The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian


Chambered Cairn


The 'magic stew' at Barclodiad y Gawres has been widely accepted as an example of neolithic ritual.

I think that there is room for re-interpretation here.

The stew, for those who are unfamiliar, was identified by the excavators from small fragments of bones found mixed with the charcoal of a fire in the centre of the chamber. These included bones from wrasse, whiting, eel, frog, toad, natterjack, grass snake, mouse and hare. Since this mixture seems hardly edible it has been interpreted (in the typical archaeological way) as having a ritual purpose.

There is however another possible explanation, and a very down to earth one at that. The original excavators of the tomb, T. G. E. Powell and Glyn Daniel, noted that the bone fragments were consistent in size and type with the stomach contents of an otter. However, since it would be unusual for an otter to have all these bones in its stomach at one time, and then somehow regurgitate them in the chamber, they rejected this idea and hypothesised that the bones came from a stew instead, being small enough to sink to the bottom of the pot.

I agree that it would be strange for an otter to have eaten all these species in one go, but if the deposit had accumulated over time then it makes perfect sense. The bones are consistent with those found at an otter's 'spraint' (dung) site.

See for an example of bones found in otter spraints.

Coastal otters tend to live in crevices in rocks, and like all mustelids they mark their territory with regular 'latrines'. It is feasible that an otter made its home in the chamber at some point in its 5,000 year history, and left its spraint in a particular place on the floor. This would explain the mixture of small bones, any of which could be in the diet of a coastal otter.

Incidentally, otters can still be found within 10 miles of the chamber, so this is not so far-fetched as it sounds. For that matter, people seem to use the site as a latrine even today!

So there you have it. Either a strange 'magical stew' or the more prosaic dung pile of an otter. The matter rests on how the excavation evidence is interpreted.

For those who would like to investigate further, Rhosneigr library has a copy of the original excavation report (as well as many other local history books) and is only a few miles up the road from Barclodiad y Gawres.
Dunstan Posted by Dunstan
16th March 2008ce
Edited 18th November 2008ce

Comments (0)

You must be logged in to add a comment