In Haunt

Explore inside one of Britain’s most iconic Neolithic monuments – Bryn Celli Ddu on the Welsh island of Anglesey – in an exciting virtual format, thanks to a Minecraft project created by academics from Manchester Metropolitan University and Cadw: the Welsh Government’s historic environment service. This is archaeology in action... at a distance! 

Bryn Celli Ddu Public Archaeology Landscape ProjectThe Bryn Celli Ddu Minecraft Experience is a virtual 3D replica of the ancient burial site, accessible via the popular Minecraft computer game. This means it is accessible for children and adults alike, and an opportunity to interact with history, from home.

The imaginative approach has been created by Dr Seren Griffiths and Dr Ben Edwards (both Manchester Metropolitan University) with Dr Ffion Reynolds (Cadw) and Adam Stanford (Aerial Cam) – part of their revised plans from the Bryn Celli Ddu Public Archaeology Landscape Project in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The Bryn Celli Ddu public archaeology landscape project, which has been underway for the last five years, seeks to bring the public closer to archaeological discovery; working with the local community to unearth the history and mysteries of the area around Bryn Celli Ddu … and therefore the Covid-19 lockdown provided a whole new challenge. With all planned events in relation to the site cancelled, the fast-thinking team worked determinedly to create interactive digital content, which also doubles up as a fascinating resource for families learning from home. It has since been featured on Radio 3’s Free Thinking (when Dr Griffiths discussed the project), the Smithsonian Channel’s Mystic Britain and also covered by the BBC and Manchester Metropolitan University. The landscape project also has a blog which can be accessed here.

The response from schools and pupils has also been very positive, with coverage from BBC Cymru and the work was also covered by The Week Magazine kids edition.

Pictured below: Bryn Celli Ddu by Stephen Oldfield 

By Stephen Oldfield

According to Dr Ben Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Heritage and Archaelogy (Manchester Metropolitan University), who recognised the potentials of the Minecraft platform:

“My primary school-age daughter was using Minecraft for her online schoolwork during lockdown, so I was inspired – with her technical help – to build a digital version of the prehistoric landscape. It also gave me the freedom to reconstruct the landscape as it would have looked in the Neolithic, right down to accurate hills, trees and rivers – something we had never done before.

 “The whole ethos of our work at Bryn Celli Ddu has been public involvement in archaeology and bringing school children to the site to directly experience the process of excavating, so it was a huge disappointment to cancel our on-site work, schools tours and open days this year.

“It was really important to us to continue our connection with the local schools and create digital content to help teachers in this really difficult time, which is why we created a Welsh as well as English version.”

Bryn Celli Ddu is Welsh for ‘The Mound in the Dark Grove’, an evocative title for a site actually made up of multiple parts, created in stages. Approaching the monument, and visible in the Minecraft experience, is a henge – one of the oldest parts of the site – taking the appearance of a ditch; a typical ritual enclosure structure of the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period. A circle of standing stones also used to be located within its boundary … and yet were destroyed when the site underwent something of a redesign, around 1,000 years after it was built.

Bryn Celli Ddu Public Archaeology Landscape Project

Within the old henge boundaries, a passage tomb was then constructed, dating to about 5,000 years ago. The mound is clearly visible from the outside (a partial modern reconstruction following its excavation in 1929, to highlight what it used to be like), along with a dark entrance passage. But where does the passage lead?

The Bryn Celli Ddu Minecraft Experience allows users to see a digital version of what is inside this astounding structure… as through the entrance passage can be found an octagonal chamber around 8ft wide, a space where ancient relics including carved stones, arrowheads and even human bones have been found.

Bryn Celli Ddu Public Archaeology Landscape Project

Another extraordinary detail of the passage is that it has been precisely aligned so that on the summer solstice, the rays of the rising sun light up the passageway: a feature that makes it particularly distinct. Kerbstones (long stone blocks) were also placed in a circle around the structure, forming a kind of wall that followed the original henge ditch. It is this attention to detail that highlights the complexity of tomb and funerary monuments of past civilisations, and is a fascinating learning experience. Considering that both burnt and unburnt human remains have been found within, this suggests Bryn Celli Ddu’s use for various funerary practices over time and ongoing research further shows the importance of this megalithic landmark for understanding past attitudes to death, ritual and the landscape.

The Bryn Celli Ddu public archaeology landscape project has also used Radiocarbon dating techniques to reveal additional information about the use of the wider area; highlighting evidence of ancient ritual activity taking place here for over 10,000 years. New radiocarbon dates have been taken for some Neolithic ritual pits and what was a huge burial cairn on a ridge behind Bryn Celli Ddu. Dating has also shown that after the construction of the Bryn Celli Ddu passage tomb itself, a pit circle was created and pottery and stone tools deposited there; suggesting another ceremonial practice linked to death and burial. And these more recent discoveries infer there will be plenty more in the area, yet to be discovered – making Bryn Celli Ddu as significant as major heritage sites such as Stonehenge.

Bryn Celli Ddu Public Archaeology Landscape Project

Opening up deep history to a variety of ages and making it interactive, the Minecraft platform has an advantage for displaying complex constructed sites such as this, as the ‘game world’ is constructed in blocks. Raw materials and craft tools as well as building structures and earthworks are usual features of the game, all lending themselves well to the archaeology project whilst also providing an accessible interface. It marks an imaginative and forward-thinking development for the archaeology team when faced with unprecedented circumstances.

Why not give it a try? Schools across the UK can download the world onto their Education Editions of Minecraft; a version of the game that complements what is being taught in the classroom. It has also been made available by the Welsh Government, through its Hwb Cymru schools portal, which provides free access for schoolchildren to the Education Edition of Minecraft. A download link is also available for people at home via the Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage website: https://mcphh.org/bryn-celli-ddu-minecraft-experience/

By Emily Oldfield 

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