Continuing the journey through the Ardudwy region of Gwynedd, North Wales, situated between the coastal towns of Barmouth and Harlech on the A496 is the village of Dyffryn Ardudwy. Lying on the narrow coastal strip between the sandy beaches of Tremadog Bay to the west and the foothills of Snowdonia to the east, Dyffryn Ardudwy stands on the Llanbedr slate formation, but higher up, at the 150m contour, the slate gives way to the grits of the Rhinogydd, the mountains at the centre of a great uplift of sedimentary rocks that geologists call the Harlech Dome, stretching from Snowdon in the north to Cadair Idris in the south, created long ago in the Cambrian era, the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record. These Welsh rocks are one of the oldest known geological formations in the world.
To the west is some of the best beach in Wales at the spectacular National Nature Reserve of Morfa Dyffryn with its natural sand dune system stretching for about about 7km from Afon Ysgethin in the south to Afon Artro at Llanbedr in the north, on their short journeys westward to the sea after rising at mountain lakes in the Rhinogydd. At the southern end of the village, next to the school, is Dyffryn Ardudwy's most famous and one of the easiest accessed prehistoric attractions; the two prehistoric comlechs forming the twin burial chambers of a once huge cairn. I believe only one, the elder, western monument, is a true portal dolmen in the cromlech tradition; its later, eastern counterpart is a much cruder burial chamber, collectively, as one monument, they are termed the 'Burial Chambers of Dyffryn Ardudwy.'
This multi-phased monument, formerly known as 'Arthur's Quoit', is one of the largest Neolithic funerary monuments in North Wales, excavated by T. G. E. Powell in the early 1960s, it is one of three similar monuments known within the locality, all occupying the gentle west-facing slopes of Moelfre looking over Tremadog Bay. Powell recognised two clear construction phases at Dyffryn Arduwy, each phase comprising a chamber and associated cairn, with its origins firmly embedded in the portal dolmen tradition of the Neolithic era. At sometime during the later Neolithic the users of the monument embarked on an enlargement program and constructed an eastern chamber. This is the largest monument in the Harlech Group which Powell (1973) envisaged had a large trapezoidal cairn constructed of rounded boulders made from water-lain local Cambrian grits, measuring 28m × 15m, enclosing both chambers and the original western oval cairn. However, there is a strong argument for a platform defining a scared enclosure, perhaps not so far removed from the site as it is today; it is difficult to imagine why they would cover the capstones of these early cromlechs, shaped and angled in many cases to mimic a significant feature in the surrounding landscape.
The Harlech Group consists of six prehistoric monuments situated on the western intermediate slopes of the Rhinog range overlooking the Irish Sea and the Lleyn peninsula. Four of the group have been classified by archaeologists as portal dolmens (in Welsh cromlech; literally 'bent, or crooked stone'): Gwern Einion; Bron-y-Foel-Isaf-West; Dyffryn Ardudwy; Cors-y-Gedol. The latest wisdom has reclassified Bron-y-Foel-Isaf-East as of probable natural origin, although this is debatable.
In Chris Grooms' tome on the Giants of Wales, Cewri Cymru ( Edwin Mellen, 1993), he lists no less than thirty-one instances of 'Coetan Arthur' (Arthur's Quoit) as the name commonly occurring with prehistoric cromlechs and burial chambers, with the names of the capstones making the greater part of the listing. And these do not include all the other antiquities and natural features bearing Arthurian place-names such as Arthur's Chair, Arthur's Stone, Arthur's Grave and such like. Not that many of them possess any direct Arthurian connections but because it became common practice to connect Arthur the Giant with everything huge or exceptional, or so we are told. Yet many argue for a Bronze Age Arthur; there has not yet been a satisfactory explanation for so why so many prehistoric monuments bear the name.
Quoting the 19th writings of Willam Davies, Grooms lists three instances of Coetan Arthur amongst the thirty-one: Bron-y-Foel; Dyffryn Ardudwy; Cors-y-Gedol. The quoted tradition states that Arthur threw them all from the top of Moelfre, 590m high, 3 miles to the east, to the places they now rest; it is believed that the marks of his gigantic fingers are the indentations that can be seen on the capstone of the eastern chamber of Dyffryn Ardudwy.
