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by Sandy Gerrard
A short distance south of the car park for Usk Reservoir in the Brecon Beacons at SN83322835 within an area of improved pasture stands a large stone known by the name Gwern Wyddog. This stone is a scheduled ancient monument and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW) describe it as “a lozenge-shaped standing stone, 2.3m high by 1.2m by 1.4m” whilst the Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT) description records it as: “A massive lozenge-shaped stone is aligned NE-SW and measures 1.3m long x 1.3m wide x 2.2m high. The stone is sited on a slight south-east facing slope in a pasture field. Small stones surround the base, and there is one large block on its NW side. All these stones lie within an area of slight sheep scour.”
Photographs of the stone available on the internet confirm these descriptions, but raise possible doubts regarding the explanation that the stone was erected in prehistoric times. There is no published information to confirm its prehistoric credentials and furthermore no other remains of a similar date are currently recorded in the vicinity. It may indeed by a standing stone erected during the Bronze Age – but what is lacking is any evidence to support this position. An alternative explanation that it represents a glacial erratic together with a few later clearance stones would on the face of it have as much credence. Can Cadw be certain that this stone is not entirely natural in origin? Alternatively if the stone has indeed been placed in its present position could it be a rubbing stone, boundary stone or a waymarker? The lack of evidence to confirm the structure as being of prehistoric date does not appear to have been an obstacle to its scheduling. Should it have been? or does it make sense to schedule sites where there is an element of uncertainty?
Large it certainly is but no evidence currently exists to prove that this rock was erected during prehistoric times. Despite a total lack of evidence regarding its date or function it is scheduled as an ancient monument. How could this be? After all Cadw claim they don’t schedule prehistoric sites where there is “insufficient evidence to confirm the structure as being of prehistoric date”. So do Cadw schedule prehistoric sites where there is insufficient evidence or not? It would appear they do – despite their protestations that they don’t.
It is indeed a funny old world with perhaps just a soupçon of inconsistency and a pinch of double standards thrown in for good measure. A fair selection process would ensure that all sites were treated identically and the criteria applied consistently. Sadly such fundamental principles seem to be entirely absent from the Cadw scheduling process. Sometimes inconvenient but pertinent evidence is ignored whilst on other occasions the lack of any evidence is not seen as an obstacle in this surreal decision making process. Consequently, just how robust is the Welsh Schedule of Ancient Monuments?
By Sandy Gerrard
The Welsh Schedule of Ancient Monuments includes a “Burial Chamber at Pen-yr-Alttwen” just outside Pontardawe. This is scheduled as GM 514 and the grid reference is given as SN 7315 0331. According to the Royal Commission the monument stands “on the scarp edge of a south-facing slope, on the edge of a track terraced into the hillside.” The Royal Commission report continues:
“From the track the site presents in much the way described by Cadw. One large slab surrounded by leaning and fallen smaller slabs and blocks, supposedly a collapsed chamber, and a second adjacent slab with similarly disposed blocks suggesting a second, smaller, chamber to the immediate NW.
When seen from below, that is downslope from the track, the structure appears to be eroded outcrop. The larger slab seems to be a block dislodged from the exposure along a bedding plane. If the track is followed a short distance to the S it is seen to be formed on levelled outcrop. It is therefore hard to avoid the conclusion that this site is no more than a fortuitous arrangement of stones created by surface levelling. But by the same token a former built structure may have been shifted by the same process resulting in the disturbed remains visible today. There are no traces of a cairn, and if the site is genuine the location would have afforded little prospect of one, unless the subsequent landscaping was so radical as to have altered completely the configuration of the local ground pattern.”
The Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust’s Archwilio entry for the site helpfully adds “The interpretation of this feature as a monument is not entirely certain; it could be a natural landform, but the question is unlikely to be resolved in the absence of excavation. It consists of a pile of very large slabs of sandstone embedded in a steep hillslope, one of which looks as though it might be a capstone, although most of the rest look like a natural geological formation.”
So the Royal Commission and the local archaeological trust have voiced concerns regarding the identity of this monument, but Cadw were happy to schedule it and have retained it on the schedule despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever to support a prehistoric interpretation.
When Cadw was asked to schedule the Bancbryn stone alignment they responded saying that “there was insufficient evidence to propose scheduling the feature as a prehistoric stone row”.
