In 1969, the land artists Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt embarked on a lengthy fieldtrip to visit amongst other things ancient ruins and industrial monuments of southern England and Wales, carrying with them textbooks on the Neolithic. As artists, they were ‘fascinated by man’s imprint on the natural landscape’ and this was reflected by the places and monuments they visited, and photographed one another at.
Smithson was an American landscape artist, who had an enduring interest in materials and entropy. So it is interesting that he, and Holt, took the time to visit some of the Neolithic dolmen of Pembrokeshire, in SW Wales. Because these are monuments that seem not have decayed, that have defied the ravages of millennia, to look very much like they probably did 5000 years or so ago.
Yet something has changed: the context of these monuments. Smithson wrote in his essay Entropy and the New Monuments (1966), “…the urban sprawl, and the infinite number of housing developments of the postwar boom have contributed to the architecture of entropy”. Dolmen have not changed that much, but the landscape has, and in many instances this has impinged on prehistoric archaeology as this blog has been documenting.
In this post, I would like to recount a recent visit I made in the company of a group of members of the Neolithic Studies Group to a dolmen in Pembrokeshire that has remained constant, even as urbanisation occurred all around it, creating a strange and uncomfortable sensation.
Pembrokeshire has an incredible array of dolmens. These are remarkable and impossible looking collections of large megaliths, characterised by a flat portal slab propped up on several uprights (with several variants identified by archaeologists that I won’t bore you with here). Often, the stones are balanced with a beautiful poise, the capstone apparently floating in the air above the supporting stones, leaving an open void within the centre of the monument. Although previously thought to be the cores of cairns, with the cairn material removed, recent excavations have confirmed that these monuments probably looked rather similar when they were erected in the Neolithic, almost skeletal in appearance.
Although excavated examples have been shown to have had a large pit within the central area, perhaps pre-dating the monument or related to monument construction, material directly related to the construction and use of the monuments has rarely been recovered, presumably due to the exposed and open nature of these structures. They may once have been burial monuments, or perhaps served other purposes. Large slabs may have been propped up to allow them to ‘ring’ when struck with a stone, as has been postulated in the recent Preseli Landscape Perception project. They probably took on a magical appearance for those who encountered them in prehistory. For me they seem to be celebrations of the fabric of the landscape, crazy attempts to prop up huge stones, and lift them up towards the sky after extracting them from the ground.
Such dolmens usually stand in the kinds of places that we usually expect to find megaliths – the countryside. They stand in fields, presumably a bit of a pain in the neck for farmers to skirt around with their machinery, or in grassy pasture amidst semi-submerged boulders, or on coastal moorland. As with many megalithic monuments, they typically occur in rocky landscapes with craggy outcrops and mountains. But of course some can be found in urban locations, and when in Pembrokeshire recently, we visited Carreg Coetan Arthur, in Newport (the other, small Newport, not the city near Cardiff), a dolmen in a bungaloid environment, a grassy hole in the centre of a middle class doughnut (apologies for this painful metaphor).
The dolmen is number 13 in the town trail, accompanied by the following description:
‘Carreg Coetan Arthur. This is the most easily accessible burial chamber in the Newport area, located in a small enclosure in the Carreg Coetan housing estate. Like Pentre Ifan, it dates from the Neolithic period, about 3500 BC. It was excavated in 1979-80. There is a massive capstone balanced on two of the four uprights. The name indicates that local people used to believe this to be King Arthur’s Quoit.’
This is a dolmen that is well signposted. There is little chance of missing it. These signs represents a trail of bread crumbs, taking the visitor from the main road that runs through the town, to a secondary road. Soon, one encounters a barrage of signs: to the right, as well as the dolmen (‘burial chamber’, rendered in English and Welsh) is a small sign pointing towards a property for sale. To the left lies the Pen-Y-Bont Business Park, where one can find a garage, a carpet shop and a dentist.
Turning to the right (as I needed none of the services offered in the business park at that time), in expectation of the sight of the dolmen, I was met with a pole literally covered in signs (and I am using the word literally here in the new official meaning of the word, not the old proper meaning). These are rather unfriendly signs. PRIVATE ROAD. PRIVATE ROAD ACCESS TO THE MONUMENT ON FOOT ONLY. A dead end.
At the end of this private road, at the dead end, in a bungaloid zone, at last the dolmen was reached, through a gate, in a little rectangle of grass and hedges right next to a house. The dolmen has its own sign, an official grey CADW sign, which made a nice jacket-hanging facility but was short on information for the casual visitor. Grey indeed.
As noted above, the site has been excavated and I believe the results will be published soon, so it will be interesting to see some of the detail of when this monument was built and what it was used for. But for me this detail is not as interesting as the physicality and angles of the monument. It is dynamic and yet never moves. Because the dolmen itself is, of course, wonderful, a bamboozling impossibility, the massive multi-tonne capstone somehow balanced on only two of the portal stones upon which it rises above. The other two orthostats serve no apparent purpose: in both cases, the capstone floats just above their tip, testament to the amazing skills of the monument builders, experts in the properties of stones and their centres of gravity. Even now, I am still not sure how this monument has not fallen down before now.
Dolmen appear to have been hollow monuments, to have been open to scrutiny, accessible to spectators. And so it seems appropriate that Carreg Coetan Arthur sits in a location which is open to the gaze of the people who live in the surrounding bungalows. This is not a monument where one could easily partake in antisocial behaviour, unlike some other urban prehistory I have encountered, because this seems almost like a gated community. The dolmen is an affectation, an antiquarian whimsy, a folly, in a glade, sylvan, prettified and under surveillance. When at the monument, we were under surveillance by people in gardens who ‘just happened to be’ pottering about on the lawn just after we arrived.
Back in and around Newport, there are echoes of Carreg Coetan Arthur, a source of civic pride and one of the main tourist attractions in the town, afforded its own brown (and grey) signs.
Near the dolmen is Cromlech House.
An advert on a noticeboard on the main street advertises Preseli Coffee, which may well be ‘ethically trading with Africa’, but uses a dolmen as a logo, and of course the Preselis are the source of the Stonehenge bluestones.
And perhaps strangest of all, in the restaurant of the inn where some of us stayed, The Golden Lion, is a weird thing that is a little like a standing stone of unknown material covered in strange symbols which I was unable to decipher, aside from the year 1972. I have no idea what the significance of this piece of strange furniture is, but it did not put me off the fine breakfasts.
My weekend in Pembrokeshire allowed me to visit some fine archaeological sites and walk in some amazing landscapes, but perhaps the strongest memory I took from the trip was the amazing dolmen in a commonplace urban setting.
There is a peculiar grandeur to Carreg Coetan Arthur, resilient to the changes going on around it, a constant presence in a landscape of urban development and aesthetic entropy.
Private road. Dead end. Perhaps this dolmen was once a dead end, the final resting place for select members of Neolithic society, but now it is a different kind of dead end, a cul-de-sac, the bungaloid dolmen.
Sources: Our trip to Pembrokeshire was organised and lead by Meli Mills (although she was Pannett at the time) and thanks to all who accompanied us on that Neolithic Studies Group weekend; much useful and wise information was also imparted by Timothy Darvill. A lot of really exciting work on dolmen has recently been undertaken by Vicki Cummings and Colin Richards, including their excavations at Garn Turne dolmen. My knowledge of these sites in particular comes from unpublished information kindly provided by Vicki. My source for the quote and photo about the Smithson and Holt trip to South Wales was an interview with Nancy Holt, by Simon Grant, published on the Tate website; additional information about Smithson came from the website of his estate where his essay is reproduced in full. The remainder of the photos are my own.