The other two monuments, situated at the southern end of the Harlech Group, Carneddau Hengwm South and Carneddau Hengwm North ('Cairns of the Old Valley'), which George Nash (Logaston, 2006) considers as two of the most important monuments in Wales, both regarded as belonging to the classic Cotswold-Severn Group owing to the survival of their, now denuded, long cairn mounds. From both monuments there is a clear view to Moelfre, one of the most distinctive mountains in the area with its domed profile. At Carneddau Hengwm North two of the lateral chambers are aligned directly on Moelfre and as one approaches the southern chamber the mountain is skylined above the mass of the cairn. Furthermore, Moelfre would have been immediately visible as one exits the northern chamber. From these sites it is possible to see the Preseli mountains in south Wales on the distant horizon; the place where the sky meets the earth.
One of the characteristics of virtually all megalithic constructions is that they possess a restricted view in at least one direction. Notably, all the monuments in the Harlech Group have clear views of the Snowdon massif with the exception of the twin monuments at Dyffryn Ardudwy. Yet, obversely, very few monuments in north-west Wales share intervisibility: these megalithic monuments appear to have been very carefully positioned in the landscape.
The orientation of the four cromlech monuments of Gwern Einion, Bron-y-Foel-Isaf-West, Dyffryn Ardudwy and Cors-y-Gedol appear to be consistent in that their chambers and long mound axes are all roughly in the same direction, east-west, directing one's gaze from the sea to the mountains. This orientation is clearly significant as it is found repeated again and again at other coastal Neolithic locations in Wales; perhaps they were directional or territorial markers? In many instances the shape of the capstone bears a further significance to the surrounding landscape, sometimes mirroring the mountain outline against the sky which makes the suggestion that these cromlechs were completely covered over by a burial mound seem nonsensical. The early cromlechs seems quite different in location and purpose to the burial chambers of long mounds of say the Cotswold-Severn Group, as is perfectly emphasised at Dyffryn Ardudwy.
The Dyffryn Ardudwy monument is located on the edge of the coastal plain, 50m above mean sea level, on the western slopes of the Rhinogydd, less than 2km from the sea which is clearly visible from the site. The forecourts to both monuments face inland, with their backs to the sea. While the sea can be viewed from both monument forecourts, the southern Lleyn peninsula can only be seen from the eastern chamber. Intentional interplay with the landscape is apparent at many similar monuments in Wales (Cummings and Whittle, 2004).
Approaching from the footpath past the Dyffryn Ardudwy school you come to the western cromlech first which is also the smaller and earlier of the two, resembling the other cromlechs of this Group, such as Gwern Einion, and its position being similar to Cors-y-Gedol in that they are both close to fresh running water, Afon Ysgethin.
The Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments became concerned about the stability of the larger cromlech and commissioned Powell to carry out excavations in the early 1960s. He interpreted the monument as being of two clear construction phases, each consisting of its own chamber and cairn. The earlier, western monument is a relatively modest cromlech consisting of a chamber 2.5m x 1m, supported on six uprights, closed with a blocking slab. Powell reports that the chamber had been rifled and found only three small sherds of Beaker ware, but a V-shaped forecourt converged on two portal stones and contained a shallow ritual pit containing several sherds of fine undecorated Neolithic vessels. This cromlech is said to have been originally enclosed under its own oval cairn of 8.5m x 9m.
Later, a second, larger, chamber was constructed about 10m north-east from the first. This second monument was partitioned with a western chamber about 2.3m x 2m with an eastern entrance blocked by stones. It has been suggested that a gap in the north chamber wall provided a side entrance permitting the tomb to be reopened for further insertions of burials after the formal entrance had been blocked. Uprights to the east and south-east of the southern portal stone have been interpreted as a vestigial forecourt.
Undisturbed pottery deposits in the forecourt and blocking area of the eastern burial chamber has been dated to later than the construction of the western cromlech. Further fragments decorated with fingernail impressions have been interpreted as possible indications of the spread of Beaker culture influence into the area. Seven flints were found amongst the cairn stones and a leaf-shaped arrow head was found beneath the cairn edge near the eastern chamber.
A small amount of tomb deposit in the eastern chamber survived but was limited to fine dark earth and a small concentration of cremated remains representing one individual. There were also two broken shale pendants found amongst the undisturbed deposit in the eastern chamber. These pendants have been sourced to Mynydd Rhiw on the tip of the Lleyn peninsula, 39km across the sea, the source of group XXI axes, and visible from only the eastern chamber. Perhaps deliberately broken like many funerary deposits; the lower halves of the pendants have not been found.
