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By Dr. Sandy Gerrard.

Following the discovery of the Bancbryn stone row in 2012 the Welsh archaeological establishment set about characterising it and after much deliberation concluded that it was not a prehistoric stone row for six main reasons:

  1. Rows are less than 200m long (Consultant reporting to Dyfed Archaeological Trust 14th February 2012).
  2. The overall alignment of the Mynydd y Betws alignment is sinuous in a form which is not typical for prehistoric ceremonial/ritual stone alignments which are….. predominantly straight’ (Cotswold Archaeology Report).
  3. The variable size and shape of the stones (Cotswold Archaeology Report).
  4. The stone density varies along the row, from stones every metre or so through to 10-15m gaps. (Cadw 24/01/2012).
  5. “Inconsistencies in the physical appearance of the stone alignment when compared with currently accepted Welsh prehistoric examples (Cadw response 15/08/13).
  6. The stones were not in sockets (Cotswold Archaeology Report).

Bancbryn stone row

Following the completion of a long term project looking at all the extant stone rows in Great Britain, it is now possible to access all the single rows using the same Welsh style criteria used at Bancbryn to find out how their unorthodox approach to interpretation affects our understanding of British stone rows.

A total of 174 accepted single rows most of which are scheduled as ancient monuments were put through the Welsh style interpretative mill and unsurprisingly only 32 were found to meet their strict criteria. The remaining 142 failed to clear at least one hurdle and many were rejected for several reasons. It is worth having a quick look at some of the fallers. Read the rest of this entry »

by Dr Sandy Gerrard

Where heritage and development collide - the odds are stacked against the archaeology

Where heritage and development collide – the odds are stacked against the archaeology

At Bancbryn the archaeological establishment set about trashing the idea that the alignment of stones separating two scheduled cairn cemeteries could be important. Before waiting to see any evidence, the possibility of it being significant was being privately and publically dismissed. Over the months that followed its discovery, various outlandish alternative interpretations backed by spurious “facts” were offered and then silently withdrawn. Important files were shredded, correspondence ignored, evidence avoided and reports buried. Interestingly the various organisations do not apparently see that any of this represents a problem.

Presumably, this is because this is simply business as usual. This whole mess helpfully provides an insight into the way Welsh heritage is regularly carved up by those entrusted with its care. No matter what camouflage is deployed; these organisations are primarily concerned with enabling the controlled destruction of the historic environment. Over the years they have cleverly created the illusion that they are in the protection and conservation game – however the facts at Bancbryn and elsewhere in Wales betray their true role. Cleverly worded reports and excuses are their stock in trade – all designed to ensure the controlled and unimpeded destruction of our archaeology. After all if the “expert” at Cadw says something is not really that important, then surely it must be true? Well no. The Cadw “expert” is very unlikely to have the necessary expertise to assess its importance properly, but on the other hand they are extremely likely to have the prowess to write the sort of report suited to the desired outcome. By these means archaeological sites are regularly sacrificed on the altar of progress and economic development.

To avoid any uncertainty or confusion, Cadw are part of the Welsh Assembly Government and are entrusted with the role of ensuring that the government’s development initiatives are not jeopardised by inconvenient archaeological remains. Cadw’s position within the Welsh Assembly severely limits their abilities to be the honest broker and instead their role is often to ensure the smooth and orderly destruction of the historic environment. To do anything else would be a risky strategy indeed. With all this in mind the Bancbryn debacle sadly makes complete sense and was inevitable.

by Dr Sandy Gerrard

image-1

On the island of Hoy in the Orkneys a massive sandstone boulder (8.5m long by 4.47m wide) sits stranded like a whale at the bottom of a steep cliff. This stone is called the Dwarfie Stane and at some time in the past a tunnel was cut into its western side and a small chamber formed inside the rock. Up until 1935 a broad consensus had emerged that the chamber had been formed to provide accommodation of some sort. However, during a visit to the stone in the summer of 1935 by Charles Calder of the Royal Commission and a Professor Bryce a brand new, a revolutionary idea was born… “that the Dwarfie Stane is the first and only example in the British Isles of a completely rock-cut tomb of the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age”. The evidence to support this radical departure from the established interpretation was two analogies from the Mediterranean, some parallels in “intervening countries” and “certain features in some of the monuments in Orkney itself.” The full justification can found here, but essentially comparisons were made with rock-cut tombs in the Mediterranean and with some of the much closer stone built tombs on Orkney. Calder emphasised the significance of the Dwarfie Stane saying at one point that it may even be more interesting than Maeshowe because it is “absolutely unique”.

