A Forgotten Round Cairn at Newton

by H.N. Savory

This article is reproduced in its entirety, from

GOWER TWENTY, 1969 pp 66 – 71 The Journal of the Gower Society

With the kind permission of the Editor- Bernard Morris

The first time I heard of the existence of a prehistoric burial mound on the hill north of Newton, Swansea (SS 60578875) was when Mr. Bernard Morris showed me a sketch-plan which he had made as a result of a visit, in 1967, to fields which were to be used for extensions to a housing estate. He had seen what appeared to be a stony oval mound, partly covered with bushes and obviously disturbed, with one corner of what looked like a stone burial cist exposed, close to the northern end of a field which adjoins the top of a steep slope of rough pasture immediately south of Glen Road, West Cross.

Together we arranged for this mound to be scheduled as an Ancient Monument by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, as we feared that otherwise it might be destroyed before it had been properly examined and recorded. Though conspicuous enough to anyone passing through the field, our mound had apparently escaped the notice of antiquarians and had never been marked as an antiquity on the Ordinance Survey map: it is merely marked as a clump of trees or bushes on the 25inch and 6inch maps. It was all the more interesting that in the following year Mr. Morris should have found, while exploring the Central Library at Swansea, that an account of an excavation of this mound had been contributed to the Mumbles Press in three weekly parts in October, 1929, by the late Lieutenant Col. A. Lloyd-Jones, of the Mumbles. This account implied that two burial cists were found, more or less in a line north and south of the centre and within r roughly circular wall or cairn ring, and that a large slab had been found lying on its side, in the western part of the cairn, which may also once have been part of a cist.

No traces of burials were found in these cists, but Lt. Col. A. Lloyd-Jones made it clear that there was a local recollection of a previous disturbance of the cairn, about fifty years before his time, by a local farmer who needed slabs with which to construct pig sties. This excavation of 1929 had made so little impact upon archaeologists that it was overlooked alike by the revised editions of Ordnance Survey map and Rutter’s Prehistoric Gower.

When I was asked by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, in 1969, to carry out an emergency excavation of the Newton cairn on their behalf, I must confess that I was not at first very hopeful of interesting results, for this was clearly a badly disturbed site. But I realized that as no plan of the structures uncovered by Lt. Col. A. Lloyd-Jones appeared to have survived it was desirable that these should be re-planned before they were removed, and upon reflection this seemed in itself to justify a ‘dig’, because round cairns with multiple cists are by no means a common feature of the Bronze Age in Wales. In fact there are records only of a few, all on the southern sea-board, and none of these records is very satisfactory.

Two for example were destroyed long ago on Merthyr Mawr Warren, and my predecessor at the National Museum of Wales, John Ward, had only been able to rescue some of the details. Another, near Coygan Camp, Laugharne, in Carmarthenshire, was also destroyed long ago without a plan being made. But it did seem likely that such multiple cists might belong to the beginning of the Bronze Age and if we were lucky we might find traces of the Beaker Folk, which the previous explorers had overlooked. So the ‘dig’ was carried out, in July and August this year, [1996] with the ready co-operation of Messrs. B.M.S. Building Contractors (Swansea) Ltd., whose plans for extension of their building site west of Glen Road had made it necessary. The work was carried out under my direction by members of the Ministry’s staff based in Neath Abbey and a number of students of the University of Wales.

The cairn before the ‘dig’ had the appearance of an irregular stony heap on the south side of which grew many large bushes. It tended to convert it from a ‘round’ into a ‘square’ cairn. In addition, it had a low northwards extension which had originally made us think of the possibility of a long cairn, though the Lloyd Jones account showed that this in all probability represented the spoil thrown out from excavations by himself or his predecessor. Our first task was to strip as much as possible of the surface of the cairn as well as cutting intersecting sections in the usual way, because it was likely that previous disturbances would make the sections difficult to interpret and a gentle approach on a broad front was necessary if we were not ourselves to destroy much of the remaining evidence before we could fully understand it.

The cairn had evidently been about 50 feet in diameter, but most of its rim of upright revetment blocks had been removed. It soon became clear that the cairn was of simple construction with a core of yellow sandy loam derived from the local top soil (there was no ditch), covered by a casing of rubble consisting very largely of large water-rolled pebbles which had no doubt been brought from the shore at West Cross. It was not long before the two cists discovered by Lt. Col. A. Lloyd-Jones in 1929 were fully exposed. As expected, they had been badly disturbed, so that only the upright slabs on the south and east sides of the northern cist (fig. 1) and those at the north and south ends of the southern cist remained in position.

