Sunday, 29 June 2014

Harlech: The Assembly of Bran

'Bendigeidfran son of Llyr was the crowned king of this Island, and exalted with the crown of London. One afternoon he was at Harlech in Ardudwy, a court of his. Seated on the rock of Harlech above the ocean were [Bendigeidfran] with his brother Manawydan son of Llyr.'

Twr Bronwen
Ardudwy features prominently in Welsh mythology; this is Mabinogion country. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen Daughter of Llyr, Bendigeidfran holds court at Harlech, and his severed head is returned there for seven years before it is taken on to Gwales for a further four-score years.

Continuing our journey through Ardudwy travelling on the A496 about ten miles north of Barmouth we arrive at Harlech in the parish of Llandanwg, in the Merioneth district of Gwynedd. The parish is named after Saint Tanwg, said to be the founder of the small church at Llandanwg, about two miles south of Harlech, often covered by the shifting sand dunes on the coast nearby. The current church at Llandanwg dates from the 13th century but two rare inscribed stones there suggest a possible 5th century origin. In the centre of Harlech is another church dedicated to Saint Tanwg built in the 19th century as the new parish church, complete with the 15th century font from Llandanwg.

Harlech Castle (copyright CADW)
But it is the castle that is the prominent feature of this little north Wales village, once situated on the coast but now about a kilometre from its original position on the coastline some six hundred years ago. The castle is perched on the edge of the Harlech rock, once lapped by the sea but due to the expanding dune system has been pushed back inland. Hence, the seaward side of the castle was effectively defended by the cliffs of the precipice and the landward side protected by a deep, wide ditch.

Some Roman coins and a golden torque have been discovered in the area which has led to the suggestion that Harlech may have been the site of a fortified Roman post, constructed to defend the estuaries of Traeth Mawr and Traeth Bach. Others suggest the castle was founded by Maelgwyn Gwynedd in the early 6th century. The site is traditionally associated known as Caer Collwyn, said to have been the residence of Collwyn ab Tango in the 9th century, one of the fifteen tribes of North Wales, and lord of Eivionydd, Ardudwy, and part of Lleyn, who inhabited a square tower which later became incorporated into the modern castle.

However, there is no firm evidence for any structure having existed on the site prior to the present castle built by Edward I in the late 13th century. The castle, of which the towers and much of the curtain walls remain, was a massive 210 feet square structure, started in 1283 by Edward I, who chartered the town. Harlech was also known as Twr Bronwen; the south west tower of the castle is today still known as Bronwen's tower.

Sited outside the castle walls overlooking Tremadog Bay is The Two Kings sculpture by Ivor Robert-Jones. The figure depicts the sad story of Bendigeidfran carrying the body of his dead nephew Gwern from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, a collection of Welsh mythological tales found in two medieval manuscripts: the White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch); and the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest). Although, in their current manuscript form, dated to the 14th century the Four Branches contain much older, pre-Christian material. The mythological character Pryderi appears in all Four Branches, although not always the central character, the tales are thought to have originally formed an ancient tradition surrounding his life. A collection of traditional tales was assembled by Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid 19th century. Being the first to publish English translations of The Four Branches, together with five Native Tales (Hanes Taliesin is not always included in the collection) and The Three Romances, Guest named the tales collectively as “The Mabinogion.”

The Two Kings sculpture by Ivor Robert-Jones
The Assembly of Bran
Bendigeidfran (literally "Blessed Raven") is a god-king of the Island of the Mighty in Welsh mythology. He appears in several of the Welsh Triads, but his features prominently in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen daughter of Llŷr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). The presence of Llŷr immediately informs us we are in the realm of the gods of  Welsh mythology. Llŷr was a sea god, father to Bendigeidfran, Branwen and Manawydan (The Children of Llŷr) known on both sides of the Irish Sea as cognate to Lir, father of the sea-god Manannán mac Lir from Irish mythology.

The Second Branch starts with Bendigeidfran and his companions seated at Harlech. They could see thirteen ships in the distance coming from Ireland. The ships had come from Matholwch, king of Ireland, to petition for the hand in marriage of the king's sister Branwen, daughter of Llyr, one of the three High Matriarchs of the Island of the Mighty. Bendigeidfran consented to Matholwch during a feast at Aberffraw, held in pavilions as Bendigeidfran had never been contained within a house.

Meanwhile, Bendigeidfran's half brother Efnisien, a quarrelsome man, feeling insulted that Branwen his sister had been given way without his consent set about mutilating the horses of Matholwch, he “sliced their lips back to their teeth, and their ears back to their heads, and their tails to their backs - and wherever he could get a grip on their eyelids, he would cut these back to the bone.”

By way of recompense, Bendigeidfran presented Matholwch with a cauldron with a peculiarity that “any man who is killed today and thrown in the cauldron, by the next day he will be as good as he was at his best, except he will not be able to talk.” He tells Matholwch  that the cauldron had originally come from a man from his own land, Llasar Llaes Gyfewid who had escaped with his wife Cymidei Kymeinvoll from the Iron House which had been made white hot around them. Matholwch says he knows of this and saw a large, monstrous man bringing a cauldron out of the “The Lake of the Cauldron” in Ireland.

