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

CPAT Report 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 Usk.
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

Cotswold-Severn 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 2006, 88-9).