The Neolithic Tombs of Rhiw


Julian Heath

The Neolithic people of Wales may now belong to a vanished world, but a number of the large, stone tombs or ‘cromlechs’ (as they are known in Wales – translated as ‘stone with a bent back’) they built to house their dead still survive in many parts of the Welsh landscape. These impressive structures provide us with a fascinating link to the first farming communities of Wales and also offer a tantalising view into the mysterious and fascinating world of Neolithic religion. These monuments may now stand silent in quiet corners of the Welsh countryside, but they provide an enduring legacy to an ancient people who laid the foundations of modern Wales. Such a legacy can be found in the area around Rhiw, where three of these tombs still survive.


The Llwynfor and Tyn Fron cromlechs

 Although both these tombs are now in a ruinous state, the huge capstones that would have covered their burial chambers still survive, as well as what are probably the remains of the supporting stones for the capstones. Smaller piles of stones can also be seen in the vicinity of the Llwynfor cromlech and it is probable that these represent the remnants of a stone cairn that once covered the burial chamber. Because of their condition, we cannot classify these tombs definitively, although it is probable that they are of a type known as portal dolmens, or at least belong to the portal dolmen ‘tradition’.

 A classic portal dolmen is in essence, a stone box, which consists of a square burial chamber that is fronted by an H-shaped arrangement of stones (the portal). The burial chambers are then roofed with huge capstones, which often weigh many tons. It is apparent that many portal dolmens were enclosed in stone cairns, though it is also likely that some examples lacked covering cairns and were simply free standing burial chambers.

It is now widely accepted that portal dolmens date to the early Neolithic period and were constructed in the centuries around 4000 BC. Portal dolmens are not only found in many parts of Wales, but also in Cornwall and Ireland as well. Interestingly the portal dolmens of Wales and Ireland are very similar in design, which suggests shared religious traditions between the two areas. Exactly what this indicates is unclear, but it could be that Neolithic farming groups from the continent, who had the same cultural traditions, travelled up the western seaways and settled in both Wales and Ireland, building the first Neolithic tombs. Alternatively, it could be that Mesolithic groups in these two countries, were travelling back and forth exchanging ideas about new religious practices, which had reached them from the continent. Perhaps the most likely scenario is that there were was some initial small-scale immigration by Neolithic farming groups, who introduced the idea of building large stone tombs to Mesolithic natives, who adopted the beliefs and values of the newcomers.


Tan y Muriau long cairn

The final Neolithic tomb to be examined in this article, is perhaps the most fascinating and important example to be found in the Lleyn peninsula. The tomb is located on the lower, eastern slopes of Mynydd Rhiw and features two burial chambers that were originally set in a cairn that measured some 120ft long. The main burial chamber, which sits at the north-western end of the cairn, is a classic portal dolmen that has a hugely impressive capstone. Behind the main chamber is a smaller side, or lateral chamber, the capstone of which, now sits at an angle. In 1871, the scholar J.G. Williams noted a further chamber set in the south-eastern end of the long cairn and in the earlier 20th century, W.G. Grimes also recorded seeing large stones in the end of the cairn.  Although this now appears to have disappeared, a large stone set on its side can still be seen in the end of the cairn and may well be the remains of this terminal chamber.

It is evident that the Tan y Muriau tomb is an isolated example of a Cotswold-Severn Long Cairn. There are around 130 of these monuments still surviving and they are found mainly in the landscape between Oxford and Bristol. However, they are also found near Avebury in Wiltshire and there is a group found in South Wales as well. These tombs are later in date than the portal dolmens and were built around 3500 BC. The fascinating question raised by Tan y Muriau, is whether it represents the arrival of a new people to Rhiw during the Neolithic, who brought with then new ideas about tomb building? The noted Welsh prehistorian, Frances Lynch has pointed out, that there is a notable indentation of the cairn behind the main chamber at Tan y Muriau. This suggests perhaps that the tomb was built in two stages and may indicate rather, that local people adopted new ideas bout tomb building. In regard to the question of the origin of Tan y Muriau long cairn, I must admit that I like to envisage the arrival of Neolithic newcomers from southern Wales or England, travelling over Cardigan Bay in their boats and landing them just below Rhiw, on Porth Neigwl beach! The reality though, is that we shall probably never know the answer to the puzzle posed by Tan y Muriau. At the least however, it indicates that a Neolithic community who lived near Rhiw, were in contact with other Neolithic people from southern Wales or England.