Fair enough, I hear you cry, but then why is Cadw happy to schedule sites for which there is absolutely no evidence of date or indeed whether it is even archaeology at all? It is indeed a funny old world. Perhaps a smidgen of double standards!
by Dr Sandy Gerrard
Walking down the Bancbryn stone alignment, distant but focused views of Hartland Point in Devon are enjoyed. This short article illustrates the nature of this phenomenon and suggests that this evidence together with other aspects of the site that were overlooked by the previous scheduling assessment could justify a review of the earlier decision.
Why is this important?
The significance of visual relationships is a frequent feature in the archaeological literature concerning prehistoric funerary and ritual landscapes. There is an acceptance that considerable care was taken positioning features and whilst the precise reasons are not always apparent there is consensus that the siting and distribution of funerary and ritual monuments was far from random and indeed positions were often very carefully selected. The upper 300m of the Bancbryn stone alignment points at the far distant Hartland Point in Devon. The chances of this being a coincidence are remote especially when one considers that:
- The cairn at the upper end of the alignment is positioned with perfect precision to ensure that Hartland Point peeks out from behind Tor Clawdd. This significant visual relationship exists only at the exact spot where this cairn was erected.
- A deviation of as little as one degree from the course of the stone alignment would have meant that the visual relationship illustrated in the photographs above would not exist.
- The slight shifts in the stone alignment’s orientation can be explained as a response to the changing form of the profile of Tor Clawdd relative to the undulating slope of Bancbryn and position of Hartland Point.
- The care and attention to detail with which the view to Hartland Point is maintained illustrates a strong element of deliberation beyond any reasonable doubt.
Normally powerful evidence such as this would be enough to support the strong possibility of a prehistoric date. Cadw’s reluctance this far to even consider this evidence is disappointing. Particularly as they have stated that the reason for not scheduling the site is because of “insufficient evidence”. Shame too therefore that during their assessment they were unable to locate the cairn at the top of the row and the fallen terminal stone at the lower end. Perhaps there is only insufficient evidence because many of the crucial details were disregarded.
by Sandy Gerrard
During 2012 Cadw considered the Bancbryn stone alignment for scheduling. In October, some 9 months into the process, they were approached by the “South Wales Guardian” for an update. The people of South Wales were informed that: “No evidence was discovered to support the firm dating of the feature, but investigations concluded the most likely interpretation is that this is a relatively modern grazing boundary or route marker.”
Recently it has to come to light that at the time this statement was released the assessment process had not even started. Amazingly it would appear that Cadw published their conclusion before they had even started the assessment. Might this be the reason they appear to be unwilling to accept the prehistoric interpretation?
Sadly, as well as being somewhat premature the Cadw statement completely ignores the investigations reported in the Heritage Journal here which demonstrated that the interpretations favoured by Cadw were utterly untenable. Is Cadw in the habit of ignoring the evidence that does not suit them or is this a one off?
Either way an explanation would be appreciated.
by Sandy Gerrard
Much has been made of the lack of conclusive evidence to support a prehistoric interpretation for the stone alignment at Bancbryn on Mynydd y Betws. All of the alternative explanations lie in tatters but still Cadw will not even accept the idea that the prehistoric interpretation remains the most plausible explanation. Instead they prefer to stick with the line that there is “insufficient evidence to propose scheduling the feature as a prehistoric stone row”. Cadw will not say what they think it is, preferring instead to emphasise the lack of positive evidence. In many ways this is an understandable position. They are essentially saying that as we have no definite proof that it is prehistoric it would be unwise to add the site to the schedule of ancient monuments. However, this position would seem to contradict their usual “modus operandi” where mounds of stones, hummocks, single standing stones or indeed even lines of stones have happily been added to the schedule with no conclusive evidence being provided to justify their interpretation.
Indeed one does not have far to look to see an example of this apparently inconsistent behaviour. No conclusive evidence currently exists to support a prehistoric date for the scheduled cairns at Bancbryn. No finds or other dating material has been recovered from any of them and indeed the entry in “Coflein” the Royal Commission’s online database notes: “The scanty remains of 14 to 17 cairns, most of which have central mutilations, suggesting that, although no structural elements are apparent, the cairns may have been ritual in nature. Alternatively the cairns may have been claerance (sic) heaps, robbed in the hope of their being sepulchral.”
