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Saturday 19 November 2016

Brynberian Gorge -- a paradise for Neolithic hunters and gatherers?

Four sites within the Brynberian Gorge, downstream of Rhosyfelin, which would have been perfect camping locations for Neolithic hunting and gathering parties.

In previous posts on this blog I have argued that the evidence of human occupation at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog (including hearths, burnt hazel nut shells, charcoal and other organic remains, some of which have been radiocarbon dated) is entirely consistent with the use of these sites over a long period of time by people who depended to some degree on hunting and gathering.

I have made the same point in public talks and in these articles:  

The essential point is that not one of the radiocarbon dates obtained thus far from these two sites has a secure archaeological context that might tie it to quarrying activity.  The dates are more or less randomly scattered across a long time scale, and if there are one or two "clusters" of dates they are at quite the wrong times to provide any support for the quarrying hypothesis.  One might even argue that far from supporting the quarrying thesis, the dates actually falsify it.

Let's just look at the likelihood that the Rhosyfelin occupation traces are unique.  No chance.  I went for a walk along the Brynberian Gorge yesterday, and was struck yet again by the fact that it must have been a paradise for the Neolithic tribes who inhabited this area.  In the Neolithic people were moving towards a more sedentary way of life, with animal husbandry and the growing of crops supporting larger and more or less static communities.

The evidence shows that the elm decline was continuing -- probably related to land clearance activities -- but that the ecology of the Brynberian area was not that different from today. Mixed deciduous woodland must have predominated, with settlement clearances appearing on the uplands and on land below the 300m contour that was well drained. Hunting and gathering were of vital importance for the maintenance of food supplies, and while fishing activities might have declined as compared with the Mesolithic, hunters must have spent much time in hunting for the larger animals such as elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and aurochs. All of these animals must have been common in the forests and deep wooded valleys of North Pembrokeshire: but small animals would also have been hunted -- foxes, squirrels, badgers, hares, geese, swans, and even small birds. There must have been fishing for trout, sewin and salmon in the Nevern and Brynberian rivers, and shellfish would have been gathered from the estuary. Eggs were collected too.

Not all of the hunting was for food supplies -- some animals were hunted for their skins, horns, bones and sinews and anything else that could be utilised.  Berries and other fruits and nuts were essential parts of the diet, and withies were collected for basket-making while birch bark was collected for the weatherproofing of buildings.  Brambles and nettles were collected for rope-making.  It is quite possible that rhyolite rock outcrops were used for obtaining sharp-edged cutting tools and that dolerite outcrops were used for axe manufacture.  And so the list goes on.

In the Neolithic summers were warmer and drier than they are now, and winters were about 2 deg C colder.  Hunting and gathering would have had strong seasonal rhythms, and a lot of the hunting would have been concentrated in the winter months when farming activities were reduced.  The valleys were the natural places in which these activities would have been concentrated, since they provided shelter from winter storms and relatively easy hunting conditions (far easier than on the open uplands).  Some authorities think that these valleys were also used for the overwintering of herds of sheep, goats and cattle, and the frequent traces of ancient stone walls in unexpected places might support this idea.

There must have been hundreds of temporary camp sites strung through valleys such as the Brynberian Gorge, used at intervals throughout the year but maybe with more intensive winter use.  Sites beneath sheltering rocky crags may well have been preferred.  From this point of view Rhosyfelin is perfect -- but there are scores of other perfect sites in the Brynberian Gorge alone.  At the top of this post I have pictured some of the suitable crags with dry and safe camping sites beneath them.  In the past I have mentioned the crags at Felin y Gigfran (on the Afon Nevern, below the confluence with Afon Brynberian) and also other crags upstream from Rhosyfelin.  A veritable hunting and gathering paradise.........

The archaeologists who have been so obsessed with the Rhosyfelin quarrying hypothesis appear not to have considered any of the points raised here -- and have assumed that the occupation traces discovered are unique and uniquely related to quarrying activity.  If they want to support their very dodgy assumptions they need to demonstrate that Rhosyfelin really is unique, and that all the other "favourable camping sites" in the gorge were NOT used in similar fashion.

I am 100% convinced that if they were to dig in the other places for which I can give them grid references, they will find hearths, charcoal, hazel nuts and maybe even traces of tool-making which can be dated to the Neolithic.


MoA said...

Many, many of those outcrops have been sample despite danger to life and etc and none are Cryf quarry rhyolite (new official designation for the now very nicely dated lithology).

What a lovely life and locality you have made it sound, almost an advertisement for an early clothes optional/bear-skinned? Centre Parks back-to-nature holiday.

Have you ever thought of writing fiction? You have a natural talent.

Your gloss on the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition is less nuanced than is now favoured try reading Bradley, Haselgrove, Vander Linden and Webley' newish book.


BRIAN JOHN said...

