Yesterday I went for a drive down the A55 across the North Wales coast. It wasn’t simply a pointless, petrol-wasting sort of drive – my destination was Ynys Môn.
For years and years I had heard of the wonder of Bryn Celli Ddu – the prehistoric burial chamber on Anglesey in the village of Llanddaniel Fab, a few miles outside Llanfairpwyllgwyngyll. So yesterday morning, I went. I had already, once unintentionally, visited Barclodiad y Gawres with its decorated stones (a reconstructed burial chamber on the west of the island) a few times before and so did not return this time.
On the scale of some of the castles and other ancient ruins dotted around Wales, Bryn Celli Ddu is not amongst our giants in size nor stature but in mystery, there aren’t many places better. This prehistoric burial chamber features a mound with dual entrances opposite one another. The entrances connect between two portal stones which are 30ft apart.
Wales’ answer to the Egyptian pyramids, research shows evidence of 5 post holes dating back to 4000BC. A single stone (which may in fact be a petrified tree trunk) stands alone inside the chamber but serves neither an integral nor obviously practical purpose with regards to the structure suggesting it predates the majority of what we see today.
It was to be another 1000 years before the outer henge was added and a further 1000 more years before many original stones were shifted, altered, removed and even destroyed to form the portal stones (and mound) we see today. In honesty, whether it was made of earth or cairned stones, it’s likely the mound was on a much grander scale than we see today.
But why am I telling you this? Surely you can grab a book or pop onto a search engine to discover a lot more information that I can ever tell you.
It’s obvious that this site was altered…. perhaps tens of times. I like to think of it as when Christianity replaced the Pagan festivals of light around modern-day December times. People [Pagans] would not appreciate a new religion coming in and forcing them to follow Christianity so the Christians kept the same rough date, kept the same tree decorating and feasting but added a new storyline. Subtly, slowly and surely the Pagans conformed to the change. Bryn Celli Ddu is much like this but potentially holds the key to many of these changes in religious and social life for the inhabitants of early Wales.
Postholes initially, then a henge-type ditch, then a standing stone, then a ring of stones, then a radical change with the addition of portal stones (which align pefectly with the Summer Solstice sunrise), then a covering as a cairn, then a change in size. It’s totally possible that many of these changes present merely an upgrade of the previous beliefs of the area and not a radical change like a completely new religion to follow but radical changes cannot be ruled out. Bryn Celli Ddu could hold secrets of any number of religions, beliefs, rituals and ideas all changing through the millennia. Taking a step back from the innumerous yet subtle changes that happened throughout the site’s history, it seems that, however intentional or unintentional, the simple purpose of respecting the living changed the site to be a place for respecting the dead. From a standing stone accepting the sunlight every single day, to a dark and enclosed site for laying those who had passed.
The standing stone inside is the epitome of this whole idea. Once believed to be a tree before its petrification, to the people it must have seemed like a link between the living (as wood from a tree) and dead (as stone). To the people at the time, they finally had a physical (and ‘worshipable’) link between night and day, between dark and light, between dead and alive. Remnants of potions / soups burnt on a long-lasting fire contained eel, mouse, rat, frog, toad and other animals seen in both day and nighttime – sacrificable links between the forces of the living and the dead.
Bryn Celli Ddu is not the only example of massive changes in beliefs. Be it a change from the worship of light to darkness, or a change from Paganism to Christianity, Wales is dotted with the remnants of change on every possible scale.
Were it situated somewhere else, we may have seen the site at Bryn Celli Ddu change again much like we see in Ysbyty Cynfyn outside Aberystwyth. There a ring of standing stones quite obviously forms the new church’s curtain wall.
Another example is the church walls of Llanarmon-yn-iâl. Here’s photo I took – the stones highlighted are believed to be former standing stones:
An epitome of change without being too radical as to destroy that which served the locals for such a long time.
It’s like building castles atop hillforts or global corporations dwarfing churches. Find an old spot, maintain the social links but build bigger and better to cement a new way of thinking and a new way of life.
If you think Bryn Celli Ddu is 1% knowledge and 99% mystery then you’ll love Maen Achwyfan. Even less has been written about this standing stone in North Flintshire – I had decided I had to see this once again and a trip back down the A55 from Anglesey was excuse enough for me!
I suppose less has been written about it because it’s relatively young for a standing stone – perhaps merely a millennium old. It doesn’t (seem to) epitomise as much, in the grand scheme of life and death, as the wooden stone in Bryn Celli Ddu does, but Maen Achwyfan remains an impressive site in terms of secrets and mystery.