Coflein also helpfully publishes an extract from the scheduling documentation which states: “Remains of an extensive burial cairn cemetery, probably dating to the Bronze Age, situated within open moorland on the summit of Bancbryn. “
So despite considerable doubts about the identification and date of the mounds at Bancbryn, Cadw were happy to schedule this particular monument without any actual evidence to support its date or function. Insufficient evidence was not an obstacle in this instance so why is the same level of proof not being applied to the associated stone alignment? The Cadw scheduling process seems somewhat haphazard. Sometimes hard evidence is needed but on other occasions no evidence at all. This inconsistent approach to the protection of our heritage should be a concern to us all.
by Dr Sandy Gerrard
On Mynydd Bach Trecastell, a pair of stone circles, at least one stone alignment and one cairn stand spectacularly on a gentle north facing slope offering extensive views over Mid Wales and the Brecon Beacons. The stone circles stand close to each other and are very different in character. The northern one measures 23m in diameter and includes 21 stones and five socket holes. The southern one is 7.9m in diameter and includes four uprights, three recumbent and a number of socket holes.
The site receives a mention in the Preliminary Statement for the Bancbryn stone alignment produced by Cotswold Archaeology in 2012. In this report it is noted that: “An alignment of stones was also noted at Mynydd Bach Trecastell in proximity to a pair of prehistoric round cairns. This ‘stone alignment’ was interpreted as representing a former postmedieval field boundary. The reason for this interpretation is unclear, but appears to be due to the much smaller size of stones compared to the Saith Maen example cited above, and largely recumbent.”
The authors of this report appear to have confused the stone circles with round cairns. The stone alignment leads from the southern stone circle and is a long way from the nearest cairn. The stone alignment includes at least five stones leading directly north eastward towards the smaller stone circle. The alignment formed by the stones is also directly orientated towards the nearby cairn situated some 175m to the south west.
The reason for the post-medieval field boundary interpretation is certainly unclear. All the other boundaries in the vicinity include a ditch and bank. It is also difficult to understand why a boundary would respect the stone circle stopping as it does a few metres short. The idea that it may have not been accepted as a stone row because the stones were small is interesting. If one starts from the premise that all stone rows consist only of large stones then of course those with only small stones must be something else. This blinkered approach has obvious dangers and here the result is that a line of stones leading from a stone circle in the precise direction of a cairn has been interpreted as a post-medieval boundary despite the fact that all the other boundaries on the mountain consist of a bank and ditch.
It makes no sense to me to imply that the post-medieval farmers on this mountain chose to devise a completely new way of building boundaries when they arrived in the vicinity of prehistoric archaeology and instead chose to place stones in a line leading from a stone circle to a cairn. Perhaps we need to embrace the idea that stone alignments can consist entirely of small stones in order to avoid further silliness. Why do archaeologists working in the South West of England not have a problem with this idea?
Heritage Action member Sue Brooke has been peeking over the garden fence again, and gives us this update on the Caerau Hillfort excavations in Cardiff.
Well the leaflet dropped through the door about two weeks ago. At the end of last week the local community magazine arrived, both with the invitation to ‘come and join the excavations.’ So I did.
I’ve written about Caerau Hillfort in Cardiff in the past via this journal. It was, you may recall, featured on a Time Team episode – one of the last in the final series made, shown in April 2012. It was actually also featured in one of the Time Team dig books. But since all this ended and the so called glare of publicity faded away it may seem like it has all been forgotten. Not so.
The CAER Heritage Project has been working constantly in the local areas of Caerau and Ely, (CAER is an acronym – Caerau and Ely Rediscovering). They have their own website and the usual Facebook group following as you would expect, but they are actually up there promoting their project aims of rediscovering the past.
Community excavations took place last year. Again this year, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, my triangular shaped field is the focus of activity for anyone interested either in local history or archaeology itself. I couldn’t get there myself last year but this year I found myself free for the first days of the planned dig, and since the weather has been so beautiful I accepted the invitation of ‘come and join the excavations’ and wandered along.
It’s probably best that you understand, at this point, that although I find archaeology fascinating and, having watched probably most of the Time Team episodes I viewed myself as something of an armchair expert. But I never ever wanted what I had come to think of as MY triangular shaped field to be dug up. I had researched this field, written thousands of words on it, drawn maps of it, walked up and down in it and generally did my best to keep it as a secret. Although local legend, if you like, was that there was a Roman Fort located up alongside the old church of St Mary in the ring-work, I had always believed it to be the triangular shaped field that would hold the biggest and, hopefully earliest secrets. I could bore for Wales on the subject of this field.
