Neolithic Wales

The Neolithic is divided as follows:

 


Ancient or Early Neolithic (4400 BC – 3300 BC)
Middle Neolithic (3300 BC –2900 BC)
Late Neolithic (2900 BC –2200 BC)

 

 The Early Neolithic period was characterised by the introduction of agriculture into the British Isles from continental Europe, which led to the gradual decline of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle which had dominated during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic.

 The climate had been warming since the later Mesolithic and continued to improve, replacing the earlier pine forests with woodland.

Pollen analysis shows that woodland was decreasing and grassland increasing. The winters were typically 3 degrees colder than at present but the summers some 2.5 degrees warmer.

 

The construction of the earliest earthwork sites in Britain began during the early Neolithic in the form of long barrows used for communal burial and the first causewayed enclosures, sites which have parallels on the continent

 The introduction of a farming economy is one of the major developments of human history, yet the process by which it occurred is poorly understood.

 About 4000 BC the "Neolithic Revolution" reached Britain and Ireland, with domestication of animals, arable farming and pottery, and the settlement of people in communities.

The earliest evidence for farming in the British Isles comes from Ireland and probably the Isle of Man, and not from southern Britain

 The earliest farming communities are now believed to date from about 4000 BC, marking the beginning of the Neolithic period.

They built the first communal structures known as long barrows.

 

The transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one was gradual. There is evidence of different agricultural and hunter-gatherer groups within the British Isles meeting and trading with one another in the early part of the Neolithic, with some hunter-gatherer sites showing evidence of more complex, Neolithic technologies.

 

The first evidence of farming in Wales dates back to the middle of the 4th millennium BC.

 Pollen evidence indicates the clearing of forests on an increasing scale during this period.

They started cleared the woodland using stone axes and examples of these have been found at Darland, Borras and Johnstown in the Wrexham area

 Forest clearance was an essential skill before settlements could be established.

Examples of forest clearance occurred around 5000 BC in East Anglia, on the North Yorkshire Moors and on Dartmoor. Such clearances were done using stone axes, ring barking and burning but in many areas the forests had regrown within a few centuries

 The construction of the earliest earthwork sites in Britain began during the Early Neolithic (c. 4400 BC – 3300 BC) in the form of long barrows used for communal burial and the first causewayed enclosures, sites which have parallels on the continent. Leaf-shaped arrowheads, round-based pottery types and the beginnings of polished axe production are common indicators of the period. Evidence of the use of cow's milk comes from analysis of pottery contents found beside the Sweet Track.

The Sweet Track (named after the man who discovered it) is the oldest prehistoric trackway found in Britain. It was constructed 6000 years ago by early farmers in the Somerset Levels. The workmanship is remarkably sophisticated: woods of different qualities were chosen to make a sturdy footway over the marshland.

The track is made of three basic parts: planks made of oak, ash and lime, and rails and pegs made mainly of hazel and alder.The separate components were prepared on dry land and brought into the wet area.

The rails (long poles) were laid end to end and secured by sharpened pegs driven slantwise into the ground on either side. The planks were then wedged into place between the peg-tops, parallel to the rails beneath, and held firmly in position by vertical pegs.

 The whole track, two kilometres long, could have been assembled in a single day from the pre-shaped units.

Neolithic travellers dropped or hid a variety of objects along the track. Among these were flint and stone axeheads and the occasional pot.

Recent advances in the dating of wood by the study of tree-rings (dendrochronology) have enabled the construction to be placed in the years 3807/3806 BC.

 From 4000 BC to 3000 BC is a period when the elm tree had a great decline and remains of nettles and plantains show an increase. This is probably the first large scale impact of agriculture on the Wildwood and its decline continues to this day.

 Elms grow on the edge of woodlands and are likely to be the first to be felled in a clearance. Nettles and plantains tend to flourish alongside human habitation.

It has also been suggested that farmers collected all the elm leaves to use as animal fodder during the winter or that the trees died after being debarked by domesticated cattle

 

Around the period 3500 to 3300 BC, agricultural communities had begun to centre themselves upon the most productive areas, where the soils were more fertile, such as Orkney, eastern Scotland, Anglesey, the upper Thames, Wessex, Essex, Yorkshire and the river valleys of the Wash. These areas saw an intensification of agricultural production, and larger settlement.



At the same time many of the deforested areas, such as the Somerset Levels,
began to see reforestation and mass tree regrowth, because human activity had retreated from these areas.

 The tools from this time are characterized by polished stone axes, and leaf shaped arrowheads of flint. Not all the tools were polished, and they included flint as well as stone axes.

 The Middle Neolithic (c. 3300 BC – c. 2900 BC) saw the development of cursus monuments close to earlier barrows and the growth and abandonment of causewayed enclosures, as well as the building of impressive chamber tombs such as the Maeshowe types. The earliest stone circles and individual burials also appear.

 Different pottery types, such as Grooved Ware, appear during the later Neolithic (c. 2900 BC – c.2200 BC). In addition, new enclosures called henges were built, along with stone rows and the famous sites of Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill, which building reached its peak at this time. Industrial flint mining begins, such as that at Cissbury and Grimes Graves, along with evidence of long distance trade. Wooden tools and bowls were common, and bows were also constructed.