Burial Practices in Neolithic tombs

Archaeological evidence from other Neolithic tombs in the British Isles has revealed that jumbled masses of bone belonging to both adults and children were deposited in the burial chambers in many tombs. Studies of skeletal remains from tombs, often reveals that the bones are bleached and weathered  - suggesting that there was period of ‘defleshing’ the bodies before they were placed in the burial chambers. The defleshing of bodies has been noted in several ‘primitive’ societies of a more recent date, such as the Dakota and Choctaw tribes of North America. This practice is related to the idea that the soul or spirit of the deceased can only be set free after the flesh has rotted from the bones and it is quite feasible that Neolithic people held similar beliefs.

However, archaeology has revealed that in Wales, there were differing burial traditions in Neolithic tombs and it is evident that in the west, cremation was favoured, while in the south-east, unburned bones were deposited in bones. Whether cremation was practised among the Neolithic communities around Rhiw, can perhaps be never known, as all traces of human remains have probably long since disappeared from the burial chambers of the tombs. It does seem probable though; that whatever burial practice was favoured, Neolithic communities throughout Wales held similar beliefs regarding death.


Tombs as Territorial Markers?

In his notable study of the Neolithic tombs on the Isle of Arran, the renowned British prehistorian, Colin Renfrew postulated that the small Neolithic tombs found here acted as territorial markers. In effect, this theory assumes that Neolithic communities used tombs as a means of laying claim to productive land and that they acted as ‘signalling devices’ warning people that they were in ‘foreign’ territory. This is a theory that has fallen somewhat out of favour with modern scholars, though it is one that is perhaps still worthy of consideration. Trevor Garnham, who has recently made a fine study of the Neolithic chambered cairns on Orkney, has remarked that these tombs “were built to be seen from and to overlook a particular area”. This seems to hold true for the tombs found near Rhiw and in particular, Tan y Muriau stands out in this respect. Even today, it can still be seen from a good distance from lower lying land below Mynydd Rhiw and when complete with its huge covering cairn, it must have been even more visible.


Tombs for the Ancestors

Many archaeologists now agree that there was an ancestor cult among the Neolithic communities of the British Isles. Ethnographic studies have shown that many ‘primitive’ societies who live close to nature, worship the ancestors in the belief that they watch over and protect the community from the vagaries of life. We can never know for sure whether Neolithic people held similar beliefs though it does seem quite likely. It should be borne in mind that the people of this time must surely have viewed the world in a different way than we do today. They did not have the benefit of modern science to help explain such things as illness, storms, the seasons, the fertility of crops and animals, the sun and moon. To Neolithic people, such things must have belonged to the world of gods and spirits and it seems probable that they worshipped the ancestors in the hope that the dead would act in this world on behalf of the living.


Who were the tombs built for?

One of the most intriguing questions regarding the Neolithic tombs of Rhiw, is who was actually laid to rest in their burial chambers. It is now apparent that even allowing for the fact that population in the British Isles was much lower during the Neolithic, not everyone was afforded the privilege of being buried in the different types of tombs that were built. For example, Aubrey Burl feels that in the earthen long barrows on Salisbury Plain, which he surmises must have been in use for a lest 100 years, the average number of bodies found is only six. A similar situation has been noted in the megalithic tombs of the western parts of the British Isles, and it is evident that they only contain a small sample of the Neolithic population. Such evidence suggests that there was social ranking in Neolithic society, with a ruling class that was buried in the tombs. Whether a similar process was occurring in the Neolithic tombs of Rhiw is hard to say and it is possible that the smaller tombs of Llwynfor and Tyn Fron were the burial place of small, scattered communities who were egalitarian in nature. However, Tan y Muriau long cairn may suggest otherwise and could be an indication that a powerful, ruling group was in charge in this part of Lleyn during the Neolithic.