Matholwch, together with Branwen, left for Ireland. This was The Assembly of Branwen and Matholwch. Branwen fell pregnant and in due course gave birth to a boy named Gwern, son of Matholwch. After three years of mistreatment in Ireland, Branwen sent a starling carrying a mesage to find Bendigeidfran. The bird found the king of the Island of the Mighty in Caer Seint. On reading of his sister's abuse he mustered the full levy of the seven-score and fourteen districts of the island. After taking council, Bendigeidfran decided to attack Ireland leaving just the seven elders in the island, this was The Assembly of Bran, with Caradog son of Bran as the chief elder among them.

“Bendigeidfran, and the aforementioned hosting sailed towards Ireland. The ocean was not extensive [back] then: he went by wading. There used to be nothing except two rivers called the Lli and the Archen. And after that the ocean spread out, and the sea flooded the kingdoms. Then he advanced, carrying all the string-minstrels on his back, making for the land of Ireland.

They took council with the men of Ireland  but fighting broke out when Efnisien threw Gwern into the fire and every man in the house reached for their weapons, that was when Mordwyt Tyllion said 'Dogs of Gwen, beware Mordwyt Tyllion.2

Plate form the Gundestrup Cauldron
Then the Irish began to kindle a fire under the Cauldron of Rebirth, the cauldron that Bendigeidfran had presented to Matholwch, with the dead thrown in until it was full. The next day they would rise up, fighting men as good as before, except they would not be able to talk. Realising he was the cause of this devastation, Efnissiyen decided he had to bring an end to the carnage. He crawled in amongst the corpses of the Irishmen and got thrown into the cauldron. He then stretched himself out until the cauldron shattered into four pieces, breaking his heart at the same time.

And victory then went to the men of the Island of the Mighty but only seven men, along with Bendigeidfran wounded in his foot with a poisoned spear, survived: Pryderi, Manawydan; Glifieu Eil Taran; Taliesin; Ynawg; Gruddieu son of Muriel; and Heilyn son of Gwyn the Old.

And then Bendigeidfran ordered the severing of his head:

'Take the head' said he 'and bring it to the White Hill in London, and bury it with its face towards France. And you will be on the road a long time. In Harlech you will be seven years in feasting, the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me. And you will be at Gwales in Penfro for eighty years. Until you open the door facing Aber Henvelen on the side facing Cornwall, you will be able to abide there, along with the head with you uncorrupted. But when you open that door, you will not be able to remain there. You will make for London and bury the head. Cross over to the other side.'

Continued in the Assembly of the Wondrous Head

See: Brân - Celtic god of Hades

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Quotations are from The Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen Daughter of Llyr by Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Bardic Press, 2005.
2. "Mordwyt Tyllion" means "pierced thighs", and is usually assumed to refer to Bran himself.
This interjection seems to be mirrored in The Book of Taliesin poem Song Before the Sons of Llyr which includes the lines: "I have been with Bran in Ireland, I saw when Morddwydtyllon was killed." The poem is clearly linked to the events of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi as it mentions "A battle against the sons of Llyr in Ebyr Henfelyn" (the estuary of the Severn).

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Sunday, 22 June 2014

St Alban's Day

“ the above mentioned time of persecution, as we conclude, lest Britain should be completely enveloped in the thick darkness of black night, kindled for us bright lamps of holy martyrs.......I speak of Saint Alban of Verulam, Aaron and Iulius, citizens of Caerlleon, and the rest of both sexes in different places, who stood firm with lofty nobleness of mind in Christ's battle.” 1

The Story of St Alban
Today 22nd June is the feast day of Saint Alban the first Christian martyr of Britain. Alban, along with fellow saints Julius and Aaron, is one of three martyrs remembered from Roman Britain as recorded by Gildas in his mid-6th century work The Ruin and Conquest of Britain (c.540 AD). Alban was martyred by beheading in the Roman city of Verulamium, the site of the modern St. Alban's Cathedral, Hertfordshire, sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, and his cult has been celebrated there ever since. Martyrs were the saints 'par excellence' 2 and to this day Alban, proto-martyr, is held in high reverence by the church.

The main account of the Romano-British citizen Alban's life and Martyrdom is found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History (731 AD), who substantially developed the story from Gildas brief entry.  Alban was a pagan who converted to Christianity, and was executed on a hill above the Romano-British settlement. St Alban's Abbey was later founded at the reputed place of his beheading, the site where St Alban's Cathedral stands today.

St Albans Cathedral (Wikimedia commons)
The story goes that a man called Alban, believed to have been a Romano-British citizen of Verulamium around the end of the 3rd century, gave shelter to a Christian priest named Amphibalus. Impressed by what he heard, Alban was converted to Christianity. During the period of aforementioned religious persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian, Roman soldiers came in search of the priest. Alban exchanged clothes with him allowing the priest to escape and Alban was arrested in his place.

Standing trial and asked to prove his loyalty by making offerings to the pagan Roman gods, Alban stubbornly refused to denounce his faith and was condemned to death. On his day of execution he was led out of the city, across the river and up a hillside where he was to be beheaded.

In Bede's story the bridge over the river was crowded with onlookers so the waters miraculously divided to let Alban across. As Alban reached the summit of the hill he asked God to give him water, and at once a continuous spring bubbled up at his feet to provide drink. On witnessing this one of the soldiers was so moved by divine intuition he refused to execute Alban. As the other soldier delivered the fatal blow, his eyes dropped out and hit the ground the same moment as Alban's head. According to legend, Alban's head rolled down the hill and a well sprang up at the point where it stopped. The road up to the modern cathedral is called Holywell Hill where a well does indeed exist.

