Bryn Celli Ddu – a Neolithic chambered tomb

Bryn Celli Ddu – the name means Mound in the Dark Grove – is the best-known prehistoric monument on the island of Anglesey, if not Wales. This is an impressive monument even if it has a partially restored entrance passage and mound.

Bryn Celli Ddu is an example of  a Neolithic chambered tomb. It consists of a long passage that leads to a polygonal stone chamber. It was in this main chamber that people in the Neolithic placed their dead in communal burials. This type of burial was common across Britain in the Neolithic. Unlike many chambered tombs we see today, not only does it have a complete passage and burial chamber, it is also buried under a mound or cairn. This is part of the reconstruction undertaken after an excavation in 1929.

The first ‘modern’ archaeological excavations took place in 1865, and it was thoroughly excavated again in 1928–29. More recently there have been excavations which have taken in the wider landscape of the site. Radiocarbon dating has also been undertaken and these interventions have revealed even more of the long and complex history of the site.

Bryn Celli Ddu – some history

From all the evidence we have, archaeologists believe there was some activity at the site before the monument was was built. In 2006 results of radiocarbon dating of pine charcoal material from pits found underneath the tomb revealed a date of 4,000 BC, at the end of the Mesolithic period. No-one knows what these pits were used for.

The next stage seems to have begun around 1,000 years later, in the middle of the Neolithic. People constructed a broadly circular ditch with a bank on the outer edge. These were simply built by dumping the earth taken out for the ditch on one side! The ditch originally measured 21 meters in diameter. Archaeologists call this type of monument a ‘henge’ and many consider them to be ritual enclosures. There are over 100 henges in Britain and they range from 5m-500m in diameter! In addition to this, the ditch enclosed a circle of upright stones. The outer edge of the ditch can still be seen and several stones from the inner stone circle also survive.

Around another 1,000 years later (c2,000 BC), towards the end of the Neolithic, the henge made way for a passage tomb, a type of burial monument found around the Irish seaboard and as far afield as Brittany. This involved a dramatic reworking of the site.  The evidence shows that all but one of the standing stones were intentionally damaged. Others were deliberately knocked over and six were smashed. This demolition paved the way for the henge to be replaced by a passage grave.

Firstly, the burial chamber would have been constructed. After this it was enclosed within the mound. The original and much larger mound would have covered the passage tomb and had a complete circle of kerbstones following the line of the old henge ditch. This created a visually impressive retaining wall around the mound, some 26 m, or 85 ft, in diameter.

The original and much larger mound would have had a complete circle of kerbstones following the line of the old henge ditch. This created a visually impressive retaining wall around the mound, some 26 m, or 85 ft, in diameter.

Bryn Celli Ddu – burials

Individual burial in single graves was sometimes used during the Neolithic. More common was ‘communal burial’. Here the bones were typically defleshed by natural means and later collected together to be placed in stone tombs. Sometimes the bones were burnt and both burnt and unburnt bone has been found within Bryn Celli Ddu’s chamber and passage. The presence of both burnt and unburnt bone tells us that the people who used the tomb used a variety of funeral practices, but in all cases re-using the tomb, and clearing aside the old remains.

As well as the human bones, archaeologists have also found pieces of quartz, two flint arrowheads, a stone bead, and limpet and mussel shells. Within the main chamber a decorated/patterned stone has also been found. This was discovered near a ceremonial pit at the back of the chamber. A replica of the stone has been set up at the site.

Another common feature of Neolithic tombs is ‘closure’. Not in any modern sense of the word, but more literally. At the end of a tomb’s period of use they were ‘closed’ by means of placing large stones set across the entrance. At Bryn Celli Ddu such a stone was placed between the two portal stones.

Bryn Celli Ddu – today

When you visit the site today you will enter a passage that is 8.4 metres (28 ft) long. The first 3.4 metres (11 ft) being unroofed with a pair of portal stones. You can see these in the gallery below. The main passage itself runs between walls of vertical stone slabs and the are ‘roofed’ by a series of stone lintels. The largely earthen mound is a lot smaller than the original. This means that it no longer completely encloses the whole burial chamber, so the back wall is open to the air, allowing some natural light in.

What sets Bryn Celli Ddu apart from the other tombs on Anglesey, is that it is the only one to be accurately aligned to coincide with the rising sun on the longest day of the year. At dawn on midsummer solstice, shafts of light from the rising sun penetrate down the passageway to light the inner burial chamber. Although this was suggested many years ago, it was only confirmed as recently  as 1998!

Just a couple of years ago archaeologists found examples of late Neolithic rock art close to the tomb. Known as ‘cup and ring’, this art is found across Britain and appears to be a feature of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. There are many competing theories as to what the symbols mean, but no consensus as yet! There is an image of it in the gallery below.

Was sunlight was meant to bring warmth and life to the ancestors?

Bryn Celli Ddu – gallery

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One Response to Bryn Celli Ddu – a Neolithic chambered tomb

  1. Pingback: Archaeology in Anglesey – There’s just so much! (Pt2) » Enrichment Through Archaeology

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