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Prehistoric Ritual & Funerary Monuments

Prehistoric Funerary and Ritual Monuments in Montgomeryshire

The continuation of the pan-Wales survey of prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments has recently seen the completion of the survey of Montgomeryshire. The area of the Upper Severn Valley had been partially surveyed by Alex Gibson in 1997-98 as the pilot study for the project, which was later expanded across the whole of Wales. Recent fieldwork has completed the survey in this area and across the rest of the county, and in all over 750 sites have now been visited. As before, the work has been undertaken in order to improve the Sites and Monuments Record (SMR), standardise terminology and to monitor the present condition of the sites and their current protection status.

As in other areas which have already been surveyed, although many of the sites are well known, there has not been a comprehensive survey of the monuments within the county as a whole since the inventory by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales in the earlier part of the twentieth century. The present survey has therefore provided an important opportunity to bhring the record up to date, providing details of the current condition of monuments and in some cases leading to a re-evaluation of their nature and significance.


Right: Distribution of prehistoric funerary and ritual sites in Montgomeryshire

The general distribution of sites shows several noticeable trends, most obviously the concentration of monuments along the major river valleys, as well as on upland plateaux. The area has long been recognised as an one of great archaeological potential, with the well-drained, fertile soils presenting an attractive environment for settlement from the Mesolithic onwards. To some extent this distribution may be a reflection of the pattern of previous archaeological field survey, which is particularly noticable in the concentration of sites around Lake Vyrnwy, where CPAT has undertaken extensive upland survey.

Bronze Age burial monuments make up the vast majority of the sites recorded by this project. The round barrows and burial cairns are by far the most numerous, with 354 sites identified to date, accounting for 55% of all monuments. Standing stones, too, are well represented with 78 sites recorded, while other monument types, such as henges, cursus and stone rows, are present in comparatively small numbers.

Chambered tombs

The chambered tombs of Wales, comprising the communal tombs of the earliest, Neolithic farmers, are amongst the oldest surviving man-made structures. Montgomeryshire has only one known chambered tomb, at Afon y Dolau Gwynion, to the north-east of Lake Vyrnwy. The site was discovered during a rapid survey by CPAT in 1993 and comprises a roughly rectangular chamber with at least three adjacent orthostats foring a constricted entrance. Aniquarian references also suggest a possible site on the Breidden, although the site has since been lost.

Long cairns

While chambered tombs are generally associated with more upland areas, the earth and timber long barrows may be seen as their lowland equivalent. Two long barrow are known within the county, and a further two possible sites also been identified. The Lower Luggy long barrow was first identified from aerial photography, although fieldwork later revealed a slight upstanding mound, which was the subject of trial excavations by Alex Gibson in 1994. At New House, near Churchstoke, an oval mound 30m in length is sited at the foot of Corndon Hill with spectacular views over the Severn Valley.

Cursus Monuments

Cursus monuments are long and narrow ditched enclosures with parallel sides and closed ends, and are associated with ritual activity of Neolithic date, often being spatially associated with other funerary or ritual monuments of Neolithic or Early Bronze Age date. Three potential cursus monuments have so far been identified in the country as a result of aerial photography, although only the Welshpool cursus has been confirmed by excavation. The site forms part of at complex of monuments at Sarn-y-bryn-caled, south of Welshpool, which includes the well-known timber circle. The cursus is 380m long and 10m wide with squared terminals and causeways at intervals along its length. Other sites at Meifod and Collfryn await further investigation.

Dyffryn Lane henge

Right: Aerial view of Dyffryn Lane Henge© CPAT 79-cu-22


Henges are characterised by a circular area enclosed by a bank and (normally) internal ditch, and are perhaps the best known ceremonial monuments of the later Neolithic period. There are eight possible henge recorded within the county, the best-preserved of which is at Dyffryn Lane, south of Welshpool, which is the only such site to survive as an earthwork, the remainder having being identified from aerial photography or excavation. The Dyffryn Lane henge measures 60m in diameter and is defined by a low bank with an internal ditch with an entrance to the north-west. The interior is occupied by a low mound. Three more henges, or hengiform monuments, lie just to the north close to Sarn-y-bryn-caled, with other sites further south in the Severn Valley, to the north at Four Crosses and also in the Tanat Valley.

Sarn-y-bryn-caled timber circle

Left: A reconstruction of the Sarn-y-bryn-caled timber circle following excavations in 1990 © CPAT cs90-43-323

Timber circles

Timber circles, because of their nature, never survivie as upstanding monuments and are only known from excavations or as cropmarks revealed through aerial photography. They can be divided into two groups, one having been constructed as a monument in its own right, while the other comprises sites discovered beneath round barrows which may have been temporary structures. Montgomeryshire has two known timber circles, one in each category, the best known of which is the Sarn-y-bryn-caled circle which was completely excavated in 1990 in advance of the Welshpool Relief Road. The double circle, constructed of oak and orientated towards the south, had two cremation burials at the centre of the inner circle. The primary burial was associated with four calcined flint arrowheads and is interpreted as a sacrifice with analogies at Stonehenge. The second was associated with a small undecorated vase food vessel. The other site was discovered beneath a round barrow on Caebetin Hill, near Kerry.

