Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my book called "The Bluestone Enigma" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Pembrokeshire's Neolithic tombs

 Above:  Llech y Dribedd cromlech, near Newport.  Below:  map of Neolithic chambered tombs in SW Wales (after Children and Nash.)

This post follows on from this one posted in February:

The idea that cromlechs / dolmens / megalithic burial sites were simply constructed where the stones were, on largely utilitarian grounds, is so simple that it must surely have been considered in some detail by archaeologists.  Steve Burrow makes the point in his book "The Tomb Builders", but I thought I'd check further by looking at the most widely-used book on the Pembrokeshire Neolithic -- namely "Neolithic Sites of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire" by George Children and George Nash, published by Logaston Press in 1997 as part of their "Monuments in the Landscape" series.  Theirs is very much an anthropological take on things, with the use of frequent analogies from Papua New Guinea, Madagascar etc, and that's all fascinating enough; but what really interested me, on leafing through the book, was their explanation for the locations of the monuments which involved the use of large stones.

For a start, what is amazing is that there is not a single cromlech listed for Ceredigion, and that there are only six listed for Carmarthenshire. Against that, more than 30 are listed in Pembrokeshire, with a further 25 or so "lost monuments".  This is an extraordinary mismatch, but the authors to not speculate on what the reasons might have been.  Were those reasons related to social, cultural or economic factors?  Or might they have had something to do with the availability of big erratics and loose rocks in the landscape?  It's worth reminding ourselves that Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire were affected above all else (apart from the area around Cardigan and the lower Teifi valley) by Welsh ice streaming down from the uplands; but Pembrokeshire was affected quite dramatically by the Irish Sea Glacier, flowing across the landscape from the north and north-west.  And the litter of erratics and loosened bedrock slabs left behind when the ice melted is very extensive -- and would have been even more extensive in the Neolithic, before land clearance.

The two Georges (Children and Nash) spend most of their time, in the heart of the book, talking about social, religious, symbolic and political factors -- this is very much an anthropological approach, in keeping with other titles in this series.  They refer to design variations, and speculate that Pentre Ifan, Carreg Samson and Garn Turne were "super-monuments" with spacious chambers capable of holding human remains removed from smaller "satellite" tombs in the nearby landscape.  They say that these three have "panoramic views of the surrounding landscape."  I don't buy that one -- some of the mini-tombs have even better views, and I think that is pure fantasy.    The "double dolmens" and the five-chambered tomb called Cerrig y Gof, near Newport, are deemed to be later constructions than the simple single-chambered tombs.  "Earth fast" monuments (where one end of the capstone is embedded in the ground) are deemed to have been small and exposed, generally with room for just one corpse.  The authors ague that the siting of earth fast monuments (close to rock outcrops) was chosen so that they would be disguised in their surroundings.  They say: "This is important if a symbolic rather than a visual impact is to be created......."  When I read this, my heart started to sink even faster than it was doing already.  "For goodness sake, chaps," I thought. "Just forget the fantasies; earth fast monuments are close to rock outcrops because that is where the massive stones lay, and were available  to be propped up and used."

One interesting idea from the authors is that Pembrokeshire had a small and localised "passage grave" tradition in the Neolithic which was quite different from the tradition of building tombs of "monumental" proportions in Ireland and on Anglesey.  This brings into question MPP's idea that Pembrokeshire had a powerful clan with megalithic building traditions so well developed that they wanted to shift 80 or more bluestones from their home area to Stonehenge.  If power and status were that important to the Stonehenge people, why did they not do deals with more technically advanced and powerful tribes and choose stones from Anglesey and Ireland rather than a pathetic assortment of stones of all shapes and sizes (and variable durability) from north Pembrokeshire?

