Cromlech

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pentre Ifan



Cromlech is a Brythonic word (Breton/Welsh) used to describe prehistoric megalithic structures, where crom means "bent" and llech means "flagstone". The term is now virtually obsolete in archaeology, but remains in use as a colloquial term for two different types of megalithic monument.

In English it usually refers to dolmens, the remains of prehistoric stone chamber tombs. However, it is widely used in French to describe stone circles. Confusingly, some English-speaking archaeologists, such as Aubrey Burl, use this second meaning for cromlech in English too.

In addition, the term is occasionally used to describe more complex examples of megalithic architecture, such as the Almendres Cromlech in Portugal.

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The most popular megalithic site in Wales, Pentre Ifan is a splendid burial chamber with a huge capstone delicately poised on three uprights. Once known as Arthurs' Quoit, Pentre Ifan means Ivan's Village. This monument, dating back to about 3500 BC and unusually oriented north-south, stands on the slopes of a ridge commanding extensive views over the Nevern Valley. The elegant capstone weighs over 16 tons; it is 5m (16ft 6in) long and 2.4m (8ft) off the ground. The stones of the chamber are all of local igneous rock; on the portal stone there is a faint decorative cupmark.

Excavations in 1936-7 and 1958-9 showed that the burial chamber originally lay within a shallow oval pit, and that the trapezoidal mound of earth covering it was up to 36m (120ft) long. The semi-circular façade, as in the Irish court-tombs, was marked by two upright stones on either side of the south-facing portal. The forecourt was blocked with rows of tightly wedged stones; some of the original kerbstones around the barrow can still be seen. Within the cairn were a number of enigmatic features: a slumped stone, deliberately felled before the cairn was built, an irregular line of small stone-holes and a pit with signs of burning.

No trace of burials was found here, but we may assume that such a large tomb would have been used for collective burial over many years. The number of artefacts discovered was very small; a recent analysis suggests that Pentre Ifan may be a structure built in two periods: the original portal dolmen tomb could have been later embellished by a cairn and a façade.

Local lore says that sometimes fairies are seen here: they are described as 'little children in clothes like soldiers' clothes and with red caps'.

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