Bede tells us that when the peace of Christian times was restored, a beautiful church worthy of Alban’s martyrdom was built, where sick folk are healed and frequent miracles take place in his day. In Bede's days there was a church and shrine near the spot which pilgrims travelled to visit which became an established place of healing.

Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery to the south of the present Abbey Church. Recent finds suggest an early basilica over the spot and later a Saxon Benedictine monastery was founded, probably by King Offa around 793 AD. This was replaced in 1077 AD by the large Norman church and monastery, the remains of which are still partly visible in the tower and central part of the present cathedral.

The Alban Pilgrimage
Saint Alban's martyrdom is re-enacted each year on and around 22nd June each year with a major festival pilgrimage and Passio taking place in the Hertfordhsire town of St Albans. The event typically attracts over a thousand visitors to St Albans Cathedral including clergy from across the diocese joining with the Bishop and other dignitaries for this memorable and moving event.

Alban Pilgrimage
This year's Alban Pilgrimage took place on Saturday 21st June 2014. The Alban Pilgrimage re-enacts the martyrdom of Alban through a dramatized procession with carnival puppets made by the same team who make figures for the Notting Hill Carnival.

The procession begins at Roman Verulamium, travels through St Albans City Centre and continues alongside the River Ver to arrive at the Cathedral. The Bishop of St Albans leads the pilgrims to the site of Alban's execution then leads the procession into the Cathedral for the Eucharist to celebrate Alban's life and his act of faith and then finally delivers a prayer at the shrine of the martyr.

Right Persecution?
Traditionally, following Gildas' account, Alban's martyrdom is said to have occurred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, 284 to 305 AD, during the Empire's last, largest, and bloodiest official religious persecution of Christians.

Bede, no doubt following Gildas as ever, opts for the Roman Emperor Diocletian who initiated "The Great Persecution” in 303 AD. The Diocletianic persecution came in the form of anti-Christian edicts, or laws, designed to undermine faith, destroy churches, and kill resisters, Diocletian was determined to eradicate Christianity from the Empire.

The first edict was issued in February 303 AD which ordered that all churches were to be dismantled, all liturgical books and scriptures be surrendered, sacred vessels confiscated and all meetings of worship forbidden. A second edict followed shortly after in the summer 303 AD, which ordered the arrest of all Christian clergy, hence the search for Amphibalus in the story of St Alban.

However, Diocletian reigned only in the Eastern Empire and it is doubtful his edicts were carried out in Britain in the far west. Others argue for Alban's martyrdom during the time when Severus was Emperor in Britain from 208 to 211 AD, while others have suggested he suffered during the Christian persecutions of Decius or Valerian during the period of 251–59 AD.

Despite the destruction of the churches during Diocletian's reign as witnessed by the Roman Historian Eusebius of Caesarea's Church History, in which he wrote an account of the development of early Christianity, from the 1st to the 4th century, the site of Alban’s martyrdom had been a cult centre throughout the Roman period. Bede seems to suggest the cult survived into his own times. Archaeology supports continued occupation of the Roman town in some sort of British enclave with little evidence of early Saxon advancement in the area.

There was certainly a pre-Roman settlement known as Verlamio, that developed into an early Roman town and given the status of municipium that was razed to the ground during the Boudiccan revolt of 60/61 AD. This was rebuilt as the Roman town of Verulamium, just to the southwest of the modern city of St Albans.

A pre-Christian religious cult had developed around the burial place of a local chieftain at Verulamium which, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, had become the focus of an extensive religious site with evidence to suggest the veneration of human and animal skulls in some sort of head cult during the Roman period.

At least until the later 3rd century Verulamium was dominated by an extensive religious complex that developed outside the town across the river. This complex was centred on Oysterfields, just off the modern Folly Lane. Oysterfields occupies a low hill directly overlooking the centre of the Roman town, immediately visible from the Forum/Basilica area as opposed to Holywell Hill that is the more prominent of the two and became the site of the medieval abbey.

A large Romano-Celtic temple, linked to the town by a processional way, occupied the crest of Oysterflieds Hill until the end of the 3rd century. This temple commemorated the burial place of the local chieftain who was cremated on the crest of the hill in the mid-1st century, the ashes buried just east of the temple, together with a remarkable collection of funerary offerings, making the burial one of the richest of its period in Britain. It seems an ancestor cult developed around this site with the lower slopes containing over 40 deep pits, one contained the skull of a young man who had been killed by a blow to the head. The skull had been scalped and defleshed and then carefully placed on the bottom of the pit. Six other pits were found to contain face-pots with the face deliberately cut out. In three pits animal skulls had been carefully placed on the bottom.3

Numerous deep pits around the temple site would have undoubtedly penetrated the water table in the Roman period, which, when considered in context of the deposits found in the marshland surrounding the Roman town, may be considered as evidence of votive offering deliberately placed into the depths of the waters. An Iron Age trackway across the marsh will have provided access. In the late 3rd or 4th century religious activity on the part of the complex north of the river dwindled and finally came to a cease in the first quarter of the 4th century. Pits were no longer dug and rubbish was allowed to accumulate over the site. Could the abandonment of the site be linked to the rise in Christianity and the veneration of St Alban on the adjacent Holywell Hill ?4

Right Place?
Bede is the first person to document the execution and burial of Alban as happening in Verulamium, neither Gildas or Constantius of Lyon specifically state that Alban was martyred at the Roman city.

