Neolithic dolmens are an iconic archaeological component of West Wales. This blog entry relates to one of them: Carreg Samson. I reluctantly tread into wild Neolithic territories in my blog, but I would like to comment briefly on this monument in general terms and invite Neolithic archaeologists to qualify and update my comments.
Anyway, let’s start by annoying Neolithic archaeologists who now are dogmatic in denying that these are ‘tombs’ and ‘burial chambers’, citing that burial was a ‘function’ that might be only one of many uses to these monuments. Yes, ok, but they do reveal mortuary remains (see below) where not disturbed. Moreover, the argument that they are as much about the living as the dead is certainly true but applied in a wrong-headed fashion if intended to imply that this denies a funerary association. I say this because tombs are always about the living as much as the dead so please get over yourselves on this point Neolithic bods! Whether primarily to commemorate dead individuals and groups (‘ancestors’) or serving other functions, these monuments were constructed in the 4th millennium BC across western Britain and Ireland and were unquestionably associated with mortuary practices.
Carreg Samson is named after a Welsh early medieval saint who apparently single-fingeredly (if that is a term, which it probably isn’t) balanced the capstone. Samson purportedly travelled in Cornwall, the Channel Islands and died in Brittany. The connections with the western seaways of Atlantic Europe, even if here legendary, does reflect real contacts known from the 5th to 7th centuries linking West Wales with Cornwall, Brittany and SW France and Iberia. The antiquity of this association remains unclear although I welcome any views. The maritime location is, however, indicative of Christian medieval and modern communities well-versed in contacts with western Europe and throughout the Irish Sea zone.
The locations of megaliths have been much discussed by archaeologists, including their relationship with seascapes, mountains and rock outcrops including the work of Chris Tilley, George Nash, Vicki Cummings and Alisdair Whittle. Within the tradition of semiotic and phenemenological archaeologies, Neolithic dolmens such as Carreg Samson have received sustained attention over the last two decades. Located on sloping land overlooking Abercastle harbour, the monument enjoys a situation with views over land, sea and land beyond (Strumble Head). George Nash has postulated a Neolithic linearity to the monuments on Strumble Head of which Carreg Samson might relate to this.
It is generally presumed that most or all of the stones were originally covered with stone cairns, subsequently robbed away revealed the uprights. If so what we see today of these monuments is a ‘skeletal’ core with the ‘flesh’ and ‘skin’ of the monument robbed away. See here for a recent CGI reconstruction of Pentre Ifan to afford an idea of how Carreg Samson may once have looked. Therefore, we are very much looking at only elements of a larger monument, and elements that may have only been partly visible on completion of the monuments in the Neolithic and via firelight within confined dark or semi-dark spaces.
Carreg Samson comprises of six upright stones and a vast capstone over a chamber of 2m in height and 3.5m by 1.7m in area. Its composition is understood through excavations by the great Frances Lynch who identified the location of a seventh upright stone and a pairing of stones either side of a NW passage used to enter into the monument. Cummings et al. have discussed the careful deployment of asymmetry in these monuments in terms of both composition and location, and this certainly applies to the Carreg Samson monument.Carreg Samson’s composition involves some contrasting geologies, which Vicki Cummings has argued might be deliberate juxtapositions. Certainly, the veins of quartz in some stones and their contrasting shapes and sizes made each stone unique and distinct. Furthermore, the entire monument was situated in a pit, suggesting that a natural erratic was raised up on its original position to create the burial chamber. This site was associated with a Neolithic bowl and traces of cremation practices.
I visited the site multiple times with students and archaeologists over a decade again, so it was good to be back again. The site is largely unchanged since my earlier visits. However, on a wild and windy day, my kids sheltered only briefly among the stones before we retreated back to the warmth of the car. Still, the approach gives a fine sense of the Strumble as backdrop. Moreover, from the SE and E, the monument reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld character: ‘The Luggage’. I half-expected Carreg Samson to scuttle off seaward….