Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Sunday, 4 April 2021

The Banc Llwydlos settlement site -- was it really a village?

The settlement at Barnhouse, Orkney.  This is on a similar scale to the settlements at Skara Brae and Banc Llwydlos.

Further to my post about the Banc Llwydlos "village", I have come across this interesting article from a few years ago, dealing with settlement clusters in the Neolithic and Bronze age.  It's a simple and unpretentious article, sticking to the facts and mercifully free of purple prose and fantastical claims relating to ritual structures and  purposes.  It examines many settlement clusters and refuses to get hung up on the matter of how a "village" should be defined.  The author makes the interesting point that many of these small settlements seem to have been ephemeral.  They were created, used for a while, and then abandoned.  So he doubts that they were associated with the introduction of agriculture, or with the development of hierarchical societies.  He thinks that they were created simply because people enjoyed social interactions and communal living, and because local conditions dictated the choice of a site -- with regard to good hunting or fishing, shelter or good access to routeways or river or mountain crossings.  He doubts to that there were defensive considerations in most cases.

This is all very utilitarian -- a mile away from the socio-political and quasi-religious narrative woven by Parker Pearson and others when trying to explain why people might have wanted to shift 80 or more bluestone monoliths from West Wales to Salisbury Plain......... Rathbone does not deny that many settlement sites were located in close proximity to burial sites and maybe stone settings as well, but his view is one of a technically unsophisticated society in which local practices and living conditions were of far greater importance than political links with places 200 km away.


Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 79, 2013, pp. 39–60 & The Prehistoric Society 
doi:10.1017/ppr.2013.2 First published online 3 May 2013

A Consideration of Villages in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland



Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements in Britain and Ireland have, on occasion, been referred to as being prehistoric villages but there is little agreement as to what a settlement from these periods should consist of for it to be confidently identified as such. A particular problem is that the development of villages in Britain and Ireland is commonly seen as being a medieval phenomenon and most discussions regarding the essential characteristics of villages are centred on medieval evidence. This paper examines which features of a prehistoric settlement can be used to determine if the use of the term ‘village’ is appropriate, ultimately finding the number of contemporary households to be the primary concern. Sites which have been identified specifically as being Neolithic or Bronze Age villages are critically reviewed, as are a selection of sites where the designation may be appropriate but where the term has so far been avoided. The number of sites from both periods that could justify being identified as being villages is found to be low, and in all cases it seems that moves toward larger nucleated settlements are geographically and chronologically restricted and are followed by a return to dispersed settlement patterns. This curious pattern of the rapid creation and decline of villages at a regional level is contrasted with different explanations for the development of nucleated settlements from other areas and during other time periods, which revolve around economic and agricultural intensification, the development of more hierarchical societies and the increase in structured trading networks. They do not fit well with either our current perceptions of Neolithic and Bronze Age societies, or with the strictly localised moves towards nucleation that were observed. New explanations with a more local focus are found to be required.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

The Nevern Celtic Cross monolith

 The High Cross at Nevern (usually referred to as the Nevern Celtic Cross) stands just a few feet from the church wall, in the same churchyard as the famous bleeding yew trees. It's the most famous and spectacular Celtic Cross in Wales, standing almost 13 feet high, with wonderfully intricate carvings of Celtic motifs on all four faces.  Each face has four panels.  The wheelhead at the top of the cross (with almost identical carvings front and back) is made from a lump of sandstone, and it's fitted onto the shaft with a mortise and tenon joint.  The "fit" is not at all perfect, leading some to conclude that it was made somewhere else, by different craftsmen who may not have intended it to have been perched on a tall pillar. Both parts are though to have been crafted in the tenth or eleventh century AD -- ie around the time that the first "Normanised church" was built on this site.

There's an old legend relating to the wheelhead.  It says that St David was carrying the mighty stone on his back from St Davids to Llanddewi Brefi, and stopped for a rest at Nevern.  The stone was then known as "David's stone".  Anyway, at Nevern his old friend Brynach chided David for carrying around what was simply a piece of self-glorification, and as a result David repented and left the stone behind.  Brynach was delighted, and so the stone remained at Nevern until it was incorporated into the Celtic Cross 400 years later. So that suggests much greater antiquity for the wheelhead, at least -- if this sort of mythology has any value at all...........

