Forty miles east
of Anglesey, in the famous Welsh coastal resort of Llandudno,
is the peninsula that is known as Great Ormes Head. Here, the
world’s largest prehistoric industrial site has been discovered.
But elsewhere on Anglesey, recent discoveries have unearthed Neolithic
remains that rival Newgrange and Stonehenge – though not
Orme, the mountain that is one of the main visitor attractors
of the coastal town of Llandudno, rises 220 metres above the Irish
Sea. Whether on foot, on tram, or even more spectacular, driving
your own car, the ascent can only be described as extremely steep.
Once up, there are several things to do – a requirement
for any tourist attraction. Since the early 1990s, that area has
a new attraction: a Bronze Age copper mine, which sits in the
shadow of the tram terminal – though at the time of the
latter’s construction, none were aware it would once bring
tourists to one of the most important archaeological sites in
Orme Copper Mine
The mine itself is at least 240 by 130 metres large, with a vertical
height of 70 metres. “At least”, for the total extent
of the complex has not yet been explored. More than six kilometres
of tunnels have so far been uncovered, located on nine levels,
as well as an opencast mine, making it the largest prehistoric
mine in the world. Many of the tunnels are extremely narrow, which
has led some archaeologists to conclude that at least in some
sections, children were used to mine the ore. In some areas where
the rock was too hard, firesetting was used to make the rock expand,
knowing it would crack when it was cooling. Evidence of this technique
has been found at a depth of 65 metres below the surface. As this
technique required a sophisticated ventilation system to control
the flow of air through the mine, its application at such a depth
underlines that the Bronze Age miners were also ingenious engineers.
from small tunnels, it also has a very large chamber, said to
be the largest man-made underground structure created during the
Bronze Age. It was excavated between 1987 and 1994 and was found
to contain hundreds of bones of animals, including some human
bones. These remains allowed the chamber to be dated to ca. 3500
What the archaeologists found, was a unique insight into a Bronze
Age industrial site, as there were gigantic stone hammers, one
weighing a massive 29 kilograms. In twelve years of excavation,
more than 2500 stone hammers have been recovered, as well as 30,000
bone utensils, eighty percent of which came from cattle. So far,
six kilometres of this underground network has been surveyed;
a further ten kilometres is believed to exist. Based on what is
known, over 1700 tonnes of copper metal are known to have been
extracted from the mine, making it the largest industrial site
in the Bronze Age World, able to produce a staggering ten million
is not mined; it is produced. Bronze is a mixture of ninety percent
copper and ten percent tin. The malachite extracted from the limestone
rock at Great Orme had to be smelted to produce copper metal.
This occurred at Pen Trwyn, northeast of Orme. The nearest source
of tin, however, was in Devon and Cornwall, over 300 miles south.
As such, an extensive trade network was required. As movement
overland was slow and often impossible (most of Britain was still
forest), the sea would have been the only viable route. Here,
Orme Head’s location as a peninsula would have been seen
as ideal and somewhere, remains of a prehistoric harbour may lay
in wait of discovery.
Interestingly, we have some idea as to what these Bronze Age boats
may have looked like, as in 1992 a prehistoric boat was discovered
near Dover. The boat was originally 19 metres long and 2.4 metres
wide and dated to 1000 BC, slightly younger than the Bronze Age
boats that would have transported copper, tin and/or bronze at
Great Orme. It is accepted that this boat was able to make crossings
across the Channel with substantial cargo, underlining the paneuropean
nature of the Bronze Age.
it is known that mining in prehistoric times was also part of
a sacred duty, often performed in sacred locations, it identifies
this region of North Wales as an important religious centre. Another
copper source was the Parys Mountains, in northern Anglesey. It
should therefore come as no surprise that major archaeological
discoveries have been made in this most north-western corner of
Anglesey has a certain number of important megalithic remains,
of which Bryn Celli Ddu and Barclodiad y Gawres are the most famous
– though they should be far more famous than they actually
are, especially the latter.
Bryn Celli Ddu – the Mound in the Dark Grove or possibly
the mound in the grove of the deity, is one of the best-known
and most impressive monuments of Anglesey. It was first explored
seriously in 1865, and excavated in 1928-9. It sits in a rather
unimpressive location, providing unspectacular views over the
Welsh landscape. It is a henge-type structure, with a mound in
the centre, itself concealing a passage and a chamber, which contains
a single, conical stone.
is known that Bryn Celli Ddu was at first a henge, with a stone
circle with a bank outside and a ditch within the circle: a Welsh
Stonehenge, though on a much smaller scale. So far, only two other
henges have been found in the region, at Llandegai, near Bangor.