Pit circles

Only a small number of pit circles have so far been identified in Wales, mostly from cropmarks, or in one case from documentary accounts. Six possible sites have been identified in Montgomeryshire, only one of which, near Sarn-y-bryn-caled, has been confirmed through excavation. A second potential site has been identified at Sarn-y-bryn-caled, along with others other at Lymore Park near Montgomery, Four Crosses, and two sites in the Tanat Valley.

Stone circles

The stone circles of Wales are one of the more emotive groups of monuments, yet despite much study their role in prehistoric society is not well understood. Generally thought to date from the Early Bronze Age, they are assumed to have had a ritual function and are often located in association with other ritual and funerary monuments, such as stone rows, standing stones and barrows. Fourteen potential sites are recorded in Montgomeryshire, a n umber of which have been lost or detroyed. The surviving circles are generally small in diameter and composed of small stones. They are usually associated with other broadly contemporary sites such as burial cairns and a stone row at Rhos y Beddau, Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant.

Only seven sites are now easily identified, including two near Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant. The Rhos y Beddau circle is 12.8m in diameter with approximately 12 stones visible, while nearby the Cwm Rhiwiau circle is an oval 10.4m by 10.5m. A further two circles lie in close proximity in the west of the county at Cerrig Caerau, which is 22.2m in diameter and Lled Croen yr Ych, which is around 26m across. Three cricles survive in uplands north of Carno, including y Capel, a circle of 54 stones 26m by 23m across, Llyn y Tarw, which has 39 stones in a circle around 19m in diameter, and a possible small circle at Llanllugan.

Stone rows

A stone row is defined as one or more roughly parallel rows of three or more upright stones. There are eight potential stone rows in the county, including one avanue and another double row. On the whole stone rows are thought to belong to the early Bronze Age, although avenues may be Neolithic in date.

Carreg Llwyd stone row

Left: Carreg Llwyd stone row under excavation by CPAT in 2000 © CPAT CS02-21-12

The longest, and perhaps best known stone row in Montgomeryshire is the double row at Rhos-y-beddau, which forms an avenue associated with the adjacent stone circle. It measures around 60m in length, running east to west, with 12 stones now visible in the northern row and 24 in the southern row. The other double row, at Tryfel, is 10m long with eight pairs of stones running north to south terminating at a burial cairn at the northern end. The site is in the same general area as the Mynydd Dyfnant stone row which has 10 stones, now sited in a forestry clearing.

The Carreg Llwyd stone row on Trannon moor was recently investigated by CPAT and consists of a single row of six or seven large stones running 21m northwards from a very large recumbant stone in an area which also contains a ring cairn and several burial cairns. The Lluest Uchaf stone row, north of Caersws is a north-south row 12m in length with 11 standing or recumbant stones. On the western borders of Montgomeryshire, overlooking the Nany y Moch Reservoir, a short row of three stones was identified during the recent survey. The site lies in an area of deep peat deposits which have been recently sampled by Astrid Caseldine from the University of Wales, Lampeter, and it is hoped that the results from these investigations will reveal information about the vegetation and land use at the time the stone row was constructed. The remaining two sites lie in the south of the county and are of less certain identification. At Rhyd Hywel three recumbent stones suggest a largely destroyed row, while at Fuallt two stones 10m apart may also have originally be associated with other stones which are now missing.

Standing stones

Standing stones are be defined as single, or occasionally paired, upright stones, generally assumed to belong to the Bronze Age. Their very nature, however, inevitably means that they can easily be confused with later features such as boundary markers, gateposts and rubbing posts, and it is of course possible for them to have been reused as such. The function of prehistoric standing stones remains uncertain although they would appear to mark significant places, and may be associated with routeways or boundaries.

Maesmochnant standing stone

Right: Maesmochnant standing stone © CPAT CS97-66-05

Around 75 potential standing stones have been recorded in the county, many of which are now recumbent or have been lost. Although most are single stones, pairs of stones are recorded at Carreg Wen in the west of the county, although only one now survives, and at Pantiau near Lake Vyrnwy. The most impressive single stone is at Maesmochnant, near Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, which is 3.6m high, although most are been 0.5m and 1.5m high.

The distribution of standing stones shows a marked concentration in the upland areas of Montgomeryshire, while their locations suggest that at least some may have been erected as route markers. At Pen-y-bont-fawr, for example, two stones are intervisible along a trackway which leads to the pass between the Tanat valley and Cwm Pennant.

Stone settings

A stone setting is the term applied to an arrangement of upright stones that is not readily identifiable as either a stone row, a stone circle or any other well-defined type of megalithic monument. They are difficult to define, to date and to interpret, and although six sites have been classified as such, only four now survive, each of which varies considerably in appearance. Two sites lie on Trannon Moor in an area rich in other Bronze Age prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments, one is close to Pen-y-gaer hillfort, overlooking the Clywedog Reservoir, and the other is in the south of the county.