It has been suggested that the cult of Alban was already known to Victricius of Rouen, who visited Britain shortly before the year 400 AD. In his De Laude Sanctorum, Rouen refers to the story of a British martyr who walked through a river, a possible reference to a well-known episode in the martyrdom of Alban; the crowds of people were such that he could not cross the bridge leading to the site of his execution, so he walked into the river, which parted to allow him through. Although there are clear similarities between the story in the Passio of Albani and that related by Victricius, it is important to note that Victricius never names the martyr, nor does he say which river he crossed.5

Our earliest information on the cult of the martyr Alban is to be found in the Vita Germani (Life of St Germanus of Auxerre), written about 480 by Constantius of Lyon. According to the hagiographer, Germanus, together with his companion Lupus of Troyes, visited the site of the saint’s resting place in the course of his first visit to Britain in order to combat the Pelagians, generally dated to 429 AD. Constantius provides little detail of the visit, but this is supplied by early versions of the Passio Albani, of which the fullest account survives in the Turin manuscript.6

St Alban's Shrine
According to Constantius, Germanus took relics of the apostles and various martyrs to the basilica where Alban was buried, but nothing is said of the actual location of this basilica. Significantly, the text claims that Germanus knew nothing about the British saint before his visit; it was only while he was at the basilica that Alban appeared to him, in a vision, revealing the tale of his persecution. Thus, it was written down for the first time. As a result Germanus had the saint’s shrine opened, and had relics of saints of the universal Church which he had brought with him inserted into it. He also gathered some earth stained with Alban's blood, presumably from the site of his martyrdom, to keep which he took back to Auxerre for the foundation of the cult there where it is claimed that within the walls of the city Germanus built his own basilica dedicated to the first British martyr.

Richard Sharpe has demonstrated that the shortest of the early recension's of the Passio Albani, the so-called 'E' text, is earlier than the 'T' (or Turin) recension, dating it to the mid-5th century. The 'E' text may be the first written account, taken down shortly after the vision experienced by Germanus at Alban's shrine.7

It appears that the earliest written version of the Alban story was commissioned by Germanus almost immediately after his visit to the shrine of Alban in Britain. The text would seem to have been intended for the walls of a church in Auxerre. Historian Ian Wood suggests that the earliest Passio of Alban needs to be considered in the context of Germanus’ work in Britain and in Auxerre: the story of the saint’s martyrdom seems to have been revealed to, or invented by, Germanus in the context of his anti-Pelagian mission to Britain.8

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Hugh Williams, Gildas: The Ruin Of Britain, edited For The Hon. Society Of Cymmrodorion, 1899.
2. David Rollason, Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England, Wiley-Blackwell, 1989.
3. Rosalind Niblett, Why Verulamium? in M. Henigand And P. Lindley (ed.), Alban and St Albans, Maney Publishing, 2001, pp.1-12.
4. Ibid.
5. Ian Wood, Germanus, Alban and Auxerre, Bulletin du centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre  (BUCEMA, 13 ), 2009, pp.123-129.
6. Ibid.
7. Richard Sharpe, The Late Antique Passion of St Alban, in M. Henigand And P. Lindley (ed.), Alban and St Albans, Maney Publishing, 2001, pp.30-37.
8. Wood, op.cit.

Further reading:
David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Fifth Edition Revised, 2011.
John Crook, English Medieval Shrines, Boydell, 2012.
St Alban's Cathedral website

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Sunday, 15 June 2014

Dyffryn Ardudwy: Arthur's Quoit

Dyffryn Ardudwy 
Continuing the journey through the Ardudwy region of Gwynedd, North Wales, situated between the coastal towns of Barmouth and Harlech on the A496 is the village of Dyffryn Ardudwy. Lying on the narrow coastal strip between the sandy beaches of Tremadog Bay to the west and the foothills of Snowdonia to the east, Dyffryn Ardudwy stands on the Llanbedr slate formation, but higher up, at the 150m contour, the slate gives way to the grits of the Rhinogydd, the mountains at the centre of a great uplift of sedimentary rocks that geologists call the Harlech Dome, stretching from Snowdon in the north to Cadair Idris in the south, created long ago in the Cambrian era, the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record. These Welsh rocks are one of the oldest known geological formations in the world.

To the west is some of the best beach in Wales at the spectacular National Nature Reserve of Morfa Dyffryn with its natural sand dune system stretching for about about 7km from Afon Ysgethin in the south to Afon Artro at Llanbedr in the north, on their short journeys westward to the sea after rising at mountain lakes in the Rhinogydd. At the southern end of the village, next to the school, is Dyffryn Ardudwy's most famous and one of the easiest accessed prehistoric attractions; the two prehistoric comlechs forming the twin burial chambers of a once huge cairn. I believe only one, the elder, western monument, is a true portal dolmen in the cromlech tradition; its later, eastern counterpart is a much cruder burial chamber, collectively, as one monument, they are termed the 'Burial Chambers of  Dyffryn Ardudwy.'

