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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

On clearance cairns and stone takes



With reference to my post on 13 October 2010, I have been up onto the mountain again today, looking at the area on the south side of Carningli which was occupied by "ty unnos" cottagers in the early 1800's -- when there was a lot of "illegal" settlement on the common.  In one enclosed area there are three of these small cottages -- long since ruinous.  But even though they survived for less than a century (in one case) on no more than a few decades (in the other two cases) we can see what the priorities of the settlers were -- to clear the stony ground so as to create enclosed fields, and to find stones suitable for building cottages and outhouses for animals and storage.  There is an interesting network of old field boundaries that we can date to around 1830, and also drainage ditches and channels, lanes connecting fields and cottages,  and clearance cairns galore.  Some have got big stones in them -- built, no doubt, with the aid of horses, chains and ropes, and sledges -- and others with smaller stones (children's cairns?).  But a massive amount of effort was involved.  Interestingly enough, these "modern" features are superimposed on a very similar set of prehistoric features.  The difference is that the old features (probably Bronze Age) are visible, but only just, because they are turf-covered, whereas the younger features are mostly visible as fresh stones with a covering of lichens and mosses.

Two communities, separated by almost 4,000 years, with exactly the same priorities -- to improve a rocky and exposed terrain so as to scrape a meagre living from the land.

The same is true of the stone takes, of which there are also many.  They are generally pits between 5 m and 10m across and up to 3m deep, cut into a slope and obviously intended to provide stone for building purposes.  The Bronze Age ones are very difficult to see now, except in low winter sunlight, but those from the nineteenth century are much clearer.

And the moral of this tale?  It is that in this whole extensive landscape of man-made features the priorities were entirely utilitarian.  Of the hundreds of Bronze Age features in the area, there is only one feature which I would label as a "ritual" feature -- and that is the supposed burial cairn at Carn Briw.

I sometimes think that archaeologists are so obsessed with ritual features that they fail to notice just how insignificant such features really were in the great scheme of things........

2 comments:

TONY HINCHLIFFE said...

Darvill & Wainwright have just had published (in Current Archaeology, Issue 252, March 2011: The Stones of Stonehenge. revealing secrets from the sacred circle. new research on the source of Stonehenge's bluestones in ancient Pembrokeshire quarries (!)

I have yet to read it, as I have much else to do. Thought you should know. Looks fairly controversial. SPACES project of course prominent.

BRIAN JOHN said...

I look forward to reading this -- but don't expect anything new. From early reports of the article, the two professors seem to be "explaining away" the multiple sources for the bluestones by saying "Ah, the new geology work proves that there must have been multiple quarries in widely separated locations..." We shall see...