A Trip Around Prehistoric Gower
By Liam Rogers and Jennifer Nawrat
Published at Beltane 2002
The Gower peninsular, which lies to the west of Swansea in south Wales, is a beautiful and unspoilt landscape of down, moor, and dramatic coastlines. It is a wonderful place to take a short break to visit its pretty villages, historic castles, lovely beaches, and its range of prehistoric tombs, megaliths and forts.
We spent four nights camping here in late August 2001, based at the Three Cliffs Camping Park at Penmaen that overlooks the beautiful Three Cliffs Bay. When we were not messing around in the sea, shopping in Swansea or holed up in a pub, we tried to fit in a few trips to the prehistoric sites that litter the peninsular. This article tells of what we saw - which is only a small selection of the Gower's prehistoric sites - and, hopefully, will inspire some of you to visit the Gower.
By the time we reached the campsite and pitched our tent, there was just time for a splash in the sea, and for Liam to have a quick look around the dunes for Penmaen Burrows neolithic chambered tomb (looking in totally the wrong place as it turned out) before it was time to get ready to walk to the nearest pub two miles away for a meal. There are good meals in the Gower Inn at Parkmill, although, being the only pub for miles, it gets rather busy.
The next morning (Tuesday) we visited the fine neolithic chambered cairn of Parc le Breos (also known as The Giant's Grave or Parc Cwm). Taking the track past the Gower Heritage Centre, you walk for around three quarters of a mile towards Parc le Breos House (a pony trekking centre) then turn right, through a scouts' campsite to reach the tomb (OS ref: SS 537 898). It lies in the centre of a narrow, dry valley (although a stream may have run close by when the tomb was in use 5-6,000 years ago). Made of local limestone, the megalithic chambers are surrounded by a wedge-shaped Cotswold-Severn type cairn, around 70 feet long and 40 foot wide at the widest point at the southern end. It was partially restored by Richard Atkinson after his excavations in 1960-61. The cairn material is kept in place by double drystone walls (the space between being filled with flat slabs of stone). A large forecourt leads to the entrance (at the south) of a passage with two chambers leading off to each side, the gaps between filled by more drystone walling. Three of the chambers have sills partially blocking their entrances, and the northerly pair are divided in two by internal sills. According to Williams, "archaeologists believe that such divisions may be a symbolic demarcation of space, reflecting distinctions among the burials within the differently designated areas". The chambers are open to the sky now, but were probably originally roofed by corbelling (overlapping layers of stone to reduce the area to be covered) and capstones. The south-facing entrance is odd for Cotswold-Severn tombs which usually face east. Parc le Breos and Penmaen Burrows are the two most westerly situated of this type of megalithic tomb, and their builders may have been immigrants from England.
The original nineteenth century excavator estimated that the remains of 24 individuals were interred here, but more recent re-examination of the remains has led to a figure of 40 or more. Of these one was an infant, seven were children, two were fifty or more years old, one was at least sixty, and the rest between twenty-five and forty-five. One was described as being of "gigantic proportions", and other evidence suggests the males of the population at the time (radio-carbon dates for the tomb span 3800-3000 BCE) were tall and strongly built, whilst the women were considerably shorter and slighter. Chemical analysis of the bones shows the people buried here had a large proportion of meat in their diet, so much hunting would have gone on as well as probably some cereal farming. The skeletons were not articulated, and the bones had clearly been moved around at times, particularly those in the chambers. Perhaps excarnation was practised here, whereby bodies are left out on a platform to decompose before burial of the bones. Those bodies found in the passageway were in better condition and were maybe later secondary interments.
The forecourt appears to have been the site of ritual feasting, as animal bones and pottery sherds were found here. There may also be symbolism revealed in the precise north-south orientation of the cairn. A local astronomer, Richard Roberts, has shown that the shadow cast by a staff held at the passage entrance at midday runs directly along the centre of the passageway. Bowen mentions that an underground stream runs beneath the monument and muses "could it be that Parc Cwm is one of the ancient realms of the subterranean water goddess? The masonry with its strange wavy coursing hints at this especially by foxfire and moonlight". A stream would, however, have probably run along the surface in the past, and rounded iron-strained boulders recovered from the collapsed wall (now reintegrated in the eastern edge of the cairn below the drystone walling adjacent to the eastern forecourt horn) suggest the stream may have actually caused the collapse of the cairn.
