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CPAT - Windows on the Past

Mesolithic - earlier Neolithic, 8000 - 3000 BC

CPAT’s work has not yet touched upon the periods covering the very earliest evidence of people in Wales, as revealed by the excavations undertaken by staff of the National Museum of Wales at Pontnewydd Cave in Clwyd. The mobile hunters of the subsequent, Mesolithic period have been identified, however, at several sites and CPAT’s work has extended our knowledge by finding inland campsites in both the uplands, as at Waun Fignen Felen and Llyn Aled, and in the lowlands as at Gwernvale and Tandderwen.

The introduction of a farming economy is one of the major developments of human history, yet the process by which he changed from an essentially passive user of his environment to an active manipulator of plants and animals is one which is poorly understood. The appearance of new crops and domestic animals must indicate some colonisation from Europe where farming had been established for at least two millennia before its adoption in Britain in the 4th millennium BC. But the extent of his colonisation is disputed, for native hunting groups may have been taking some steps towards permanent settlement and animal control without the stimulation of introduced ideas.

The earliest farming settlements in any region will be difficult to find and the tenuous evidence will not be easy to interpret. The unexpected discovery beneath the Gwernvale cairn of a wooden house surrounded by domestic debris provides a rare picture of a 4th-millennium BC farmstead. Such discoveries are too few for us to reconstruct the settlements of the region with confidence, but the isolated farm would seem to be the characteristic settlement unit in prehistoric Wales as it was in medieval times; the village was unknown and the ‘public’ assembly centres found in the more densely populated areas of southern England have generally not been recognised in Wales.

The accidental nature of the discovery of the house at Gwernvale points up the difficulty of designing a research programme to examine the beginning of the Neolithic, especially in regions where massive stone tombs were not built. The early Neolithic, especially in Clwyd and northern Powys, is a period which remains elusive even after almost 20 years’ work. Have we been unlucky, have we been blind, have we been working in the wrong places, or was our region one which was largely untouched by the early manifestations of the new economy? This last explanation may well be the true one, for evidence relating to the later half of the period is well represented by discoveries of an equally accidental nature.

Gwernvale

Excavations were undertaken between 1977–78 on the Neolithic chambered tomb just outside Crickhowell in advance of improvements to the A40. The buried soil beneath the cairn produced evidence of Mesolithic activity in the period between about 5900–5600 BC represented by characteristic flint points or microliths. This activity appears to have been superseded in about 3750 BC by a small settlement represented by a number of pits and traces of a timber structure, probably a house. Cereal grains recovered from the buried soil provide evidence of early agriculture.

Gwernvale

The Neolithic tomb which overlay the earlier settlement appears to have continued in use for a period of about 500 years, between about 3750–3200 BC. The monument took the form of a long trapezoidal mound, about 45 metres in length, which contained four stone chambers entered from the sides of the mound (one of which is visible in the photograph right), with a ceremonial forecourt at the eastern end. This type of tomb is well known from other sites in the Cotswolds and the Breconshire Black Mountains, together with a number of outliers in North Wales. Evidence from other sites suggests that the chambers were used for communal burial possibly by different family groups.

Excavations were funded by the Welsh Office.

Prestatyn

Excavations undertaken in advance of housing development at Nant Hall Road in 1991–93, inland from the present-day coastline of North Wales, have revealed a number of shell middens of the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, between about 4500–3300 BC. Previous excavations have revealed evidence of even earlier Mesolithic settlement, dating to between 7900–7500 BC, slightly further inland.

Neolithic shell midden

Left: Neolithic shell midden revealed in a section cut through peats during the course of construction work at Nant Hall Road, Prestatyn. Analysis of plant remains from the peat layers is enabling a detailed reconstruction to be made of the environmental changes which took place during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. © CPAT

The heaps of shells, discarded once the shell-fish had been eaten, were found within peat deposits overlying marine clays, and show that considerable changes have affected the coastline since earlier prehistoric times, before the present system of sand-dunes had developed. The Mesolithic middens were largely composed of mussels, suggesting that there was a rocky coastline in the earlier 5th millennium BC. By contrast, the Neolithic middens are largely of cockles, showing that sandy beaches had developed by the early 4th millennium BC. The middens relate to settlement evidence slightly further inland, represented by scatters of chert and flint tools.

Work on the midden sites at Prestatyn has been principally funded by Cadw. Environmental work has been undertaken by staff of St David’s University College, Lampeter.

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Later Neolithic to Early Bronze Age


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