by Dr Sandy Gerrard

In January 2012 a previously unrecorded alignment of stones was identified on the southern slope of Bancbryn, Carmarthenshire. Subsequent research has indicated that this stone alignment shares common characteristics with examples in South West England and sits firmly within an area previously identified as containing a significant number of prehistoric cairns. A scheduling assessment conducted by Cadw has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support a prehistoric interpretation. This article seeks to re-examine the evidence and utilise it to present a persuasive interpretation supporting a prehistoric explanation for this alignment.

Case for a prehistoric stone alignment at Bancbryn

There is a considerable body of evidence to support a prehistoric explanation for the stone alignment. If as a starting point one believes in the possibility that the prehistoric peoples on either side of the Bristol Channel shared cultural links and beliefs then there is no reason to doubt that archaeological remains belonging to that period will share similar characteristics. Much has been made of the fact that the alignment is longer than other Welsh examples and therefore unlikely to be prehistoric, because Welsh examples are shorter. The irony of this position is hard not to notice. If the alignment had been largely destroyed it would have perhaps been more readily accepted.  Fortunately, despite recent incursions the alignment survives very well and this should aid analysis of it. The case for a prehistoric origin for the alignment at Bancbryn is a solid one based on several separate strands of evidence that are cumulatively compelling. Indeed given the scrutiny lavished on this alignment, one wonders how many of the currently scheduled examples could offer such robust and convincing evidence to support their identification.

Any interpretative assessment needs as a starting point to define and agree the characteristics of the type of heritage being scrutinised. The most detailed and readily available resource for this purpose is the Monument Class Description for Stone Alignments published by English Heritage and available at http://www.eng-h.gov.uk/mpp/mcd/index.htm . This document was specifically written to permit the objective assessment of stone alignments for scheduling purposes and therefore would seem the most appropriate tool to inform this discussion. Quotes from the Monument Class Description appear below in italics.

1. “A stone alignment comprises a single line, or two or more roughly parallel lines, of upright stones set at intervals along a common axis or series of axes. The number and size of stones in known alignments varies greatly, but the minimum number of stones required to form an alignment is three. The word alignment here refers to the juxtapositioning of the stones forming the monument itself rather than to any supposed or observed orientation on other monuments and/or topographical features.”

Discussion: This definition is not entirely accurate as some accepted rows consist entirely of recumbent stones, whilst many include significant numbers of horizontal slabs and edge-set stones. The Bancbryn alignment includes a single line of at least 175 stones of which a small number are upright, 52.4% are edge-set and the remainder are recumbent. These stones are set or lie at intervals along a series of axes and in common with the small stones forming Dartmoor alignments the edge-set stones are aligned along the prevailing axis.

The stone alignment at SN 68835 10223

The stone alignment at SN 68835 10223

2. “Stone alignments are rarely absolutely straight; many are slightly curved or comprise conjoined segments of different orientation. In general, however, each stone alignment has a single and distinct axis, albeit a rather broad one in some cases.”

 Discussion: The Bancbryn alignment in common with all long stone alignments is not absolutely straight and comprises conjoined segments of different orientation. Preliminary analysis of the plan has identified 15 segments each with a slightly different alignment. The alignment as a whole is broadly orientated at 214° and varies between 198° and 230° with most of this variation being found at the upper end.

One of the more obvious shifts in orientation

One of the more obvious shifts in orientation

The same orientation shift after return of vegetation

The same orientation shift after return of vegetation

3. “Stone alignments vary in length from about 40m, up to over 3000m, one of the longest being the example on Stall Down, Dartmoor, Devon. The most common length is about 150-200m.”

Discussion: The alignment at Bancbryn is just over 700m long and therefore within the accepted range for this type of monument. The length is certainly longer than currently accepted Welsh alignments but given that the longer examples are very rare it would not be surprising for only a very small number to survive within Wales.  On Dartmoor where at least 77 stone alignments have been recognised only four are longer than 700m. This represents a mere 5.2% of the total. By contrast the number of accepted alignments in Wales is at least 15. Acceptance of the Bancbryn alignment would mean that 6.25% of the known resource would be of the long variety – interestingly a very similar percentage to the situation on Dartmoor. Wales has far fewer stone alignments than Dartmoor and it is therefore hardly surprising that this very rare form of the monument has up until now proved elusive.  It is, however, surely not valid to state that the alignment does not conform to the expected form when in fact viewed as part of the whole resource it does so perfectly.

The Butterdon Hill stone alignment on Dartmoor measures 1973m long

The Butterdon Hill stone alignment on Dartmoor measures 1973m long

4. “The size of the stones used in the construction of stone alignments varies greatly, both between monuments and within the length of individual structures”

Discussion:  Most of the stones within the alignment are relatively small (between 0.30m and 0.50m) although some are more substantial.  The average stone height and size is similar to many South Western English and some Welsh stone alignments.  The variety of stone size within the Bancbryn alignment is a recognised feature of prehistoric examples.

Different sized stones are a recognised feature of stone alignments

 The stone alignment at SN 68835 10223. Different sized stones are a recognised feature of stone alignments

5. “Stones which project less than 1m above ground level are most common, although a few alignments, mostly short ones, contain only very large stones over 2m high.”

Discussion:  Many of the Welsh alignments fall into the recognised group of short alignments with large stones. It is clear however that the different types are not mutually exclusive. In SW England short alignments of large stones and long alignments consisting mainly of small stones exist. There is no evidence to suggest that where examples of one type are found the other will not be. Stone alignments with very small stones are known within the Welsh archaeological resource and therefore the small size of the stones at Bancbryn represents no obstacle to a prehistoric explanation.

6.  “Where slabs of stone were used they were usually set with their long axis on the orientation of the alignment”.

Discussion: The edge set stones at Bancbryn in common with other alignments are predominantly set with their long axis along the orientation of the alignment.

7. “There is little evidence that the stones in any stone alignments were deliberately placed in graduated order of size”.

Discussion: The stones have not yet been individually measured, but visual inspection would suggest that the stones have not been placed in graduated order of size.

8. “In many cases the stone at each end of an alignment, terminal stones, are larger than those used elsewhere in the monument.”

Discussion: The largest stone within the alignment denotes the south western end. This stone is now recumbent and measures 0.62m by 0.52m by 0.25m. This feature provides particularly strong evidence to support a prehistoric identification.

The recumbent terminal stone

The recumbent terminal stone

9. “In other cases the end of an alignment may just fade out with a series of small stones then nothing.”

Discussion: This means that terminal features do not always survive but at Bancbryn characteristic terminal features have been identified. The presence of these features enhances the prehistoric interpretation.

10. “When assessing and measuring alignments it is important to check the ends very carefully to determine whether the visible terminals are likely to be the real ends of the monument or whether the line may continue under a blanket of peat or as a series of small stones”

Discussion: The areas of the alignment towards the ends have both seen more disturbance than the central length which survives very well. The north eastern end had been disturbed by historic trackways and more recently by wind farm infrastructure whilst the south eastern end has also seen vehicular damage. Despite this the terminals are well defined.

Part of stone alignment has recently been destroyed by wind farm infrastructure

Part of stone alignment has recently been destroyed by wind farm infrastructure

Continued in Part Three