Jen's favourite part of the morning was discovering Cat Hole Cave which is hidden away in the limestone cliffs to the right at SS 538 900. A little further along the valley path from Parc le Breos, as it starts to veer left, are rough steps on the right, leading up to the cave. When this path splits in three; the right-hand path takes you up to Cat Hole Cave, 15 metres above the valley floor.
The centre path leads to another small cave whose entrance is protected by metal bars. In this cave - found by excavation to link to the main cave - were found an interesting array of animal, and other, remains. Bones of a cave-bear, horse, woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, hyena and reindeer were discovered, along with part of a human skull during excavation in the nineteenth-century. Bronze age human remains were found in 1958, along with shards of burial urns and a bronze axe. The cave, as with the main cave, was used from the end of the last ice age around 30,000 BCE, through the Mesolithic (c.8000-4000 BCE), up to the Bronze Age and later.
Cat Hole Cave itself opens out onto a sizeable natural platform, its features accentuated by human hand, on which stand a couple of large limestone blocks. It is easy to imagine our ancestors siting out here making their flint implements. Out here were found just such flints, along with remains of red fox, arctic fox, brown bear, arctic lemming and tundra vole. The cave is a sizeable chamber behind a gash in the cliff face. Human bone of uncertain date was found inside the chamber in 1864, and later excavations revealed it was used as a burial chamber in the bronze age. It was first used by humans as a transit camp in the early upper palaeolithic, and was used up to at least the medieval period.
We did not go into the passageway at the back of the chamber as it was pitch black and we had forgotten to bring our torch. Also Jen was frightened of disturbing any more bats after one flew past her head. The cave is actually an important winter roost for Lesser Horseshoe, and other bats. The passage was proved by excavation to have run some 18 metres into the hillside, and can still be followed for more than 4 metres.
Diane Williams notes that not only does the cave demonstrate long-term human interest in the area of Parc le Breos, but "the very presence of the cave may have influenced the unusual siting of the Neolithic tomb" (the foot of a valley being an odd site, as well as its north-south orientation). The cave was also used for burials, with its deep passage maybe symbolic as the entrance to the underworld, and the natural platform outside would have made as good a spot as any for the excarnation of the bodies found in the cairn [this last suggestion is mine, and is not mentioned by our sources - L.R.].
After this, we got into some later history. We visited the ruins of Pennard Castle, before catching a bus to Oxwich to see the Castle and the Saxon church there.
On Wednesday we set off for a long walk along the red sandstone ridge of Cefn Bryn which dominates much of Gower. Many cairns are to be found here, around sixty in fact. Some are likely to be simply piles of stones removed from agricultural land, but many are genuine bronze age round cairns (if hard to find amongst the undergrowth). There are also two earlier tombs: at the foot of the southern slope of Cefn Bryn towards its eastern end is the largely destroyed Nicholson Long Cairn (SS 507 888), a small neolithic chambered tomb; and, close to a car park near the summit, is Arthur's Stone (SS 491 905). Unlike Parc le Breos, these are not of the Severn-Cotswold type prevalent in central and south-west England. Maybe they were built by a different, indigenous, community.
Otherwise known as Maen Ceti, Arthur's Stone is a neolithic twin chambered tomb within the remains of a round cairn, topped with a massive 25 ton quartz conglomerate capstone - a portion that has broken off would have added another 10 or so tons. Many legends surround this site, including one that says Saint David himself split the capstone with his sword (or staff) to prove it was an altar to false gods, then commanded a spring to flow from under it. One such legend was unfolding before our very eyes as we walked towards the tomb along the boulder strewn path that has been claimed to be the remains of a pillaged stone avenue oriented to the Beltane/Samhain sunrise - as there was King Arthur himself removing a pebble from his boot and throwing it away. In the legend this pebble flew seven miles to this spot from where he removed it en route to the battle of Camlan, and formed the capstone that we see today; in reality it was an actor re-enacting the myth for a German television holiday show.
The capstone was probably a glacial erratic and not actually raised - the nine uprights that form the chambers being inserted beneath it as a hollow was dug out. This hollow is indeed full of water but doesn't contain Saint David's spring - the land here is marshy and surface water gathers in this convenient hollow. Because of this hollow, pictures of the tomb do not reflect just how large and spectacular it is when seen close up and with your own eyes.
There is an old custom whereby a girl could catch a glimpse of the man that would marry her. She would come up here at midnight during the full of the moon, make a cake from barleymeal and honey, wet it with milk and knead it upon the stone, then crawl around the tomb three times on hands and knees. If Jen tried this then she's keeping quiet about it!
