by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action.

Bachwen, Gwynedd.

Bachwen, Gwynedd.

During a recent holiday, in North Wales, I took myself away from the family for a couple of hours and visited the portal dolmen, called Bachwen, in Clynnog. While there, I noticed a pale-pink and badly crushed carcass of a crab, that something, a gull perhaps, had placed on the capstone. Then, alive and below the stone, stuck to a loose wisp of sheep’s wool and the sea-green lichen of the door, was a snail. The two creatures, or the state symbolised by each, seemed to be in juxtaposition, a reversal of the expected placement at a tomb; life now inside and death out.

A human perspective, of course. Our own lives would seem interminable, immortal even, godlike, to such as these and non-human life very much carries on, even in the grave. As does our use of symbols to represent our expectations and fears, our adjustments to the fact of our own mortality. 

Some of the earliest, solid attempts at such representation, or consideration, perhaps re-creation, of the forces of existence, may still be with us, in the form of these Early Neolithic structures. As William O’Brien (2002, 160) suggests, while discussing a different, yet similarly homogenous set of  Irish monuments and their effect on the later mythological landscape; “ Clearly, these stone monuments are inherently symbolic and so should reflect in some fundamental way the central beliefs of the religious practice concerned. These beliefs are materialised in the architecture and orientation of these monuments, and in their use-history. While the design of these monuments has functional possibilities (to receive offerings, to hold burials, to congregate people), the consistency of its execution over a wide geographical area suggests a deeper religious significance.” 

Or, if you can imagine the words of Mircea Eliade (1958, 216) to apply to the complete dolmen, rather than a single stone; “ A rock or a pebble would be the object of reverent devotion because it represented or imitated something, because it came from somewhere. Its sacred value is always due to that something or somewhere, never to its own actual existence… Their role was generally more magical than religious. Invested with certain sacred powers as a result of their origin or their shape, they were not adored, but made use of.”

The landscape setting and structural features, of this particular class of monument, have recently been investigated by Tatjana Kytmannow, who discovered the majority to be aligned along a valley, parallel or reverse-parallel to a small stream, facing either its source, a confluence or, occasionally, a pronounced bend; “… the presence of a small stream, nearly always parallel to the tomb, and the avoidance of the highest point in the vicinity in 100% of the cases, are strong indications that the precise siting was an integral part of the belief system. Slope direction and tomb orientation are preferably east, the location is in most cases in a sheltered valley and high altitudes are avoided .” (2008, 189)

The dolmen would have been surrounded, but not covered, by a cairn and the fully exposed capstone raised to slope from front to rear, either by being wedge-shaped, as here at Clynnog, or by having a lower back stone than portals, or door stone.

It has been suggested (Richards 2004, 76; Scarre 2007, 73) that the purpose of these monuments may not have been, as O’Brien also allows, in a different context above, to serve functionally after their completion, as a sepulchre for example, but instead to rest in the act of building and “raising a mythical or sacred stone from the earth into the air.” Alasdair Whittle (2004, 86) extends this argument to contend that the raising of the stones “may have had a more general metaphorical or mythical significance”, allowing their visual similarity, in several cases, to the slope of nearby mountains, but also proposing, as Eliade hints at above, that “they could be seen as a version of creation, in which the earth was raised to the sky, or an account of how sky and earth were once joined.”

Allowing Colin Richards’s contention that the stone itself was sacred and its raising was the purpose of the monument, you would have to wonder why so many sacred stones were wedge-shaped or, failing that, had to be tilted to the rear to give the same impression. Whittle’s idea does seem to fit more comfortably. He implies that the stone was sacred as a symbol, rather than in itself, but then he also comes up against the difficulty of the tilt. Imitable mountain sides are not present in the vicinity of all portal tombs and an earth raised to the sky should not always lean, lopsided, unless a very specific cosmology demanded it . Mythology, as Whittle himself reasons and ragged cloth that it is, may be one possible way to provide an answer.