As visible today, Tinkinswood is in a restored state following extensive excavations in 1914 by John Ward, first Keeper of Archaeology in the National Museum of Wales.
It gives a good impression of how megalithic tombs like this would have appeared in the past, although originally the capstone and the south side would have been completely covered with an earthen mound. It is set in a sloping valley with views to the south-west towards Barry. The site lies above a small stream, which has cut through the limestone. Geologically it is in an area of Triassic formation. It would have been an attractive place for Early Neolithic activity or settlement, with a water supply close by, soil suitable for cultivation, and with a variety of locally available lithic materials. Considerable patches of rock are exposed as you approach Tinkinswood to the left, in which great tabular masses are seen in their full thickness. This site is known as ‘The Quarry’ – a name probably suggested by its appearance, recognised as a suitable area to quarry for stone, and perhaps the origins of the mud-stone used at Tinkinswood itself. This area will be cleared to reveal the stones. Here’s what it looks like today:
The burial mound at Tinkinswood is more or less rectangular in outline, with an external revetment wall. At the east end there is a wide shallow forecourt giving access to a simple rectangular terminal chamber with just one cell. The capstone is massive (7m by 4.6m by 1m thick), weights more than 40 tonnes and is the largest in Wales. The entrance into the chamber is narrow and set towards the northern side of the flat face at the rear of the forecourt. The remains of more than 50 individuals were found within the chamber, along with small quantities of broken pottery and worked flint. A study on these human remains revealed that the chamber was in use at around 3700 cal. BC. A rather unusual Bronze Age Beaker bowl was the latest kind of pottery present, probably placed within a series of blocking deposits.
Some of the forecourt walls have been reconstructed, the new build being distinguished by the herringbone pattern of stonework; a modern pillar has been inserted in the chamber to help support the capstone. The main body of the cairn comprises rubble and stone blocks. Several larger slabs within the stonework of the cairn suggest the existence of pre-cairn structures or later secondary burials inserted into the mound.
One substantial slab-lined cist within the cairn on the north side is still kept open to view. It has been suggested that it was almost certainly secondary, as a number of disarticulated human remains were found in and around the cist, along with a few fragmented animal bones, of pig, oxen and sheep. These were the only human remains found during the original excavation in addition to those in and near the chamber, and nowhere else were animals’ bones, otherwise than rare.
Another curious feature of the mound, but not visible to see today, are several stone rows placed north-south in alignment inside the cairn. When originally excavated, these rows were thought to be remains of other cist-like enclosures, but on closer inspection, and in light of several comparative studies, it is possible that these were intended to add stability to the structure by preventing any slippage from one compartment to the others. Even so, in the case of Tinkinswood they do not appear substantial enough for this purpose. Alternatively, it has been argued that this practice reflects a division of labour, with families taking charge of filling their own compartment, making the building at Tinkinswood a communal activity.
The tomb has collected a number of folk tales over the years. The best known of these legends is that anyone who spends a night at this site on the evenings preceding May Day, St John’s Day (23rd June), or Midwinter Day would either die, go raving mad, or become a poet. The group of boulders to the south of the monument is said to be women turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath: a common theme in the folklore surrounding megalithic sites, just like the Merry Maidens in Cornwall.
This post is based on combination on online resources.