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Barclodiad y Gawres: The Original "Awesome"

© Cadw

View Visiting Information

The site can be viewed externally at any time, but you can only go inside on Saturdays and Sundays (and Bank Holiday Mondays) from 12.00 - 4.00 pm. During these hours, please go to the Wayside Stores in Llanfaelog and a member of staff will accompany you to the monument.

 

Awe.  You know it when you feel it.

Standing on Anglesey's southwestern coastline, surrounded by sweeping vistas - green rolling hills, the distant mountains of Snowdonia, and the glittering, massive Irish sea - you're quite naturally imbued with awe, the emotion Oxford Dictionaries defines as "a mixture of wonder and dread."

Wonder at nature's beauty. Dread at its enormous power.

That's probably how your ancient ancestors felt as well - which may be why some of them chose this spot to build a temple.

Interior, Barclodiad y Gawres; © Cadw, Welsh Government (Crown Copyright)A sublime spot for an eternal rest

About 5,000 years ago (at the same time as the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids), a group of Anglesey's first residents somehow moved massive stones to this promontory, and
built here one of the nation's first buildings. It's the best preserved burial mound of its age in Wales, England, or Scotland, although similar monuments exist in Ireland (at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth).

Barclodiad stone 22; © Cadw (Crown Copyright)Barclodiad y Gawres is officially described as adecorated cruciform passage grave, which highlights its three most salient features:

  • Decorated: ancient artists carved patterns in the stones
  • Cruciform passage: the internal structure forms a cross-like shape
  • Grave:  the place was used for burials and other rituals

Rock art: Your torch sets off an ancient lightshow

The ancients loved patterns, or so it seems at Barclodiad. Inside the mound, etched into six of the original 22 walling stones, are lovely abstract engravings, geometric shapes like chevrons, lozenges and spirals.

Sketch of stone 8 by Frances LynchWhat do they mean? Heaven knows if there's any exact symbolism here.

But it's obvious that the tomb-builders had a definite aesthetic sensibility. For whatever reason, they took the time, hours and hours, to peck the patterns into the rocks, in order to create a display so that torch-bearing visitors, then and now, might see these shapes dancing about in dark. 

Passage into the dark past

Due to some recent vandalism, the site's interior is now opened by appointment only (see "View Visiting Information" above).  Once inside, however, the monument's overall shape becomes apparent.

Barclodiad interior plan; © Cadw (Crown Copyright)Today's entryway - rebuilt during the monument's 1950s era refurbishment - is far taller and wider than the original, says archaeologist Frances Lynch. Throughout most of the site's history, people would have had to bend down and enter singly, she says. But once inside the central chamber, people could stand and assemble in small groups. 

Burial ritual or a witch's stew?

But what did people do inside the tomb? Again, there's no way to know exactly, but archaeologists dug up some interesting bits when they excavated here in 1952-53.

The cremated remains of two young men were found inside the southwestern side chamber. According to Lynch, cremation was common among Neolithic peoples, who then placed then remains in leather bags (which would have decomposed) and carried them into sacred sites, to rest for posterity. 

Barclodiad ritual; © Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum WalesIn Barclodiad's main chamber, however, the archaeologists discovered other remains far less typical of the time, says Lynch. There, in the charred ashes of a fire, lay a "witch's stew" of eel, frog, toad, and other small animals, apparently used to quench the flames. Then, on top of the stew, an ancient person had lain a layer of limpet shells, which preserved the small animal bones.

Was it a ritual meal, perhaps the Stone Age version of a wake? Or something more sinister, a spell cast from the sacred seat of the ancestors? The answer is, and will likely remain, a mystery.

Built by a giantess, or so the story goes

For most of its long long history (prior to its 1950s excavation and refurbishment), Barclodiad appeared to be just another pile of strange rocks on a hillside. So, at some point, the local people made up a story to explain it.

According to the Welsh legend, two giants (a man and a woman) were travelling to Anglesey to build a new home there. The man carried two large stones for the entryway, while the woman carried many smaller rocks, in her apron, as you do.

Tired from the journey and their heavy burdens, the two came across a cobbler coming the other way. They inquired about the distance, and he lied, saying that Anglesey still lay far far ahead. Exhausted and frustrated, the giantess dropped her load right then and there, creating a strange pile of rocks. So the Welsh called the place Barclodiad y Gawres: "the giantess's apronful."

Like the ancient stew found inside, Barclodiad itself is a mysterious mix of legend, myths, and messages from the dark past. Like the rest of the island, it's well worth the visit. Come for the views, stay for the stories. 


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