 Few Neolithic settlements have been found in Wales although the evidence for farming is to be found in the changing vegetation. A decline in tree species and a rise in grassland and cereals can be detected in the pollen record.

Evidence of Neolithic buildings have been found at Gwernvale near Crickhowell, Trelystan on the Long Mountain in Montgomeryshire and on the site of the later hillfort at Moel y Gaer, Rhosesmor in Clwyd. These were rectangular buildings made of wood. It would appear that most Neolithic settlements in Wales were isolated farms.

 People of this period generally lived in isolated farms or small settlements. Not many houses have survived but excavations have found both rectangular and round houses.

The first farmers used stone axes to fell and clear the forests to allow them to plant barley and Einkorn and Emmer wheat. . Flax was also grown to make linen textiles

The domestic cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats would graze the harvested fields and such clearings as existed naturally or were made by man. They would also browse within the forests on leaves of deciduous trees including lime and elm.

 Although the domestic animals provided the bulk of the meat, hunting and fishing continued to be of importance, not only for meat but also for skins and furs. Dairy products and wool were important secondary products. Food and drink was stored in pottery containers.

Domestic equipment included pottery, stone saddle querns used for grinding grain, wooden tools, bowls and troughs, spindles and looms for spinning and weaving wool and linen to make cloth. Bone was used also for making tools and for pins to fasten clothing

Bread was baked on the open fire or in stone or clay ovens.

The new way of life produced a great change in the landscape. Woods were cut down to provide land for growing crops and for pasture for the animals. Wood was also needed for building houses and making agricultural and domestic equipment.

 In much of Britain, however, especially in Wales, there were still large forests where wild animals lived.

Most buildings, tools and equipment were made from wood.

There was no shortage of timber from the forests but Neolithic people were selective in their use of wood using the species best suited to the task in hand.

 Knowledge of the details of many crafts practised in this period is inadequate but is constantly improving as more sites are excavated. Stone tools include knives, scrapers, boring tools, adzes and arrowheads. These would have been used for activities such as killing and skinning animals, preparing hides, working wood and leather, and preparing food. Other tools, including digging and harvesting implements, were made of bone and wood. In some respects farming did not change much during the next few thousand years

The most commonly found tools and weapons are stone axes and a range of cutting tools made from flaked flint or other stone. These would have been mounted on wooden or occasionally bone handles

 Neolithic peoples were skilled farmers, manufacturing a range of tools necessary for the tending, harvesting and processing of crops (such as sickle blades and grinding stones) and food production (e.g. pottery, bone implements). They were also skilled manufacturers of a range of other types of stone tools and ornaments, including projectile points, beads, and statuettes.

 Until the advent of the first farmers in about 4000 BC there had been no monumental architecture. It is likely that the earlier hunters on these hills had revered rocks, prominent hills and other natural features, but any artificial structures which they built had a fleeting life.

 With farming came a concern with continuity which found expression in the large stone or earth constructions such as megalithic chambered tombs or long barrows

 The Early Neolithic saw the construction of many chambered tombs, particularly dolmens or cromlechs. The most notable examples of megalithic tombs include Bryn Celli Ddu and Barclodiad y Gawres on Anglesey Pentre Ifan in Pembrokeshire, and Tinkinswood Burial Chamber in the Vale of Glamorgan

Three main types of megalithic tomb are found in Wales, the Severn-Cotswold type in the south-east, the Portal dolmen type and the Passage graves which are characteristic of the Irish Sea area and the Atlantic regions of Europe. Megalithic tombs are most common in the western lowlands. There is evidence of close cultural links with Ireland, particularly in the Early Neolithic period

Generally these tombs have one or more chambers reached via a stone corridor. The whole thing was covered by an earth or stone mound. In many of these tombs the bones of large numbers of people have been found, some of the bones are in disorder as if they were put in the tombs after the bodies had decayed.

The majority of such monuments in the British Isles appear to have been built between 4000 and 3200 whilst the Late Neolithic saw the construction of the majority of megalithic stone circles.

 

At some sites archaeologists have found evidence that bodies were laid out in special enclosures, and later the bones were gathered up and put in the tomb along with those of relatives who had died years before.

 Studies of the tombs and of the wooden and stone circles which have been found in many parts of Britain suggest that the Neolithic people were aware of the movement of the sun, moon and other stars. These changes would have been important in marking the changing seasons and the best time to plant crops and to harvest.

Similar structures, known as henges, consisted of a circular enclosure marked by an earth bank. Sometimes there were standing stones inside the banks.

 A few houses from the Neolithic period have been found in Wales, most notably the settlement at Clegyr Boia near St David's in Pembrokeshire.

Many artefacts have also been found, particularly polished stone axeheads. There were a number of "factories" in Wales producing these axeheads, the largest being the Graig Lwyd factory at Penmaenmawr on the north coast which exported its products as far afield as Yorkshire and the English midlands.

