Feature Articles 


The Giantess’ Landscape

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 in fame.

Philip Coppens

Great 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 Britain.

Great 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.

Apart 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 years old.
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 axes.

Bryn celli ddu

Bronze 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.

As 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 Wales.
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.

It 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 deep.
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.

The interior of Bryn celli ddu

Norman 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.

Barclodiad y Gawres

Largely 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 1950s.
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.

Perhaps 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.

Barclodiad 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.

Snowdon, seen from Barclodiad y Gawres

The 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 can match.