Standing alone in a north Flintshire field near the village of Lloc, you’d be forgiven in thinking at first glance that the decorations are entirely Celtic with the intertwining and forever linking decor but it’s most likely that this stone is Viking – at least in decoration. Standing at over 11ft tall, do we have here a Celtic standing stone which has been chipped down, thinned out and decorated to commemorate a new and incoming Viking god or leader? Similar standing stones have been defaced across the north of England in Northumbria into Cumbria and down as far as Cheshire. Could it be that this stone represents another (yet more recent) change in religious and social life in Wales?
If it is not originally Viking, it must have previously held a different purpose than to merely glorify a new Scandinavian god or leader. In Ireland, stone monoliths and menhirs are used to tell people when to pray – think of them as giant sundials. Often complete with a ring of carefully placed stones, when the shadow cast by the stone reached a certain surrounding stone, it was daily ritual / worship time. Others comprised of a wooden stake placed into a small hole in the centre of the circular face. This would itself cast a shadow that resembled a modern-day standing clock.
The problem is, only two examples of these have ever been found in Wales, and they’re in the extreme west. Nothing of the sort has been found in eastern Wales – the Irish simply didn’t reach this far…. or at least forge a foothold into the culture. Perhaps the area was already too densely populated for them to cement their beliefs and authority?
The picture above is of a tall stone housed in Tywyn Church in Gwynedd which has been clearly vandalised by Victorian Brits who thought the Celtic sundail looked better as a signpost. The central hole and surrounding Celtic decoration is still obvious however, proving its Irish origin.
But I believe Maen Achwyfan could be a third. The circular top is certainly evident of an Irish time-keeping stone and has obviously been chipped down before the new decoration was applied. If it could be proven that the central ball at the centre of the top disk is removable and later in date, then we have another feature of Irish influence.
The jury is out on whether the four, densely placed horizontal lines are the remnants of an ogham inscription. This theory has been disregarded by many – they could of course be bumps and scratches from a millennium of farm equipment and vehicles but they are situated where ogham usually begins (at the bottom of the stone), they are on the edge of the stone and the lines themselves are the correct distance apart to be ogham. If the scratches were ogham then we have either the letter C or E – depending on whether the lines were extended onto the front face. Does the C represent a name similar to (A)C(H)WYFAN as in the name to which the maen (stone) is attributed in the modern day? Could the E stand as a different way of spelling the A in the name…. Echwyfan, for example? The Welsh version of the name Kevin (a name of Irish origin) is Cwyfan (pron. /kui:van/) which probably derives from the Old / Middle Irish word Cóemgein (pron. /koiṽʲ.ɣʲinʲ/); both explaining the letter C. The fact that names in ogham are almost always written in the genitive case would bear no bearing on how the word starts.
They could also stand for something completely different altogether!
Or, of course, not be ogham at all!
When I left the site at Maen Achwyfan early yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help but take one last look back that the stone which has stood in a rather inconvenient spot (from a farmer’s perspective anyway) for nigh on 1000 years. Now I’ll be the first to admit that it’s probably just the way the grass has been cut and / or it’s the result of 1000 years of farmers avoiding this mysterious stone, but do we see a raised, circular area around the stone from this picture?
It’s not obvious enough to notice a ditch when walked upon, but might we have evidence here of a raised ground around the stone (and hopefully predating the stone itself) much like a henged-ditch? Viking stones are not always placed on raised ground – unless they were placed in order to claim and overwhelm an older site. If evidence of ancient post holes (or better yet, evidence of smaller standing stones) can be identified surrounding the stone, then this may be another example of Celtic or Pagan activity where otherwise there is none close around until western Gwynedd or eastern Shropshire. No we do not have a cairn or portal stones or a mound of any sort, but we do have the possibility that this site could have been in continuous use for nearly 5000 years. Not only that, we could have evidence for this one site being used continuously for any number of various and peculiar reasons by any number of various and peculiar groups, tribes or communities.
Should this theory prove correct and proof of a 5000 or 6000-year-old stone circle is found in North East Wales, do we finally have a link to the people who boasted the creation / possession of the 4000-year-old Mold Cape made into a beautifully decorated ceremonial dress from a small lump of gold? A mere 14 miles separates Maen Achwyfan near Lloc to Llong; the place where the Mold Cape was discovered.