between the two. Archaeologist George Nash, for one, who has worked around Newport recently, would probably agree. People seem to insist upon black or white, "yes" or "no" thinking on so called 'phenomenology' when it comes down to it.Perhaps they simply don't like the sound of the word and associate it with New Age notions and the like!

BRIAN JOHN said...

I don't care what George Nash thinks -- I still disagree. Just go to Google Images for Pentre Ifan and look at masses of photos of Carningli framed beneath the capstone -- or to one side. The left hand face of Carningli is not steep enough and the right-hand slope is at the wrong angle (too steep) and is far more irregular than the smooth surface of the capstone. Also, remember that Carningli as we see it today is quite different from its appearance at the time of construction. It was embedded in a big elongated mound, and it's possible that the capstone itself was buried.

geocur said...


None of the UK and Irish Portal Tombs have a buried capstone .There is only evidence for a cairn at 50% and certainly no evidence for cairn that covered the monument at Pentre Ifan only the existence of a long cairn of unknown height .
Fwiw I agree about the archaeo phenomenological stuff , mostly subjective and when any objectivity is applied it can be seen to be wrong , however fwiw again , it is possible to see Pentre Ifan as continuing the angle of the slope of
Carningli if you look at from the position of monument to the left with the hill to the right ,only rough and hardly convincing of intentionality .

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Chris you write,

”Hardly surprising to find signs of activity in the neolithic along the river bank.”

In the Neolithic some 5,000 years ago the ”river bank” would have been the river!

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

More from Kostas's fantasy world -- who needs evidence when one can happily pontificate on the basis of no knowledge whatsoever of local circumstances?

chris johnson said...

I find that monuments like Pentre Ifan are embedded in the landscape in a harmonious way. I would not be surprised had they been covered with a mound but there is, as Geo says, no evidence.

I was recently looking down on Pentre Ifan from the high hills to the South. It does not stand out, even in todays bare landscapes. I had the same feeling walking to the similar but smaller megalith at Manorbier - unless you know where to look you would not find it.

I know what Tony means about the harmony but I feel the driving force was to build something that connected with the entirety of the landscape in a holistic way.

TonyH said...

It's irrelevant that the capstone may have been eventually embedded within the dolmen: it wasn't embedded as it was BEING CONSTRUCTED! Those beefy ancestors of future rugby players could SEE what their capstone looked like, angles - wise, in relation to the upland. Architecture doesn't have to start with history.
Take a look in National Museum of Wales's Steve Burrow's book, Brian - you frequently use his authoratative views to back up your ideas - I believe he talks quite a lot about the relationship between monuments and their landscape settings [I'm talking about the book that's readily on sale at the Information Centre, St David's and the main bookshop, Fishguard.].
Incidentally, I was saying that the similarity in appearance and angle was most striking between the LOWER portion of the capstone and Carningli. It probably never was intended to be a watertight fitment, but that is what I saw not far back from the capstone.

TonyH said...

Steve Burrow's book is THE TOMB BUILDERS IN WALES 4000-3000 B.C., 2006. ISBN 0 72000568 X

Currently out of stock at the National Museum of Wales bookshop!

Read my brother's copy whilst recently in Pembrokeshire.

geocur said...

The ratio of mass to chamber is not as dramatic as that of long barrows but portal dolmens often have big capstones , Kernanstown in Co Carlow is 160 tons , only to cover relatively small chambers (the average is just over 3 sq m .) that as far as we can tell didn’t contain that much .
They have often been open to robbing for some time so we can’t be sure what they originally held but they consistently provide meagre pickings (the exception is Poulnabrone with the remains of 26 individuals ), not one whole pot has ever been discovered , some broken ones ,some charcoal , some lithics and sometimes some bone .Looks like a lot of effort ,from a utilitarian view .

Constantinos Ragazas said...

geocur you write,

”Kernanstown in Co Carlow is 160 tons , only to cover relatively small chambers (the average is just over 3 sq m .) that as far as we can tell didn’t contain that much”.

Is there anything prehistoric people were not able to do with our minds? Except make wheels, etch hieroglyphics, built with stones, plow fields, etc.

