Prehistoric Funerary and Ritual Sites in Southeast Wales


The Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust Ltd.

For a technical description of how the work for this project was carried out click on the link below. Technical Report

Download a pdf version of the Prehistoric Funerary and Ritual Sites in Southeast Wales report.




Around 4000 BC, new ideas including farming and the making of pottery spread into Britain from mainland Europe. Before this time, the inhabitants had lived an entirely hunter-gather lifestyle, each group moving round in its territory to exploit different seasonally occurring food resources, in the same way as the Aboriginals of Australia or the Bushmen of southern Africa. This would probably have involved modifying the environment to some extent, for example by fire, to produce habitats which particularly suited the plants and animals they wanted, but did not involve the creation of fields or gardens and the separation of the wild from the tame. Archaeologists call the period in which the old method of making a living was practised the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and the period when farming began the Neolithic (New Stone Age). The names come from the fact that, in both periods, stone was used to make tools and weapons, along with bone and wood, since the techniques for working metals had not been discovered.

Although hunting and gathering seem to have continued to play an important part in obtaining food alongside the new farming methods, what appears to have happened is that Neolithic people developed a new way of thinking about the land and their place in it. One of the ways in which this was expressed was by building large community tombs. These can contain the remains of as many as fifty people, and the work involved in constructing them must have represented a significant investment by their builders, particularly since the stones used would have had to be shaped using tools which had themselves been made out of stone, and all digging would have had to be done using such tools as the antlers of deer for picks and animal shoulder blades as shovels. The sites seem to have been chosen with care, and in a land with no other monumental architecture, they must have been truly impressive.

Most of the bones found inside the tombs when they were excavated were not in the form of complete skeletons, so people were not left undisturbed after their deaths. The bodies may have been allowed to decay in the tomb before the bones were sorted, or there may have been a period between death and final burial when the bodies were allowed to decay elsewhere, either in a temporary grave, or by being exposed above-ground to the weather and scavenging animals. When the flesh had decayed, the bones were collected and placed within the tomb, usually separated by sex and age-group. They may perhaps have been brought out at intervals and replaced, before the tombs were finally sealed. Pottery, flint tools and animal bones is often found along with the human bone. From the way in which the bones were treated, most archaeologists now think that once the process of decay was complete, the dead ceased to be important as individuals, and joined a more generalised group of ancestors venerated by the community.

The tombs come in two basic forms, Long Barrows and Chambered Tombs. Long barrows are long earthen mounds, and any internal structures which they have are generally in wood. There are no certain examples of long barrows with wooden internal structures in southeast Wales, as they were generally built in areas where there was a lack of suitable stone. Chambered tombs were also covered by a long mound, but inside there are chambers constructed out of stone, generally massive blocks and slabs.