Communing With The Ancestors At Dyffryn Ardudwy

60 dyffryn ardudwy effect

Scan an ordnance survey map of Wales, and especially the county of Gwynedd where we were a couple of weeks ago, and you will soon spot a host of prehistoric remains: hut circles, standing stones and chambered tombs. They can be found on the coast, in the immediate hinterland and in the uplands of Snowdonia, thus giving an impression of a very busy ancestral landscape.

Of course there is no way of knowing if these are the scant remains of many more monuments, lost to collapse, deliberate destruction and/or repurposing by later populations, or if they roughly represent the sum of the stone-built prehistoric past. Another problem is dating them. For example, Neolithic chambered tombs appear to have served the whole community, were constantly re-used and so remained in use over a considerable period of time. On our recent Wales trip we found a good example in the little village of Dyffryn Ardudwy (OS grid ref: SH585235), one of a group of 6 similar monuments between Barmouth and Harlech.

The unusual feature here is there are the two burial chambers in close proximity, the earliest (far right in header photo) dating from around 6,000 years ago and built by Neolithic farmers. This was originally covered by a small oval cairn, but with a forecourt facing east. Shards of Neolithic pottery were found during excavations.

Sometime later, the larger easterly chamber was constructed, and the whole area including the earlier chamber and its surrounding cairn, was covered by a large trapezoidal barrow  some 100 feet (30 metres) long. This construction phase also included a forecourt facing east. These forecourts are thought to have provided the ceremonial setting for funerary rituals. The big scatter of rubble is all that is left of the mound. Over succeeding millennia it has doubtless provided a handy source of building material.

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The building of such monuments suggests that Neolithic communities had both plenty of human-power and the spare time to do the building work.  And while the large chamber slabs most likely came from the immediate vicinity, they still had to be shifted and lifted.

From our consumption-heavy perspective is easy to think that stone age life was tough and impoverished. But the coastal region would have been very rich in resources – not only a range of seafood, especially shellfish, but also the wildfowl, fish and game of the salt marsh estuaries to supplement farm produce.

The immediate hillside area was anyway still occupied two plus millennia later by Bronze Age-Iron Age people. In the next field to the burial cairns are the stone foundations of two circular houses together with evidence of field terracing and an enclosure. So life went on there, though probably with settlers of quite different/or at least mixed cultural origins.

But one of the most beguiling features of the Dyffryn ‘house of the dead’ in our era is that it feels embraced. The path to it runs beside the village community centre and then beside the primary school, the setting is cared for, pastoral, almost domestic. It’s reminding me of a chambered tomb of the cromlech variety I once spotted on a lane skirting a Breton farmyard. The tomb had been incorporated into the outbuildings; the past very purposely repurposed and impressively too. Adaptive re-use as conservation persons are wont to say. I like it.

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Related: Pentre Ifan chambered tomb.

37 thoughts on “Communing With The Ancestors At Dyffryn Ardudwy

      1. The Cambrian line apparently – runs from Shrewsbury to Dovey Junction, with a choice from there – either up the coast to Pwllheli or down the coast to Aberystwyth. Much of line runs along the seaside.

      2. Only visited once, when I was about 11….but I was enchanted by the deserted mining village of Nant Gwtheyrn, at Vortigerns Valley

      3. Good to have reminder of the post, Sue. Very formative it seems re your photographic interests. Also now I see mention of the village becoming a Welsh Language Centre, that’s ringing a bell. We may have driven past it in more recent times.

      4. Very formative, Tish! And I never went back, as once the place got remodelled, it wouldn’t have had any atmosphere

  1. This is new to me. When we lived in England, Stonehenge was one of the first things we had to see. Then we found Avebury, and others. Never found out about Dyffryn Ardudwy until today. Thanks, Tish.
    Is the term “Prehistoric History” an oxymoron?

  2. Britain has an amazing number of very old sites. I always wonder how early it was settled — and by whom. One of the things I do miss about living in the “new world” is the absence of most ancient sites. We do have a big one not far from here. I don’t think it is nearly as anywhere near as old as most of your sites, but they are still working on it.

