An Introduction to Neolithic Burial Chambers
This page is an extract from
"The Neolithic Chambered Tombs of Breconshire" by N W
Jones published January 2012
No. 1126 The Neolithic Chambered Tombs of Breconshire
Neolithic chambered tombs are found throughout Europe and are amongst
the oldest surviving man-made structures, built as the communal
burial places of the earliest farmers. Tombs of this date are known
across Wales, although Breconshire has an unusual concentration
in the south-east of the county, on the lower slopes of the Black
Mountains and the slopes overlooking the valleys of the Wye and
All of the Breconshire sites fall within a class generally referred
to as ‘Cotswold-Severn Tombs’, so named because their
distribution is predominantly focused around the Severn Estuary,
in south-east Wales, the Cotwolds, and parts of Somerset, Wiltshire
and Berkshire. Although each of the Breconshire tombs is distinct,
their very eccentricity of plan defines them as a group separate
from those in the rest of Wales or western England (Lynch et al.
2000). This report provides a summary of each of the tombs, with
reference to their Primary Record Number (PRN) recorded in the regional
Historic Environment Record.
The distribution of the Breconshire chambered tombs
The Cotswold-Severn chambered tombs are trapezoidal, stone-built cairns
which vary considerably in size from only 15m in length to over 50m,
the largest being at Penywrlod, Talgarth. The basic plan includes
one or more chambers built of large, upright slabs and covered by
a capstone, which were accessed via passages that may also have used
upright slabs, together with dry-stone walling. These allowed repeated
access to the chambers during the life of the tomb and may have been
blocked and unblocked a number of times.
Although tombs within this group are very diverse, there is general
agreement that they can be divided into three main sub-types: tombs
with simple terminal chambers without a passage or transepts; those
with terminal transepted chambers, which have a central passage entered
from one end with side chambers arranged in pairs; and sites with
multiple lateral chambers with independent entrances from one or both
sides of the cairn. The most complex sites are those in the third
category, with examples at Penywrlod Talgarth, Gwernvale, Pipton and
Ty Isaf (RCAHMW 1997, 27-8).
The chambers were buried beneath a mound of stone, the shape of which
was defined by dry-stone revetment walls which retained the cairn
material, sometimes incorporating double walls, as at Pipton and Gwernvale.
At the wider end of the tomb the walls turned inwards to form a forecourt,
which may have been used for ceremony and ritual. Frequently the forecourt
was blocked by a large, upright slab, or false portal, giving the
impression of chamber beyond (Burrow 2006, 52-4).
Although most of the chambered tombs which have been excavated appear
to have been built in a single phase, there are a some which seem
to incorporate an earlier, round cairn, as at Ty Isaf, while the cairn
at Pipton seems to have been lengthened after its initial construction.
The excavations at Penywrlod Talgarth and Gwernvale have both produced
dates of around 3,900 cal. BC, indicating that they are amongst the
earliest examples of this type of tomb in Britain as a whole (Lynch
et al. 2000, 69).
The tombs are often viewed as ‘houses of the dead’ which
were in use over a protracted period, the chambers being sealed and
unsealed a number of times. Although one might assume that ceremony
and ritual may well have played a part in their use, supporting excavated
evidence is scarce, with most sites only producing a small number
of objects, with occasional pottery vessels and a few stone tools.
It is often thought that the alignment of prehistoric monuments was
of some significance and while this may be true the only common feature
of the Breconshire tombs is that they are all positioned towards the
eastern half of the horizon, though without an obvious relationship
to the position of the sun at any particular time of the year (Burrow