In 2014 I wrote a basic blog post about the Neolithic passage grave at Bryn Celli Ddu, Angelsey. This is a Neolithic passage grave under the care of Cadw. The post here is a refreshed ‘site review’, critically commenting on the site’s new signage introduced since my last visit in early 2015.
I love the designs, and the new images on the signs are striking and evocative. The efforts to encourage visitors to also explore other ancient monuments on Anglesey are to be commended. Likewise, the emphasis on following-up with further information available online is great too. Furthermore, much remains the same about the experience of visiting the site, and the changes are not distracting to the visitor experience of the monument itself in any fundamental regard. Still, I left feeling that the visitor experience has been impoverished, rather than enhance, by the new signs.
The old sign that directed you from the car park was striking, antique and memorable in itself. It was unique in its height and position and I cannot think of any other MOW site that had such a striking sign parallel to a road. This has now gone. Instead, we have the car park megalith promoting other heritage sites on the island – addressed here – and also here. Whatever the merits, they objectively fail to direct visitors to the start of the pathway to the monument in such an effective way as the old iron painted sign. My first critical point therefore is that I miss this old sign for its aesthetics and its utility.
*Dr Ffion Reynolds tells me this sign is simply being repaired and will be back soon! (24-03-17)
Let’s now discuss the new elements on site.
The first board (encountered, beside the car park) asserts that- Bryn Celli Ddu is about the light of the midsummer solstice penetrating the passage into the chamber. A striking piece of art by Aaron Watson evokes this key monument where the sunlight hits a person waiting within, whose hand is marked by megalithic art designs. This board does mention that it was built to ‘protect and pay respect to the remains of the ancestors’ but sadly doesn’t tell us what these ancestors looked like in material terms (i.e. human remains and perhaps other materials and substances): I’m not sure what people unfamiliar with archaeological literature will understand by this. Meanwhile, those familiar with ‘ancestors’ as a concept in archaeological research will be acutely aware of the problems that come with this term.
Maps and Plans
Once at the site, there are two new boards. They continue the UK denial of traditional site-plans in heritage locations. They are deemed too ‘boring’ and ‘dull’ nowadays. Instead, the new signs attempt a more experiential approach. Fine. However, it is unclear how visitors are to apprehend what they are looking at, where the various features discussed are actually located on the site (including the megalithic art), and where the original entrance was. At least before, there was a plan showing where key discoveries and features were, and I fear the modern visitor no longer is furnished with basic information about the monument to share with those without a pre-purchased guide book from elsewhere, or without a mobile phone (although I’m not sure there is a plan online on Cadw’s website either. As usual, Wikipedia is better than Cadw’s own site for information but even here a conventional plan is absent). For example, I don’t think the surrounding bank and ditch even gets a mention!
A Prehistoric Calendar
The second board (first on-site board) tells us this monument is ‘Neolithic’ (‘five thousand years ago’) and made by farmers. This is useful. However, it then again focuses on the idea that those Neolithic people used the tomb as a calendar to plan their agricultural year. I’m not up on Neolithic archaeology, but the idea that passage graves were required so that prehistoric people could tell the time seems to be to be an out-moded and reductive explanation that is frankly patronising to visitors. It certainly says nothing about how Bryn Celli Ddu’s solar alignment is different from that one might experience at Stonehenge, Newgrange or Maeshowe, Orkney.
Art and Questions
The second board on site (the third board overall) tells us how little we know: honest, but perhaps not very helpful in some regards. This is still the most useful board, since it does explain that the tomb suffering from hundreds of years of ‘erosion and disturbance’. It then asks: why was there a single smooth megalith: was it a symbol of fertility? Why were certain stones in the chamber decorated with spiral and zig-zag designs? It does helpfully explain that the stone seen here today is a replica, and this is an important, hitherto (I think) overlooked point that visitors should know. Also, it does explain that visitors are looking at a reconstruction following excavations in 1929. What remains missing is any evidence from the site, or analogies from elsewhere, regarding how the tomb might have been constructed and used in prehistory.
I think the investment in new signs is to be commended, but I left feeling confused by the new displays. Here are my key points. I loved the images which evoke the interaction of bodies, art, the elements, and the cosmos with the monument. Yet without maps, plans, and comparative discussion of the construction and use of these tombs for mortuary, votive and ancestral rites, I think the monument has been rendered incomprehensible. I suggest that visitors will understand this as a ‘prehistoric calendar’ and something vaguely to do with ‘ancestors’ but little more. Brief and useful mention is made to excavation, reconstruction and a replica stone, but the biography of the site through time is rendered unclear for visitors.
Significantly, the displays lack mention of the monument’s modern use as a focus of tourists and educational trips, but also for neo-pagan worship. Cadw had missed an opportunity here to put modern religious use in historical context for other visitors who might not understand the diverse affinities and uses of this monument today and the odd deposits of stones, shells, artefacts and plant remains they encounter outside and within the chamber.
Finally, where is mention made of the prehistoric landscape around Bryn Celli Ddu, of which new and ongoing research is revealing?
So I think Neolithic death and time are denied, rather than explained, in the new heritage display at Bryn Celli Ddu. I know my chums at Cadw, and those commissioned to produce the art and text (including friends of mine), will eventually read this and might take issue with my views on Bryn Celli Ddu’s display. They are welcome to respond and counter my comments and clarify their intentions via social media or in comments to this blog. I certainly appreciate that you cannot please everyone and whatever a display says and however it is designed, it will frustrate and disappoint someone. I also reiterate that I’m certainly no expert in heritage display and certainly no expert in Neolithic monuments.
All I can say, writing not as an expert on this site and later prehistory, but as a moderately informed academic archaeologist, this was a disappointing experience. The joy and fascination of Bryn Celli Ddu derives from many sources: its form and shape, stones, passage, chamber, art, the ritual deposits, the landscape and life-history of the monument from prehistory to present. The solar alignment is intriguing, but the experience of traversing the passage into the chamber perhaps held multiple other significances that needed flagging up. In all these elements, comparisons that can be made with a range of other Neolithic sites across Wales and beyond are key.
On a more constructive note, I hope that the Cadw online information about the site and its significance is enhanced to make up for the restricted on-site information. Increasingly, it shouldn’t matter so much what is said on the boards and what is not: the link to online information is key.
I confess I haven’t yet followed up on using the mobile app: doing so is incredibly difficult whilst navigating an ancient monument, appreciating it and also keeping an eye on between 3-5 kids in tow!