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Archaeology in the Forest

Archaeology in the Forest:
Prehistoric people

Forest Enterprise Wales map

Map of Wales showing Forest Enterprise land (green) and the Forest District boundaries (red). The locations of prehistoric monuments mentioned in the text are shown

Within the forest are hidden prehistoric sites of different types ranging from Palaeolithic caves to Iron Age hillforts. Before the end of the last Ice Age (about 12,000 years ago) people took shelter in caves where the remains of their tools and the bones of wild animals such as mammoth, giant deer and hyena became buried. Gradually as the climate improved forests spread over the country. The temporary wooden shelters of hunter/gatherer people are hard to find, stone tools being the most common finds.

Although the first farmers (around 7000 years ago) built more substantial houses they are not often discovered, their most lasting memorial is the chambered tombs in which they buried their dead. During the next few thousand years, when people first discovered the use of metals, the style of burial changed to cremation burials in round or banked barrows. We cannot now understand the religion of these early farmers but their many standing stones, stone rows and stone circles may be associated with a desire to mark the passing of the seasons.

In the last millennium BC, before the coming of the Romans, the Iron Age people left few burial remains but a large number of hillforts containing the remains of villages. As well as farmers the hillforts were home to craftsmen, bards and warriors whose sport it was to rustle their neighbours cattle!

Park Wood, Gower
A track runs through Park Wood giving access to the archaeological sites, many of which are Scheduled Ancient Monuments and of national importance.

Forest Enterprise Wales map

Cathole Cave, Park Wood, © Forest Enterprise Wales

Cathole Cave in Park Wood, Gower is a natural limestone cave that was occupied by hunter/gathers, between about 20,000 and 10,000 years ago. The earliest deposits include bones of bear, hyena, woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, reindeer and the extinct species of Irish deer. The cave is now home to bats. Further up the Park Wood, which was once a medieval deer park, is Lethrid Tooth Cave which was occupied during the Bronze Age (about 4000 years ago) when it was also used as the burial place for at least eight people.

Parc le Breos Chambered Cairn, Park Wood

Parc le Breos Chambered Cairn, Park Wood, © Forest Enterprise Wales

Parc le Breos Chambered Cairn in Park Wood, Gower was built during the Neolithic (about 5500 years ago) as a burial place. At the head of the cairn the walling extends to form a courtyard at the end of which is a central passageway leading into the cairn. On either side of the passageway, which is lined with limestone slabs, are two pairs of small stone chambers where human bones were deposited.

Religious ceremonies were conducted in the courtyard and the remains of up to 40 men, women and children were deposited in the cairn. Some bones show signs of weathering indicating that the bodies were exposed before the bones were interred in the chambers. Other bodies were cremated. Several bodies were buried in the passageway many hundreds of years after the last bones were deposited in the chambers.

Cairns at Penmoelallt and Onllwyn, Cwm Taf

Cairn at Onllwyn, Cwm Taf, © Forest Enterprise Wales

Cairns at Penmoelallt and Onllwyn, Cwm Taf (Trails from the visitor centre at Garwnant)
About 4000 years ago in the Bronze Age the open hill, which is now forested, was an important burial ground. After cremation of the bodies the burnt bones were buried, with weapons, tools and pots, inside a stone-lined box and covered with a cairn. On the eastern side of Penmoelallt the burial cairns are generally small but at Onllwyn and Pant Sychbant the large cairns are built of pale limestone blocks which must have made them prominent landmarks. Close to Pant Sychbant cairn there is an enclosure marked by a lower heather covered bank that may be contemporary with the burial site.

Carreg Wen Standing Stone, Hafren

Carreg Wen Standing Stone, Hafren, © Forest Enterprise Wales

Standing stones
Pant Meddygon in Glasfynydd Forest is typical of the many prehistoric standing stones that survive both in the forests and on the surrounding land. In this case there are two stones and the broken remains of what may be a third. It is likely that this was once a stone row.

Standing stones were usually made of local stone. It is only in special circumstances, like the building of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, that stone would be brought from a distance. In Hafren the Bronze Age people were fortunate to find large quartz blocks lying on the hillside one of which, Carreg Wen, was carefully set up just above the lead mine at Nant yr Eira.

Iron Age Hillforts
In the thousand years before the birth of Christ there was a marked change in the way people lived in Britain. Burial sites become increasingly rare but settlements are much easier to identify. Many of these were single farmsteads which are often only visible from the air but at this time people began to fortify their villages that were often situated on hilltops for greater safety.

Burfa Bank hillfort

Burfa Bank hillfort, Radnor forest, before recent controlled felling by Forest Enterprise © CPAT 84-C-338

Within the bank and palisade the wooden or stone houses were invariably round with a conical roof. Grain was stored in specially made rectangular structures with floors above ground level to keep out the mice. Excavation has shown that some hillforts had a shrine or temple, often near the centre, while others had storage or rubbish pits. Many hillforts cover a large area and would probably have had open ground where domestic animals would have been sheltered in times of trouble.

The forests contain a large number of hillforts but as these are large and sometimes have trees growing inside them they are often better photographed from the air. On the ground the large banks and ditches are usually easily identified.

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