Albion, ancient sites, Archaeology, Books, Don and Wen, Photography, symbolism, travel

Going West: Carreg Coetan Arthur

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This was the third dolmen we had visited in three days whose name tied it to the legendary King Arthur… and three times three is a magical number. It is certainly a magical site and quite unexpected as you walk between the gaily painted bungalows of the little coastal town of Newport. A gate opens into a green oasis, bounded and shadowed by high hedges, cool in the midday sun, where you come face to face with the oddest little dolmen. My first thought was just as odd… that it reminded me of Ani, the way she sits with the front paws together, demure and expectant, yet somehow regal and ready to pounce in joyous abandon… there was that kind of ‘feel’ to the place. Very much alive.

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Like most of these sites that were once houses of the dead, the overriding impression is not one of melancholy, but of warmth and gladness. You can understand it on a bright, summer’s day, but I don’t know why it should be so in the depths of winter or in pouring rain… yet so it is. There is no sense of the macabre in walking where the bones of our ancestors once lay, no sadness or ghoulish tremor; just a sense of gentle peace and reverence, which says more about our ancestors’ attitude to death, perhaps, than anything we might deduce from the formal study of the past. It is as if they already knew that Life cannot die… only the forms that hold it for a short while can fade and pass, returning their elements to the earth to fuel the cycle of becoming.

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We don’t really know how old these sites are. The scientific process of dating them takes into account both the style and method of construction, comparing them to other dated sites, along with any artefacts that are found during excavation. Anything that can be used for radiocarbon dating, or one of the other modern methods, is a bonus. Even so, such methods can only tell when the artefact dates from, not the site itself, unless its position allows archaeologists to deduce that the find must have been in place before a site was built over it. There have been finds of bone, Grooved and Beaker ware on a platform beside the cromlech and there are other, smaller boulders half buried, part of an unknown construction. Carreg Coetan Arthur has been dated to around four thousand and seven hundred years old. The nature of the finds suggest that bodies were never buried here, but that only defleshed bones were brought to the site.

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We call them tombs, yet I have to wonder if our modern definition really fits the use for which they were designed. That bones were laid in such places, there is no doubt… many have been found, mainly longbones and skulls, neatly arranged by type rather than by person. The bones of many individuals, over decades and centuries, laid in places that seem also to have been used for the rituals that sustain life. To the modern mind, life and death are to be kept separate and our tombs are a place to bury the past, not include it in our celebrations. I prefer the older view, that recognises what has gone before as a necessary part of what is.

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The first impression of the cromlech is that it is small compared to many others, but that is due rather to the design than the stones themselves. The capstone, deep and bulky, is over thirteen feet long and even now I could walk underneath it. The internal space was once much higher. Centuries of local ploughing raised the ground level considerably and the uprights would have once stood around three feet higher than they do today, creating a tall and elegant form. Even so, to see the great capstone poised upon the uprights is impressive enough. Especially when, on closer inspection, you realise that it is not balanced upon the four uprights at all… but is held, incredibly, upon the points of only two. Wales 040

The two supporting orthostats sit beautifully into deliberately hollowed niches in the capstone. Can you imagine the mastery required to enable such a weight of stone to be so perfectly balanced? The surrounding countryside is now largely obscured by modern buildings, but the contours of the capstone are said to shadow the contours of nearby Mynydd Carningli, which we were set to climb that afternoon. Not only that, but the site marks the point from which some interesting and precise solar and lunar alignments have been noted, for both midwinter and midsummer. Such precision cannot be accidental and suggests a sophistication in the observation and reproduction of cosmic cycles that we recognise in the superlative artistry of Egypt yet often overlook in the earthier but powerful presence of stone in our own landscape.

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For the second time we gathered beneath the capstone to share the words of the Gorsedd Prayer, honouring what has gone before, what is and what is yet to come. The human story is but a drop in the ocean of universal time, but it is our story, from beginning to end and the further back we reach through our history, the more we see the commonalities, rather than the differences and barriers we have created between ourselves. Perhaps by looking into the past, we may learn how to face our future.

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