The shaft or pillar is the really interesting thing.  It's made of grey-blue unspotted dolerite, and is slightly bent, and there are signs that it has been shaped or trimmed near its top prior to the carving of the motifs.  But its length is staggering.  Colt Hoare recounted that there was, some time in the 1800's,  a proposal that it should be moved to a position further away from the church wall, and a workman dug down seven feet without hitting the base of the stone.  So its full length is at least 17 feet (5.18m) long -- which makes it one of the longest non-sarsen monoliths in the UK.  

The Rudston monolith in Yorkshire is longer (25 feet tall), but it has no carvings on its surface.  It has probably stood there since the Neolithic or Bronze Age, and it's speculated that it marked a sacred site which was then commandeered by the Christian community when churches and churchyards began to appear on the landscape.

So was the Nevern Church Celtic Cross made from a monolith that was already in position before Brynach, or David, or any of the other Celtic saints arrived in the neighbourhood?  It's possible.

The Rudston monolith

So where did the 17 ft dolerite monolith come from?  It cannot have been picked up locally, since there are no substantial dolerite outcrops to the north of the River Nevern, and no elongated dolerite erratics either.  It cannot have come from Carn Meini or Carn Goedog, since those dolerites are spotted -- so I must give this matter further thought.......

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Dunragit -- a non-megalithic cultural centre?


The landscape in which the excavations were concentrated

Location map, showing Dunragit with respect to the Stanraer and Cairnryan ports.

The Prehistoric Heart of Galloway
By Warren Bailie
With Iraia Arabaolaza, Kenneth Brophy, Declan Hurl, Maureen Kilpatrick, Dave McNicol, Christine Rennie, Richard Tipping and Ronan Toolis

There are quite a few comments on social media today in relation to a new report on an archaeological dig at Dunragit, Galloway, Scotland, which has been in progress for over three years.  It's on the site of a new bypass road designed to improve traffic flow to the Cairnryan ferry port.  There were modest expectations before the dig started, but the archaeologists were surprised by the great wealth of material which was uncovered and analysed.  The link above will take you to a very comprehensive and beautifully presented report.

From the Conclusions:

Prior to these works, it was no secret that Dunragit was home to a complex Neolithic palisaded enclosure and cursus complex and an adjacent Bronze Age, ‘Silbury Hill style’ Droughduil Mound, both explored by Julian Thomas 1999-2003 (2015). Not acknowledged at that time was the likely contemporary timber complex and post alignments at Drumflower, around 0.5 km WNW of Dunragit, hinting at an even more widespread ceremonial prehistoric landscape, indicative of a general lack of engagement with crop marks in Scotland’s archaeology (Brophy 2006, 14–17). This assumes the similar layout and scale of Drumflower indicates contemporaneity with the palisades of Dunragit. The construction of these monuments would have required a concerted effort from a community, and represents a considerable investment of time, labour, and resources. Dunragit and the landscape around it had great value to those who resided here and given the scale of the monuments, and the inherent conspicuous nature of the structures, one can imagine a much wider community congregated there for the ceremonial purpose they were built for. But no-one could have predicted the wealth of significant archaeological sites to be found along much of the bypass route.

We discovered a remarkable number of previously unknown archaeological sites within what was a narrow 20 m road corridor. These investigations suggest that this part of the Galloway coastline was at the heart of successive prehistoric occupations over some eight millennia. We discovered evidence of some of Southwest Scotland’s first settlers dating to the Mesolithic period, while a distinctive piece of worked flint at West Challoch suggests that people may have been present at this location even earlier than previously thought, in the Upper Palaeolithic around 14,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Also discovered were post alignments of Neolithic date and early Bronze Age burial pits with grave goods such as jet jewellery, pottery vessels, and flint tools. This was followed by a complex cremation cemetery with pottery and aceramic cremations within and around two small barrows, and a series of mainly Bronze Age burnt mounds dotted along the lower lying areas of the route. The latest prehistoric site uncovered was an unenclosed Iron Age settlement, at the time of writing unique in Galloway, at least in terms of sites investigated.

