The largest cairn in Wales

On a rainy morning after a sombre night of international news, I went out with my son to explore some archaeological sites in Flintshire together with one of my MA students and another archaeologist. We met at the services on the A55 before we went to Maen Achwyfan, a 10th/11th-century free-standing cross I have discussed elsewhere here. My student Aurea and I are writing a paper about this monument for the TAG conference in Bradford next month.

We then visited Dyserth waterfalls and churchyard including its early memorials, although the church was locked and we couldn’t get to see the early medieval cross and other sculpture within.

View in the rain across the crater on top of the Gop cairn towards Penycloddiau and Moel Famau

Finally, we explored the Gop cairn, near Trewlawnyd, parking in the village and walking up via the road and footpath up Gop Hill, a limestone outcrop that is distinctively shaped and prominent among a series of distinctive hills towering over the Vale of Clwyd and the Welsh coast.

The Gop cairn is widely regarded as the second largest ancient human-made mound in the island of Britain (after Silbury Hill) and by far the largest cairn from Wales. It is 14m high and oval, 101m at its widest diameter, 78m at is narrowest. It is comprised of limestone blocks with drystone walling around its base forming a kerb.

Panorama on top of the Gop cairn

The Gop Cave excavated by Boyd Dawkins in the 19th century beneath the Gop cairn on the hill’s southern side, was used for burial (14 skeletons were recovered) and ceremony (a stone axe and Peterborough ware-type pottery were also recovered) from a stone chamber constructed inside the cave, and are dated to the Neolithic period. Mesolithic and Neolithic flint scatters have been found close by. This evidence has led to the inference, together with analogy with dated large mounds from elsewhere in the British Isles, that the Gop Cairn dates to the Neolithic.

Boyd Dawkins excavated the Gop Cairn in 1886-87 by two tunnels from the base of the the cairn and via a 26 foot shaft from the top: the latter explains its crater at the centre today. No burial chamber was found, leaving it unclear as to the precise date and use of the mound. Was it a giant passage grave? Was it a multi-phased monument covering a multitude of burials? Was it primary a platform for ceremony? Was the cave conceived of, and adapted to become, a ‘natural’ passage grave, augmented by the cairn?

A good guide and walk can be found here on CPAT’s website.

Sadly, heavy rain and wind made it impossible to full appreciate the amazing views the cairn affords, or explore the environs properly, including a Bronze Age burial mound (The Gop Wood Tumulus: PRN 102211) and the cave. On a good, clear day, there are stupendous views out to sea and as far as Snowdonia.

Still, I was grateful to finally visit this strikingly located monument, affording views over large tracts of North Wales and being a prominent landmark for miles around. I could see Moel Famau and Penyclodiau to the north: distinctive in their shapes.

The Gop cairn is so big it is difficult to photograph

The Gop cairn was used as a beacon in the 17th century, and I would like to suggest its potential use as a beacon and lookout point far earlier. Regardless of its precise origins and function, I suspect that it might have held an important function in early historic periods too, given its relationship to the line of the Whitford dykes and the cross at Maen Achwyfan, as I discussed in my talk earlier this year. Moreover, the Gop was visible from Hope Mountain, immediately above the northern end of Offa’s Dyke, which prompts me to imagine it was a strategic landmark when considering military and socio-political dimensions of the early medieval landscape of the region…