When Time Team visited I spent each and every day up on the hill, horrified at the goings-on. I never thought for one minute that this field would give up shiny swords or gold treasure but I felt it was important to the development of the local area in which I have always lived. This hillfort is quite literally over my garden fence. I wanted to know more about who lived there, how they lived there and why? For me it was, and still is, as much about the people as the place.
But here I am, on my way to go back up the hill to yet another excavation. It is a long and very steep walk up. Thankfully it has been reasonably dry lately so it makes it far safer underfoot. I arrived at the foot of the hill to find the excavations signposted. It’s actually a very pretty walk up and definitely worth it when you eventually reach the top. The gates were open to the triangular shaped field and just inside there were some gazebo type tents which form an information point.
Some of the latest ‘finds’ are being cleaned up but they are displayed on trays and I was actually given some sherds of pottery to hold. In my hand! Cardiff University students are on hand to talk you though what they have found so far and it was really fascinating stuff. I know both project directors – Olly Davis and Dave Wyatt – from my early work with the group just prior to them forming the heritage project, and it was nice to catch up with them again. Olly walked me around the site, pointing out what they were doing and the significance of their very early discoveries. Olly explains things really well, not reverting to that dry academic way of speaking that you can often hear when the so called expert knows what he is on about but you simply end up nodding in bemused and confused agreement. Olly pointed out the various features actually in the ground, giving his early interpretation of them and setting them into a historical context that I, as a local historian with only a broad knowledge of history in general, could understand.
I was shown around the various trenches that have already been put in and met some of the university students involved. It was really nice to see the whole thing being recorded on film and in pictures by a local resident. Various local people were on the site and had been included in the digging itself. Olly told me that there had been 30 visitors to the site the previous day and they were expecting many more. Local schools have been fully involved again with the project. Local children and young people will be attending the dig, in planned visits, during the duration of the excavations.
There are potentially some important discoveries to be made up at the site. Without giving away too much of the detail there are signs of some exciting possibilities in the ground that could hold importance to understanding early life in Wales. Back at the gazebo I was shown the geophysical results and the Lidar images that have been taken and these were explained clearly to me. There is also a large reconstruction drawing on display – again the work of a local resident – which gives a nice insight to how the site may have looked. There is also a booklet – free of charge – that gives lots of information on the previous work undertaken and some of the discoveries made.
I have to say that this ‘red-carpet’ treatment wasn’t exclusive to me. I spoke with Olly asking him if he ever got the chance now to get in the trench and dig – which, after all is what he trained for, and he replied saying that showing people around and interpreting the site took up an awful lot of his time. Although he did agree that not having his nose in the trench did allow him a better overview of the site as a whole. We may make a local historian out of him yet!
Having had a really good look around I was relieved that the trenches weren’t taking over the whole of the field. The trenches from the previous excavations were now barely discernible and I expect that these recent ones will fade back into the grass with time. The work that is being done will certainly help me gain a better idea not only of the place but of the people who lived within it.
What makes this heritage project just that little bit different is that it includes the members of the local community; it actually encourages them in, gives them a trowel and makes them get dirty! The key objective of this project was to:
Put local people at the heart of cutting edge archeological research, to develop educational opportunities and to challenge stigmas and unfounded stereotypes ascribed to this part of Cardiff.
I think, from my visit today that CAER Heritage Project actually does what it says on the tin – even if they are digging up my triangular shaped field.
So, I now share the invitation with you. Go and join the excavations. They run from 30th June through to 25th July 2014. There is a lot going on up there that it probably wouldn’t be fair of me to share in this little article – please, go and see for yourself. I may see you there – I’m going back tomorrow only this time I’m going to dig!
There is also an article about the dig on the BBC web site.
All pictures © Sue Brooke
From The South Wales Guardian:
See more here
The Welsh Government is holding a public consultation on whether the “ignorance defence” for damaging an ancient monument (saying the accused was unaware of its status or location) should be restricted.
