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Saturday 2 December 2023

Did the Pembrokeshire hillforts have "round house" villages?

I have written many times,  in the past, about the Pembrokeshire hillforts including Foel Drygarn, Carn Alw, Carningli, Garn Fawr and Garnffoi.  But the other day I watched a National Park video which had a message that I think was thoroughly misleading -- namely that the settlement on top of Foel Drygarn was made up of lovely round houses such as those which have been reconstructed at Castell Henllys.  It was all explained in great detail, and with great conviction, by NPA resident archaeologist Tomos Jones and a colleague.  Wattle and daub and thick thatch figured prominently......

But wait a minute.  How much serious thought has gone into this nice easy explanation?  For a start, here is the Coflein extract:

From the Coflein record:

The most striking characteristic of Foel Trigarn is its pock-marked interior, the sites of at least 227 levelled house platforms where Iron Age houses once stood. There are also fainter traces of a further 42 uncertain platforms bringing the total closer to 270 house sites. It is highly unlikely that all these house sites were occupied at the same time. The entire hillfort was probably occupied and expanded over many centuries, rather than being used by a single leader or group of people. We are effectively seeing the remains of a complex and long-lasting prehistoric village, with all its phases of occupation on show. Early excavations in 1899 by S Baring Gould unearthed Iron Age and Roman pottery and artefacts which included spindle-whorls, fine glass beads and a jet ring from some of the house platforms. Sling stones were also found "in great numbers - some in piles.. (Baring Gould et. al., 1900, 210). A new survey by the Royal Commission and researchers from Portsmouth Polytechnic (in 1988) provided the first detailed plan.

There is no mention here of 270 big round houses with conical thatched roofs. There is mention of many phases of occupation -- and I reckon that at any one time less than 100 of the "hut circles" were in use -- with many of them being used as storage and animal shelters rather than as human dwellings.  The "hut circles" are for the most part either little platforms created by hollowing out and levelling the hillside or hollows with raised edges.  These rims are for the most part quite low -- less than 1 m high.  Maybe at one time they were higher, but I doubt very much that they were made of wattle and daub.  They are made of excavated stone fragments and rubble.  Maybe some of the material came from the local quarries which I have written about in previous posts.

We have to think about raw materials.  For a single straw hut like the ones at Castell Henllys you need vast quantities of either long-straw cereal crops or reeds from reedbeds.  In my estimation the people of Foel Drygarn had neither.  They may have had nettles, honeysuckle and brambles for the tying up of bundles and for lashing timbers together, but the nearest reedbeds were probably in the Teifi estuary of the Nevern Estuary, and the bleak environment op on Mynydd Preseli was probably no good at all for the growing of cereal crops.  If there were cereals, they were probably varieties resistant to the wind -- which meant short stalks.    The inhabitants also needed cow dung, clay, and chopped straw if they were to build wattle and daub walls -- and again I suspect they had a shortage of all of these.  

Size is another issue.  Almost all of the hut circles or platforms have diameters less than 6m -- and this is smaller than the optimal size for a round house with a self-supporting conical roof.  There may have been plenty of timber down below the mountain, but there was a practical limit on the dimensions of the branches that could be hauled up to the top.  A cost / benefit ratio applied...

And finally there is the matter of location.  I do not think that thatched conical roofs would have made any sense at all up here on the mountain summit -- a place of constant wind and frequent horizontal rain.   Huts of the type reconstructed at Castell Henllys (and at many other "Iron Age village" sites through the UK) are fine in the balmy lowlands, but just would not have survived up here.  

So I suspect that the buildings were not huts with conical thatched roofs at all, but rather small and primitive shelters with stone walls (maybe with moss or grass used to stuff the gaps and keep out the draught).  The roofs were probably low domes, made with a lattice of crossing branches and maybe with one or two internal supporting pillars.  Animal skins, birch bark and turf were probably the materials used for the roof.