The results of the investigations along the Dunragit Bypass have not resolved the full complexity and extent of archaeology present here, but have certainly shed some light on the rich prehistory of this landscape. The route of the bypass provided a linear snapshot of what archaeology survives, but in each case, it has also demonstrated that the true extent of each of the archaeological sites remains unknown. There is therefore yet more to discover of the Mesolithic site, the Neolithic posthole alignments, the Bronze Age cemetery complex and the Iron Age settlement, each site extending beyond the limits of the investigations carried out here. This was by any measure a major archaeological project, but it must be acknowledged here that we have only scratched the surface in terms of the full extent of the prehistoric activity that must be present.

The works carried out at Dunragit highlight the importance of archaeological investigations in the lead up to and during ground breaking works for developments such as this. Although desk-based assessments and records of previous investigations provide a back-drop for expected findings on a project, there can be no substitute for visual inspection by experienced archaeologists in collaboration with relevant specialists to recognise and then address significant archaeology to the appropriate standard. Not least the subsoil presented a phenomenon whereby archaeological deposits not apparent on initial inspection, revealed themselves over subsequent days through weathering out. Although this had been observed by the excavators elsewhere, the extent to which this occurred at Dunragit was notable. It does bring into focus the open and shut nature of trial trench evaluations across the country, where the subsoil barely sees the light of day before being backfilled; this does raise the question: should we be incorporating ‘weathering out’ time into all archaeological investigations? As the work progressed the excavators became more and more familiar with the subsoil and the elusive nature of the archaeology, particularly in the free- draining gravel areas present across much of the route. The team at Dunragit had to adapt and innovate in investigating and recovering, in some cases sensitive, and rare items under the pressures of the construction programme, while recording the archaeology to the level it deserved.

There is a lot to absorb in the Report, but a few of the things one takes from it are as follows:

1.   As lead author Warren Bailie acknowledges, the discovery of this site owed much to serendipity.  There was no massive megalithic structure here to act as a focus for attention, and the finds in this somewhat innocuous landscape can only hint at what is still out there, across the British landscape, waiting to be discovered.

2.  The history of settlement at this locality spans about 14,000 years, from the Palaeolithic through to the present day.  The prehistoric time-span of the features found is around 8,000 years.  This should not surprise anybody, and the intermittent occupation of "favourable" sites is something we should expect, as my colleagues and I have consistently argued with respect to Craig Rhosyfelin, Carn Goedog and Waun Mawn.  This is exactly what is shown in the radiocarbon evidence from these sites, even though MPP pretends that the only noteworthy activities were those going on in the period 5,500 - 5,000 yrs BP -- associated with his "stones for Stonehenge" obsession.

3.  Particularly noteworthy here in this corner of Galloway is the casual disregard for stone monoliths or megalithic structures of any type.  Plenty of pits have been examined, but none of them appear to have been stone holes.  They had all sorts of purposes, but the main one seems to have been the holding of vertical posts.  So at exactly the time when MPP wants people to be obsessed with bluestones and other large monoliths of sarsen, to the extent of dragging them for 200km or more to Stonehenge as the embodied spirits of the ancestors, here in Galloway, where "Scottish" and "Irish" cultural traits must have been familiar, there was complete disinterest.  Cultural preferences went off in another direction, and there must be a lesson in that...........

4.  The discoveries here reinforce what Gordon Barclay and Kenny Brophy wrote last year about "interpretive inflation" and the Stonehenge mythos.  They argue that there were, in the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, other centres and other "cultural crossroads" that developed quite independently of what was going on on Salisbury Plain.  On the basis of what has been uncovered here at Dunragit and its associated sites, we might as well assume that the locals had no idea that Stonehenge even existed.

5.  That having been said, we must beware of attaching "artificial significance" to this new site.  It just happens to have been found, and it happens to be complex and interesting.  That does not necessarily mean that it is important.  It may well be that somewhere else, just a few miles away, is the REALLY important site -- currently under the turf or buried by a peat bog, unrecognised and unloved.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Those three passage graves........


