by Dr Sandy Gerrard
On the island of Hoy in the Orkneys a massive sandstone boulder (8.5m long by 4.47m wide) sits stranded like a whale at the bottom of a steep cliff. This stone is called the Dwarfie Stane and at some time in the past a tunnel was cut into its western side and a small chamber formed inside the rock. Up until 1935 a broad consensus had emerged that the chamber had been formed to provide accommodation of some sort. However, during a visit to the stone in the summer of 1935 by Charles Calder of the Royal Commission and a Professor Bryce a brand new, a revolutionary idea was born… “that the Dwarfie Stane is the first and only example in the British Isles of a completely rock-cut tomb of the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age”. The evidence to support this radical departure from the established interpretation was two analogies from the Mediterranean, some parallels in “intervening countries” and “certain features in some of the monuments in Orkney itself.” The full justification can found here, but essentially comparisons were made with rock-cut tombs in the Mediterranean and with some of the much closer stone built tombs on Orkney. Calder emphasised the significance of the Dwarfie Stane saying at one point that it may even be more interesting than Maeshowe because it is “absolutely unique”.
The “absolutely unique” Dwarfie Stane.
Plan of the Dwarfie Stane and the two Mediterranean parallels (After Calder and Macdonald, 1936, 218 and 223).
Actual evidence to support this appealing interpretation is however wholly lacking, but despite this, the site information board boldly states “It was actually a tomb, related to the many chambered tombs found through-out Orkney”.
So in Scotland uniqueness is celebrated or at the very least acknowledged as existing, whilst in Wales anything perceived as not precisely fitting the mould is summarily dismissed. When I asked a Cadw officer what they thought the Bancbryn stone alignment might be, they provided no answer and instead stated that they did not believe it could be prehistoric because Welsh alignments “Are characterised by much larger, upright stones in significantly shorter lengths”. Even if this was true (and it is not) this is not a remotely sound reason for dismissing the alignment. Diversity is at the heart of archaeology and Cadw’s failure to recognise the possibility of differences in the character of the archaeological resource is truly alarming.
At Bancbryn we do not need to go as far the Mediterranean to find precise parallels – they exist on the other side of the Bristol Channel and to ignore them as Cadw have done is both astonishing and indefensible.
Distribution of single long stone rows composed of smaller stones in Great Britain.
Bancbryn (green) sits comfortably within the part of Great Britain where single long rows composed of smaller stones are found. It seems peculiar that Scottish archaeologists are happy to accept parallels from the Mediterranean to help them understand their archaeology, but Welsh ones struggle to recognise those on their own doorstep.
Calder, C.S.T. and Macdonald,G.,1936, ‘The Dwarfie Stane, Hoy, Orkney: its period and purpose. With a note on “Jo. Ben” and the Dwarfie Stane’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, vol. 70, 1935-6. Pgs. 217-38.