I also think that the "village" on the top of Foel Drygarn was not permanently occupied.  Rather, it was a seasonal summer settlement, evacuated during the winter part of the year, when the villagers probably moved down into the lowlands, and enjoyed the shelter of the forest......

So there we are then.


Steve Spon said...

"Hi Brian,
It's been a while since we've spoken.
I've visited over 70 hillforts in Wales using my flying camera to capture footage from above. A plane or UAV provides the best overview of these fascinating prehistoric monuments.
For expert insights, Dr. Toby Driver or Ken Murphy would be excellent sources. While I'm not an expert myself, I've observed some recurring features among the hillforts I've seen.
First, most of the remarkable hillforts in west Wales are situated on high, exposed sites that are difficult to access.
Consider Tre'r Ceiri on Llywen, Craig Yr Aderyn in the Dysini valley, Pen Dinas, Garn Goch, and many more. Despite being exposed to strong winds and sideways rain, they all exhibit signs of habitation (building platforms), and most are colossal monuments that must have required immense effort to construct.
These hillforts also bear evidence of habitation, such as broken pottery, iron and bronzeworking tools, cloth-making implements, spindle whorls, cooking fires, coins, weapons, and ritual objects. This suggests that people lived there, but it's difficult to determine whether they were permanent or seasonal residents.
Our Bronze and Iron Age ancestors generally chose to reside in these high, inaccessible locations. Why?

Could it be that living on the lower slopes was hazardous, due to the threat of invaders arriving from the coast? Or were dangerous wild animals still inhabiting the valleys? Perhaps the lower slopes were inaccessible due to boggy or malaria-infested landscapes. We can only speculate since we cannot inquire our ancestors directly.
One common feature I've noticed is that the "roundhouses" on the hillforts would have received ample sunlight throughout the day if they had thatched roofs. This is not the case on gloomy or rainy days, but when the sun shines, the houses would be bathed in light. TBC

Steve Spon said...

Part Two

Drygarn appears to have a special respect for the three cairns on its summit. A recent LiDAR survey by Hutcap revealed a low wall that encircled these cairns, suggesting that our later Iron Age ancestors held their Bronze Age/Neolithic predecessors in high regard. They could have simply used the cairns for their huts and perimeter walls, but they chose not to.
Another intriguing possibility is that the weather in the past was warmer, drier, and less windy than it is today. Archaeologists are fairly certain that there was a significant gap in human activity on the northern Preseli peninsula between the late Neolithic and Bronze Age periods. This hiatus lasted nearly 500 years, and it's possible that the climate played a role. This could be a bit early for Drygarn, but according to Tim Darvill, Drygarn, along with a number of other Preseli "settlements" or "hillforts," may have much earlier Neolithic origins.
Hillforts are indeed shrouded in mystery. In Europe, many developed into fortified towns and cities that are still in use today, which is telling.
Regarding the 6-meter platforms and thatched roofs, they could simply be the living spaces of the working class or "lower class." A 6-meter platform is sufficient for a cozy family dwelling. The larger huts found at Castell Henllys are likely the homes of chiefs or kings.
The thatch itself may not have been a tall, pointed structure, and it might not have been made of reeds. Perhaps animal skins were used for the roofs, which would have been lower. The hut walls, if dug one meter into the ground and raised another meter, would have provided enough space for an average Iron Age person to move around comfortably. So, the size of the platforms is not a problem.
Dr. Toby Driver has recently published a fascinating book about Wales's approximately 1,000 hillforts. I believe the Strumble/north Preseli hillforts/defended settlements are a special case. In my opinion, they were concerned about pirates and other threats from the sea, as many of their locations have clear sightlines to the coast.
Note: Foel Drygarn will feature in my upcoming film about 20 west Wales hillforts, to be released in Nadolig (Christmas).

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thank you Steve -- interesting points. I think others have also suggested that the dwellings (and storage huts and animal shelters) in exposed places like this were more like the primitive Palaeolithic and Mesolithic shelters than the beautiful thatched roundhouses of the lowlands. Must take a look at Toby's book -- sounds interesting.....