I didn't say that these assorted outcrops have an identical rock type to that found at Rhosyfelin. The point of the post was something quite different. Read more carefully, Myris!

TonyH said...

Hopefully, more open - minded archaeological folk like Richard Bradley and Joshua Pollard would probably gain a lot from reading this Post and, better still, by accompanying Brian on a walk in Preseli to discuss with him his own expertise and understanding of this particular part of the United Kingdom. Nuances are likely to be increased by paying attention to those with particular Quaternary knowledge in specific regions/ areas.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Actually this is not a matter of geomorphology or Quaternary expertise. It's just basic common sense that a long history of intermittent occupation from the Mesolithic to the medieval has nothing whatsoever to do with quarrying and everything to do with hunting and gathering.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Is there anything more satisfying than seeing a victim bring his own rope to a lynching?

Read what I write not what you hope I write.

Of course I did not misread what you wrote is was clear and obvious and written in a faux-neo-18th cent noble savage style. We have moved on.

I was just adding new data to the debate, perhaps too kindly and obliquely suggesting that the area had been looked at by professionally trained archaeologists over two separate seasons and that as part of that research all likely outcrops had been sampled for petrographical similarities with SH orthostats-without much if any success.

I was also gently trying to urge you not to sound too 1960s/1970s in your depiction of those far off days.

Berating others (archies)for ignorance of icy geomorphology is best done without betraying one's own. Read the recommended text it is well written and very up to date (few if any noble savages).

Ignorance is not noble and wilful ignorance deserves the rope.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Myris -- what on earth are you going on about here? This has nothing whatsoever to do with rock provenancing or with the possibility that these other crags have been looked at and sampled by you geologists and by the archaeologists too. My point is a perfectly simple one, which you appear not to have grasped. All I am saying in this post is that a long history of intermittent occupation at Rhosyfelin is extremely unlikely to be unique, and that if you and your colleagues really do want to push the quarrying idea, you need to demonstrate that the occupation at Rhosyfelin is not duplicated at multiple other sites throughout this valley. If you can do that, we might take this quarrying nonsense a little more seriously. Understand?

TonyH said...

Various Mesolithic/ Neolithic camp sites are detailed in Joshua Pollard [and Andrew Reynolds] book, Avebury: the biography of a landscape 2002 (2006), e.g at Cherhill near Calne, which is why I suggested Josh might like to go for a walk on Preseli with Brian, take in the fresh air up there, exhale ALL that mythical tosh he's been imbued/ brain washed with, and re - evaluate after conversing with "Brian of Carn Ingli" (no myth). He knows a thing or two about the historical ecology of Preseli and I'm sure he he has kept up to date in his knowledge as he has the enthusiasm and desire.

Myris, Brian is reflecting the opinion of local people of archaeological persuasion such as Patrick Figgis and his "Prehistoric Preseli: a Field guide" (revised 2010). Frances Lynch's work should also be consulted.

Dave Maynard said...

The National Park are holding their annual archaeology day this Saturday:

One of the talks is:

The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Hunter – Gatherers of Pembrokeshire,' Elizabeth Walker.

This may continue the theme that Brian describes above. It is clear that there must have been many temporary camp sites all over the place for all of Prehistory, especially in sheltered locations like Brynberian Gorge, and even more so on days like this. None of these sites will leave any evidence from a casual surface survey, unless there is some fresh disturbance, like an excavation or erosion. It would take many years of continual observation of casual events to come up with positive evidence for the use of this area that must have occurred, even if one of the activities in the area was quarrying.

How would we separate the background casual use of the area from a more purposeful settlement focussed on quarrying? I guess that might require large scale excavation of the 'exploitation' sites and comaparative work on the 'background' sites.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Myris accuses me of coming over all romantic when talking about the use of valleys such as this. Not romantic at all -- just many years of reading and talking to people like Prof Ian Simmons, Prof John Evans and Prof Mike Walker who did huge work on the links between ecology / environment and the use of landscapes by various human groups. It's all pretty well known -- except,apparently, to Dr Ixer and his friends who did all that digging at Rhosyfelin.

You would have to excavate at some of these other camping sites in order to find -- or not find -- organic or other traces of occupation. And to find hard evidence of "purposeful" occupation related to quarrying, you would need to find some radiocarbon dated evidence in secure archaeological or engineering contexts -- such as an undisputed chipping or tool-making floor, or in connection with antler picks or piles of used hammer stones etc. Needless to say, no such contexts have been found at Rhosyfelin.

chris johnson said...

Thanks for the tip Dave. I am booked to attend on Saturday and look forward to seeing any fellow bloggers who make it. It promises to be very interesting, with presentations from all the main professors and a session on the mesolithic/neolithic transition.