The excavations uncovered a pit dug at the centre of the henge,
in which a fire had been lit and a human ear-bone placed at the
bottom. Then, a flat stone was place over the pit. The ditch originally
measured 21 metres in diameter, was 5.2 metres wide and 1.8 metres
It is in the early Bronze Age, which would have such an impact
on Llandudno, that the stones of the stone circle were removed
and a passage grave was built over the top of the centre of the
henge. Though the ditch remained visible, it was reduced in size.
Furthermore, what we see today is a reconstruction of the original
mound – the original being minimally larger, and also not
having an opening at the west.
The main entrance is located at the north-east of the mound, and
a passageway that is 8.2 metres long and 0.9 metres wide, leads
from the outside to an inner chamber. The interior is divided
by two tall portal stones. Inside the inner section, there is
a free standing pillar, a rather unique design. One of the stones
on the south wall of the chamber has a spiral design, though the
authenticity of the spiral has been questioned. Despite this doubt,
it has been moved to the National Museum of Wales and replaced
with a replica on site.
interior of Bryn celli ddu
Lockyer, who in 1906 published the first systematic study of megalithic
astronomy, argued that Bryn Celli Ddu marked the summer solstice.
This was ridiculed at the time, but Steve Burrow, curator of Neolithic
archaeology at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum of Wales) has
proven that Lockyer’s theory is true. At midsummer dawn
in 2005, Burrow was inside the chamber waiting to see what would
happen. "First there is a sparkle through the trees, then
the sun rises out, it's quite exhilarating." The sun’s
rays lit up a quartz-rich stone at the back of the tomb. It was
powerful evidence that the passage had been constructed in line
with astronomical observations – proving Lockyer right.
This alignment has made Bryn Celli Ddu a member of a very select
group of sites, such as Maes Howe and Newgrange, both of which
point to the midwinter solstice. Other archaeologists, such as
Mike Pitts, have suggested that a feature similar to the light
box at Newgrange may be matched at Bryn Celli Ddu. Though it is
unclear what came first (the grave or the mine), logic would suggest
that the opening of the Llandudno mine had a powerful effect in
the entire region, resulting in the construction of a most impressive
megalithic structure at Bryn Celli Ddu, similar in scope to Newgrange.
forgotten – and far less known – is Barclodiad y Gawres,
perhaps the most spectacular of Welsh sites, if only because of
its siting, on a peninsula, surrounded by beautiful beaches and
the sea. The site was believed to be of minor importance, until
excavations occurred in 1952-3.
Barclodiad y Gawres has so far not revealed any solar alignments,
but is rightfully seen as Wales’ equivalent to Newgrange.
Dated to 2500 BC, it displays a distinct Irish influence. Though
it is not on the same scale as its Irish counterpart, there are
obvious parallels, specifically a series of decorated slabs inside
the passage grave.
As recently as 2006, the structure continued to surrender some
of its secrets when archaeologists discovered a decorated slab
carved 4,500 years ago for the dead and their guardians, and which
was missed when the tomb was originally excavated in the early
The carving was a chevron design pecked into the rock with a stone
chisel, bringing to six the number of decorated slabs with lozenges,
cup marks, concentric circles and spirals that have been found
in this tomb. The chevron design is unique in the region, and
only two similarly decorated tombs have been recorded, one nearby
Bryn Celli Ddu, and one in Liverpool, which has now been destroyed.
the reason why few people come here is because the passage grave
has a reconstructed concrete dome, which some may assume –
wrongfully –detracts from its appeal. Unfortunately, after
vandalism in 2007, access to the site is now strictly regulated,
though people without keys can still appreciate the interior of
the monument, especially if they have a powerful torch and largely
due to the presence of the concrete dome.
The dome allows for an easy visualisation of the seven metre-long
passage that leads to a cruciform burial place, where three small
stone cells open a central chamber. Remains of cremated human
bone, originating from two males, were found in the cells, but
the central chamber seems to have been used to prepare a stew
with some, mercifully lost, ritual significance: analysis suggests
the ingredients included fish, eel, newt, frog, toad, mice, shrew,
hare and grass snake, then covered with limpet shells and pebbles.
y Gawres translates as “the Giantess’s Apronful”
and the site seems linked with the story of another giant, Rhita,
who is linked with the highest peak of Wales, Snowdon. From Barclodiad
y Gawres, there is in fact a clear alignment to Snowdon, which
can only be seen from the immediate vicinity of the passage grave,
dropping below the horizon as one moves away from the site. Looking
towards Snowdon, the mountain can be interpreted as resembling
a pregnant woman lying on her back, in its most abstract shape
– or of a twin-peaked hill, a symbol equally cherished by
our distant forefathers.
seen from Barclodiad y Gawres
two sites are largely out of place structures, which may only
have been built because the Great Orme copper mine had such a
massive effect on the region, that – it seems – Irish
people came to the region, bringing with them some know-how that
transformed the megalithic remains of Anglesey forever. It specifically
propelled two sites to a height that few on the British Isles