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Elan Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Elan Valley


Prehistoric and Roman Land Use and Settlement

Early settlement sites have yet to be identified within the historic landscape area, though the environmental evidence and the large numbers prehistoric burial and ritual monuments clearly indicate that the area was already well populated and undergoing clearance during the later Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods, from perhaps at least about 3000 BC. So much so, that it is probable that the patterns of land use which become more familiar at later periods — all-year-round settlements associated with arable and meadows in the lower-lying valleys combined with the exploitation of upland pastures in during the summer months — had its origins during this period.

Characteristic burial and ritual monuments of the prehistoric period are the stone burial cairns, standing stones, stone alignments and stone circles which crown many of the peaks and ridges of the Elenydd plateau, though often absent from some of the less accessible central parts of the moor.

Some of the cairns are quite slight, though others are several metres high and form landmarks visible from afar. Some of the cairns appear to be structurally quite complex, with outer kerbs of upright stone slabs or small internal burial chambers known as cists. In some cases isolated cists are known, as though the burial mound has been largely robbed of stone, and in the case of a monument on Beddaufolau, on the hills above the eastern side of the Garreg-ddu reservoir, there are the remains of a much larger stone chamber, up to about 2.5 metres across, which has the appearance of a Neolithic chambered tomb. Many of the burial mounds remain in good condition, though some have unfortunately been robbed for stone in the past or have been disturbed for the creation of sheep shelters, possible shooting butts, superimposed by modern boundary markers, piled up into modern walkers’ cairns, or disturbed by beacons. It is fortunate that few have suffered the fate of one of the three cairns on Clap yr Arian, carted away for road metalling in 1910, during the course of which part of a stone axe-hammer was discovered.

A number of the cairns take the form of ring-cairns which are known from excavations elsewhere to have been used for both burial and ritual. Prehistoric ceremonial activities are also thought to explain various other enigmatic types of prehistoric stone monument which are known from Elenydd. Alignments of between three and eight upright stones up to about a metre and a half tall are known at Saith-maen, at Rhosygelynnen on the hills above the west side of the Caban-coch reservoir and at Nant y Llyn, on the hills west of Treheslog. One stone circle 25 metres in diameter, composed of 16 stones, is known at Crugian Bach, near Allt Goch, on the hill above the east side of Caban-coch reservoir, and there are the possible remains of a second circle at Bwlch y Ddau Faen. Standing stones have been recorded on various parts of the moor. Some are likely to be later boundary markers, but a number have been found in association with other prehistoric monuments and are therefore likely to be of Bronze Age date. Some of the taller stones now lie where they have fallen, including two large stones, one 3.7 metres tall, near the radio mast on Cefn Llanerchi. A further tall stone at Drum Nant y Gorlan, 2.7 metres tall has also now fallen. The white quartz stone at Pen Maen Wern, 1.5 metres high, is amongst the tallest still standing. The tall and prominently sited standing stone known as Maen Serth, on the hill above the Rhayader-Aberystwyth road across the mountain, is inscribed with a cross, possibly being a prehistoric standing stone ‘Christianized’ between the 7th to 9th centuries. It is traditionally held to mark the spot where Einion Clyd, lord of Elfael, was ambushed and killed at the hands of the Mortimers in 1176, the spot being known locally, according to the Radnorshire historian W. H. Rouse, as ‘The Prince’s Grave’.

Early settlement or other activity is indicated by a scatter of prehistoric artefacts found within the historic landscape area including a number of flint flakes found on the shoreline of the Craig Goch reservoir and several copper and bronze artefacts belonging to various phases of the Bronze Age. Most of the metal artefacts are weapons, and include a dagger or possible halberd found near Glannau Wood, west of the Garreg-ddu reservoir, an early Bronze Age ogival dagger, found in peat digging on Bwlch y Ddau Faen, south of the Claerwen, and a middle Bronze Age rapier found on Drygarn Fawr. Tools from the area include four late Bronze Age socketed bronze axes found in 1895 near the Caban-coch dam during the construction of the Elan valley reservoirs. The axes appear to have been found with part of a stone mould and may represent a bronze smith’s hoard. They were discovered beneath a mass of scree that had fallen from the precipitous valley side, being broken up for road metalling. More prestigious items, perhaps pointing to the presence of an elite within the local Bronze Age population is suggested by a number of middle Bronze Age gold ornaments, found in and on the margins of Cwm Dulas. They consist of a penannular gold ring or earring from Waun Sarn and the hoard of four middle Bronze Age gold torcs, found hidden under a small heap of stones in an area of rough pasture on the edge of the moorland of Carn Gafallt in the 1950s. Objects found associated with prehistoric burial mounds in the area are limited to part of an early Bronze Age battle axe found during the removal of the Clap yr Arian cairn mentioned above, made of dolerite from the Presely area, Pembrokeshire.