This multi-phased monument, formerly known as 'Arthur's Quoit', is one of the largest Neolithic funerary monuments in North Wales, excavated by T. G. E. Powell in the early 1960s, it is one of three similar monuments known within the locality, all occupying the gentle west-facing slopes of Moelfre looking over Tremadog Bay. Powell recognised two clear construction phases at Dyffryn Arduwy, each phase comprising a chamber and associated cairn, with its origins firmly embedded in the portal dolmen tradition of the Neolithic era. At sometime during the later Neolithic the users of the monument embarked on an enlargement program and constructed an eastern chamber. This is the largest monument in the Harlech Group which Powell (1973) envisaged had a large trapezoidal cairn constructed of rounded boulders made from water-lain local Cambrian grits, measuring 28m × 15m, enclosing both chambers and the original western oval cairn. However, there is a strong argument for a platform defining a scared enclosure, perhaps not so far removed from the site as it is today; it is difficult to imagine why they would cover the capstones of these early cromlechs, shaped and angled in many cases to mimic a significant feature in the surrounding landscape.

The Harlech Group consists of six prehistoric monuments situated on the western intermediate slopes of the Rhinog range overlooking the Irish Sea and the Lleyn peninsula. Four of the group have been classified by archaeologists as portal dolmens (in Welsh cromlech; literally 'bent, or crooked stone'): Gwern Einion; Bron-y-Foel-Isaf-West; Dyffryn Ardudwy; Cors-y-Gedol. The latest wisdom has reclassified Bron-y-Foel-Isaf-East as of probable natural origin, although this is debatable.

Arthur's Quoit
In Chris Grooms' tome on the Giants of Wales, Cewri Cymru ( Edwin Mellen, 1993), he lists no less than thirty-one instances of 'Coetan Arthur' (Arthur's Quoit) as the name commonly occurring with prehistoric cromlechs and burial chambers, with the names of the capstones making the greater part of the listing. And these do not include all the other antiquities and natural features bearing Arthurian place-names such as Arthur's Chair, Arthur's Stone, Arthur's Grave and such like. Not that many of them possess any direct Arthurian connections but because it became common practice to connect Arthur the Giant with everything huge or exceptional, or so we are told. Yet many argue for a Bronze Age Arthur; there has not yet been a satisfactory explanation for so why so many prehistoric monuments bear the name.

Quoting the 19th writings of Willam Davies, Grooms lists three instances of Coetan Arthur amongst the thirty-one:  Bron-y-Foel; Dyffryn Ardudwy; Cors-y-Gedol. The quoted tradition states that Arthur threw them all from the top of Moelfre, 590m high, 3 miles to the east, to the places they now rest; it is believed that the marks of his gigantic fingers are the indentations that can be seen on the capstone of the eastern chamber of Dyffryn Ardudwy.

The other two monuments, situated at the southern end of the Harlech Group, Carneddau Hengwm South and  Carneddau Hengwm North ('Cairns of the Old Valley'), which George Nash (Logaston, 2006) considers as two of the most important monuments in Wales, both regarded as belonging to the classic Cotswold-Severn Group owing to the survival of their, now denuded, long cairn mounds. From both monuments there is a clear view to Moelfre, one of the most distinctive mountains in the area with its domed profile. At Carneddau Hengwm North  two of the lateral chambers are aligned directly on Moelfre and as one approaches the southern chamber the mountain is skylined above the mass of the cairn. Furthermore, Moelfre would have been immediately visible as one exits the northern chamber. From these sites it is possible to see the Preseli mountains in south Wales on the distant horizon; the place where the sky meets the earth.

One of the characteristics of virtually all megalithic constructions is that they possess a restricted view in at least one direction. Notably, all the monuments in the Harlech Group have clear views of the Snowdon massif with the exception of the twin monuments at Dyffryn Ardudwy. Yet, obversely, very few monuments in north-west Wales share intervisibility: these megalithic monuments appear to have been very carefully positioned in the landscape.

The orientation of the four cromlech monuments of Gwern Einion, Bron-y-Foel-Isaf-West, Dyffryn Ardudwy and Cors-y-Gedol appear to be consistent in that their chambers and long mound axes are all roughly in the same direction, east-west, directing one's gaze from the sea to the mountains. This orientation is clearly significant as it is found repeated again and again at other coastal Neolithic locations in Wales; perhaps they were directional or territorial markers? In many instances the shape of the capstone bears a further significance to the surrounding landscape, sometimes mirroring the mountain outline against the sky which makes the suggestion that these cromlechs were completely covered over by a burial mound seem nonsensical. The early cromlechs seems quite different in location and purpose to the burial chambers of long mounds of say the Cotswold-Severn Group, as is perfectly emphasised at Dyffryn Ardudwy.

The Dyffryn Ardudwy monument is located on the edge of the coastal plain, 50m above mean sea level, on the western slopes of the Rhinogydd, less than 2km from the sea which is clearly visible from the site. The forecourts to both monuments face inland, with their backs to the sea. While the sea can be viewed from both monument forecourts, the southern Lleyn peninsula can only be seen from the eastern chamber. Intentional interplay with the landscape is apparent at many similar monuments in Wales (Cummings and Whittle, 2004).

Approaching from the footpath past the Dyffryn Ardudwy school you come to the western cromlech first which is also the smaller and earlier of the two, resembling the other cromlechs of this Group, such as  Gwern Einion, and its position being similar to Cors-y-Gedol in that they are both close to fresh running water, Afon Ysgethin.

The Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments became concerned about the stability of the larger cromlech and commissioned Powell to carry out excavations in the early 1960s. He interpreted the monument as being of two clear construction phases, each consisting of its own chamber and cairn. The earlier, western monument is a relatively modest cromlech consisting of a chamber 2.5m x 1m,  supported on six uprights, closed with a blocking slab. Powell reports that the chamber had been rifled and found only three small sherds of Beaker ware, but a V-shaped forecourt converged on two portal stones and contained a shallow ritual pit containing several sherds of fine undecorated Neolithic vessels. This cromlech is said to have been originally enclosed under its own oval cairn of 8.5m x 9m.

Later, a second, larger, chamber was constructed about 10m north-east from the first. This second monument was partitioned with a western chamber about 2.3m x 2m with an eastern entrance blocked by stones. It has been suggested that a gap in the north chamber wall provided a side entrance permitting the tomb to be reopened for further insertions of burials after the formal entrance had been blocked. Uprights to the east and south-east of the southern portal stone have been interpreted as a vestigial forecourt.

Undisturbed pottery deposits in the forecourt and blocking area of the eastern burial chamber has been dated to later than the construction of the western cromlech. Further fragments decorated with fingernail impressions have been interpreted as possible indications of the spread of Beaker culture influence into the area. Seven flints were found amongst the cairn stones and a leaf-shaped arrow head was found beneath the cairn edge near the eastern chamber.

A small amount of tomb deposit in the eastern chamber survived but was limited to fine dark earth and a small concentration of cremated remains representing one individual. There were also two broken shale pendants found amongst the undisturbed deposit in the eastern chamber. These pendants have been sourced to Mynydd Rhiw on the tip of the Lleyn peninsula, 39km across the sea, the source of group XXI axes, and visible from only the eastern chamber. Perhaps deliberately broken like many funerary deposits; the lower halves of the pendants have not been found.

Megalithic Art
In 2008 George Nash and Adam Stanford recorded a series of faint grooved, pecked lines and a number of small, regularly spaced notches on the northern face of the southern upright within the entrance area of the western cromlech. This newly discovered megalithic art at Dyffryn Ardudwy possibly includes chevrons, lines, a lozenge and several groups of small cupules at the base of the upright, similar to those found on stones L8 and C16 within the passage grave at Barclodiad y Gawres in Anglesey. Single cupules are also carved onto stones incorporated into the chamber and passage architecture and on the capstone of Barclodiad y Gawres. A single cupule was found on the north-eastern upright within the entrance area of the western cromlech at Dyffryn Ardudwy opposite the megalithic art on the southern portal stone.

There appears to be a clear relationship between Neolithic mortuary monuments, notably passage graves, and megalithic art. Yet there is little evidence to support the use of the earliest cromlechs as a funerary monuments; the limited human remains found at these sites may be secondary intrusions placed through gaps in the supporting stones. The western cromlech at Dyffryn Ardudwy has a large slab underneath which had been undisturbed. Powell suggested this natural stone may have influenced the positioning of the monument.

However, cupmarks and depressions appear to bear a significance on the capstones of cromlechs; at Bachwen on the Llyn Peninsula the capstone is completely covered with over 100 cupules and the presence of 45 shallow cupmarks on the Trefael stone in Pembrokeshire lends support to the likelihood of it being the capstone of a fallen cromlech.

The megalithic art at Dyffryn Ardudwy contains geometric designs consistent with the passage grave tradition of north-western Europe, although it is clear that Dyffryn Ardudwy does not possess any passage grave traits within its architecture. It was generally considered, based on radiocarbon dating on Irish passage graves, that megalithic art within the Irish Sea zone was a late Neolithic phenomenon. Yet it is not clear if the relationship between megalithic art and funerary monuments is contemporary with their construction and early use, or a later embellishment.

Megalithic art is now strongly considered to be characteristically late Neolithic or early Bronze Age in date, yet construction is attributed to the early Neolithic, based partly on the pottery sequence at Dyffryn Ardudwy and the geometric designs on the two uprights within the entrance area of the western cromlech suggests that it was in use, at least periodically, during the later part of the Neolithic. This would seem to confirm the monument's period of construction and later re-use, which fits well with the proposal that the earlier cromlech was incorporated in to the design of a larger monument with the later eastern, burial chamber.

However, there is some rock art on the western cromlech at Dyffryn Ardudwy that the archaeologists rarely mention, if at all. The top of the southern portal stone on the western cromlech, that is the left-hand stone as you look at the cromlech from the eastern burial chamber toward the sea, is decorated with a series of inscribed arcs, perhaps nine or ten, reducing in radius from the chamber side outwards. Why is this decoration never mentioned? Silence is usually a sign that the feature is suspect; perhaps because Powell did not record it in his excavation report.

The grooves on the top of the southern portal stone are shown photographed on the Welsh Rock Art Organisation web page for Dyffryn Ardudwy but there is no mention of them in the text. Indeed it is not mentioned in any of the sources listed below. The inscribed arcs are under the capstone, although not supporting it, and would certainly have been difficult, but not impossible, to carve after construction. The possibility that the southern portal stone was re-used from a previous setting cannot be dismissed which may indicate it was used in an even older monument; the biography of certain megaliths is becoming increasingly recognised as having significance in monument building.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
Chris Grooms, The Giants of Wales; Cewri Cymru, Edwin Mellen, 1993.
George Nash, The Architecture of Death: Neolithic chambered tombs in Wales,  Logaston Press, 2006.
George Nash and Adam Stanford, New megalithic art at the Neolithic chambered monument of Dyffryn Ardudwy, North Wales, Rock Art Research 2009  -Volume 26, Number 1 – available through the Welsh Rock Art Organisation website
TGE Powell, Excavation of the Megalithic Chambered Cairn at Dyffryn Ardudwy, Merioneth, Wales, Archaeologia 104, 1973.
Vicki Cummings and Alasdair Whittle, Places of Special Virtue, Oxbow, 2004.
John Godfrey Williams, Arthur: Prehistoric Sites & Place-names, West House Books, 1993.

