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The stone alignment at Saith Maen stands on moorland above Craig-y-nos in Powys at SN83311540. The row includes a line of seven slabs (two of which are recumbent) extending for a total length of 13.7m. There is nothing else quite like it in Wales. Compared with all of the others the stones are set very close together and indeed for the closest parallels one must look west to Ireland where several well-known examples exist.This alignment also lacks a prehistoric context as there are no cairns or similar features in the immediate vicinity. Finally the stones are relatively unweathered compared with others in the area.
These warning signs could be seen as an indication that all is not as it appears. No conclusive evidence exists to support a prehistoric date but it is accepted as prehistoric because well it looks right and no alternative explanations have been forthcoming. Interestingly when Cadw were asked for alternative explanations for the Bancbryn alignment they responded “I am not minded to express an opinion on the most likely interpretation given the limited nature of the evidence.” A curious response given that there is plenty of evidence to support a prehistoric date for Bancbryn whilst none exists for Saith Maen and its documented use as a sheepfold should perhaps sound warning bells!
by Sandy Gerrard
Situated near the base of a steep sided shake hole at SN 82898 15123 near Craig-y-nos and the Welsh National Showcaves is a small circular stone built structure. The building is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, (BR256 Hut Circle west of Saith Maen) although it is actually situated to the south-west. The structure is very small with an internal diameter of 3.1m surrounded by drystone walling up to 0.6m high. A clearly defined slab-lined entrance faces west. The Royal Commission record it as a hut-circle, although David Leighton in his Western Brecon Beacons book notes only that “The building is probably of prehistoric date” (Leighton, 2012, 69) but the Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust go rather further stating that “There is something about the site which feels more akin to a shelter of a more recent date than any kind of prehistoric dwelling”. So definitely no consensus and despite the considerable uncertainties Cadw scheduled the site as a prehistoric hut circle.
This is important because when an application to schedule the Bancbryn stone alignment was submitted to Cadw they concluded that “because the evidence base is inconclusive, and there is an alternative theory of post medieval origin that would not meet the criteria for scheduling, it is not possible to schedule the site.” So why was this structure near Saith Maen scheduled? After all alternative very plausible post-medieval theories have been offered but with typical Cadw inconsistency and total disregard for their own professed procedures they pressed on regardless. The final irony is that the post-medieval explanations offered for this scheduled site remain whilst Cadw have now accepted that no specific evidence to support the post-medieval explanations for the Bancbryn stone alignment exist. A fine old mess indeed.
Despite being at the foot of a very steep slope no hillwash deposits have accumulated within the upper part of the building. This strongly suggests that the structure is relatively recent as does its fresh almost pristine appearance. Furthermore its very small size is unusual as is its position in the bottom of a shake hole. A couple of post-medieval interpretations which Cadw appear to have overlooked include a gunpowder magazine or shelter and both would seem, given the anomalies highlighted above, much more plausible than the prehistoric one favoured by Cadw. The structure stands in the midst of an industrial landscape and this context complete with the character of the remains makes a post-medieval date much more likely. The sides of the shake hole would have provided an excellent blast wall and the gunpowder could have been transferred throughout the area using the adjacent tramway. The form of the structure however suggests that it is most likely to be a shelter. Identical structures are known in the archaeological record.
by Sandy Gerrard
David Leighton in his excellent “The Western Brecon Beacons – The Archaeology of Mynydd Du and Fforest Fawr” book published by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales deals head on with the issue of standing stones. He notes that they are “an enigmatic group of monuments” and may have been raised for a wide variety of purposes. Most significantly he goes on to say “Those of prehistoric date, which may subsequently have served any of these purposes, can only be described confidently as such after excavation, and few have been investigated in this way” (Leighton, D., 2012, 87).
Most of the scheduled standing stones in Wales have not been excavated and therefore varying degrees of doubt must exist regarding their identification. This however does not prevent Cadw confidently scheduling them as prehistoric without a shred of evidence. This is important because it clearly illustrates that definite proof is not seen as a requisite for a site to be added to the schedule. So why is a lack of evidence seen as a justifiable reason for not scheduling the stone alignment at Bancbryn? Cadw now accept that the various alternative explanations are spurious and in public have stated that it is not being scheduled because of “insufficient evidence”. To be more specific Cadw have stated to me that they “did not feel able to recommend the structure for scheduling since the action would require Cadw to state with confidence that it is a prehistoric structure and as you yourself have noted ….. – this has not yet been proven.”
So there we have it, on the one hand Cadw can state with confidence that the scheduled standing stones are all prehistoric despite the lack of any supporting evidence for most of them whilst at the same time refuse to schedule a stone alignment despite an abundance of evidence and all of it pointing one way. The duplicity of this position highlights a fundamental problem with the way in which Cadw selects monuments for protection. It would not be an exaggeration to describe it as an utter shambles, lacking any rigour or consistency resulting in a system where contradictory and unsubstantiated decisions have become the norm.
Prehistoric standing stones inconveniently do not come complete with their original dates inscribed on them. Despite this Cadw can confidently tell without any evidence which ones are prehistoric or not. Perhaps they have a time-machine parked up outside their offices!
by Sandy Gerrard
The Planning Inspectorate in Wales has recently rejected an application to erect three wind turbines at Bedlinog on the edge of an area containing a large number of multi-period archaeological sites. Most significantly the main reason given for the decision is the impact the development would have had on the historic environment. Indeed this concern is eloquently expressed so: “the introduction of very large modern moving structures into a landscape which had not significantly changed since the pre-industrial age would cause significant and extensive harm.”
Hooray. The landscape that is going to be protected is very similar in character to the one at Mynydd y Betws. Essentially it is a multi-period palimpsest some of which is scheduled. There are however also some important differences:
> The nearest scheduled site would have been 570m from a turbine rather than the 72m at Mynydd y Betws
> Three turbines were proposed rather than fifteen.
> The turbines were to be built on enclosed land near to the moorland rather than on the moorland itself.
> The turbines were to be built to one side of the archaeology rather than in its midst.
When the Planning Inspectorate considered the Mynydd y Betws proposal, where the impact of the proposed scheme was considerably more intrusive and damaging to the historic environment than at Bedlinog they stated:
“The turbines would be large man made features of far greater scale than anything which currently exists. However they would be, if allowed, by their nature a temporary feature with a permission for 25 years.”
“the effect on the setting of those Monuments within the site, whether they are burial cairns or more recent upland farmsteads, would not be unacceptably harmful.”
Hopefully this radical change of heart means that in just a few short years and on the back of the lessons learnt at Mynydd y Betws the desecration of irreplaceable archaeological landscapes is no longer to be tolerated. Certainly this decision should help those fighting to safeguard our heritage and should be warmly welcomed by everyone with an interest in our uplands.
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?