The great majority of the known prehistoric burial and ritual sites in the area are on the uplands of Elenydd, though there are suggestions that other similar sites once existed in the lower-lying valleys, having become ploughed down or cleared away in these more heavily cultivated areas. A possible complex of Bronze Age ceremonial sites has been recorded by aerial photography in the Elan valley, to the east of Coed-y-mynach farm, which include two or three ring-ditches, a possible henge monument and a possible pit circle, which it is likely represent Neolithic and early Bronze Age earth and timber equivalents of some of the stone monuments known from the uplands.

Clusters of upland sites are known in various places including those on Carnau Cefn-y-ffordd, Drygarn Fawr, Darren and Bryn. These complexes, together with more isolated burial and ritual monuments within the historic landscape area are likely to have performed a variety of roles within the developing landscape during the fourth to second millennia BC, between about 3500 and 1500 BC. Clusters of monuments may represent ceremonial foci within this landscape, and may indicate the activities of different family or tribal groupings within the area. The distribution of monuments from valley floor to mountain top suggests that a wide range of lowland and upland resources were being exploited by these communities by this time.

These early monuments will have become known and revered within the landscape and in some instances became the subject of folklore which would have helped to fix the place in memory. The 8th-century association of Carn Gafallt with the hunting of the mythical wild boar Troynt has been mentioned above. In the early 16th century John Leland noted that other antiquities on Elenydd were associated with Arthurian legend.

‘The first river that I passed over was Clardue [Claerddu] . . . . hard by were two hillettes, through the wich Clarduy passith, where they fable that a gigant was wont to wasch his hondes, and that Arture killid hym. The dwellers say also that the giant was buried therby, and show the place.’

The sense of place which these mythical and historical associations create is given in characteristic fashion in Ruth Bidgood’s poem ‘Gigant Striding’ in her 1996 collection, The Fluent Moment.

Between two little hills
a gigant striding was wont to wasch his hondes,
till Arthur killed him, for no reason known.

Perhaps it was just for his gigantic
striding, that diminished the moor;
his great hands commandeering the stream —

for being huge, anarchic; sharing
ancientness and threat
of the desolate land.

As in later periods, rocks, stones and cairns became a means of defining the territories and resources claimed by neighbouring or rival communities and which through the course of many hundreds of generations would give rise to the pattern of parishes that had emerged by the early medieval period. This, in turn, is reflected in the structure of communities around Elenydd and the Elan valley at the present day, each of which characteristically represents a ‘territory’ extending from valley floor up to moorland plateau. The legacy of these early monuments in providing fixed points from which the landscape might be portioned from an early date is amply illustrated by the fact that the southern boundary of Llanwrthwl community, where it abuts those of Llanwrtyd Wells, Treflys and Llanafanfawr, passes through no less than nine burial cairns, which must have acted as territorial markers until more detailed mapping of the uplands became available in the later 19th century, long after their original purpose had been forgotten.

Burial and ritual customs underwent a dramatic change throughout Britain from about 1500 BC onwards, and until the end of the prehistoric period virtually no burial or ceremonial sites are to be seen within the landscape. The upland pastures and lowland valleys of Elenydd will have continued to be exploited throughout the later prehistoric and Roman periods, though we still await the certain identification of settlement sites of these periods. Early buildings throughout much of this period were probably of timber and thatch, which has left little visible trace at ground level. Early cultivation is generally likely to have focused on the most fertile and hospitable soils in the valleys and on the valley edge and therefore almost certainly obscured or transformed into more recent fields.

Despite the lack of dating evidence, however, it seems likely that settlement and land use during the broad span between the later prehistoric to early medieval periods, is represented by a number of early huts and stone clearance cairns which have been identified on the Elenydd uplands. Two possible settlement sites have been identified by fieldwork to the south of the Claerwen valley, a rounded enclosure 25 metres across on Esgair Gwar-y-cae with a round hut attached to the inside of the bank, and a rounded enclosure about 16 metres across apparently associated with three round huts between 10 and 11 metres in diameter. Clearance cairns have been identified on the hillside south of Cnwch and on the hillslopes to the north-east of Allt Goch. No doubt other sites of these types still await discovery.

CPAT PHOTO 03-c-0582

Characteristic playing-card shape of the Roman marching camp on Esgair Perfedd. Photo: CPAT 03-c-0582.

The period of the Roman conquest of Wales is dramatically represented by the temporary Roman fort or ‘marching camp’ discovered on Esgair Perfedd as recently as 1966, represented by a low earthwork enclosure of characteristic ‘playing-card’ shape at a height of about 450 metres just to the south of the Rhayader to Aberystwyth turnpike road across the mountain. The camp encloses an area of just over 6 hectares and was built to house a force of about 4,000 men and their supplies in tented accommodation for perhaps only a matter of days. The fort is likely to belong to the period between about AD 74–80, and probably lay on a campaign route into present day Ceredigion or Montgomeryshire.

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