The mysterious burial chamber in which 90 bodies were discovered.
Tinkinswood Neolithic chamber burial chamber has one of the largest capstones in Europe and was excavated in 1914.
Tinkinswood Burial Chamber lies to the west of Cardiff and is one of the most impressive burial mounds in Wales. Situated a short walk from the nearby road, Tinkinswood sits in the corner of an open field. The first thing that strikes you is the size of the capstone. It has been estimated that it must weigh in the region of 40–50 tons and is one of the largest in Europe, measuring 7.4m x 4.5m (24ft x 15ft).
It was originally thought that the monument was built around 4000 BC and consists of a long cairn, with a rectangular stone burial chamber. How the Stone Age builders achieved such a feat of construction remains a mystery and some local traditions ascribed such superhuman feats to mystical beings and fairies as a means of explanation. The chamber is reached from a dry stone herringbone pattern forecourt, which is a part of a restoration that occurred after the chamber was excavated.
The mound was excavated in 1914 and 920 pieces of human bone were unearthed coming from an estimated 90 bodies. The bones came from both male and female bodies and nearly all the bones were broken in some way. As a communal burial site, it is likely that bodies would have been left out in the open to degrade and then would have been interred in the chamber. As a part of the 1914 excavation, some brickwork was added to the structure to support the capstone; this herringbone pattern brickwork is easily identified at the site.
A more recent excavation in 2011 has cast doubt on the original supposition that Tinkinswood is a Neolithic burial chamber with new evidence emerging that the site may, in fact be a Bronze Age barrow. More pottery and human cremation remains were found during this more recent dig.
The burial chamber has a number of different names associated with it, having been known as Gwal-y-filiast (the grey hound bitch’s lair) and Maes-y-filiast (the grey hound bitch’s field) at times. The mound and surrounding fields have also been known as Castell Carreg (meaning Stone Castle) and Llech-y-Filiast.
The burial chamber is a part of Severn-Cotswold pattern of ancient monuments that straddle the south west of the UK, with the most westerly examples being in West Wales (on the Gower peninsular) and reaching as far east as Avebury. These chambers were constructed with a stone structure and then covered in a long barrow mound, which in this example has become partially eroded over the centuries. This particular example is in close proximity to the equally impressive, but markedly different burial chamber at St Lythan’s, not more than a mile from Tinkinswood.
These ancient stones are subject to two persistent legends. The first states that there are three nights of the year when the stones have the power to bestow gifts on those who hold vigil at the stones. If a brave soul is willing to spend the night at the burial chamber on the night before either May Day, St John’s day or Midwinter’s day, the stones may bestow the gift of poetry upon the visitor. The twist in the tale is that they equally have the power to kill the visitor or drive them mad. Put simply, spend the night at the stones and by morning you’ll either be a poet, dead or mad.
There are a number of other stones in the area; great slabs of the same material from which the burial chamber was constructed. Legend has it that some of these nearby are the petrified bodies of a group of women who were turned to stone for dancing on a Sunday.
These two forms of legends are found at a number of ancient sites across the UK, with the consequence of unseemly behaviour on a Sunday being a consistent theme (I’m reminded of the Piper stones at the Hurlers in Cornwall as an obvious example where the early Christian church may have introduced a retelling of an older legend).
If you enjoyed this, just around the corner there’s another burial chamber with its own set of legends. You can find out about it here — St Lythan’s Burial Chamber.