By Dr. Ben Edwards, Senior Lecturer, History, Politics and Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Since 2015, alongside Dr Seren Griffiths, also of MMU, Dr Ffion Reynolds of Cadw, and Adam Stanford of Aerial Cam, I have been involved with the Bryn Celli Ddu Landscape Project. Bryn Celli Ddu is one of the most impressive Neolithic burial monuments in the British Isles: a passage tomb, consisting of a stone-built passage into an artificial earth mound, which terminates in a burial chamber. The passage tomb was used as a location for burial around 3000BC, but the site had a much longer history, and exists in a landscape replete with evidence for prehistoric ritual activity. Prior to the site’s use for burial, a henge monument with an internal stone circle occupied the site and given the 3000BC data associated with the later passage tomb, this would seem to be one of the earliest henge monuments in Wales. Our excavations during the project did not focus on the tomb itself, as this was excavated in the 1930s prior to its reconstruction and restoration. Instead, we set out to investigate the landscape around the monument, which had seen surprisingly little sustained investigation, despite the importance of the site. We have located new panels of Neolithic cup-marked rock art, demonstrated the existence of a later Early Bronze Age burial cairn cemetery to the south of the tomb, and located a cluster of later Neolithic Grooved Ware pits. The burial monument clearly led to the location being significant in prehistory after the use of the tomb itself had finished. Bryn Celli Ddu is one of only three passage tombs in Wales, all of which are on Anglesey, but it is the only such monument with an association with midsummer solstice sunrise. The passage into the mound was deliberately aligned so that on the longest day of the year, as soon as the sun rose, it would shine down the passage and illuminate the burial chamber within.
Of absolutely central importance to our project over the course of the last five years has been the involvement of the local community in all our research work. Every year, volunteer excavators have been part of the excavations; in partnership with Cadw we have run public open days; we have hosted school visits; designed a local prehistoric treasure hunt; developed a smartphone app for public use; and hosted temporary exhibitions with Oriel Ynys Môn. However, with the introduction of the Coronavirus lockdown, we were forced to cancel all our excavation, survey and outreach work for the 2020 season. Whilst this was a great shame, it did provide the opportunity for more imaginative ways of connecting people with the prehistoric past. This is the context for the Bryn Celli Ddu Minecraft Experience.
The Welsh government, through its Hwb Cymru school’s portal, provides free access for school children to the Education Edition of Minecraft, as does Manchester Metropolitan University for the development of learning resources. Usually, the value of Minecraft as an education tool focuses on its use to introduce children to basic coding skills and its use for artistic expression, though there an almost infinite number of uses to which it has been put. It seemed to me that a recreation of the Bryn Celli Ddu landscape would be the perfect way to get school children virtually to the site, even though the excavation and open days had been cancelled: the technology was familiar, and access to the programme was provided freely. Thus, by roping-in my now home-schooled daughter, we were able to embark upon a recreation of Bryn Celli Ddu and all the prehistoric features we had discovered or investigated over the five years of the project.
Minecraft has its limitations as a tool for reconstruction, primarily the 1 cubic metre basic size of the majority of the ‘solid’ components of the world, known as ‘blocks’, for the uninitiated. The construction of a Neolithic passage tomb, various Grooved Ware pits, the Bronze Age cairn cemetery and standing stones was all possible despite this constraint. Enough types of block are available to provide the range of textures needed to represent the different types of stone that are used in the construction of the passage and burial chamber, for example. Simple pits are represented by a 1 x 1m hole in the ground, and ‘flower pot’ objects can be placed in them that bear a passing resemblance to the Grooved Ware; similarly a flower pot represents the cremation urn we discovered during the excavation of the Early Bronze Age burial cairn of Bryn Celli Bach. Blocks representing the stone-built burial cist in the centre of the same cairn, in contrasting stone, were buried beneath the mound as an easter-egg for any that chose to dig into it. Other elements were more problematic. Neolithic carved rock art panels are an important feature of the landscape – our project had made eight new discoveries of art panels, in addition to one large panel that was already known near to the passage tomb – but creating Neolithic ‘art’ was difficult within the constraints of the Minecraft world. The compromise solution was to create large rock outcrops using bedrock blocks and inset into these decorated stones, which could represent the location of the carved cupmarks from the Neolithic.
We did take a degree of artistic license in order to enhance the educational experience. There is no evidence for settlement activity near Bryn Celli Ddu during any of the time periods that our project has studied, but there have been discoveries of impressively large Neolithic buildings elsewhere on Anglesey. CR Archaeology discovered three such structures near Llanfaethlu in the north of Anglesey, and their excellent reports allowed an attempt at the Minecraft reconstruction of one of the buildings within the experience. Similarly, due to a lack of pollen survival for detailed palynological analysis, little is known about the specific vegetation history at Bryn Celli Ddu during the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, but clearly tree cover would have been more extensive than it is today. Therefore, we used trees in Minecraft to structure the user experience: oak and birch trees obscure lines of sight and, when used in conjunction with the waymarked paths we created, shape the way people move around the landscape and create sudden vistas to engage the visitor. Using trees in this manner also allowed us to separate the reconstruction of the Llanfaethlu house from the rest of the landscape, into which we had artistically imposed it.
The most fundamental element of any landscape is the topography itself: the shape of the valley of the Afon Braint in which Bryn Celli Ddu is located. The monument was deliberately sited on a low sand and gravel knoll in the middle of the valley, presumably to provide local prominence and to avoid the boggier ground that surrounded the river and its tributary streams. These are now canalised, but aerial photography shows their previous courses in the form of palaeochannels. Fortunately, using World Painter, a third-party Minecraft world creator, we were able to import an actual digital terrain model of the valley into Minecraft, to use as the base on which to build the world. This terrain model was accurate to 1m, having been derived from satellite lidar data, and the contours clearly showed the course of the river and tributary streams. ‘Painting’ the world as a first step also allowed the rapid creation of the rivers themselves, and the boggy areas that would have surrounded them in prehistory.
Finally, thanks to Dr Ffion Reynolds of Cadw, we have been able to meet another fundamental objective of all of our public engagement work in the project: bilingual accessibility. By translating all of the Minecraft Experience into Welsh, Dr Reynolds has enabled both a Welsh and an English version to be uploaded onto the Hwb Cymru education resources portal. Schools across Wales, and indeed the UK, can now download the world onto their Education Editions of Minecraft and allow pupils to access the Experience.
For links to the Bryn Celli Ddu Minecraft Experience see https://mcphh.org/bryn-celli-ddu-minecraft-experience/