THE RHONDDA STONEHENGE - Dewi Bowen
On those days that PD was winging his way up the serviced, fog-alerted and tyre-pressured M4 to the largest stone ring in the land (Avebury TLH 110), this writer was padding his way slowly up above the hymn-singing, beer-swilling, pigeon-fancying Welsh valley that has been his sometime home for this last two years, to visit what must be the smallest circle.
I had read of 'The Rhondda Stonehenge' as it was so grandly named, some years before. I never managed to find it, though I'd been born and raised just a mile or so over the mountain (the site is not marked on any O.S. map - even the 25 inch series). In 1986, the local council had fenced off a large part of Gelli mountain for a "landfill site" (which is town planning jargon for rubbish tip); fearing the site was in danger of destruction, I determined to make a thorough search for "the Rhondda Stonehenge". This time the little ring of stones was found just 15 yards outside of the dreaded tip site. (On the occasion of this visit I also bumped into the sweetheart of my youth, Elaine, older, wiser but still as pretty, who lived just down the hill from the circle! In the months that followed I was to see a lot more of both Elaine and "the Rhondda Stonehenge".)
The largest stone of the circle is little more than 2 feet high and the site is situated on a level ridge peppered with boulders and small cairns. The circle is at the centre of an alignment of three cairns, a round cairn and a rare example of a platform cairn. Beside the platform cairn is a small standing stone, reported as upright in 1903 but is now fallen.
The man who excavated the site in 1903 and named it "the Rhondda Stonehenge" was the Rev. John Griffiths. He was influenced by the work of the pioneer astro-archaeologist Sir Norman Lockyer, with his ideas of the ancient Welsh gorsedd and the solar and stellar orientation of prehistoric sites. Whether or not Griffiths applied Lockyer's discipline to this site we shall never know as his entire life's work was, sadly, destroyed after his death by his sister, a zealous Christian who believed brother John to have been led astray by Lockyer and Druidic heresies.
The Stone Circles in the British Isles occasionally incorporated astronomical events into their layout and construction is something that is now widely accepted by most prehistorians. However, the site we are looking at falls into a different generic type, the circle in this case being the outer kerb of a cairn given a sepulchral use. Were, then, the vagaries of the heavens considered by its early Bronze Age builders?
I started my obersevations at the midsummer of 1988 and witnessed a sunset in prefect conditions. The three cairns of the complex corresponded roughly with the direction of the sunset but disappointingly nothing could be noticed on the bare high ridge of Mynydd Tylecach. I then took an azimuth reading (315 degrees). Later at home I transferred the azimuth onto the map: this went through the Iron Age hillfort of Maendy Camp. I had already noticed the camp on the hillside earlier but dismissed it as a foresight because of its size and because it was 1000 years later in construction than the circle. On the map however, the projected line went bang through the middle of a bronze age cairn within the ramparts of the fort. Indeed, the cairn must have been quite large originally to have survived the encroachment of the Celtic campers. This azimuth can then be extended to Carn Brynllydian some 7 miles over the hills and far away. I had noted a solstice bearing between Carn Brynllydian and its close neighbour Carn Caglau back in 1980, but owing to forestry was never able to follow it up with any worthwhile fieldwork.
At the Autumn equinox both Elaine and I were ready, well supplied with slide film and a flask of tea to see what might be seen. The weather was good and for the few days before the equinox we photographed the sun getting nearer to a "vee" formed between two hills. The azimuth of the "vee" is 270 degrees. (The photograph shown here was taken at sunset on the 21st of September.) This azimuth on the map lines up three bronze age cairns to the west and another to the east. None of these cairns is visible from the circle.
Elaine noticed the shadow of a very straight linear feature only observable at sunset. When the sun is low the shadow can be seen to run through the circle and beyond. I have not yet been able to successfully photograph this.
The azimuth of the solstice sunrise runs through a very interesting placename: Pen Disgwlfa. This can be translated as "the lookout" or observation place. This line extended runs on the "cairn yr Pigwn" now the site of a forestry fire tower.
Ley focal, bone barrow, processional way or solar observatory - I'm going to be keeping an eye on my little circle for a year or so!
The above line drawing is an exact tracing from the original photograph.