Richard Roberts has claimed the Arthur's Stone is at the centre of a number of astronomical alignments with outlying stones marking important days of the solar year, and natural features such as a notch on the horizon at Rhossili Down. One possible alignment is with one of three bronze age cairns on Cefn Bryn excavated by Ward in the 1980s. The Great Cairn is situated directly west of Arthur's Stone, at SS 490 906, and consists of a large oval mound of stones covering a central grave chamber. A hollow found during excavation on the east side of the chamber, first thought to have been a disturbance from an earlier excavation, turned out to be a post hole according to Dewi Bowen, who was present during the excavation. Bowen believed it marked the site of a wooden pylon to mark the equinoctial sunset as seen from Arthur's Stone. The other cairns excavated were ring cairns with entrances (deliberately blocked at some stage) leading to a central area which showed signs of ritual activities such as fires and deposits of burnt material. According to Bowen these rings had "a primarily ritual or ceremonial function" as no traces of burial were found, and he compares them to earlier henge monuments.
After looking at some of the cairns, we made our way back for a bite to eat before spending the late afternoon swimming in the sea.
Thursday was our last full day on the peninsular. We spent the morning shopping in Swansea and having a nice vegetarian meal in an Italian joint, before getting a bus to Rhossili at the western end of the Gower.
Once there we took a walk along the top of the cliffs, and gazed out at Worm's Head, a dramatic headland which bears something of a resemblance to a huge sea serpent (hence its name). It can be reached at low tide via a causeway but many people get trapped there - including Dylan Thomas who fell asleep while the tide came in, and had to spend an uncomfortable and scary night on the headland!
We then tramped up Rhossili Down to visit some of the prehistoric funerary monuments which are situated on the hill. Around a dozen bronze age cairns can be found on its crest, and on the eastern slopes. Near the summit, the highest point in Gower, are the Beacon Ring Cairns. Four can be found by the east side of the ridge path (near an O.S. trig. pillar), the one at SS 420 890 being the best. It is a platform with a kerb of upright quartzy white stones, with traces of an inner ring. The hollow near the centre is probably the site of a robbed burial cist.
To the north of these, down on the eastern slopes at SS 421 898, are the remains of two neolithic chambered cairns known as Sweyne's Howes. The name comes from a legend that a Viking warrior named Sweyne - who also gave his name to Swansea - is buried here, "Howe" being a Scandinavian term for a burial mound. Only the collapsed chambers survive, which once were surrounded by oval cairns. The northern tomb is the best preserved and two tall portal stones remaining in situ reveal it to have been a tomb of a type known as a portal dolmen. The entrance was between these two stones on the north side of the burial chamber, which was blocked by another, fallen, stone. The capstone has slipped to one side. The southern tomb is in a very ruinous condition, but was probably also a portal dolmen.
We returned to the campsite in the early evening and, while Jen had a rest, Liam set off to look for Penmaen Burrows Chambered Tomb again (taking a map this time). After much searching amongst the dunes of the headland, he found the correct area (SS 532 881). Unfortunately, the area was cordoned off behind an electric fence as the overgrown bracken was being sprayed with something nasty. As time was running out if we wanted to get to the Gower Inn before they stopped serving food, Liam decided against risking slipping through the fence and went back.
The tomb is (apparently!) partly ruined and partly hidden beneath the dunes but two chambers and an entrance passage are visible, and enough to identify it as a Cotswold-Severn cairn. Unlike Parc le Breos, but in keeping with most chambered tombs of this type, the entrance is to the east. A passage 2.5 metres long leads to a chamber 4 metres long and 2 metres wide, covered by a 7 ton capstone. To the south of this is a smaller chamber, and there may have been another to the north - this would mean the tomb may have had a cruciform plan. In the southern chamber, excavations in 1893 found part of a human jaw, animal bones, and a piece of the handle of a bone tool.
We didn't get our meal by the way, and had to make do with crisps washed down with plenty of Strongbow and Smirnoff Ice! We had to go back the next day, although we would have loved to have checked out more sites and more of the beautiful scenery. We'll hopefully come back someday.
Dewi Bowen, Ancient Siluria: its old stones and ceremonial sites , Llanerch, 1992
Chris & Stella Elphick, www.explore-gower.co.uk
Wendy Hughes, Prehistoric Sites of the Gower & West Glamorgan , Logaston, 1999
Diane M. Williams, Gower: A guide to ancient and historic monuments on the Gower peninsular , CADW, 1998