Bryn Celli Ddu 

Passage Grave and Henge - Anglesey

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Rock Art

SH 50762 70193 (GPS 48min - top of mound)
Visited April 2002

Anglesey seems to be a treasure trove of very unusual megalithic structures, and Bryn Celli Ddu, one of the last megalithic tombs to be built on the island, is no exception.

There are actually two monuments at Bryn Celli Ddu, one built on the top of the other. The first monument was a Henge that contained a central stone circle, this was then almost completely covered by the chamber and cairn of the second monument, a Passage Grave. The sequence of the building of these monuments is interesting, Passage Graves are thought of as early monuments, yet this one must have been built in the Late Neolithic, because Henge monuments such as the one it covers, only start to appear in Britain towards the end of the Middle Neolithic. It seems there must be a dark tale of conflicting ideas back in the past of Bryn Celli Ddu, with the adherents of the old traditions destroying and then burying a monument that symbolised the introduction of new beliefs.

Henges are a uniquely British monument with no continental parallels, they are mainly found in England and Scotland, with examples in Wales and Ireland being rare. In the classic form a Henge is a circular area ringed by a ditch which is in turn, encircled by a bank. The bank and ditch are usually interrupted by one or more causeways giving access to the central space which often contained constructions of wood or stone.

The original Henge at Bryn Celli Ddu was not a large example of itís kind, itís central area had a diameter of about 20m, and this was surrounded by a 2m deep flat-bottomed ditch that was about 5m wide. There is no trace of a bank today but this is unsurprising as the Passage Grave builders would have probably robbed this for the construction of their cairn, and agricultural use of the land in later centuries would have removed any surviving traces. No evidence of causeways has been found, but the ditch was only explored to a small extent during the excavations of 1928, and the most likely location at the east is partially buried under the passage and forecourt area of the later tomb.

The central area of the Henge contained a stone circle, evidence of 14 large stones has been found but there is gap at the east which could easily have contained three more. It is unclear whether the eastern gap is original, or a consequence of the construction of the Passage Grave. The stone ring is not a true circle, it has a short axis of 17m and, if it were a full ring, a long axis of 20m. The stones are arranged so that lines through opposing pairs all intersect at the same point in the centre of the Henge, this fact and other findings mentioned later suggest that there may have also been a central construction of some kind. Small amounts of burnt bone and shattered quartz had been buried at the foot of some of the circle stones, and two of the stones each had the complete cremation of a young girl buried at their bases.

The remains of the stone circle bear testament to the destruction wrought on the Henge monument, 5 stones were removed, 2 toppled, 1 buried, and 6 broken. Excavation revealed that the broken stones had been toppled and then smashed by the dropping of heavy stones on them, all of the stones except one were intentionally damaged before being buried beneath the cairn. This deliberate destruction has to show a strong dislike of the beliefs that the stones represented, especially as it would have been much less effort to reuse the stones in the passage grave structure.

The Henge was in use for a considerable time before its destruction, long enough for its ditch to partially silt up, and for grass growth to build a deep organic layer on the ground surface.

At some time after the construction of the Henge, but before the construction of the Passage Grave, a pit was dug at the circle centre. About a metre or so in diameter and about 1.5m deep, a burnt human ear bone and wood were found at the bottom of the pit. After use, the pit had been filled in and covered with a flat stone, alongside this coverstone was another large stone with carved decoration. These finds, and the alignment of the stone circle mentioned above suggest that there was probably a central construction of some kind on the Henge. The decorated stone was simply buried, if it had been erect at the centre when the stone circle was savaged, it would surely have received special attention, but it seems to be intact. The course of events that resulted in the pit digging and the stone burial remain a mystery.

The carved stone was decorated on both sides, suggesting that it was meant to stand upright, and a replica of this stone has been erected near to the site of the pit. The decorations consist of long sinuous lines which pass over what is now the top of the stone from each side. The carvings on the north side have a kind of maze structure and incorporate a spiral, the southern side carvings have a more "zig-zag" appearance. The style of the carvings has some similarity to the carvings at Barclodiad y Gawres and to carvings found in some Irish Passage Graves. If this stone were originally free-standing, it would be the first of itís kind to be found in the British Isles.

The Passage Grave had a large cairn that completely buried the central area of the Henge, the much smaller cairn that can be seen today is a modern construction. Some 27m in diameter, the original cairn had a double kerb which was set at the bottom of the Henge ditch, so the ditch that is visible today is only half the width of the original. The kerbs were interfilled with dry stone walling, this was also continued above the kerbs to stabilise the cairn structure. Although double, only the outer ring of kerbs was visible for much of the circumference, the inner ring only emerging from under the cairn in the arc containing the passage entrance. While the outer kerb was used to form the walls of the passage, the inner kerbs sweep back above the outer passage walls up to the portal stones where they form a wall to retain the cairn material in this region.

The entire passage is about 8.5m long and about 1m wide, only the last 5m was roofed, the outer 3.5m was open, this division is marked by two large portal stones which originally had a lintel. Inside the passage are two unusual features, a low bench or shelf is incorporated into the north wall, and in the south wall are two niches in which there are two tiny standing stones. The significance of these enigmatic features is unknown. The small stones are particularly intriguing, looking like toy versions of the fallen circle stones. During our visit we noticed that the eastern stone had been uprooted and was now resting on the bench opposite itís original location.

The chamber is polygonal, about 2m wide, and constructed from six large side slabs and roofed with two large capstones. The most impressive feature of the chamber must be the large pillar that stands in the northern corner, reaching almost to the roof. The surface of this stone has been worked to give it an almost circular section, we noticed that one of the miniature standing stones in the passage seemed to have had similar surface treatment. Free-standing stones in burial chambers are very rare and a shaped pillar like this is probably unique. The function or significance of this stone can only be guessed at, but standing alone with it in the gloom of the chamber, it has a very imposing presence.

There is a carving on the southeast wall slab about 1m above the present floor level. The carving seems to be in the form of a spiral, but it is of very poor execution and is in no way comparable to the rock art found on the external carved stone. In fact, there is some dispute about this carving being an original feature of the tomb at all.

The tomb was sealed by the blocking of the outer passage with stones, earth and cremated bone. The inner passage was not blocked and the division was marked by the inclusion of a row of quartz boulders on the inner edge of the blocking material. The forecourt area at the entrance to the outer passage seems to have been the focus for ritual activity, fires had been burned here and a small platform of white quartz pebbles had been laid. Platforms of this kind have been discovered outside several Irish Passage Graves such as the one at Newgrange. Finally, on the blocking of the outer passage, the forecourt area was covered with fan-shaped layers of stones radiating out for 2-3m from the entrance. Further from the entrance, beyond the ditch, were found the bones of a young Ox surrounded by a three-sided construction of upright stones and post holes. It is not clear to which of the two monuments this feature belongs.

Bryn Celli Ddu is crammed with unusual features, and is a very pleasant monument to visit, especially for the megalithic fan that knows a little about its turbulent past.


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