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
That's probably how your ancient ancestors felt as well - which
may be why some of them chose this spot to build a temple.
A sublime spot for an
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
Barclodiad y Gawres is officially
described as adecorated cruciform passage grave, which highlights
its three most salient features:
- Decorated: ancient artists carved patterns in
- 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
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.
What 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
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.
In 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
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
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.