Steve Spon said...

Hi Brian
I guess you may have seen this on the BBC website today?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, I saw that. All based on the promo blurb connected with Toby's new book. I notice that he is very much of the view that the houses in exposed places like Foel Drygarn were nice conical roundhouses with thatched roofs --- I'd like to know what the evidence actually is, on the ground.......

chris johnson said...

There is a wide variety of "hill forts" in the UK. The primary purpose was not residential, rather military - I suspect. In the Prescelly area the economic life was more herding than agriculture with less need to build and defend big storehouses. Marauders would have come from the sea looking for easy loot, particularly slaves plus a nice roast. There is no sign of marauders coming to stay - at least not before the Irish invasions of post roman times and the romans themselves.

The likely purpose of Foel Drygarn was a temporary refuge for the locals and their herds - penned on the mountain top for a few days until the marauders left or were driven off. I suspect when the invading force was dangerously large the people near the coast would withdraw further inland. Given the terrain it would be difficult and dangerous to follow. The English armies had the same problem - remember Edward's orders to cut down all the trees because the pesky Welsh would withdraw into the forests at the first sign of trouble?

The BBC picture is pretty but rather fanciful when it comes to Foel Drygarn. There is a lack of evidence. it lacks plausibility too - the agricultural lands are too far way to justify a permanent settlement on such a hill top.

BRIAN JOHN said...

That makes a lot6 of sense to me, Chris.

Steve Spon said...

Hi Brian, sorry I forgot to spellcheck the last post so here it is again, please bin the last ver. thnx. NB Toby Drivers new Book is Number one best seller in Prehistory! anyway I hope you are well! here it is again...

"There must have been some sort of permanent presence on the forts. Otherwise, any joe could come in and claim the enormous hard work for themselves and lock you out, and take over your ancestors graves!
There is a definite paranoia baked into in the north Preseli landscape for sea raids or invasions so yes at least the Pembrokeshire defended settlements seem to have sightlines to the sea. As far as agricultural lands Foel Drygarn had access to plenty growing lands on the southern Preseli slopes and probably they mainly used Sheep just like today. The coast is not that far away although it may have been a tad further back in the Iron Age bronze Age Neolithic. In fact the coast has probably eroded by between some 300 and 1000 metres and in places much further in the couple thousand years. But that doesn’t stop fishing and all the things the coast and nearby marshlands can provide. They were used to carrying stuff often long distances. It still happens today in places where folk are not in touch with modern civilization. People walk and carry heavy things and don’t think twice about it.
On Pen Dinas the big take out from the 2023 excavations was that they found the fort was crammed with Hut Circles! But they didn't fit the model exactly for traditional cone shaped round houses. The hut foundations were often elliptical and the post holes were in the wrong places for round huts. But these hollows were hewn often to a meter deep out of solid bedrock
The appraisal from the team doing the excavation was that what they found was indeed building foundations but the foundations of a currently unknown type of building. They found plenty of Spindle Whorls suggesting Clothe making on a large scale. Just perhaps they made strong tarps which they coated in animal fats to cover the roof's? Just my speculation. But plenty of amber and slingshots were found as well as some pottery I think and glass which is yet to be dated properly.
In Pen Dinas the substance of the stone walls of which the bottom foundations are still extinct under the soil and vegetation contained 30% large beach or river pebbles which is odd because there is plenty of rock that could have been quarried on the summit. So the inhabitants were not adverse to climbing the 500 foot hill carrying huge rocks and pebbles. They found a spring just below the western slopes and the possibility of a wider outer wall which has not yet been confirmed.
Also the Iron Age locals built around an older Bronze Age Barrow just like Foel Drygarn.
Me thinks we are judging our ancestors with our own physical abilities of course we are nowhere near as strong or as resilient as our ancestors."