The “Absolutely unique” Dwarfie Stane.

The “absolutely unique” Dwarfie Stane.

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Plan of the Dwarfie Stane and the two Mediterranean parallels (After Calder and Macdonald, 1936, 218 and 223).

Plan of the Dwarfie Stane and the two Mediterranean parallels (After Calder and Macdonald, 1936, 218 and 223).

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Actual evidence to support this appealing interpretation is however wholly lacking, but despite this, the site information board boldly states “It was actually a tomb, related to the many chambered tombs found through-out Orkney”.

So in Scotland uniqueness is celebrated or at the very least acknowledged as existing, whilst in Wales anything perceived as not precisely fitting the mould is summarily dismissed. When I asked a Cadw officer what they thought the Bancbryn stone alignment might be, they provided no answer and instead stated that they did not believe it could be prehistoric because Welsh alignments “Are characterised by much larger, upright stones in significantly shorter lengths”. Even if this was true (and it is not) this is not a remotely sound reason for dismissing the alignment. Diversity is at the heart of archaeology and Cadw’s failure to recognise the possibility of differences in the character of the archaeological resource is truly alarming.

At Bancbryn we do not need to go as far the Mediterranean to find precise parallels – they exist on the other side of the Bristol Channel and to ignore them as Cadw have done is both astonishing and indefensible.

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Distribution of single long stone rows composed of smaller stones in Great Britain.

Distribution of single long stone rows composed of smaller stones in Great Britain.

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Bancbryn (green) sits comfortably within the part of Great Britain where single long rows composed of smaller stones are found. It seems peculiar that Scottish archaeologists are happy to accept parallels from the Mediterranean to help them understand their archaeology, but Welsh ones struggle to recognise those on their own doorstep.

Reference

Calder, C.S.T. and Macdonald,G.,1936, The Dwarfie Stane, Hoy, Orkney: its period and purpose. With a note on “Jo. Ben” and the Dwarfie Stane’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, vol. 70, 1935-6. Pgs. 217-38.

The arrival of the Welsh online resource for scheduled ancient monuments means that we can now see what is scheduled and what is not in England, Scotland and Wales. The new Cadw website shows us which parts of Wales are scheduled and provides some information together with reasons for the decision. Access to the various monuments is via an easy to use zoomable map and within a couple of clicks the information is available.

CADWMap

Compared to the Scottish and English sites the amount of information is very limited and a love of the copy and paste facility has unfortunate consequences.

Most worrying, however, is the phrase used to introduce each monument. In almost every instance the text starts “The monument consists of…”. This is a potentially dangerous choice of words as it implies that any archaeological features not mentioned in the text are not included within the scheduling.  Elsewhere in Britain the term “includes” is used and therefore ensures protection of any overlooked elements. This may seem pedantic but the effect maybe to seriously undermine the purpose of the legislation designed to protect our archaeology.

A second point of concern is the uncertain tone expressed in the documentation. Caveats abound in the descriptive text with for example the words probable and probably liberally scattered around. Whilst we all accept that uncertainty comes with the archaeological territory, these are primarily legal documents written to ensure the protection and management of important archaeological sites. In this context it is surely unhelpful to emphasise the uncertainties. After all a landowner reading that a pile of stones of stone on their land is only probably a Bronze Age cairn might think that it would probably be OK to remove it or at the very least take less care of it. Indeed the Schedule of Ancient Monuments should only include those sites considered to be of national importance, so why the constant insistence on emphasising the uncertainty?