”Looks like a lot of effort , from a utilitarian view ”.

Of course! But then again, geocur, prehistoric people were not as 'utilitarian' as we are! They would lift 160 ton stones but had no use for stone buildings or cities with Avenues.

Kostas

geocur said...

Kostas , the comment ”Kernanstown in Co Carlow is 160 tons , only to cover relatively small chambers (the average is just over 3 sq m .) that as far as we can tell didn’t contain that much”. was straightforward and falsifiable if you have a problem with the content then you can refute it .Prehistoric people made wheels ( in some cases historic peoples didn't invent or need the wheel ),there are examples of prehistoric etched hieroglyphs e.g. the Narmer Palette but hieroglyphs do tend to have an Egyptian association I imagine you were thinking of prehistoric rock art engravings found all over the world found and often predating the Narmer Pallette .Prehistoric people also built monuments from stone e.g. Stonehenge , Kernanstown portal dolmen ,they also ploughed fields .
The homes of the people who built Kernanstown or Pentre Ifan have never been found but that is nothing new ,ceremonial buildings tend to outlast the more ephemeral dwellings of their builders ,there are few remains of the homes of those who built the Norman cathedrals . Catalhoyuk occupied 7500-5700bc housed a population of at least 5000 , Harappa and Mohenjo Daro are prehistoric Asian cities all mentioned here previously but as is often the case , conveniently ignored/forgotten or import unappreciated when facts don't fit in with your evidence and knowledge free dreamings .

TonyH said...

I have also read quite a bit of the Pembrokeshire sections within George Nash and George Children's paperback book: "Neolithic Sites of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire (Monuments in the Landscape)" which has quite a bit to say about apparent similarities between the general shape of dolmens and surrounding upland landscapes.

BRIAN JOHN said...

It' all in the eye of the beholder. If you look hard enough, and with sufficient faith, you will always find what you are looking for.

chris johnson said...

It would be interesting to hear what Nash thinks.

The test of the theory would be to predict where monuments once stood. Common sense would suggest that many have disappeared from sight and may still be discovered by archaeologists.

I would not be surprised to learn that the capstones were once covered. The Boyne valley is perhaps a guide. I am out of sympathy with the way Newgrange is restored - it seems to fit too neatly our modern notions about pomp and ceremony and power. I somehow doubt the missing dolmens are to be found on hill-tops.

BRIAN JOHN said...

I haven't done a careful survey of all known cromlech sites in Pembs, but my instinct is that they have simply been put up and used as burial sites wherever convenient stones were at hand. In other words, availability of stone was the prime locational factor....

geocur said...



Chris , there are no portal dolmens in the Bru, Newgrange ,Knowth etc are passage graves ,architecturally quite different monuments .Many portal domlens have evidence of a surrounding cairn none have ever been found to cover the capstone .
The capstone is often a "jaunty" angle ,if in a hill areaa then there is always a possibility it may appear to mirror the some part of the landscape but there are plenty of examples of relatively flat capstones in hilly areas and one of the steepest angled capstones ,Kilmogue in Kilkenny is in a very flat area and the most distant hills don't provide anything like the mirroring angle.As mentioned here a while ago the most obvious visual landscape association is that they do tend to be aligned along valleys with just less than 50% aligned to the eastish the highest is Cunard at
330 m , the majority are found below 150 m , none are on hill tops or even the highest point in the area .

geocur said...

Brian , we can be a bit more precise about the choice of site of portal tombs in general or in Pembs in particular other than simply availability of stone.Availability of stone applies to huge areas of the UK and Ireland that have no examples of portal tombs .More to the point on the macro level they are found mostly around the Irish Sea i.e. eastern Ireland , south western UK .On the micro level they tend to be sited between 55-100 m OD ,only 7 of 217 are above 250 m.Non on hill tops or highest point of the micro region . A large majority have their long axis parallel to a valley/stream and a majority of those face up the valley/stream .The Irish and welsh sites tend to be riverine and coastal ( some the Pembs examples at approx 12 miles are furthest from the coast of the Welsh examples ).

geocur said...

