Sunday, 12 January 2014

Bedd Arthur: Arthur's Grave

“....Bedd Arthur is an eerie site, with big question marks hanging over its origin” 1

Translated as 'The Grave of Arthur', Bedd Arthur is another of those prehistoric sites said to have been thrown by Arthur himself, as a giant, on this occasion from  from Dyffryn Circle. 2

Bedd Arthur (Wikipedia Commons)
The enigmatic structure known as Bedd Arthur is situated one thousand feet above sea level on the Preseli ridge in Pembrokeshire, southwest Wales, overlooking the dolerite outcrops of Carn Meyn, identified as a source of the Stonehenge bluestones by Herbert Thomas as long ago as 1923. 3 The relationship with Stonehenge is further encouraged by the oval setting of Bedd Arthur comparing favourably to the inner oval setting of Preseli bluestones erected at Stonehenge. Oval stone settings are a recognised form of monument in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages of Britain, but whereas plain circles are common and widespread, ovals remain rare.

In concluding that the Stonehenge Bluestones had indeed come from west Wales, Thomas ignited interest in the tale of the magician Merlin transporting the Giant’s Dance to Salisbury Plain as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. Although often criticised by historians for his wild elaborations, Geoffrey was essentially correct in stating almost eight hundred years before Thomas that stones at Stonehenge had indeed come from the west.

Aubrey Burl avoids Bedd Arthur altogether in his grand opus The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany and argues that the oval/horseshoe arrangement at Stonehenge as seen in the sarsen Trilithons and mirrored in the Bluestone settings has more in common with monuments across the channel on the Atlantic coast region of Brittany. 4 An odd omission from an excellent book; clearly the ever cautious Burl refuses to gamble on the prehistoric origins of Bedd Arthur for the simple reason that no one knows exactly what this enigmatic arrangement, of uncertain date, represents.

So what is Bedd Arthur? The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW) records Bedd Arthur as "A subrectangular enclosure...... formed of earthfast stones …... backed by a low bank, surrounding a levlled interior. An explicitly ambiguous monument that has only been compared to the 'Churchyard' on Skomer Island." The “Churchyard” is one of those enigmatic rectilinear monument typically dismissed as a livestock enclosure because we don't really understand its purpose. King Arthur's Hall on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall is another.

The Golden Road
Bedd Arthur appears to have been deliberately levelled on the interior which hints at the mound of a long barrow but the low bank, more visible on the long north side, may indicate a henge. Other suggestions range from an elliptical stone circle with truncated ends, a rectilinear enclosure, a Norse ship burial and even a neo-Druidical prank. And of course it is claimed to be one of the resting places of King Arthur. It has never been excavated and is of uncertain date.

It is apparent that the Bedd Arthur monument once consisted of an oval bank and ditch,  features which are barely visible today, with 13 erect stones, all leaning inwards, with 2  or 3 fallen and partially buried. The stones are all relatively small varying in height from 3 ft to 10 inches. The major axis has been recorded as 59 ft long with a maximum width of 31 ft. The number of stones and the shape seems to vary with each report.

Bedd Arthur has been described as Preseli's most eccentric monument, unlike anything else, situated high on the hills directly across the saddle from Carn Meini. 5 Rectilinear monuments are typically recognised as being associated with ritual and ceremonial sites of the Early Bronze Age, with a possible origin in rectangular Neolithic mounds and may have been a hengiform expression of this. 6

However, Bedd Arthur is very high in the Preselis for a typical henge monument but it stands on the path along the top of the Preseli ridge at the crossing of trackways running east-west and north-south, henges being frequently located close to routeways. The Golden Road for example runs along the entire spine of the Preseli mountains, a route said to be 5,000 years old dating back to the Neolithic period. Bedd Arthur lies below the pathway to the south east. Significant that Preseli was situated on the major prehistoric trade route from Ireland to Wessex, the ridgeways presenting an alternative to the unpredictable coastal route around St David's. Ceremonial battle-axes made of Preseli bluestone have been found far from the source area, as far apart as Devon, Sussex and Suffolk. A Preseli battle-axe was found in a Beaker barrow at Wilsford near Stonehenge demonstrating that transportation of bluestone between the sites was not an uncommon event.7

Illustration from Timothy Darvill, Stonehenge: Biography of a Landscape (2008)
It is apparent that Bedd Arthur belongs to this prehistoric epoch. As noted above oval stone settings are a recognised form of monument in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages of Britain and are found at Woodhenge, Stonehenge and recent conjecture 8 suggests the newly discovered stone circle, known as Bluestonehenge, at the terminus of the Stonehenge Avenue on the west bank of the river Avon may also have been oval shaped. All these monuments date to the period 2,500 – 2,300 BC. Bedd Arthur is more of an elongated teardrop than an oval and does not display the same level of symmetry found at the oval settings at Woodhenge, Stonehenge or Bluestonehenge; however its orientation and material used in its construction are the same as the Bluestone oval at Stonehenge. The significance of an oval shape, as opposed to a simple circle, is that it provides an orientation toward a fixed point.

The central stone at Bedd Arthur appears to mimic the shape of Foel Drygarn; many megaliths, such as cromlech capstones, seem to have been deliberately placed to reflect a landscape feature as if to draw one's eye in a certain direction. When viewed from this central stone, the tallest stone currently points towards the peak of Foel Drygarn just off the current position of the midsummer sunrise. It is claimed that during the Neolithic period, c.2,500 BC, the axis of Bedd Arthur would have pointed at the position of the midsummer sunrise, then at about 47 degrees east of north depending on the horizon elevation.9

The alignment is the significant feature; it shares the same orientation as Woodhenge, Stonehenge Bluestone oval and the conjectured oval at Bluestonehenge, toward the midsummer sunrise during the same prehistoric period, thus confirming the prehistoric origins of Bedd Arthur.

© Edward Watson 2014 


Notes & References:
1. N P Figgis, Prehistoric Preseli: A Field Guide, Atelier Productions, 2001.
2. Leslie V Grinsell, Folklore Of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, Thomas & Charles, 1976.
3. Research by the Open University led by Richard Thorpe in the late 1980s pinpointed an area no more than 3 km across centred on Carn Meyn as the source of the dolerite bluestones used in the Bluestone oval/horsheshoe at Stonehenge.
4. Aubrey Burl, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale University Press; 2nd Revised edition, 2000.
5. Figgis, Prehistoric Preseli.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Henry Rothwell, Bluestonehenge – Oval or Round? Digital Digging website 
9. Robin Heath, Bluestone Magic, Bluestone Press, 2010.

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