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Introducing Prehistoric burial and ritual sites

A new initiative designed to identify and protect the prehistoric monuments of Wales


Monuments in the landscape

The Welsh landscape is rich in the remains of the past, especially the burial mounds, stone circles, standing stones and chambered tombs of the earlier prehistoric period. As part of a new initiative it is hoped to visit every known site in Wales over the next few years and with the help of landowners and tenants to take steps to ensure their continued preservation.

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When were they built?

The sites being covered by the study were built over a period of three thousand years, between 4000-1000 BC. This was a long and dramatic period of human history which began with the first steps towards a settled farming economy by groups of hunter-gatherers, and ended with a period of rapid technological change coinciding with the emergence of a powerful warrior aristocracy, the adoption of a Celtic language, and the development of long-distance trading links throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, a wide variety of burial and ritual monuments emerged during this time, due to changes in religious belief and social organisation.

The earliest burial monuments were chambers of stone or wood, set in either long or round mounds and used for the burial of family groups. Other early types of monument were long ceremonial avenues and large enclosures defined by ditches. Later periods saw the introduction of single burials below round mounds of earth or stone, the widespread adoption of cremation, and ceremonial monuments such as stone and timber circles, standing stones, and stone rows.

The purpose of many of these sites remains a mystery, though some, like Stonehenge, seem to have been used to predict the seasons. Quite a number of monuments remained a focus for burial and ritual activity for several thousand years after they were first built and some have survived as prominent landmarks to the present day.

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What can they tell us about the past?

Early prehistoric burial and ritual sites are the oldest and often the most enigmatic monuments in the landscape, each site representing a ‘time capsule’ belonging to the particular place and time in which it was built.

Buried artefacts can tell us when the site was built, and about the skills and resources of its builders. Skeletal remains tell us how long people lived, their nutrition, and the diseases they suffered from. The form of the sites themselves may tell us about religious beliefs and the structure of society. Most sites also preserve evidence about the landscape in which they were built perhaps within forest clearings, on open moorland, or on field boundaries.

The setting of monuments is significant, having been chosen with care by their builders. Some seem to be sited inconspicuously, yet command wide views. Others were set on prominent mountaintops, visible many miles away.

Survival and destruction

Many monuments still survive as prominent features of the landscape, thousands of years after they were built. Even today some still help to mark out county or community boundaries. Many other sites have been severely damaged or have disappeared altogether. Certain types of sites have been ploughed flat, and are only now visible from the air due to differential crop growth.

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The main aims of the present initiative are firstly to record which monuments still survive and secondly to try and ensure their preservation for the enjoyment of future generations.

Causes of damage to sites

Many sites have been damaged or destroyed in the past, often inadvertently, due to ploughing and reseeding, tree planting, pasture improvement and stone clearance, footpaths, building developments and roads. Action has to be taken now to ensure that as many sites as possible are preserved for the future.

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Key Legislation and Planning Guidance

Ancient Monuments & Archaeological Areas Act 1979. Monuments of national importance are included on a ‘schedule’, maintained by Cadw. With a few exceptions, the consent of the National Assembly of Wales, through Cadw, is needed for all works on scheduled ancient monuments.

Planning Guidance (Wales), and Welsh Office Circular 60/96 Planning and the Historic Environment explain criteria for scheduling, and recommend procedures for assessment, evaluation, preservation, and mitigation.

Development plans for each local authority area and national park contain policies to protect archaeology, historic buildings, and historic landscapes.

Area survey reports

Over the next few years the survey will cover the whole of the Clwyd Powys area. For the moment further information about the survey is available only for sites in

North East Wales
Montgomeryshire
Radnorshire
Brecknock


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