On the subject of hunter gatherers in Prescelly I am inclined to believe that the beaver would have played an important role and therefore made an impact on the habitat. This implies that fish husbandry would have been important and perhaps explains why there seems to be a break in the archaeological record in Prescelly at the beginning of the neolithic when fish seems to have been dropped from the diet, unaccountably. The area is much less suited for farming and even herding than other areas in Pembrokeshire which are adjacent.
If anybody else is going Saturday I look forward to meeting.

chris johnson said...

Very interesting to speculate on the terrain in the period we are interested in. For me this splits into three periods: Mesolithic hunter-gatherer, Neolithic farmer, Bronze Age. There is ironically little evidence for Neolithic occupation in Prescelly perhaps because there are many better areas for farming in the vicinity of the Prescellies and yet this is the time when the major work was being done at Stonehenge.

The Brynberian area is ideal for humans in the mesolithic period. In my imagination there is a prolific salmon/sea trout river and spawning ground, beaver assisted fish husbandry, and other wild life such as deer, duck, and possible other ruminants (auroch anybody?). This is not typical ground for ploughing and neolithic husbandry is better pursued elsewhere.

Various researchers document that fish fell out of favour in the neolithic diet and this is a possible reason why Brynberian, a fish rich environment, fell from favour in the neolithic. This is not to say that occasional neolithic remains cannot be found - in my area people have pursued a combination of hunter-gatherer and farmer lifestyles in living memory - it is not that black and white. Equally likely is the unsuitability of the terrain and climate in the prescelli heights for the plough. Still, evidence points to frequent activity in the mesolithic and infrequent activity in the neolithic - unless you imagine a major neolithic quarry and for this there is no convincing data.

I will be in Haverford West on Saturday and will make a report should no better reporter be available. All the famous professors are due to present. Hopefully lunch will be good

Dave Maynard said...

A report on Saturday will be welcome. I would have gone, but unfortunately, I will be away this weekend at a conference in Bangor considering the research framwork for archaeology in Wales. I suspect there may be little about our favorite subject there. If it does rear it's head, I'll let you know, and if it is interesting, I might let you know even so.

Cultivation was probably not entirely absent from the Prescellis, but only in limited plots. The rest of the Neolithic was there including new material production techniques and husbandry of animals. Hunter-gathering will always have been a big component of the economy, right down to fairly recent periods.

Enjoy your lunch


BRIAN JOHN said...

Quite so -- hunting and gathering is still a big part of the rural economy. It never went away -- blackberries, mushrooms, hazel nuts, damsons etc still figure large in our area, and it's not so long ago that poaching was a major social issue. Why did people poach? Because they thought it was their inalienable right to take fish from the rivers, rabbits from the fields, and even deer and pheasants from the woods. And of course in all coastal areas where there were bird cliffs, eggs and even fledglings were taken as key components of the diet. Urban dwellers tend to forget all of this.......

So was my portrayal of the hunting and gathering economy too romantic and sentimental, as Myris seems to think? I think it was pretty realistic -- and completely in tune with what many others have said about the rural economy from the Mesolithic onwards, regardless of the advances being made in agriculture.

MoA said...

Perhaps I am just one of those detractors of Mistress Martha (aka Kali spoiler alert)and her kith and kin. I can't remember is she literate, oh since she has written a diary I guess so DOH! Does she write/read English or only Welsh?
The lack of much Neolithic in the Preselis is interesting -just there on rock-collecting visits I guess." Down there on a visit".

I do agree that the lack of mauls is unusual. But in line with the new insights into the Mesolithic/Neolithic folk perhaps they were eco-conscious 'take only petroglyphs and leave only footprints'

Tylwyth Teg said...

The lack of mauls is not unusual, in the majority of extractive enterprises the final preparation of the product is not carried out at the extraction site; discard from dressing the stones would be a nuisance and dangerous in the quarry area.
I suggest an excavation to the southwest of the Craig Rhos-y-Felin spur would have increased the possibility of finding mauls.

Quarry site versus occupation = in heavy industry few people actually live where they work.

BRIAN JOHN said...

No hammer stones, mauls, chips, flakes, antler picks, wedges, levers -- nothing at all. In other words, zero evidence of quarrying. And the archaeologists have shifted hundreds of tonnes of debris, with a meticulous search for "anything significant." What a gigantic waste of everybody's time.......

Tylwyth Teg said...

Unfortunately, all in the wrong place.

BRIAN JOHN said...

You mean they should have dug their big hole somewhere else?

Tylwyth Teg said...


BRIAN JOHN said...

Come on, Tylwyth Teg -- since you are obviously in touch with the Otherworld, you see things that others do not see. Be a sport -- tell us exactly where the truth is waiting to be uncovereed......

Tylwyth Teg said...

Thankfully,nothing to do with the 'Otherworld'; basic principles,common sense, sound extraction practice, and a great deal of research indicates the areas of interest.

Perhaps both the funding and time will be available in the future, but I fear the 'funding fingers' have already been burnt.

Sorry, but being a 'sport' isn't allowed.