During the bank holiday weekend recently gone, I visited a striking and distinctive Welsh Neolithic monument: the Dyffryn Neolithic ‘tomb’. This is a pairing of portal dolmens, each with entrances facing east, within a larger stone cairn.
Situated on a hillside overlooking Cardigan Bay on the outskirts of Dyffryn Ardudwy, Coflein has details of the monument here. The tomb has been heavily reconsolidated by the Ministry of Works following its excavation in 1961-2 by T.G.E. Powell.
A second larger dolmen was built upslope to the east and both were set in a rectangular cairn. This second phase is associated with Neolithic and Bronze Age ceramics. A fine stone pendant was also found (featuring on the heritage display board). It is a beautiful spot with an over-hanging tree, as well as a striking monument in itself worthy of a visit, a very short walk from the main A496 road between Barmouth and Harlech.
Again, from a heritage perspective, I like the retention of the MoW sign, and the new sign gives salient details about the monument. Meanwhile the board on the approaching path puts the monument in its regional context.
I visit many heritage sites with my children. This time I took four as part of a tour of other sites. When visiting such a monument with kids: what can you get them to do?
Talk about life and death in the Neolithic? I do, but at their age (4, 4, 6 and 9), the Neolithic is a rather difficult concept to explain. I use all the usual simple concepts – ‘first farmers’, ‘monument builders’, and they know they are extremely old. I discuss the architecture and the funerary use, and the ‘house’-like associations, but there is little more I feel I can say. The key point is that they are not simply ‘monuments’ but spaces of past human activity and ceremony; that I make clear.
Explain to them the vast swathes of time that this monument has stood there and the changes to the landscape and society it has witnessed? This is more challenging still; it seems so abstract. Even when I talk in generations and in relative terms compared with the (say) Iron Age hillforts, Roman sites, early medieval stones, medieval castles, churches and ruins we regularly visit, I don’t think they get it. Incidentally many Swedish heritage boards have the simple feature of a time-line for visitors to understand the relative age of the monuments in question: why is is never done for EH/Cadw sites who like their monuments to operate in a spatial and temporal interpretative vacuum.
Discuss with them the heritage management and interpretation of the monument? Well there were the 3 aforementioned heritage signs – the old MoW one (now with its inaccurate pre-radiocarbon dates), the new one featuring the pendant and a beardy shaman dude, and the one on the path up to the monument which the evocative ‘architectures before architects’ tagline, if now incongruously adjacent to a dump of cardboard. I honestly have to state I keep my kids away from heritage signs, since they tend to confuse them more than help them: especially when there is no plan or reconstruction image of the monument in question regarding how it might have once looked. Still, I do attempt to impart a sense of the fragility and value of these sites: they are not to be damaged, although I do not restrict their (relatively safe) exploration of the monuments.
I would never sanction illegal excavations of scheduled ancient monuments. They are subject to enough threats as it is and vandalism is a constant threat.
Still, kids exploring surface finds is a different matter and contemporary archaeology is fair game in my view! Having been to other sites where I’d tried to talk through the monument and heritage boards that day, I decided on a ‘free play’ approach. So we explored the cairn, enjoyed the flowers, said hello to horses in a neighbouring field and delved into the two chambers. Meanwhile, I looked at the heritage boards as well as photographing a monument: one I hadn’t visited in well over a decade.
While photographing the monument, I realised that my younger 3 offspring focused on exploring inside the larger of the two ‘houses’ (their term, not mine, inspired by the form, relaying something I’d said at other Neolithic sites, or perhaps taken direct from the heritage board) picking up artefacts they had found (modern glass, presumably the residues of locals drinking on the site) and throwing them out onto the stone platform to make the interior clean and clear for future visitors.
My kids are archaeological counter-wombles – dispersing rather than collecting.
Now dear readers I have mixed feelings about modern deposition at Neolithic sites. I find modern placed deposition fascinating, not particularly out of disrespect for the beliefs of those making the deposits, but because in instances where items are placed at ground-level, on low niches, they can provide hazards for exploring young children. I’ve discussed the challenge of this for Bryn Celli Ddu here where I refuse my kids exploring the items other people leave behind without sanction.
Simple rubbish is more frustrating still, since broken items can hurt little explorers crouching and kneeling within restricted spaces.
I instructed them to stop counter-wombling by throwing. Instead I instructed them to womble: to proceed with their own ‘contemporary archaeology’ of recent detritus. Rather than forbidding their interests in the ‘modern rubbish’ from the tomb, I instead stepped back and let them collect up their finds into a pile for photographing and retrieval. While not in situ, they give a small insight into recent activities within the chamber.We carried the accumulated finds back to the car, brought them home, washed them and sorted them, before a quick photograph with scale and curation inside my son’s ‘lucky teapot’.
What did we find? Mainly bottle glass – brown (19 sherds), clear (22 sherds) and green (c. 47). The green sherds were most numerous, perhaps because of their popularity but also because they are most readily spotted. There were also 3 shell fragments and a bottle pull: a significant accumulation of modern detritus it must be said!
So our trip to Dyffryn became a somewhat impromptu exercise in ‘contemporary archaeology’ at a Neolithic monument. If anyone wishes to examine the finds from our excavations, they are in Toby’s lucky teapot for posterity.