Brian "put up and used as burial sites " why burial sites ?
As far as I know only Carreg Coetan of the Pembs PT's has any evidence of bone deposits .

BRIAN JOHN said...

Are you saying that the West Wales cromlechs / portal dolmens were not used for burials? If not, what were they used for?

geocur said...


One , Carreg Coetan clearly was used for burial , as I had mentioned , so I didn't say that they weren't used for burials .
I have don't have a clue what the function of PT's were but when you consider the evidence , burial of human remains doesn't seem the most likely or primary reason .

chris johnson said...

Geo, thanks for the info!

Lots of assumptions in the liturgy about "burial sites" so I wondered also why Brian sounds so certain. My instinct tells me these places had as much to do with birth as with death. Long barrows and passage graves too.

The Stonehenge liturgy is that it was a burial place first and foremost. The evidence is some 60 skeletons. I find this totally unconvincing as a premise - if it was a burial place there should be many more bodies! They get around this by postulating a very hierarchic society, despite the complete lack of evidence for such a political/social structure.

BRIAN JOHN said...

No, I don't have any great "certainty" on this -- just citing the experts, who do seem to think that burials were the key activity. it is certainly true that in places like Pentre Ifan the chambers are very small indeed, and very easily accessible -- just shut away behind a flattish vertical stone or "door". I would agree that the "passage graves" like Bedd yr Afanc are very different. But of course they also have vertical pillars supporting capstones..... so there are similarities.

TonyH said...

I see that MPP, in his 2012 "Stonehenge" book at any rate [pages 298-99], was then of the opinion that Devil's Den, near Clatford on the Marlborough Downs, is a portal dolmen rather than a chambered tomb, as was long thought.
He bases this on his examination of 18th Century antiquarian William Stukeley's illustration of Devil's Den. MPP says "what grabs my attention in his drawing is that the monument sits on top of a mound and not within one. This was surely never a chambered tomb beneath a mound. It is more likely to be the remains of an Early Neolithic portal dolmen sat upon a mound. Our geophysical survey [MPP was working in the general landscape thereabouts] revealed remains of a second mound immediately north of it.

I haven't been to Devil's Den, although I helped at the nearby Clatford dig in 2012. Devil's Den is sited relatively low down in the landscape. I gather most of what surrounded what we see today was destroyed in the last two centuries or more, hence the need for geophysics recently.

geocur said...



Depends on who consider the experts ,those that suggest that PT's are primarily burial sites are being lazy and have not considered the evidence . On the other the hand there are experts who would not consider PT's primarily burial sites , merely monuments where there is some evidence of burial , sometimes , often not, with more common deposits are lithics , pottery and charcoal . e.g. Pentre Ifan some flint flakes ,four sherds of a carinated bowl were found in the chamber with an arrowhead and some pottery in the forecourt ,to the eat of the chamber some charcoal and more flint flakes , no bone .

TonyH said...

A couple of quotes from Caroline Malone's "Neolithic Britain & Ireland", Tempus, 2001, on portal tombs.

Talking about Welsh and western portal tombs, she says "the remains of bones are almost unknown from these sites, and it may be that individual bones were inserted into the structure, but have long since eroded away."

Referring to Irish portal tombs, she says "excavation...has been limited, since so many have been emptied of their contents in the past. Work at Poultnabrone in Co Clare in 1986 showed that the site had contained at least 16 - 22 adults and six juveniles, but as disarticulated body parts, not articulated burials.....Eight sites suggest that cremation rather than inhumation was the favoured burial rite, and possibly that several individuals were buried together."

Anonymous said...

What a lot of nonsense!

Dolmens were used for the excarnation process of dead bodies, and that's why you find them propped high in the air away from vermin and land animals.

They are also located near rivers as the disarticulated bones were taken by river to long barrows, when first constructed. But no doubt people used them (and were buried by them) at a much later period, as they were seen as 'sacred places' of their forefathers.

geocr said...