Most of the authors' consideration of the Neolithic tombs of Pembrokeshire is concerned with siting and spatial relationships, and here they get even more confused.  They say there is "an obvious affinity with the sea" in the siting of the monuments.  I disagree totally.  Only half a dozen or so are close to the sea -- the rest are inland, dotted all over the north of the county.  They say: "Many of the marine monuments in Wales... are locally-oriented in relation to the sea...."  For a start, I dispute the use of the term "marine monuments" -- and secondly, what on earth does that phrase about orientation actually mean?  They go on to refer to local orientations with respect to "certain topographic features" including mountain peaks, headlands and rivers.  Again, I fear that that is a completely meaningless assertion.  Every cromlech or grave site is of course located locally with respect to something or other -- a bog, a hillside, a valley, a river, a crag, an inlet, a cliff, a plateau........ That does not mean that there is a cause and effect relationship or that the landform in question was invested with some spiritual or mystical significance.

In a number of places in the book, the authors suggest that the upper surface of a cromlech (for example, Pentre Ifan) was carefully manufactured to mimic or mirror some distant prominent feature of the landscape.  The argument was, and is, unconvincing and fanciful, not least because many of the upper surfaces of cromlechs would have been covered by their mounds at the time when the builders were in a position to stand back and admire their handiwork.  Even with the mounds gone, and cromlech capstones now exposed in all their glory, I do not see the "landscape re-creations" that some archaeologists see.......  

After this, the authors really get going with a section on the "hidden architecture" of the tombs -- suggesting that tomb clusters possess territorial relationships.  It's a bit difficult to see what they are getting at, but the suggestion seems to be that each "cluster" of tombs (the Newport Group, the Fishguard Group, the St David's Group etc) contains different tombs with different spatial relationships -- ie one tomb related to a river, one related to the sea, one related to a prominent hill, and so forth.  "Each monument appears to take on a special role within the cluster."  Christopher Tilley (1993) is cited at length, and there is much about the "socio-political-symbolic nature of the body", about frames and skeletons and rib-cages replicated in the landscape, and even about the building of mounds as representations of flesh on the skeleton.    Oh dear.  I shall move swiftly on......

In another section on "Replicating the Landscape" the authors get even more confused and perhaps slightly deranged.  In seeking to show that each monument has its own unique morphology and spatial relationships, replicating or mirroring the essential features of the landscape round about, they end up in a frightful tangle, with some monuments deemed to point towards one particular topographic feature and others designed to point towards several different features at the same time.  Some are deemed to be at the peripheries of something or other, and some are deemed to be at the centre.  The ultimate in absurdity is in this sentence:  "The five chambers (of Cerrig y Gof), each possibly served by a small entrance, are aligned so as to ignore the rising and setting sun."

Before I totally lose the will to stay alive, here is a gigantic and earth-shattering hypothesis, based upon the above quote, and surely worthy of banner headlines around the globe:  "Stonehenge was cunningly built in such a fashion that all of the key alignments ignore solar solstice sunrises and everything else of astronomical importance, thus ensuring that the monument is of no significance whatsoever."

So far as I can see, there is no mention, anywhere in this book, of the possibility (I would call it a probability) that all of the chambered tombs in West Wales were built at locations where large suitable stones were readily available for use with minimal effort on the part of the builders.  Far too obvious, and far too simple?

Carreg Samson, near Mathry


TonyH said...

If, as you say, George Children and George Nash make use of "frequent analogies from Papua New Guinea, Madagascar etc", do they refer to those ethnic peoples having a tradition of megalith movement before assembly of monuments?

I have in the past had a look at their book, but don't recall whether they discuss this at all.

I think I am correct in saying that New Guinea has been mentioned by the likes of Professor Colin Richards in this respect. Madagascar has of course been used as a comparison with Stonehenge etc by Colin's archaeological colleague Mike PP .

BRIAN JOHN said...

Most of the discussion relating to these distant places is to do with death ceremonies, excarnation, embalming -- I don't think there is anything about stone moving ceremonials.

And yes, Prof MPP puts great stress on the Madagascar analogy in his latest book, with respect to Stonehenge and Rhosyfelin....