It was mentioned above that Tan y Muriau is an outlier of the Cotswold-Severn tombs, which were built in southern Wales and England. Evidence of skeletal remains from this type of tomb not only suggests that a small section of Neolithic society was being buried in them, but also that these people were divided according to age and gender. For example at the magnificent Cotswold-Severn tomb at West Kennet in Wiltshire, the main innermost burial chamber contained only young and old males. Next, the inner facing chambers contained a mixture of male and female adults and finally, the outer pair of chambers contained a mixture of both young and old males and females. Whether a similar situation ever existed at Tan y Muriau can never be known as the human remains that were buried in its three burial chambers have long since disappeared.

However, as mentioned above, Tan y Muriau may have been the burial place of a Neolithic elite and this may be reflected in the size of the tomb. Tan y Muriau is still an impressive monument today, but when complete in the Neolithic, it must have had an even greater impact on the Neolithic people who saw it. It has been seen throughout thousands of years of history, that the rulers of many states have used monumental building as a means of reinforcing and expressing their positions of authority. Of course, there was no Neolithic state, but one is left with the feeling that Tan y Muriau may well have been used in the same way and was designed not only as burial place, but also as a statement of power. The dead who resided within its burial chambers, could well have been the powerful ancestors of a ruling group who held sway around Mynydd Rhiw (or even in the south-western end of Lleyn) during the Neolithic.


Building the tombs

One of the most intriguing questions raised by the megalithic tombs found near Rhiw, is how were they built? The unfortunate answer is that we can never really know how they were constructed and can only make guesses regarding this question. What is clear however, is that intelligence and sheer physical effort lies behind the building of the tombs and one only has to see the huge capstone at Tan y Muriau, to realise this.

Teams of men and probably oxen also, would have transported the megalithic blocks used for the tombs and it seems likely that timber sleds or rollers were used to facilitate this. Raising the smaller, supporting stones of the burial chambers would have posed fewer problems for the Neolithic builders, but the massive capstones would have been a different matter. It could be that capstones were pulled up earth ramps, or even up the cairns that covered the burial chambers. Another possibility is that they were lifted in stages using levers and timber platforms and scaffolding. The answer of course, remains with the people who built the tombs, therefore we can only stand and gaze in wonder at these fascinating monuments.


Many thanks to Julian, for this very interesting history of Rhiw's Neolithic tombs. Julian's newly released book "Ancient Echoes" gives a detailed insight into the pre-history of the Llŷn peninsula. See below.



Ancient Echoes


Julian Heath

The long and narrow peninsula that juts out into the Irish Sea from the western edge of Snowdonia, in Gwynedd, has an abundant and diverse collection of ancient sites and monuments. These fascinating and often haunting places provide us with a link to the distant past, which brings us closer to the ancient inhabitants of this north-western corner of Wales. It would also be fair to say that some of these sites and monuments are hugely impressive and as an added bonus, many are situated in countryside of breathtaking beauty. This book then, aims to introduce people to these places and draw greater attention to the early history of the peninsula, which although not totally neglected, deserves to be better known.

The author’s fascination with the peninsula’s first inhabitants began when he decided that the topic for his undergraduate thesis at Liverpool University would be the Neolithic and Bronze Age religious monuments found in this area. From here, the author has gone on to investigate the ancient sites and monuments of the peninsula in greater detail and this book is the result of those investigations.

Julian was born in Liverpool and has a keen interest in the prehistory of Wales. He is a member of the Association of Archaeological Illustrators and Surveyors and is a part-time lecturer at Liverpool University.

Published by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch. £8.50



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