In 2008 George Nash and Adam Stanford recorded a series of faint grooved, pecked lines and a number of small, regularly spaced notches on the northern face of the southern upright within the entrance area of the western cromlech. This newly discovered megalithic art at Dyffryn Ardudwy possibly includes chevrons, lines, a lozenge and several groups of small cupules at the base of the upright, similar to those found on stones L8 and C16 within the passage grave at Barclodiad y Gawres in Anglesey. Single cupules are also carved onto stones incorporated into the chamber and passage architecture and on the capstone of Barclodiad y Gawres. A single cupule was found on the north-eastern upright within the entrance area of the western cromlech at Dyffryn Ardudwy opposite the megalithic art on the southern portal stone.
There appears to be a clear relationship between Neolithic mortuary monuments, notably passage graves, and megalithic art. Yet there is little evidence to support the use of the earliest cromlechs as a funerary monuments; the limited human remains found at these sites may be secondary intrusions placed through gaps in the supporting stones. The western cromlech at Dyffryn Ardudwy has a large slab underneath which had been undisturbed. Powell suggested this natural stone may have influenced the positioning of the monument.
However, cupmarks and depressions appear to bear a significance on the capstones of cromlechs; at Bachwen on the Llyn Peninsula the capstone is completely covered with over 100 cupules and the presence of 45 shallow cupmarks on the Trefael stone in Pembrokeshire lends support to the likelihood of it being the capstone of a fallen cromlech.
The megalithic art at Dyffryn Ardudwy contains geometric designs consistent with the passage grave tradition of north-western Europe, although it is clear that Dyffryn Ardudwy does not possess any passage grave traits within its architecture. It was generally considered, based on radiocarbon dating on Irish passage graves, that megalithic art within the Irish Sea zone was a late Neolithic phenomenon. Yet it is not clear if the relationship between megalithic art and funerary monuments is contemporary with their construction and early use, or a later embellishment.
Megalithic art is now strongly considered to be characteristically late Neolithic or early Bronze Age in date, yet construction is attributed to the early Neolithic, based partly on the pottery sequence at Dyffryn Ardudwy and the geometric designs on the two uprights within the entrance area of the western cromlech suggests that it was in use, at least periodically, during the later part of the Neolithic. This would seem to confirm the monument's period of construction and later re-use, which fits well with the proposal that the earlier cromlech was incorporated in to the design of a larger monument with the later eastern, burial chamber.
However, there is some rock art on the western cromlech at Dyffryn Ardudwy that the archaeologists rarely mention, if at all. The top of the southern portal stone on the western cromlech, that is the left-hand stone as you look at the cromlech from the eastern burial chamber toward the sea, is decorated with a series of inscribed arcs, perhaps nine or ten, reducing in radius from the chamber side outwards. Why is this decoration never mentioned? Silence is usually a sign that the feature is suspect; perhaps because Powell did not record it in his excavation report.
The grooves on the top of the southern portal stone are shown photographed on the Welsh Rock Art Organisation web page for Dyffryn Ardudwy but there is no mention of them in the text. Indeed it is not mentioned in any of the sources listed below. The inscribed arcs are under the capstone, although not supporting it, and would certainly have been difficult, but not impossible, to carve after construction. The possibility that the southern portal stone was re-used from a previous setting cannot be dismissed which may indicate it was used in an even older monument; the biography of certain megaliths is becoming increasingly recognised as having significance in monument building.
Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
Notes & References:
Chris Grooms, The Giants of Wales; Cewri Cymru, Edwin Mellen, 1993.
George Nash, The Architecture of Death: Neolithic chambered tombs in Wales, Logaston Press, 2006.
George Nash and Adam Stanford, New megalithic art at the Neolithic chambered monument of Dyffryn Ardudwy, North Wales, Rock Art Research 2009 -Volume 26, Number 1 – available through the Welsh Rock Art Organisation website
TGE Powell, Excavation of the Megalithic Chambered Cairn at Dyffryn Ardudwy, Merioneth, Wales, Archaeologia 104, 1973.
Vicki Cummings and Alasdair Whittle, Places of Special Virtue, Oxbow, 2004.
John Godfrey Williams, Arthur: Prehistoric Sites & Place-names, West House Books, 1993.
* * *