Chris ,
There is no doubt that burials as we recognise them i.e.,the inhumed or cremated remains of one individual or group of individuals buried in a grave, are found in prehistory . But it is often ignored how burials or more precisely burial deposits are missing from "burial sites ".The remains are usually fragmentary and rarely the total remains of an individual or they may be mixed with the remains of another or , other individual(s) and sometimes animals .Sometimes there is no burial deposit , but there may be charcoal or lithics or pottery or even household rubbish deposited in a pit which is then covered by a mound or enclosed by circle of stones . whatever it is it is certainly not the disposal of cadavers .

BRIAN JOHN said...

I thought we had got away from simply labelling monolithic structures as "ritual sites" -- used for unknown and mystical purposes. Much criticism in the past about the word "ritual" just being used as a cop-out. But is this what you are now suggesting for portal dolmens, Geo?

geocur said...



Brian , once again I thought what I had said ws perfectly clear ."One , Carreg Coetan clearly was used for burial , as I had mentioned , so I didn't say that they weren't used for burials .I have don't have a clue what the function of PT's were "
The cop out is using burial when there many monuments that are described as such and the more honest explanation is that we don't know the function .
btw "I would agree that the "passage graves" like Bedd yr Afanc are very different. But of course they also have vertical pillars supporting capstones..... so there are similarities." There are no capstones at Bedd yr Afanc and also no bone .

Tony , I mentioed the burials at Poulnabrone a couple of days ago " (the exception is Poulnabrone with the remains of 26 individuals ),"

Anon (mr Davis?) ,"vermin and land animals " would have no problem accessing capstones if necessary .You provide no evidence to support any of your suggestions. Where are the long barrows associated with PT's ?

Jon Morris said...

Depends on who consider the experts ,those that suggest that PT's are primarily burial sites are being lazy and have not considered the evidence .

Agreed. The strongest evidence for the purpose of these monuments is likely to exist at those sites which have very strong ancillary evidence.

If there is something special about them, the place at which the meaning of these groups of monuments is discovered will have a huge claim on the history of these islands.

chris johnson said...

Carreg Coetan was used for burial but perhaps NOT by the people who built it - the remains are Beaker.

Andrew Fleming wrote a paper "Megaliths and post-modernism: the case of Wales". Going into the field he systematically debunks different hypotheses for special alignments in a rather convincing way.

Jon Morris said...

Going into the field he systematically debunks different hypotheses for special alignments in a rather convincing way.

With few exceptions, he appears to be correct (though I have not read this particular paper). If there is a standard explanation, it would appear to be something else.

geocur said...

Carreg Coetan had four separate charcoal samples dating from 3778-2925 cal bc and cremated human bone 3089-2901 cal bc , so a few centuries pre beaker but still probably secondary .The 16 bone samples were one of the largest ever recovered from a PT but were described as token.
Andrew Fleming has written some splendid stuff attacking the excesses of archaeo phenomenologists .

TonyH said...

Andrew Fleming, Geo, was apparently with MPP on Marlborough Downs in September 2013 when MPP & Josh Pollard [and Uncle Tom Cobley
and all] returned to the the Downs following the previous year's work at and beyond Clatford. This year MPP never got the funding to continue digging for a Neolithic road etc allegedly to carry the sarsens thence towards Stonehenge, and hunting down the phenomenon of wild goose quarries, and was restricted largely to geophysics.Wonder if anyone knows what Andrew Fleming was called upon to use his expertise on, on the Marlborough Downs? What about you, Geo?

TonyH said...