Successful prosecutions are very rare. Between 2006 and 2012, Cadw received reports of 119 cases of unlawful damage to scheduled ancient monuments in Wales but there has only been one successful prosecution under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 in the last 25 years. That is surely a ridiculous state of affairs? Over the years hundreds of the most important sites have been damaged and only once has a culprit been punished! What do YOU think? Responses have been invited from any individuals or groups with an interest in the historic environment of Wales. You can submit your views here.
Of course, there are certain measures that could be taken to discourage heritage crime, certainly at the Nine Ladies. You’re welcome to suggest some of your own!
A STONE ALIGNMENT AT BANCBRYN, MYNYDD Y BETWS, CARMARTHENSHIRE (PART FIVE)
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 (continued)
30. “At Merrivale, Dartmoor, the stone alignments appear to separate a group of ceremonial monuments from a concentration of hut circles and settlement sites.”
Discussion: The stone alignment at Bancbryn is not known to separate ritual and settlement areas, but the idea that alignments can perform the function of separating different zones is one that has a very real significance at Bancbryn. Looking along the upper part of the stone alignment on Bancbryn, Hartland Point (Devon) forms a very obvious distant but precise focus on clear days.
This relationship is clearly of interest and almost certainly of significance. Walking downhill (southwards) along the upper length of the alignment an observer always has Hartland Point just visible over the shoulder of the intervening hill. The position and orientation of the alignment precisely allows this juxtaposition to be maintained until at the point where it is finally lost, the axis of the alignment shifts more significantly westward. This type of visual relationship is one recognised as significant in prehistoric studies. From the point where Hartland Point disappears the alignment instead becomes focussed on the sharp sided valley west of Banc John which has a very similar profile to Tor Clawdd which framed the left side of Hartland Point. The alignment without any doubt therefore takes full cognisance of Hartland Point, but is this deliberate or a coincidence? The fact that the upper shifts in orientation of the alignment all result in maintaining the same view to Hartland Point and the alignment shifts significantly at the point where Hartland Point disappears below the horizon supports the idea that there is a strong element of deliberation. This suggestion is further strengthened by the observation that the stone alignment effectively also denotes the edge of a small area on Bancbryn that benefits from views to the sea and Devon. This small area also contains a large number of cairns. This compelling evidence which indicates a direct and powerful visual link between the stone alignment, adjacent cairn cemetery and the distant Devon coast is one that can only be challenged by dismissing the idea that stone alignments could separate areas and more importantly that in the siting of monuments visual relationships played no part in prehistoric society. It is therefore perhaps fitting to finish with Cadw’s own observation regarding the distribution of the cairns that “It would be reasonable to assume from the relative positioning of these sites that they had visual relationships in antiquity” (Cadw, R., 2006).
Much has been made of the lack of evidence to support a prehistoric explanation for the stone alignment at Bancbryn. Assessing the site against the scheduling assessment documentation indicates that such claims are hard to defend. There is an abundance of evidence and it all points one way. By contrast if the currently scheduled Welsh alignments were subjected to the same detailed scrutiny many would perhaps be found wanting. The stone alignment at Bancbryn survives within a very pertinent prehistoric context not evident at other Welsh alignments and clearly conforms to all of the characteristics of this type of monument. The similarities with the longer Dartmoor alignments are powerful as is the direct and compelling visual link with Devon. All of this together with a simple but sound statistical explanation for the apparent absence of long stone alignments within the Welsh archaeological record creates a persuasive evidence based interpretation supporting a prehistoric explanation for this alignment.
I have had considerable help from a number of people whilst preparing this article. I would like to thank Nigel Swift for commenting constructively on all aspects and Sophie Smith for digging out hard to find information as well as being a harsh critic of my more outlandish ideas. Helen Woodley has also provided a stream of incredibly useful ideas and was the first to spot the Hartland Point link. George Currie has helped hone the illustrations and provided incredibly helpful feedback. Finally Helen Gerrard has skilfully edited the result and been an inspiration through the discovery process.
Butler, J., 1997, “Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities Volume 5 – The Second Millennium B.C.”
Cadw, 2006 “Erection of 16 Wind Turbine Generators – Mynydd y Betws” (Letter to Carmarthenshire County Council)
Monument Class Description for Stone Alignments published by English Heritage and available at http://www.eng-h.gov.uk/mpp/mcd/index.htm
We hope you agree that this series of articles is both interesting and thought provoking. Cadw has indicated that it would welcome the opportunity for a wider debate regarding the attribution and future management of this feature. We will be happy to pass on any feedback you may have.