Compared to the Scottish and English contributions this web resource does not compare favourably. It feels like a rushed job designed to meet a target and the large numbers of typos betray a lack of attention to detail. But please do not take our word for it. Have a look for yourselves:

Côf Cymru – National Historic Assets of Wales

Historic Environment Scotland

Historic England

Sad news to report again, this time that the Maen Penddu standing stone in the Conwy Valley, North Wales, has been severely vandalised. Recent photos show several carvings have been made on the stone. The cross was reported last year, but the rest seems to be more recent. The damage has been reported to CADW.

Damage to Maen Penddu

Photo by Matt Jones

Damage to Maen Penddu

Photo by Matt Jones

Three years after it was written the report on the work carried out at the Bancbryn stone alignment has been released. You can see it for yourself here and a response to it here. Despite promises that only 10m of the alignment would be destroyed and that it would be treated as if it was prehistoric, this does not appear to have happened.   Around 35m of the stone alignment was finally destroyed and of this only 5m was excavated, the rest being lost with no record being made at all as a result of a mix up regarding its course. As if this was not bad enough the report’s conclusions are consistently contradicted by a catalogue of mistakes, exaggeration and the use of blatantly biased carefully selected information. Much has been made of the fact that the excavated stones were not associated with sockets, however in at least one photograph a large stone appears to sit within a cut and another one is on top of an unexcavated hollow.

The reasons for doubting the prehistoric interpretation are remarkable. Apparently the Bancbryn stone alignment can’t be prehistoric because the stones are of variable size, small, embedded into the subsoil and the alignment itself is sinuous in form. So there we have it after years of waiting we have finally been told that it can’t be prehistoric because …. well err…. it shares precisely the same characteristics as most of the scheduled stone alignments in the United Kingdom. This would be laughable if it was not so serious.

The Erme Valley stone alignment can’t be prehistoric after all it has a sinuous form and stones of variable size, many of which are small.

The Erme Valley stone alignment can’t be prehistoric after all it has a sinuous form and stones of variable size, many of which are small.

Whoops! The report failed to mention the size of the stones in the nearby Cerrig Duon stone alignment, instead implying they were between 1.5m and 3m high. (Scale 1m.)

Whoops! The report failed to mention the size of the stones in the nearby Cerrig Duon stone alignment, instead implying they were between 1.5m and 3m high. (Scale 1m.)

Perhaps this alignment was “overlooked” because it did not fit the storyline. Stones of very different sizes at the single alignment at Maen Mawr. (Scale 1m.)

Perhaps this alignment was “overlooked” because it did not fit the storyline. Stones of very different sizes at the single alignment at Maen Mawr. (Scale 1m.)

Even the classic site at Hingston Hill would have failed this particular prehistoric test. Different sized stones, many of them very small combined with a sinuous character means that this row too can’t be prehistoric!

Even the classic site at Hingston Hill would have failed this particular prehistoric test. Different sized stones, many of them very small combined with a sinuous character means that this row too can’t be prehistoric!

By Dr Sandy Gerrard

The opportunities to be involved in the decision making process are apparently endless these days. Our opinions are sought on everything by both the private and public sectors. Sometimes we are simply asked what we think about a particular issue or perhaps how we intend to vote. The information collected is analysed and supposedly the results help to make life better for us all.

In the archaeological world sometimes a consultation is carried out to collect expert opinions on what something might be. This was the case at Bancbryn where the inept Cadw officers, perhaps hoping to shift the responsibility for deciding what “that line of stones” might be, decided to ask some “experts” what they thought. They duly sent out information on the alignment and asked the “experts” what they thought it might be. As is the Cadw way they were very selective with the information they sent, and withheld or “forgot” to send the paper which presented the prehistoric case.

Stone alignment at SN 68736 10026. View from NE.

Stone alignment at SN 68736 10026. View from NE.

Inevitably, given that the “experts” were only sent information that supported a historic context for the alignment they all responded saying they thought it must be of historic date. They helpfully all added a few comments which sadly suggested that they were rather less expert in this field than one might have hoped, as many of their remarks betrayed a total lack of knowledge of the resource being assessed.

As far as I can tell no one with any real expertise in stone alignments was consulted and certainly nobody was sent the information needed to carry out an objective, balanced and impartial assessment.

How would you feel if you turned up at hospital with a broken ankle to be seen by an eye consultant who had been given notes on another patient?

A guest post by Dr Sandy Gerrard.