The shape of these cists, however, was indicated by the paving which showed for example, how mush the eastern uprights of the southern cist had been displaced. Very likely the farmer around about 1880 had removed the missing uprights, as well as the covering slabs, and the contents on the cists had been scattered then, if indeed they had survived until this time. The cists were big enough to have held inhumed bodies, especially if they had been ‘crouched’, as is normally the case with Early Bronze Age inhumations, but no traces of any burials or grave offerings were found in either of them, except for a tiny fragment of burnt bone found on the flour of the southern cist, which may have strayed from a deposit in some other part of the cairn during a recent disturbance.

At this stage in our excavation we were naturally feeling somewhat disappointed. But I took courage from the fact, already apparent from my sections, which had now reached the original surface below the cairn alongside of the cists, that the latter did not rest directly on the old surface, but on at least a foot of made ground, in other words, they were inserted after the construction of the cairn, or when it was half complete. They would thus either be secondary burials, later than a primary burial to cover which the cairn was built, or satellite burials nearly contemporary with the primary burial which might have escaped disturbance, on or below the old surface. This meant that we had to clear away practically the whole of the cairn in order to make sure that nothing was missed, for we could not assume that a primary burial pit or cist would be at the centre. As it turned out, this burial had survived in a large pit about 5 feet north-west of the centre, slightly to one side of the last vestiges of the paving of what had probably been a third secondary cist, from which all the side slabs had been removed: probably the large isolated slab metioned by Lt. Col. A. Lloyd-Jones was part of this.

The pit itself was over 5 feet across and 2 feet deep; it was not qite circular, but flattened on one side so as to suggest a perfunctory observance of a widespread Early Bronze Age tradition of making dingy-shaped pits or above ground structures to contain burials, perhaps from some idea of voyage of the dead to the next world. The pit was filled to the brim with loose stones, amongst which were scatted throughout fragments of burnt human bone. Despite careful search we found no objects with these bones, which have yet to be reported on by an anatomist, but there can be no doubt that they belong to the Early Bronze Age.

The date of the Newton cairn was fortunately fixed for us by further discoveries made as the cairn material was removed. At a point 4 feet north of the primary burial pit we found, crushed on stones at the base of the cairn, part of the side of a pottery vessel belonging to the ‘Food-vessel’ family and particularly resembling a group represented elsewhere in South Wales, notable at Templeton in Pembrokeshire and thought to have Irish connections.

In the position in which it was found, this might have been redeposited after relatively recent disturbance of one of the cists, but it could have been deposited as a result of ceremonies enacted at the time of the primary burial. In addition, various small fragments of the characteristic pink surfaced pottery of the ‘Beaker Folk’, with its notched or incised decoration, found here and there in the soft material of the core of the cairn, chiefly in the north-western area, warned us that the cairn might have been built close to an earlier settlement, soil from which might have been collected to build the mound. In fact, at the end of the dig, we had uncovered a curving line of post-holes (fig. 2: The post-holes are indicated by ranging poles) recessed in the yellow clay of the upper subsoil under the north-western quadrant of the cairn.

These probably represented what remained of the floor of a large circular hut, about 30 feet in diameter, which had been occupied and abandoned some time before the cairn was built. As we were unable to trace the line of post-holes all the way round through the south-west quadrant, and all the larger fragments of Beaker pottery were found in certain post-holes in the north-west quadrant, it is likely that much of the soil containing the remains of this hut floor had been removed before the cairn was built, either by agriculture, or by ceremonial carried out in connection with the cairn. Within the line of the post-holes was a hearth, on which more Beaker shards were found. This pottery is fragmentary an does not permit the restoration of complete shapes; it seems to represent a late stage of the Beaker tradition, c. 1600 B.C., and the Food-vessel might not be more than a century later. So the date of the primary burial also is likely to fall within these limits.

Though the results of the excavation at Newton have not been spectacular they have made a useful contribution to the prehistory of Gower. Settlements of the Beaker Folk, especially ones with some evidence for the form of the huts, have seldom been recognised in Britain, presumably because these were nomadic people who did not build very substantial settlements, or fortify them. Multiple cist cairns as we have said are rare in Wales and very much more common in Ireland. The fact that the Newton cairn and the other Welsh examples of multiple cist cairns are found on the southern sea-board together with Irish affinities (though not necessarily origins) of the Food-vessel found in our cairn and its analogies elsewhere in South Wales, may mean that we have evidence of the relations which united southern Ireland, South Wales and Wessex at the beginning of the Bronze Age and brought about the famous removal of Presely blue stones to Stonehenge on the one hand, and the arrival in South Wales of specifically Irish types of Henge Monument on the other- connections which certainly had much to do with the establishment of the metallurgical industry of Ireland and the long influence it had in Wales.

Editors’ note: Mr. Morris wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Miss Peacock of Bishopston, who first informed him of the 1929 excavation, in which her father had assisted. This information led to the eventual rediscovery of the cairn.