A kistvaen or cistvaen is a tomb or burial chamber formed from flat stone slabs in a box-like shape. If set completely underground, it may be covered by a tumulus.[1] The word is derived from the Welsh cist (chest) and maen (stone). The term originated in relation to Celtic structures, typically pre-Christian, but in antiquarian scholarship of the 19th and early 20th centuries it was sometimes applied to similar structures outside the Celtic world.

Kistvaen showing capstone and cist structure (Dartmoor in Drizzlecombe)
Kistvaen on the southern edge of Dartmoor in Drizzlecombe
Kistvaen to the south of the stone rows at Merrivale on Dartmoor

One of the most numerous kinds of kistvaen are the Dartmoor kistvaens. These often take the form of small rectangular pits about 3 ft. (0.9 m) long by 2 feet (0.6 m) wide. The kistvaens were usually covered with a mound of earth and surrounded by a circle of small stones. When a body was placed in the kistvaen, it was usually lain in a contracted position. Sometimes however the body was cremated with the ashes placed in a cinerary urn.

Kistvaens and Celtic saintsEdit

Kistvaens are also found associated with holy sites or burial places of early Celtic saints, who are often semi-legendary. Saints associated with kistvaens include Callwen daughter of Brychan, Geraint,[2] Begnet,[3] and Melangell.[4] Foundation remains of stone slab- or gable-shrines, or the cella memoriae of Mediterranean origin, may sometimes have been misunderstood in an earlier era of scholarship as a kistvaen, and the subject is complicated by this "woolly nomenclature."[5]

See alsoEdit

  • Dolmen, a type of above-ground burial chamber


  1. ^ Cyril M. Harris, Illustrated Dictionary of Historic Architecture (Courier Dover Publications, 1983), p. 118 with illustration online.
  2. ^ S. Baring-Gould and John Fisher, The Lives of the British Saints (London, 1908) p. 67 online and vol. 3, p. 51 online
  3. ^ In the quoted passage incorrectly identified as St. Benedict; Joseph P. O'Reilly, "Notes on the Orientations and Certain Architectural Details of the Old Churches of Dalkey Town and Dalkey Island," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 24 (1903), p. 196 online.
  4. ^ Nancy Edwards, "Celtic Saints and Early Medieval Archaeology," in Local saints and local churches in the early medieval West (Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 234ff., with photo. Scholars may describe the kind of structure called a "kistvaen" rather than using the term itself.
  5. ^ Ulster Journal of Archaeology 63 (2004), p. 144.

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