Pottery finds also indicate a relationship with Ireland.

 

Wrexham, as a settlement, has been around for a long time. With the lowlands being thickly wooded, Wrexham's strategic position on the rising, but still fertile open ground, before the moors and mountains, was the last bastion for ancient tribes being pushed ever westwards. Beyond lay a sparse existence in the 'highlands'.

The area around Llangollen has been occupied since very early times. Before 6000BC any human presence would have been in the form of small bands of hunters. After this time it is known that Neolithic farmers, originating from Europe, were present in North Wales, although it is only after 3000BC that we have any direct evidence of their presence in this area, in the form of many tumuli, cairns, stone circles and standing stones.

There are not many confirmed Stone Age sites around Llangollen. Two exceptions are the Neolithic caves of Rhos Isaf near Llanarmon yn Ial and Moel Ty Uchaf stone circle near Corwen.

 

A tumulus on top of Creigiau Eglwyseg was found to contain the remains of cremated human bodies, as well as ox and sheep bones when it was opened in the 1890s. A cairn near Aber Sychnant, 1½ miles to the north of World’s End, was also opened in 1890. It was found to contain some ashes, a horses tooth, some small bones and a flint arrowhead

 The earliest surviving structures are the megalithic tombs which are found only in the Dee and Elwy valleys, with Tan y Coed, Cynwyd, being the best preserved example. They are all different in plan, but can be paralleled among the tombs of Breconshire.

Those that have been classified belong to a type known as Cotswold-Severn, which in north Wales probably belong to the Middle Neolithic. This region is generally seen as a secondary centre of farming, having been opened up at a later date than the coastal areas such as Anglesey.

The largest prehistoric monument in Wales is Gop Cairn, near Trelawnyd, Flintshire. The site measures 100m x 68m and is 12m high, and is of mostly stone construction. The cairn was partially excavated in 1886-7, when a shaft was dug in the centre down to the original ground level. However, despite these efforts no burials or finds were recovered.

Although there are only eight recorded stones circles, they are amongst the more impressive monuments, such as Moel Ty Uchaf, near Llandrillo, on the western side of the Berwyns.

The stone circle is believed to be a monument built for ceremonies and rituals distinct rather than human burial

There are around 45 recorded standing stones, although they are often difficult to distinguish from later boundary markers, and while some may be over 3m high, most are far less impressive. The function of standing stones remains uncertain, although some are clearly associated with stone circles and others may have served as route markers.

Other types of site which are normally judged to be ‘ritual’, stone rows and stone settings, are rare in North East Wales

Certain areas appear to have held a particular significance during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, with notable concentrations of sites.

These include a cluster of unusual and elaborate sites in the area surrounding Llandrillo, Denbighshire.

The area is marked by a broadening of the Dee floodplain, surrounded by rolling upland to the north-west and rising to the Berwyn ridge to the south and east.

 Within this 6km section of the Dee valley are three chambered tombs at Branas Uchaf, Tyn-y-coed and Craig yr Arian, the Tyfos Uchaf and Moel Ty-uchaf stone circles, together with other, lesser funerary monuments.

Moel Ty-uchaf stone circle is itself surrounded by a group of funerary monuments comprising two cairns and four cists.

Each of these major sites possesses characteristics which set them apart from others of their type.

 The area also includes the only decorated, carved stone within the study area, and a little further north is the Maesmor Estate where an elaborately fashioned flint mace head was discovered in 1840.

Other areas of significance during this period appears to have been Ruabon Mountain, overlooking Llangollen, where a stone circle lies close to two standing stones and a group of burial cairns, together with the Brenig valley.

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 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

Gwernvale

Excavations were undertaken between 1977–78 on the Neolithic chambered tomb just outside Crickhowell. 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.

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 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

 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, old lands seem to have been abandoned or perhaps failed through soil exhaustion and the old power structures, appear to have crumbled and reformed in new configurations.

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.

An investigation of post holes at the late Neolithic - Early Bronze Age chambered tomb of Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey, published in 2006, gave a radiocarbon dating which placed two of the holes in the Mesolithic period

  Work in the Severn valley has revealed its importance in this period — the beginning of a tradition of innovation which continued throughout prehistory. Innovation seems to affect all aspects of life — settlement, burial, religious ceremony.

 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.

The Walton basin, Radnorshire, is 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.

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.

Four Crosses

Excavations on a series of ring-ditches on river gravels at Four Crosses in eastern Montgomeryshire between 1981–85 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.

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Sarn-y-bryn-caled

Excavations from 1990–92 at Sarn-y-bryn-caled 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.

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 known as a 'cursus monument'. They must have had a ceremonial role, but though they are widespread in Britain their function is not understood. This one is relatively early, dating to the Neolithic period in about 3750 BC.

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 remains may have been a human sacrifice.

The latest identifiable elements 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.

Dyffryn Lane

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 revealed a large buried ditch with an entrance on one side. Ground survey showed that the site has a low outer bank and a central mound which have been lowered by ploughing over the centuries.

 Early reports record the removal of stones, possibly of a stone circle, from the central mound