Thursday, 8 March 2012

Tinkinswood and St Lythans Excavations

During the closing months of 2011 I was fortunate enough to have been one of the archaeologists working on the Tinkinswood and St Lythans excavations. Not a lot of archaeology goes on in the Vale of Glamorgan anymore; Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust did quite a few excavations here in the 1970’s and 1980’s like at Cosmeston, the Roman building at the Knap, the medieval village at Cwm-Ciddy, the burials at the Atlantic Trading Estate and Biglis to name but a few. After that there were very little archaeological excavations in the Vale (with the exception of the National Museum of Wales excavation at Llanmaes), so this was a welcome local opportunity and I was lucky enough to work with some great people.

The first of the two took place at Tinkinswood. Tinkinswood is a Neolithic long barrow of the Cotswold-Severn variety (mostly trapezoidal, can vary greatly in size although having similar characteristics and are mostly concentrated in the south of Britain) built sometime in the early Neolithic c.4000BC. It has the largest cap stone of such a monument in Britain. There is a legend of a phantom horseman associated with the monument (a relative of mine says he had an experience here many years ago whilst sheltering from a storm in the chamber), and there seem to be similar legends associated with most monuments of such antiquity in Great Britain.  Still, the excavations did not take place here as the long barrow was excavated in 1914, but took place in the fields contiguous to the monument. It was suspected that there might be a second Neolithic barrow with a collapsed chamber in this field. This mound turned out to be a small Bronze Age barrow; pottery and flint was discovered as well as a Roman coin. A short distance away is a small clearing in the middle of a number of large stones; this was suspected of being a quarry and possible site for the production of the stones used in the long-barrow. A number of test-pits were excavated, but were generally inconclusive.

An interesting discovery in a test trench which I personally excavated were the articulated skeletal remains of an animal (possibly a dog or a sheep). The partial remains were laid out in a sideways position directly on the lias bedrock suggesting that they were deliberately placed; it does not seem reasonable for someone to take the trouble of digging a fairly deep hole to bury a domesticated animal so the notion that there maybe some ritual significance is not unfounded. This was the suspected quarry area for the stones which formed the internal chamber of the long barrow. Like most things in pre-history this may have had some ritual significance and although I cannot confirm the age of the remains, the deliberate placing of animal remains in pits is not unknown such as those found in the large bedrock-cut corn storage pits at the Danebury Iron Age hill fort in Hampshire. Given the close proximity of the long barrow and that this area constituted a small naturally enclosed area of protruding rock, it is entirely possible that this represents some sort of ritual offering. 

The next excavation was at nearby St Lythans. This is another Neolithic long barrow but the earth was cleared away centuries ago in a rather non-scientific fashion leaving the internal chamber exposed; local tradition has it that the then exposed internal chamber was used in the 18th century as a dog kennel. This site has never been excavated so expectations were high. I worked on the forecourt area of the main chamber. It was hoped that there might be a burial around the vicinity of the chamber entrance, but unfortunately there was not, although fragments of human bone were recovered, these were thought to have originally come from inside the chamber. Evidence of a dry stone wall facade in the forecourt area was discovered which adds a new dimension to our understanding of the layout of the site, and perhaps its use. The anatomy of the long barrow consisted of locally sourced limestones; this is not surprising as the Vale of Glamorgan's geology consists mostly of liassic limestone. It transpired that the barrow was originally 30 meters long and 12 wide! In terms of small finds there was Neolithic pottery, flint and bone.  

Both sites are well worth a visit and are especially nice on a summers evening, and there is another excavation planned for sometime later in the year at St Lythans.  If you want a bit more detail about the excavations have a look at the excavation blog

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