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CPAT - Windows on the Past

Later Neolithic to Early Bronze Age, 3000 - 1500 BC

The second half of the 3rd millennium BC was a period of change in almost every aspect of life. Old traditions of religion and burial declined, perhaps withering slowly, perhaps ended by formal decision; old lands seem to have been abandoned or perhaps failed through soil exhaustion and the old power structures, which we can only dimly glimpse through tombs and religious centres, appear to have crumbled and reformed in new configurations. Perhaps significantly this is a period in which contact with continental Europe is manifest in the adoption of the new ceramic tradition represented by Beakers, and in which the new economic force of metal begins to make an impact.

Work in the Severn valley has revealed its hitherto unexpected importance in this period — the beginning of a tradition of innovation in this entry-corridor which continues throughout prehistory and beyond. Innovation seems to affect all aspects of life — settlement, burial, religious ceremony. It may have been able to make such an impact here, in contrast to western Wales, because it was essentially virgin territory. Pottery suggests that eastward contacts were important, but the religions and ceremonial developments were not necessarily derivative.

The new developments in burial practices and ceremony evident at Trelystan and Four Crosses gave rise to a long tradition. Continuity is manifest in the use and re-use of the same burial monuments despite changes which emphasised the family cemetery over the individual memorial. The circularity introduced by wooden temples like Sarn-y-bryn-caled and earthen rings like Dyffryn Lane continued to dominate Bronze Age architecture, whether for burial or ceremony.

But though the burial monuments and the circles demonstrate the continuity between the Late Neolithic and the Bronze Age and their upland distribution reveals that the higher ground, opened up in the Late Neolithic, was still used in the following centuries, the settlements of the earlier Bronze Age remain unknown. The sites where Late Neolithic pottery has been found in presumably domestic contexts do not produce Bronze Age domestic wares and none of the numerous stone huts in the uplands of north-west Wales has yet been dated to this period.

It is hoped that some of these problems will be addressed by a project which has just begun in the Walton basin, Radnorshire, an area which has produced dense flint scatters, suggesting Neolithic settlement, as well as funerary and ceremonial sites of these periods.

Trelystan

Excavation of a pair of upland barrows on Long Mountain in eastern Montgomeryshire in 1979 revealed an important sequence of structures dating to the later Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age periods.

Two small roundhouses with stake walls and central stone-edged hearths were found in the buried soil beneath the barrows, dated to the period between about 2800–2500 BC. The buildings were associated with distinctive flint tools and decorated pottery of a type known as 'grooved ware' which has only rarely been found on sites in Wales. It is uncertain whether the slight structures represent a permanent settlement or one that was occupied only at certain times of year. An early pit grave also appears to belong to the late Neolithic period.

Trelystan Neolithic house

Right: Late Neolithic house, only about 4 metres across, one of two similar structures found beneath one of the Bronze Age round barrows at Trelystan. The building, dated to between about 2800–2500 BC, had a central stone-edged hearth, a number of pits, and an outer wall of stakes (marked by white tags in the photograph). © CPAT

The overlying burial mounds, possibly representing a small family cemetery, were constructed in a number of phases during the earlier Bronze Age, in the period between about 2100–1800 BC. In the earlier stages of the development of the cemetery each individual burial was placed below a separate mound, some of which were associated with small mug-shaped vessels known as 'food vessels'. Later on, the cremations of one or more individuals contained in much larger vessels known as 'food vessel urns' were placed in pits dug into the tops of the earlier mounds.

The excavations, undertaken in response to continued ploughing, were funded by the Welsh Office and the Manpower Services Commission.

Four Crosses

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Left: Aerial view of multiple ring-ditch at Four Crosses representing a sequence of burial mounds of the later Neolithic to Early Bronze Age periods, between about 3000–1800 BC. © CPAT 83-C-379

Excavations on a series of ring-ditches on river gravels at Four Crosses in eastern Montgomeryshire between 1981–85, in response to plough erosion, revealed an important sequence of burial structures which like Trelystan span the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods. Lowland ring-ditches of this kind are generally thought to represent the sites of Bronze Age earthen burial mounds which unlike those in the uplands have been flattened by ploughing over the centuries.

Neolithic pot

Right: Simple round-bottomed Late Neolithic pot found with burials in a large pit-grave at the centre of ring-ditches. The early burial monument was enlarged in successive stages during the Early Bronze Age. It forms part of a dispersed cemetery revealed by aerial photography in the Four Crosses area. © CPAT

Aerial photography of parch-marks in grassland and cropmarks in ripening fields of corn plays an important role in identifying sites of this kind.

Excavations at Four Crosses were funded by Cadw and the Manpower Services Commission, with the permission of the landowners, Mr G.M.S. Anderson, Mr J.O. Davies, Mr K. Breeze, Mr P. Fowler, and Powys County Council Smallholdings.

Sarn-y-bryn-caled

Excavations between 1990–92 at Sarn-y-bryn-caled, in advance of the construction of the new Welshpool bypass, revealed important evidence of the development of a funerary and ritual complex identified largely by aerial photography. The excavations established that the complex developed over the course of almost 2000 years, between the later Neolithic to Early Bronze Age.

