The Megalithic Dolmen in My Neighborhood

NB: I was wrong about there having not be an excavation at St Lythan’s burial chamber. You can read about it here: https://tinkinswoodarchaeology.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/final-dig-diary-for-st-lythans/ 

I am exaggerating slightly when I say there is a megalithic dolmen in my neighborhood. In reality, the St Lythans burial chamber (in Welsh: Siambr Gladdu Llwyneliddon) is few miles away from my house.

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The St Lythans burial chamber was built around 6,000 BP, composed of enormous slabs of fine-grained sedimentary rock called mudstone. The dolmen possibly predates the settlement of the Celtic British tribe called the Silures in the area. These huge rocks were put together as part of a chambered long barrow, a sort of communal tomb, during the mid Neolithic period, so actual cave people from the stone age – people who made spear tips from flint and hunted the giant Irish elk and feared being eaten by the brown bears still flourishing in isles – built it. This thing was put together when wooly mammoths were still alive and making baby wooly mammoths. The descendants of the people who made it wouldn’t start work on Stonehenge until more than 1500 years after this was created.

It is old as hell, is what I am saying.

And it is right out in a middle of a field, Maesyfelin (The Mill Field), for people to look at. It’s expected that no one will try to damage it. It is simply assumed there are no asshats in Wales low enough to torque with Neolithic monuments sacred to Welsh prehistory. You can walk right up to it and touch it. The only things guarding it are … cows. Welsh cows, and therefore fierce bovines I’m sure, but still … cows. Two of them stared right at me when I approached the dolmen. I assume they were monitoring me for sudden signs of vandalism.

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In Welsh it is called a cromlech, a combination of crwn — meaning curved, and llech – meaning slab-like. It is also called Gwâl y Filiast (English: The Greyhound Bitch’s Kennel) because the owners of the estate it stood on, the Button family, supposedly used it as an animal shelter for their prize hunting dogs. Local folklore had it that each Midsummer‘s Eve, the capstone spun around three times and then all the stones went down to the nearby River Waycock, a tributary of the River Thaw (Afon Ddawan), to get clean.

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The St Lythan’s burial chamber has a east/west alignment, with the mouth of the dolmen facing east. As with most cromlechs, it is likely that the burial chamber would have originally had a forecourt, which was probably used as a religious site. The dolmen would have most likely been covered by a earthen, man-made hill called a tumulus, the ‘barrow’ structure which gives the various Neolithic barrow chambers their name. The entrance of the cromlech would have resembled the mouth of a cave, a way into the womb of Mother Earth, a bit like Belas Knap.

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The bodies of the dead were, according to archeological theory, probably left exposed and subjected to natural decomposition, and only the bones – perhaps placed in sacred pots or boxes – were put inside the burial chamber itself.  The barrow over the St Lythan’s cromlech has either been eroded or was dug away, leaving only the much lower barrow behind it. There is some speculation that since the chamber was taller than the ones usually constructed, it might have never been fully covered over.

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It is only speculation, but I cannot help but imagine that the Stone Age people thought that symbolically re-entering an eternal womb was the best way to be reborn into an afterlife, much in the same way they had been born into this one by mortal women. Did the sun, by setting in the west, ‘die’ each day and go to the land of the dead as well? Is that why the back of the mound aligned with the west? Did these ancient people believe one was reborn here after a suitable time? Were the ancestors within the tomb worshiped as well as revered? Was the earth’s womb symbolic of the Mother Goddess who appeared to be worshiped in the Neolithic period? Did the dead return to her? Was she even worshiped the way that modern humans conceptualize worship? Was she the one who birthed the sun each day, and was she the one to whom they begged good crop yields?

We cannot know. We can only wonder and speculate.

The St Lythan’s burial chamber would have been more than just a sacred place to lay the bones of your forbearers, though. According to Dr Francis Pryor, these sites also served as centers “to socialise, to meet new partners, to acquire fresh livestock and to exchange ceremonial gifts”.  The reason the Stone Age people of Cymru went to such trouble to build them was because they were important, much like the Medieval Church functioned as the epicenter of the community as much as a religious house.

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Alas, the site, which is now lovingly maintained by the perpetually cash-strapped Cadw (English: to keep), the Welsh Historic Environment Agency, was mucked about with by William Collings Lukis, an amateur Victorian barrow-digger. A report from 1976 claimed his dig found, “Human remains and coarse pottery … in 1875 [located in] the debris thrown out from the interior, which partly fills the hollow of the original forecourt in the E (sic) end of the mound.”

The idea of Lukis (or any of the Victorian wanna-be archeologists) flinging invaluable archeological data out of the interior of the chamber in his quest for cool shit to add to his collection, makes me want to scream.

Some things have made their way to the surface and been picked up there. These finds “are held in the St Fagans National History Museum …They are a fine leaf-shaped flint arrowhead, a fragment of polished stone axe and several flight flakes.” There was also some conservation work was carried out by Cadw in 1992–93, when exposed areas of the barrows were recovered with sod.

Everything about St Lythan’s burial chamber is theoretical, inasmuch as it has never been professionally excavated. It is thought that MAYBE it is connected to the nearby cave at Goldsland Wood, Wenvoe, where the remains of “seven neolithic humans have been excavated … together with pottery and flint blades dating from between 5,000 to 5,600 BP. Although there is no evidence … it is thought that the corpses had been placed there until they had decomposed … [before being] removed to sites such as the St Lythans Burial Chamber”. But no one really knows anything for sure. The dolmen is as much of a mystery to us as it was mystical to the Stone Age villagers who banded together to build it.

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I am going back to see it soon — to look at it, touch it, and cogitate on the lives of its builders and what they hoped to achieve with it. I am returning … just as soon as I work up the nerve to get past the guard-cows again.

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