Many thanks to Chris Rees for these three excellent photos of the three related features out on Brynberian Moor, at Penanty-isaf (Pennant Isaf), Banc Llwydlos and Bedd yr Afanc. I'm happy that they should be grouped together, since they have similar forms and dimensions.  Yes, Bedd yr Afanc is better preserved, and the stones are more prominent (most of them can be classified as "standing stones") -- but all three can be described as "wedge shaped" with a long passage widening at one end.  There don't seem to be any galleries along the passage, which would justify the use of the term "gallery grave", although I have used this term myself in the past.  Now I think the term "passage grave" is better, since this describes a long passage with a "bulb shaped chamber" at one end, far from the entrance, where burials will have taken place.  Were the tombs ever finished?  Maybe not, since there do not seem to be any traces of discarded or fallen or collapsed stones or of a mound of earth and rubble that might have been called a "long barrow" if we had seen it today.  Nothing much was found at Bedd yr Afanc when it was excavated bt Prof Grimes and others many years ago.........

The Banc Llwydlos record:

SUMMARY A sub-rectangular shaped arrangement of stones set on edge and protruding through a similarly shaped low earthen mound. Possible the remains of a former prehistoric 'passage grave' or 'chambered tomb', it is situated to the east of a stream on a gentle NE facing slope of Banc Llwydlos.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

More for the Waun Mawn gallery


Pair of leaning stones at SN 08135 33695

Spectacular small hut circle (diameter c 5m) at SN08069 34126

Outcrop of unspotted dolerite to the west of the putative stone circle site on Waun Mawn

Stone extraction pit not far from the small hut circle.  The pit is c 1.20m in diameter and 80 cm - 1m deep. There is a clear ramp on its SE edge -- used for the extraction or dragging away of a large stone.  Was it standing, or recumbent?

The standing stone on Waun Mawn, assumed by MPP to be the last stone standing of the 
putative stone circle.

The "Deer Park" embankment which runs out into the peat bog on the south 
side of the Gernos Fach track.  It contains many massive dolerite boulders.

Large boulders indicating the presence of a small rectangular structure on the flank of the "Deer Park" embankment, not far from the pair of leaning stones.

The large embanked circle at SN07963 34004.  It has a diameter of approx 25m.  For many years it has been overgrown with gorse, and so is difficult to identify.   The ridge with boulders is discernible around the diameter except for the southern quadrant. So maybe it was never completed?

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Should we laugh or cry?

In response to my formal complaint about the UCL press release / writeup on the "Lost Circle" affair, itemising the many falsehoods which it contained, I have received this from Jane Bolger, who either wrote it or approved it for publication:

"I'm happy that our news story is a suitable and accurate summary for a general audience and works well to interest them in the topic.
We also offer the audience the opportunity to explore further and access more detailed information by linking to the paper in the journal."

Suitable?  Accurate?  It appears that neither UCL press office nor the Institute of Archaeology is particularly bothered whether something published by a staff member is truthful or not -- and the line seems to be that all the press office has to do is "summarise" what is in the paper and leave the author to fend for himself in the event that what is contained there is shown by others to be a load of nonsense.........

The reputation of the Institute, and the need for honest science, seem to be  matters of no concern.  And this wasn't simply a press office reporting on a news story.  The press office was actively and enthusiastically involved in fashioning a high profile campaign and in PROMOTING the story for all it was worth  -- clearly without bothering to do any checking at all on whether it was reliable.

Should we laugh or cry?

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

The Poppit raised beach -- then and now

The exposure as it appeared in 1963.

The exposure as it appears in 2021.

Today I revisited the site which I first described in 1963, very close to the old lifeboat station at Cei-bach, Poppit -- at the mouth of the Teifi estuary.  Grid ref. SN 14355 49124.

Not a lot has changed!  The raised beach deposits, here a little over 1m thick, are still beautifully displayed, cemented by iron oxide and manganese oxide precipitates.  But note that the three large angular boulders that were resting on the beach materials in 1963 have now gone crashing down onto the beach below, and it looks to me as if the whole face here (including the rock face) has retreated by maybe 50 cms, as a result of ongoing coastal erosion by storm waves at times of high tide.

This is a classic example of an unconformity, with the tilted Ordovician shales and mudstones planed across by a beautiful wave-cut platform and with pseudo-stratified raised beach cobbles and gravels resting on it more or less horizontally.

The platform mat be of composite age, but the raised beach is almost certainly Ipswichian in age -- around 100,000 - 70,000 years old.