Timber circle

Right: Reconstruction of the Early Bronze Age timber circle at Sarn-y-bryn-caled, south of Welshpool, built about 2100 BC. The circle was formed of massive postholes — twenty in the outer circle and six in the inner circle — which originally held timbers about half a metre in diameter. The reconstruction, modelled on the famous contemporary stone circle at Stonehenge, was undertaken with assistance from Powis Castle Estates. © CPAT

The first to be built was a long rectangular enclosure about 10 metres wide and almost 400 metres long. This belongs to the type of site which has become known as a 'cursus monument'. They must have had a ceremonial role, but though they are widespread in Britain we do not understand their function. It would seem that this one is relatively early, dating to the Neolithic period in about 3750 BC.

Food vessel under excavation

Left: Early Bronze Age 'food vessel urn' from Trelystan shown during the course of excavation. Like a number of later vessels from the site the cremation urn was buried upside down in a pit, in this instance containing the remains of a mature adult male about 40 years old. © CPAT

Various other elements were added around the cursus in the period between 3500–3000 BC, including a horseshoe-shaped enclosure with a pair of timber posts at the entrance, associated with cremation burials. Fragments of Neolithic pottery known as 'Peterborough Ware' were found at this site.

A timber circle was built about 2100 BC. At the centre was a pit containing a male cremation burial. An exceptionally fine series of barbed and tanged flint arrowheads found with the burial suggest that the man may have been remains a human sacrifice.

Food vessel after conservation

Right: The early Bronze Age 'food vessel urn' from Trelystan, following conservation. © CPAT

The latest identifiable element of the complex were two possibly funerary ring-ditches at Coed-y-Dinas Farm, just to the north. One of these was found to be associated with Beaker pottery and is dated to about 2000 BC.

The excavations at these various sites were funded by Welsh Office Highways and Alfred McAlpine Construction Ltd, and carried out with the permission of the landowners, Mr Wyn Jones, the Howard brothers, and Powis Castle Estates.

Dyffryn Lane

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Left: Cropmark of the Dyffryn Lane henge monument. Maen Beuno standing stone, on the roadside just below, may form part of the monument. © CPAT 86-C-119

Aerial and ground survey since the early 1980s has provided details of an important complex of late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age funerary and ritual monuments near Berriew, Montgomeryshire, centred on a type of ceremonial enclosure known as a 'henge monument', named after the circular bank around Stonehenge. Aerial survey (see left) has revealed a large buried ditch with an entrance on one side. Ground survey shows that the site has a low outer bank and a central mound (see below) which have been lowered by ploughing over the centuries. Further details have been identified by geophysical survey. Early reports record the removal of stones, possibly of a stone circle, from the central mound.

Topographical image

Left: Enhanced topographical image of the Dyffryn Lane henge monument produced from ground-survey data. This shows up the central mound and low outer bank which are only just visible on the ground. © CPAT, photo Dick Spicer

Survey work, partly funded by Cadw, has been undertaken with the permission of Mr T. Cookson.

Carneddau

Treystan excavation

Right: Trelystan Bronze Age cairn and enclosing kerb, Long Mountain, during excavation in 1979. © CPAT

Excavations were undertaken on two ring-cairns, in the uplands to the north-east of Carno, Montgomeryshire between 1989–90, which have been dated to the period between about 2000–1500 BC. Some of the associated cremation burials were accompanied by pottery vessels known as 'collared urns'. The excavations were carried out in conjunction with an extensive palaeoenvironmental programme examining pollens preserved in local peat deposits, and carbonised plant remains recovered during excavation. These studies show that woodland clearance and a progressive expansion of open grassland and heath possibly for grazing were taking place during the Bronze Age, together with some evidence for crop growing.

Work was funded by Cadw and undertaken with the permission of the landowner, Mr Watkins. Environmental studies were undertaken by staff of St David's University College, Lampeter.

Corn Dû and Pen-y-Fan

Corn Du

Right: The site of Corn Du is visible in the left foreground. © CPAT

These two upland Bronze Age cairns, lying at around 2900 feet above sea-level on the summit of the Brecon Beacons, had been rapidly disappearing in recent years because of the erosion caused by the large number of visitors to the National Park. The sites, together with a small timber circle at Pont-ar-daf, were fully excavated between 1989–91 before they were finally lost.

Both cairns, built between about 2200–1800 BC, were shown to have central burial cists. The timber circle was built about 1900 BC. Analysis of pollen from the peat below and around the cairns is giving us new insights into the early vegetation of the region.

Corn Du

Left: Bronze Age cairn at Corn Dû on the summit of the Brecon Beacons showing the central burial cist and two surrounding stone kerbs. © CPAT

Funding and other help for the project has been provided by Cadw, the National Trust, and the National Park. Environmental work has been undertaken by staff of Keele University and St David's University College, Lampeter.

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Middle and Later Bronze Age


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