    Everywhere we traveled in England, Wales and Ireland, we found all kinds of sites and cairns and strange stone monuments. Many of them were not in any of the books we had, but we were lucky to meet people who had stories to tell, most of which appear to have been accurate. Avebury was (to me, anyway) the most impressive site just in sheer enormity.

    I love reading about The Old Places. Thank you for this treat!

    1. So happy to provide a treat, Marilyn. The oldest signs of humanity found so far date back to around 700,000 years ago – based on an assemblage of flint tools found in Norfolk. The hunter-gatherer makers were thought to be homo antecessor, an archaic human form. Neanderthals were here 400,000 years ago in a very warm period after the Anglian glaciation. But the earliest actual remains of Homo Sapiens are from Devon, 40,000 years ago – so Paleolithic hunter gatherers – again probably during a warm/warmish interglacial, and probably only visiting.

      Continuous occupation appears to date from 12,000 years ago with the big warming up after the last Ice Age – so called Mesolithic hunter-gatherers presumably arriving from the European mainland.

      The Natural History Museum have produced this nice graphic explanation of prehistoric Britain:
      https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/the-making-of-an-island.html

      1. Thank you VERY much for the information. I signed up with your museum. I already get Smithsonian and National Geographic material plus New England History. There’s just not a lot of places to look. Native Americans didn’t build with stone and where they did, it was knocked down and built over a long time ago.

        You live in a great area for research. There’s just ONE area like that nearby. It’s called “America’s Stonehenge.” It’s not a henge, but it is stone, a long, complex cairn and caverns. Used and reused. No one is entirely sure by whom because no human remains have been found, though if they ever manage to get further into the structures, there might be. Much of this area is half buried in swamp, so archaeology is taking a LONG time to avoid the stones sinking into mud. Much of southern New England has high ground water i.e., wetlands. Land can look solid, but under the grass, it’s quick mud. It isn’t going to kill you, but it sure can make a mess of you or your car if you park in the wrong place.

        We have protected wetlands in our backyard. Not that we are likely to be building anything. The land is great for birds and other wild things. If by some miracle there should be an upsurge in employment in this region, the developers will be suddenly be here, bulldozers at the ready. I hate developers.

        There was a land bridge during the various ice ages across the Bering Sea — I’m sure you already know that. Presumably that’s when our Natives arrived, but it’s shocking how little research has been done.

      2. Yes, the Bering land bridge. I did my undergraduate prehistory dissertations on the Inuit – not so much from their archaeological perspective, as to whether prehistorians could learn anything worthwhile about past hunter-gatherer communities by studying extant, or recently departed ones.

        At the time, much of what I was reading had humanity arriving in the Americas in recent post-glacial times. Now I gather that date’s been pushed back to around 30,000 years ago.

        My thought has always been, well how many times in the very distant past might the Bering land bridge have been open, thus allowing far earlier incursions.. And why not Neanderthal hunters for example. They appear to have been more intelligent than us, if cranial capacity is anything to go by. So yes, more research needed.

        Interesting about the New England wetlands. I’d sort of gathered that when we were visiting Maine, but without really forming a coherent picture, beyond pondering on how many indigenous communities had been lost in the face of European settlement, their former existence seemingly only evidenced in place names.

      3. It’s why Jericho doesn’t exist. It was built of mud bricks, so while there are “ruts” where the walls were, there are no walls. None at all. If it wasn’t built of stone, 1000 year is more than adequate to eliminate it entirely. The one Native settlement that was mostly stone are the original Pueblo — but they abandoned that huge settlement because of (are you ready for history repeating itself?) — a 50 year drought. I guess is never occurred to anyone that this might happen again.

        The only thing from the first Temple in Jerusalem that’s still around are the stone footings that go down to bedrock. The original temple was built from cedar — which is why there are no cedars in Lebanon. Solomon bought them to build a temple. The Lebanese clear-cut the forest. No more cedars. Isn’t it fun knowing we’ve been messing up the earth for so many years?

        Indigenous communities were intentionally mobile. We don’t know all the “old stories,” but there is one consistent theme which is that no one OWNED the land. They didn’t build permanent settlements even when they didn’t move with the seasons. When I was a lot younger, I thought it was because they didn’t have the tools or the stones, but I’ve come to the conclusion that they didn’t want to build anything permanent. Except for those Pueblos — and look how THAT turned out?

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