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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Ardudwy: Land of Legend

History and Legend
Ardudwy is the ancient name of the area which extends from near Beddgelert in northern Snowdonia (Eryri), to Barmouth in the south, stretching from Harlech in the west to Trawsfynydd in the east. Ardudwy in Gwynedd, Wales, is a region rich in folk tales; every hill, every rock has a story to tell.

Ardudwy, a fertile swathe of pasture land lying between the coast of Tremadog Bay and the Rhinog mountains (Rhinogydd), was part of the ancient kingdom of Gwynedd known as Dunoding, traditionally named after one of the sons of Cunedda Wledig who came down from the Old North in the 5th century to expel Irish settlers from the area. According to The Harleian MS 3859, Cunedda had eight sons who gave their names to areas of Wales, such as Meirionydd and Ceredigion. The 9th century Historia Brittonum recalls:

“.....Cunedag, with his sons, whose number was eight, had come previously from the northern part, that is from the region which is called Manau Gododdin, one hundred and forty-six years before Maelgwn reigned. And with great slaughter they drove out from those regions the Scotti who never returned again to inhabit them.

Maelgwn of Gwynedd, Gildas' Maglocunus, the 'Dragon of the island',  appears in the genealogies as Cunedda’s great-grandson, and the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae) record his obit during the 'great mortality' of 547 AD. We have no record of when Maelgwn commenced his reign, however, 146 years before his death brings us to the time of the ending of Roman Britain, at the very beginning of the 5th century.
The legend of lands founded by Cunedda and his sons
(after Koch: Celtic Culture, 2006)
It has been suggested that the migration from Manau Gododdin in the north was part of the policy of Gildas' superbus tyrannus (Bede's Vortigern) to protect Britain from the attacks of the Picts and Scotti following the Roman withdrawal. Yet, the Historia Brittonum states the interval was 146 years before Maelgwn's reign, so we must be looking for a considerably earlier time. Maelgwn must have commenced his reign around the beginning of the 6th century pushing the time of the migration back to around 370- 380 AD, the time of the Theodosian restoration of Britannia following the Barbarian Conspiracy of 367 AD, a simultaneous attack by Saxons, Attacotti, Picts and Scotti, recorded by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus.

The Irish settlements in late Roman to post-Roman Wales are attested by Ogam inscriptions and place-name evidence such as the derivation of the name of the Llyn peninsula from Primitive Irish *Legeni, i.e. Laigin = ‘Leinstermen’. Further, Cunedda's sons, the migration to Wales  and the war with the Irish do not figure at all in the archaic Welsh elegy Marwnad Cunedda (Death-song of Cunedda) found in the Llyfr Taliesin (Book of Taliesin). Consequently, the story of Cunedda's migration to Gwynedd is generally considered an origin legend rather than an historical event.

Setting of the Mabinogion Tales
North Wales holds a special affinity for the distinguished Hispanic general Magnus Maximus famed for his part in the recovery of Northern Britain following the Barbarian Conspiracy and defeating an incursion of Picts and Scots in 381. Maximus is often named as the Roman general who brought Cunedda to north Wales. Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by the army in  Britannia in 383 AD and is accused by Gildas of stripping the island of her military forces and 'the flower of her youth' when crossing to Gaul in pursuit of his short-lived ambitions; he was executed five years later.

Evidence of his popularity in early medieval Wales is found in traditional tales where he is remembered as Mascen Wledig, and appears in the genealogical records, an early example of which can be found on the 9th century ‘Pillar of Eliseg’ at Valle Crucis by Llangollen, which claims the marriage of his daughter Sevira to Vortigern, king of the Britons.

Lady Guest's 19th century collection of native tales known as the Mabinogion preserves the memory of Magnus Maximus in the tale of the Dream of Mascen Wledig which features Caer Seint, the Roman fort of Segontium, "the fort at the mouth of the Seiont,"  at Caernarfon.

Segontium overlooking Caernarfon
This is Mabinogion country and Ardudwy features prominently in the Welsh mythologies. In The Third Branch of the Mabinogi, Bendigeidfran holds court at Harlech, and his severed head returns there for seven years before it is taken on to Gwales. In The Fourth Branch, Lleu Llaw Gyffes built his palace on the other side of the Rhinogs at Mur-y-Castell in Ardudwy and lived here with his beautiful wife Blodeuedd, the flower maiden, created by Math and Gwydion. It is near here, at the River Cynfael that Lleu is hit by the poisoned spear of his adversary Gron and takes flight as an eagle. Gwydion finds him further north in an oak tree at Nantle, near Snowdon.

