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.
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.
Related: Pentre Ifan chambered tomb.