We had no idea where we would be taken for the final visit of the day. We suspected an ancient site as the area is just strewn with them. A brief glance at a map of prehistoric sites had left me wishing we were going to be in the region for at least the whole summer… you would need it to have any chance at all of seeing surviving remnants of our ancestors. We were not disappointed. A short drive and a shorter walk and we found ourselves at the neolithic burial chambers of Dyffryn Ardudwy.
It is immediately impressive and unusual, though the brilliant sunlight reflecting on white stone and the deep shadows cast by a stand of oaks made it difficult, at first, to take in the full scope of what we were seeing. Small rocks cover an area around a hundred feet long by fifty feet wide. It is roughly trapezoidal in shape and, once again, reminiscent of the ceremonial stone axes that played such an important part in the culture of our ancestors.
These axes, particularly those made in the most renowned ‘factories’ were traded across the country and even through Europe. So many have been found unused, buried as grave goods or offerings, that they seem to have been much more than a mere practical tool. These ‘axe factories’ where the stone was quarried and crafted all seem to be in areas where the stone itself has special beauty of properties…and they are always in areas where major stone circles and monuments remain.
You have to wonder why. Was the stone itself prized for its qualities, or was it more to do with the location from whence it came? What did the shape represent, a mere stylising of a more practical form or did it hark back to early and symbolic representations of the womb of the goddess? That we will never know… but the shape itself crops up far too often at these sites to be ignored.
There are two burial chambers set within the field of stones. The smallest, set to the west and facing east, is the oldest. In fact, it is amongst the earliest of such tombs in the country, dating back possibly six thousand years. To put that in perspective, it was already ancient before the Great Pyramid was conceived.
There are many dolmens and traces of the ancient past around the village and a glance at the map shows some startling alignments across the landscape. The church of St Dwywe within the parish was built upon one ancient mound. A straight track from the church runs past the cairn of Cors-y-gedol to another cairn on Moelfre that aligns with the summer solstice. On the hills above Dyffryn Ardudwy, a line of standing stones tracks across the mountains. There can be no question of the importance of the area to our ancestors.
The smaller, older chamber is a classic shape, with tall pillars at the eastern entrance. They support a massive, sloped capstone and between them, a blocking stone still stands, closing the chamber. In front of the blocked entrance is a shallow ‘V’ shaped ‘pit’. Excavations in the 1960s found no bones within the chamber, but fragments of deliberately broken shouldered urns and polished stone plaques were found in the pit.
When it was first constructed, the smaller chamber was enclosed within a round barrow. Almost all dolmens were so enclosed, the shape of the barrow changing over time. Most had a passage or forecourt that gave entrance to the tomb which was often used for multiple burials, with bones being added and removed over the years. It would seem that to our ancestors, their ancestors still had a part to play in the life of their communities.
The most curious feature of the western tomb, though, is the enigmatic carving that adorns the stones… stones that would have been buried and out of sight. Except, perhaps, to the dead. We have come across this too in many places and it suggests that these were not ‘just’ burial places, but houses of the dead, where the dead were seen to have a life after their own fashion.
The larger chamber also faces the east, but is in a slightly more battered state. Local stone has been used to shore up the slowly sighing uprights and though the stonework of the repair is obvious, it has been done with some sympathy.
In front of the entrance, you can still see the line of larger boulders and a single standing stone that would have formed part of the forecourt. When the second chamber was constructed, the covering mound grew to include and encompass the earlier round barrow. When you consider how much stone remains that has not been robbed over the centuries and how much more it would take to build a hill of that height and area, enough to cover both the chambers and the twenty five feet in between, you begin to get some idea of the scale of these constructions. To see the sunlight gleaming on white stone, even today, is a striking sight. Especially as it turns the white stones blue… echoing the sea and sky… and the blue light we found at the start of our adventures.
Light seems to play an important role at all these sites, even though many of them would never have seen the sun once construction was complete. Did our forefathers deliberately include the light within their houses of the dead? We know that they did; famously at Newgrange and we have found evidence at other sites we have visited too. The play of light in the larger chamber, though, can only have been a fortuitous gift when it cast a hawk at my feet, flying into the east.
We explored…. not to our heart’s content, but as time allowed. Then, to honour the place and the solstice, we shared a simple ritual of light and darkness, passing, appropriately enough, through the brilliant sunshine and the velvet shadows cast by the trees. As we prepared to depart, something was nagging from the stones and a persistent black and gold dragonfly convinced us to linger when the rest of our companions had left. The dragonfly seemed to approve…. and what better approval than that of a dragon could you have in Wales?
You always know when it is time to leave these sites. There is an indefinable shift in the feel of the place. Leave too soon and you may miss the gifts. Linger too long and you spoil the magic. You can only listen to the land and the moment… and wait to see what the next moment brings. And that means every minute is fraught with possibility.