Our understanding of the past relies on carefully collecting information and piecing together the fragments to provide an insight into what happened in the distant or not too distant past. The process of converting the data from whatever source into explanations is called interpretation.  We all do this countless times every day. We see something and in order to understand what it is we interpret it and react accordingly. Our reactions are likely to be based on experience and so it is with archaeological interpretation. The better one understands a subject the better are the chances of coming to a fully justified explanation which consequently has more chance of being right or at least being close to the mark.

Sometimes there is very little data to go on, whilst on other occasions there may be loads and often it can be contradictory.  Interpreting archaeological data can therefore be very difficult and challenging and at the end of the process one may simply not be able to provide any answers and instead the reward maybe further questions. This I find an appealing aspect of archaeology and relish the opportunity to examine and re-examine ideas, theories and hypothesis.

Fundamental to the proper interpretative process is to embrace all the available evidence and to assess it comprehensively. Often much evidence still remains to be found and some may be hidden out of sight, but it is of paramount importance to ensure that at least the information that is readily available is used and used objectively.

A while back I was asked by Cadw if I would like to meet with them to discuss the situation at Mynydd y Betws. I responded positively saying:

“an on-site meeting would be most appropriate as some of the issues can only be properly considered there and we could then re-convene somewhere indoors to deal with the paperwork issues that are best dealt with out of the elements.” 

Pretty clear I would have thought. Cadw have offered a meeting and I have accepted.  Sadly in the perverse universe inhabited by Cadw, senior management were inexplicably informed that I had been:

offered a face-to-face meeting, which Dr Gerrard has refused”.

Several interpretations of this situation are possible and most of them should concern anyone interested in the management of our past.

SGCairn

Is this a pile of stones or a Bronze Age burial cairn? Clearly sometimes the evidence is far from obvious and mistakes are understandably made. But surely we should expect the guardians of our heritage to understand the difference between Yes and No?

Having asked Cadw if they would keep us in touch with developments at Bancbryn there was no news. Instead the only snippets emanating from the organisation were a few tweets from a Cadw officer who had been copied into internal correspondence and who clearly despite having never visited the site felt confident enough to announce to the world:

The Mynydd Y Betws wind farm stone row fiasco – a field boundary not neolithic but hey what do I Know? dlvrit/17rD8J

and

Mynydd y Betws stone row is conveniently placed next to a sheep track—- Mhmm those sheep must like neolithic archaeology!

These comments provide a window into Cadw’s  “balanced” approach  to heritage protection whilst at the same time illustrating a total failure to understand basic fundamentals of field archaeology. Cadw now accept that there is no evidence to support the field boundary interpretation and even after all this time there is actually no evidence to support the position that the alignment is not Neolithic. These tweets clearly indicate that even before the assessment process had started that some sort of uninformed biased consensus had enveloped Cadw’s mind set. The second tweet provides the clearest indication that the officer concerned has no field experience or they would have known that most stone rows are “conveniently placed next to” sheep tracks. This is because sheep respect ancient features in the landscape whilst Cadw…

Ringmoor Down track

The Ringmoor Down stone row on Dartmoor is conveniently placed next to a sheep track—- Mhmm those sheep must like neolithic archaeology!

An internal Cadw e-mail written three days after they were asked to consider the Bancbryn stone alignment for scheduling provides an insight into much of what followed.

“I think we know the answer to the questions raised – although if it does prove to be schedulable it might prove awkward. But we are under pressure to do something. At present the line is that DAT are keeping it safe and assessing the feature. Should we though bring it to a head by arranging an urgent inspection so that we can discount this for scheduling (or otherwise), as the pressure to do something will not go away in the meantime.” (Cadw official, 19 January 2012).

This item of correspondence written at a time before anyone from Cadw had visited the site acknowledges that it would be awkward for them if the site was of national importance. The suggested remedy would on the face of it seem somewhat prejudiced. The (or otherwise) reads very much as an afterthought and there is an implicit assumption that the site will be discounted for scheduling – and all of this before they have even seen it. Some might think this approach lacks balance.

bancbrynturbine

An awkward feature that should be discounted for scheduling (or otherwise)

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