Round barrows

The term round barrow encompasses a range of stone and earth-built funerary monuments which may also have had a certain ritual significance. As noted above, the burial monuments of the Early Bronze Age comprise the vast majority of sites recorded by the survey. When excavated, round barrows are normally found to cover burials, either inhumations or cremations, placed within a pit or, more commonly perhaps in upland areas, a stone-lined cist. The nature, composition and size of barrows is subject to considerable variation, although their construction materials usually reflect the local geology, so that upland sites are normally in the form of stone-built cairns, while lowland sites are typically earthen mounds surrounded by ditches. The majority of sites now appear as simple earthen or stone mounds, although a number have significant distinguishing features. Some cairns, termed ‘structured cairns’, are notable for their more elaborate construction, perhaps with well-built kerbs of larger, or edge-set stones. There are good examples of structured cairns on Corndon Hill, and also at Trelystan, on Long Mountain, where an elaborate structure with a kerb, turf capping and small satellite cairns was revealed during excavations.

Round barrow

Left: Two burial cairns on the summit of Carn Biga in western Montgomeryshire © CPAT cs04-08-15

Ring cairns, comprising raised circular ring banks enclosing flat interiors, may not be primarily burial monuments, and can often be confused with hut circles, small circular enclosures, embanked stone circles or even badly robbed barrows. Excavations have demonstrated that they were used for rituals connected with the burial of charcoal and other deposits, perhaps ancillary to burials, and that human bones were only deposited there at a later stage in their individual histories. Perhaps the best example in the county, a ring bank 17.5m in diameter, with a bank 3 to 4m wide, lies on Trannon Moor, close to the Carreg Llwyd stone row. Finally, there are a number of small cairns, known as ‘kerb cairns’, which are usually less than 5m in diameter, and have an outer kerb of disproportionately large stones. These can be similar in appearance to small ring cairns, with a hollowed or flat central area, and again Trannon Moor has several good examples.

Kerb cairn

Right: A small kerb cairn on Trannon Moor under excavation by CPAT in 1990 © CPAT cs00-30-36

There are 354 round barrows or possible round barrows of various forms recorded in Montgomeryshire, of which 129 are earthen mounds and 162 are stone-built cairns. The remainder consist of 37 structured cairns, 13 ring cairns and 12 kerb cairns and one platform cairn. They show considerable variation in size, with 126 sites less than 10m in diameter and 7 sites that are notably large, with a diameter of over 30m. There appears to be a general trend for the smaller sites to be in the west of the county and the larger sites in the east, specifically in and around the Severn Valley.

There is a clear trend for round barrows to be situated in prominent locations, either on summits, ridges or cols, or in locations such which give the appearance of being on the skyline when viewed from the valley below. Such sitings account for 39% of round barrow locations. Particularly good examples of summit cairns are those on Glog, south of Newtown, Cader Berwyn and Carn Gwilym in the west of the county. It is noticeable that many of the summit cairns atend to be large and were definitely intended to dominate their horizon as, for example, at Das Eithin which at over 3m high is a very prominent feature. In the area around the Glog and south of Kerry a number of barrows are sited at significant points in the landscape. Glog Hill lies between the sources of the Mule which flows to the north-east, the Cwmrhiwdre brook which flows to the north and the River Ithon which flows to the south. This is also the case at Kerry Two Tumps, where the mounds also lie at the junction of three watersheds; the Mule, the Ithon and the Teme which flows to the south-east. These sites clearly demarcate major watersheds and their position and landscape dominance may have a territorial significance, being situated on the boundaries between adjacent land ownerships.

Trannon cist

Right: A small cist within a cairn on Trannon Moor, excavated by CPAT in 2000 © CPAT CS00-31-17


Most prehistoric burials were normally covered by a mound, yet simple cist burials are known throughout Wales, particularly in upland areas. The lack of surviving evidence for a covering mound should not, however, always be taken to indicate that none originally existed. Six cists are recorded in the county, although none can now be identified on the ground.

Ring ditches

Ring ditches are normally identified from cropmarks, or occasionally during excavations, and consist of one or more concentric ditches without visibly surviving internal mounds. To date, 131 cropmark ring ditches have been identified in Montgomeryshire, predominantly in the Severn and Tanat valleys. Considerable variation exists in the diameter of the ring ditches, with the majority between 10m and 30m in diameter, although there are 9 smaller sites and 18 with diameters of over 30m. Ring ditches of this size are likely to represent the ploughed out remains of round barrows, while the larger sites could be the remains of henge or hengiform monuments. Significant groupings of ring ditches have been identified in the Tanat Valley, in the Caersws basin, at Sarn-y-bryn-caled complex, Four Crosses, Dyffryn Lane and at Carreghofa in the Vyrnwy Valley, where there is a concentration of large ring ditches up to 54m in diameter. There also appears to be evidence to suggest that some smaller sites cluster around a larger, possibly primary, ring ditch. At Four Crosses, for example, three sites with diameters of over 30m are interspersed with smaller sites and at Banhadla in the Tanat valley, a roughly linear arrangement of approximately five small-diameter sites are located approximately 60m to the north-east of a larger site.

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