MPP, in his oft - quoted 2012 Stonehenge book [pp 325-6], says:-

"If we accept the role of human agency in moving the[bluestone] stones..........we need to explain why people did this.One of the intersting aspects of west Wales' archaeology - and the Brecon Beacons - is the presence here of a significant concentration of Early Neolithic monuments: portal dolmens, long cairns and a causeayed enclosure. Between 3800 and 3600 BC, this was a thriving Neolithic society. Recent research by Alison Sheridan ....has shown that the west coast of Britain may have provided favoured landfalls for Continental farming groups arriving in Britain as early as 400 B.C.
We normally think of invaders and immigrants to Britain coming across...from Calais to Dover....Otherwise, however, the closed chamber tombs and short passage tombs - thought to be amongst the very earliest Neolithic monuments in Britain - have a distinctly western distribution, from Pembrokeshire & NW Wales to the W of Scotland. Alison has also looked at the pottery of these earliest farmers. It is in some west coast sites in Britain that the styles of pots are closest to those used in N France and Brittany. For example, she is certain that a pot from the Carreg Samson closed chamber tomb [between St David's & Fishguard] is of a style identical to that made in Brittany before 4000 B.C....................................There are no radiocarbon dates for the beginning of the Neolithic in Wales earlier than about 3700 B.C., but the evidence from Carreg Samson indicates that farmers probably lived here before then. Unfortunately, the acidic soils of the region do not preserve humann bones or antler picks, so there is nothing suitable to date the use of the earliest tombs. Archaeologists recovered a few tiny fragments of cremated human bone from the burial chamber within Carreg Samson [Frances Lynch, 1975] but these were too small for radiocarcon dating."

Anonymous said...

Jon you write,

”If there is a standard explanation, it would appear to be something else.”

How right you are!

Kostas

geocr said...

Sorry Tony , I can only offer Fleming's landscape expertise in general and recent investigations into the Monks Trod "road " in particular as possible reasons for his presence .Maybe Josh felt he needed a restraining hand on his post processualism ,AF did review "landscape of the megaliths " kindly and was not too scathing about the over interpretations and PP speak .

Anonymous said...

"vermin and land animals " would have no problem accessing capstones if necessary. You provide no evidence to support any of your suggestions. Where are the long barrows associated with PT's ?

More nonsense!

The 'evidence' is in the design.

If you were a student of engineering, you would clearly see the pivotal points are within the capstone for a very good reason (your rats would need to be able to walk upside down to access the top of the capstone).

The fact you refer to them as Portal Tombs (which is a absurd archaeological category of almost anything to do with burials made of stone) shows you do not understand their significance or reason for construction.

If you did, then you would understand why they appear all over the world and not just in little Britain, which would be a much more intelligent debate.

geocur said...



Rob Davis aka RJL , I assume .
I referred to these monuments as Portal Tombs as that is the how they are known and commonly referred to ,it is a description based on a belief that their primary function was for burial ,if you read other comments I have made in this thread you might notice some incredulity to that belief .Like many other terms used everyday and in archaeology it need not be seen as precise description , e.g. stone circles are not necessarily circular , rock art is not necessarily "art" etc , but we continue to use the term .
Rats ,mice and many other animals and obviously birds would have no trouble accessing the capstones of PT's .Similar monuments are relatively widespread ,there was never any suggestion that they were confined to Britain although in that case they are localised , as was noted to the mid to south west coastal area around the Irish Sea .
The "evidence in the design " fails on the animal accessibility notion ,there is also no evidence for the capstones being used for excarnation .There is no evidence for the movement of disarticulated bone up rivers to long barrows . You have also failed to even mention the long barrows associated with the PT and connecting river ,we will not hold our breath on any of these of problems .

Anonymous said...

Birds are sacred in ancient times see Egyptian mythology for details, so they are supposed to eat the flesh - hence the design of the Dolmen!!

As for Long Barrows, where ever you wanted to be placed. Probably in a site near your birth or family have been previously laid out. The journey could take weeks or months, so dragging a body around is impossible but a bag of bones quite easy. Hence excarnation sites and LB's are next to water as they were taken by boat.

geocur said...

Lots of animals as well as birds "were sacred in ancient times " it doesn't provide any evidence for capstones being used for excarnation .
The accessibility notion of the "design " also fails as animals including rats and mice would be able to access the capstones of any PT. I doubt you seen the variety of accessibility ,slope of capstone etc.in these monuments ,otherwise you would not have made the suggestion , further you underestimate the capabilities of rodents .You have still failed to provide anything to support what is merely a fanciful notion about the PT -river -long barrow connection .

chris johnson said...

Anon,
On some of the monuments the capstone is so close to the ground that a pensioner rat with one leg missing could jump on board.

Anonymous said...

There are lots of stones on the floor at Stonehenge - I would suggest that most of them were not placed there by design.