Mur-y-Castell was originally built by the Romans and known as Tomen-y-Mur (Mound in the Walls) on the slope of Mynydd Maentwrog to the north east of Llyn Trawsfynydd, with access from A470. The Roman fort stood in a prominent position on the road from Brithdir (near Dolgellau) to Segontium. Off the B4391 is Llyn Morwynion (the Maidens' Lake), which, according to the Mabinogion, is where Blodeuedd's Maidens of Ardudwy drowned whilst fleeing from the wizard Gwydion and the men of Gwynedd. Gwydion turned Blodeuedd in to an owl. An alternative folk tale of  Llyn y Morwynion can be found in The Men of Ardudwy included in W. Jenkyn Thomas' The Welsh Fairy Book (1908).

The Cantiorix stone was found near the site traditionally known as the 'Graves of the Men of Ardudwy'. The site has been destroyed over time, with little but the line of the Roman road now visible. Antiquarian accounts suggest this was the site of a prehistoric cemetery. The Cantiorix Inscription is a stone grave marker from the early post-Roman era, now located at the church at Penmachno. It is the first known historical reference to the Kingdom of Gwynedd.

The Stones of Ardudwy
Travelling north on the A496 road from Barmouth toward Harlech one soon comes upon the village of Dyffryn Ardudwy situated  at the foot of Moelfre, part of the Rhinogydd range. Signposted from the school it is a short walk from the main road to the twin burial chambers constructed on the west-facing coastal strip of Ardudwy. The site consists of two well preserved cromlechs about 8 metres apart on a platform of white rock, the western most monument is the eldest, estimated to have been built c.3500 BC.

Just a few miles from here is Bron y Foel Isaf Burial Chamber, now badly damaged, the huge capstone and incorporated into a dry stone wall.  This was one of three stones thrown by Arthur from the top of Moelfre. Close by is the stone circle of Waun Hir Ring Cairn. About a mile east of Dyffryn Ardudwy is Cors-y-Gedol Cromlech with just one orthostat precariously supporting the tipped capstone.

Cors-y-Gedol Cromlech 
(Wikimedia Commons)
Travelling further north is the little Welsh village of Llanbedr. Tucked away behind some houses, 120m east of the Afon Artro, are two standing stones known as Meini Hirion. One is a fine menhir, the other looking suspect and rather fragile. Some believe these stones to be the remains of a stone circle, but more likely a single menhir marking a Bronze Age trade route from the sea into the mountains. At the north end of the village is St Peter's Church, tucked away behind the font is a stone about three feet tall with a spiral carving at the top, about 30cm across. Apparently the stone was brought down from a hut circle above Llanbedr.

About a mile and a bit west of Llanbedr is a sandy peninsula of land known as Shell Island (Mochras). In 1819 the 9th Earl of Winchilsea created the present Llandanwg harbour entrance by diverting the river Artro to improve access to the wharf at Pensarn which was the shipment point for slate brought down from Llanfair and Llanbedr. The Artro had previously entered the sea south of Shell Island, the diversion is responsible for creating Morfa Dyffryn sand dunes. The peninsula is said to have been connected to the mythical Cantre'r Gwaelod, the lowland hundred. Accounts variously suggest the tract of land now submerged beneath the sea once extended from Bardsey Island to Cardigan or as far south as Ramsey Island. Legends of the land suggest that it may have extended 20 miles west of the present coast. Although there is no reliable physical evidence for this legendary land under the sea, reports persist of sightings and sounds of the ringing of old church bells.

Sunken Lands
Legend claims that Gwyddno Garanhir (Longshanks) once ruled these lands now submerged beneath Cardigan Bay. Seithenyn, a notorious drunkard, is blamed for the incident as he fell asleep and failed to shut the floodgates causing the inundation of the land. A similar myth persists around the north Wales coast in Llys Helig (Helig's Court) where Elphin found a baby in a fish trap, and named him Taliesin. About seven miles west of Aberystwyth in Cardiganshire, is a collection of stones, named as Caer Wyddno, "the fort or palace of Gwyddno" which Samuel Lewis, claimed in The Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1849), is adjoined by the vestiges of one of more of the more southern causeways or embankments of Cantre'r Gwaelod. Remains of a submerged forest at Borth add fuel to the myth.

Oceanographic map of  Tremadoc Bay
(© Crown copyright)
The "causeways" described by Lewis can still be seen today in Cardigan Bay. Known as 'Sarnau' these ridges stretch several miles out to sea from the coast. Sarn Badrig, or Sarn Padrig ('St. Patrick's Causeway' in Welsh), is the longest and most northerly of these, can be seen at neap tides extending south-westwards under the sea from Mochras Point, on Shell Island for a distance of about 15 miles. There are claims that Sarn Badrig runs all the way to Ireland and St Patrick used it to journey between the two lands. A little further south down the coast is the causeway of Sarn y Bwch, close to Tywyn and just north of Aberystwyth is Sarn Gynfelyn. These causeways are said to be linear shingle reefs of glacial deposits left by receding ice sheets at the end of the last ice age and probably connected to distant memories of the flood.

Further along the coast from Shell Island in the Llandanwg dunes is the historic church of St. Tanwg, said to have been the son of Ithel the Generous of Armorica of the 6th century. The church's position in the sand dunes used to cause it to disappear under the sand each winter whilst it was closed. The present church building is medieval, dating from the 13th century, however there are two 6th century inscribed stones indicating much earlier activity, and it has probably been a place of worship from the early 5th century.

The ancient church is thought to have been founded around 435 AD as part of St. Patrick's communication system between Ireland and Britain, and oddly not so far from the point where Sarn Badrig comes ashore by Mochras Point. But it's all just legend of course!

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

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