The island of Anglesey has a personality all of its own. Sheltered in the lee of Snowdonia, it is the only area of fertile and accessible land in a region of high and barren mountains. It is, therefore, not surprising that settlers have been drawn to its shores from the dawn of history. And they have left us some of the most inspiring monuments in Wales.
Although it is Anglesey’s fertility that sets it apart from the mountains of the mainland, the sea has also played an important role in shaping the island’s archaeology. Anglesey enjoyed easy contact with regions across the Irish Sea. This may account for the abundance of Neolithic burial and ritual monuments dotted across the island – built around 5,000 years ago.
Among the most remarkable of these monuments are what archaeologists call “passage tombs”. They are impressive mounds that cover stone-lined passages and chambers for bones and grave goods such as pots. Inside these chambered rock tombs is some of the most peculiar and enigmatic art that dates from this period, and we are fortunate to have two well-preserved passage tombs in Anglesey — Bryn Celli Ddu and Barclodiad y Gawres.
This type of tomb was built across the west and north of the British Isles around 3000 BC but the reason for building them is still open for discussion. Religious and seasonal ceremonies may have played a large part, as well as the need of successive generations to build bigger and more complex monuments. Unfortunately, our knowledge about where people lived and evidence of domestic life in the Neolithic period is pretty rare. As a result, it is difficult to piece together the puzzle and be certain about the exact role of these sites.Bryn Celli Ddu, just west of the bridges across the Menai Strait, has a very special quality: the chamber and passage are aligned to the rising sun on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. This may have been significant — the farming community relied on the sun for their crops to yield a good harvest.
Over the past two years, Cadw and the Anglesey Druid Order have been inviting the public to take part in a summer solstice dawn celebration at Bryn Celli Ddu and witness how the sun streaks into the inner chamber, casting a shadow on the back stone. The image of the sun reaching into the chamber is awe-inspiring and stays with me for the rest of the year.
Cadw has been working with local schools, artists and archaeologists to explore the power and potential of the arts to add to the appreciation of these sites. This has culminated in a series of interactive events, highlighting the many pioneering developments of the time, from pottery-making and farming, to rock art and shaping flint. Local schoolchildren have even recorded music inspired by the rock art at Bryn Celli Ddu, using the ancient images as a graphic score and interpreting them using electronic sounds and effects.
One of Cadw’s objectives is to increase visitors’ understanding and enjoyment of our sites. Improvements at both Barclodiad y Gawres and Bryn Celli Ddu are underway thanks to support from the Heritage Tourism Project, managed by Cadw and funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government.
The decorated stones at Barclodiad y Gawres have been cleaned and conserved and major new works are planned to improve the way visitors can view the inside of the chamber. At Bryn Celli Ddu significant landscaping works are planned for the car park.
There will be new information boards at both sites and a new series of engaging comics will also help ignite the imaginations of our younger visitors, and adults too.
As part of another project called Heritage Together, visitors are being encouraged to take photographs of the tombs and these are used to create 3D-models (heritagetogether.org).
Combining new technology and the arts with the fascinating history of these sites is a great example of how Cadw is developing new ways of bringing Welsh heritage to life. We hope that 21st century visitors will be able to reflect on what these special places mean to them and to Wales.
The art of Barclodiad y Gawres
The stone walls at Barclodiad y Gawres are carved with zig-zags, spirals and lozenge shapes that have puzzled archaeologists for centuries. Interpretations have included references to water symbolism, human faces, or the kind of shapes that we experience when our eyes are closed. Perhaps the symbols carved on the stones helped link the Neolithic inhabitants and their ancestors.
You can read more about the project on the Day of Archaeology blog here.