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Prehistoric Ritual & Funerary Monuments

Prehistoric Funerary and Ritual Monuments in Radnorshire


The continuation of the pan-Wales survey of prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments has recently seen the completion of the survey of Radnorshire. 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.

Surprising as it may seem, while many of these 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, although two more recent studies have been undertaken in eastern Radnorshire. The work of Chris Dunn provides much useful information on the area east of the Ithon and in particular has allowed some comparisons to be made between the sizes of round barrows recorded in the 1970s and again during the recent survey, often demonstrating the rate at which ploughing has reduced the height of the mounds while increasing their apparent diameters. The investigations by Alex Gibson in the Walton Basin are of particular significance as they included detailed examinations of a number of key sites, most notably the Hindwell palisaded enclosure.

Map

Right: Distribution of prehistoric funerary and ritual sites in Radnorshire

The general distribution of sites shows several noticeable trends, most obviously the concentration of monuments within the Walton Basin. 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. It is ironic, however, that it is these very conditions and their attractiveness for agriculture which now poses the greatest threat to the archaeological resource. Elsewhere, there is a distinct concentration in the north of the county to the east of the River Ithon, and a general trend for higher numbers of monuments in the upland areas. To some extent this distribution may be a reflection of the pattern of previous archaeological field survey, which has focused on the following areas: east of the upper Ithon; the Radnor Forest; the commons around Glascwm; and the Elan Valley in the extreme west. This may in part account for the noticeable sparsity of sites in the north-east of the county, which has significant tracts of upland where prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments might be expected.

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 276 sites identified to date, accounting for 66% of all monuments. Standing stones, too, are well represented with 58 sites recorded, while other monument types, such as henges, cursus and stone rows, are present in comparatively small numbers.

CPAT photo CS02-17-10

Right: Clyro Court chambered tomb © CPAT CS02-17-10

Chambered tombs

The chambered tombs of Wales, comprising the communal tombs of the earliest, Neolithic farmers, are amongst the oldest surviving man-made structures. Radnorshire has two known chambered tombs in the south of the county, at at Clyro Court and Cwm Illa, as well as two possible sites elsewhere. The remains of the chambered tomb at Clyro Court were recognised in 1973 by W E Griffiths, on a river terrace above the River Wye. The surviving mound is around 32m in length, north-east to south-west, up to 16.5m wide and up to 1.1m high. The remains of one, or possibly two chambers, survive within a slight hollow towards the south-west end of the mound, and consist of four large slabs up to 1.6m long which stand up to 0.5m high. At Cwm Illa, near Rhos Goch, two orthostats on the north-west edge of a slight spur are the only visible remains of a possible chambered tomb, perhaps representing the east and west sides of the chamber.

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. Two cursus monuments are known in the Walton Basin, the larger of which is at Walton Green, running south-west to north-east for 680m, while that at Hindwell extends for a distance of at least 465m.

Henges

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 is only one possible henge recorded within the county, at Coed Mynach, near Rhayader. The site was identified from aerial reconnaissance as a broad circular cropmark c. 16m diameter, with a possible entrance on the north-west side and the suggestion of a narrow internal ditch.

Palisaded enclosures

The identification of two palisaded enclosures in the Walton Basin, as a result of aerial reconnaissance, has been arguably the most significant discovery within the county in recent years. The Hindwell enclosure in particular is a truly remarkable discovery, enclosing an area of 35ha, which makes it by far the largest palisaded enclosure in Britain. In a European context the only larger enclosure is the early Neolithic example at Urmitz on the Rhine, near Koblenz. Two trial excavations have revealed that the monument consists of a perimeter formed by a series of intersecting post-pits, each with an attendant post-ramp. The postholes averaged 2m in depth and would have contained posts 0.8m in diameter, which may have stood at least 6m above ground (assuming that at least one third of the post height would have been buried). The remains of carbonised oak posts were found within the post-pits, from which radiocarbon dates were obtained of 2900-2800 or 2700-2220 BC, and 2880-2800 or 2780-2460 BC. The spacing of the posts indicates that there were three posts every 5m, so that with a circumference of 2.35km, over 1400 posts would have been required to complete the perimeter, which in places was formed by a double row of posts.

Map

Right: Aerial view of the west end of Hindwell palisaded enclosure showing the curving arc of pits, with a small rectangular enclosure outside © CPAT 94-c-0292

Less than a kilometre to the south of Hindwell and close to the village of Walton, a curving alignment of large pits forms the north-west quadrant of a circle, approximately 300m in diameter; it is apparently associated with a pit avenue to the south-west which comprises two parallel rows of pits 12m apart and 75m long, each of fourteen pits. The whole would appear to be similar to the later Neolithic enclosure at Meldon Bridge, Peeblesshire. Trial excavation by CPAT in 1998 investigated one of the pits, revealing a post-pit c. 4.3m long and 2m wide, for a post 0.4m or more in diameter, with a post ramp on one side.

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. Two possible sites have been identified in Radnorshire, including a cropmark site at Coed Mynach, and a 19th-century reference suggesting a site near Glascwm.

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. Of the seven, or possibly eight, potential sites recorded in Radnorshire, only four survive to any great extent, with the Four Stones circle, in the Walton Basin, being the only one which is at all impressive. Although classed as a stone circle, the monument actually falls into a sub-type known as a ‘four-poster’, and comprises four substantial stones measuring between 0.9 and 1.55m in height. The site is one of only a few four-poster stone circles outside the English/Scottish border region and the only confirmed site in Wales, although a second site has been tentatively identified at Henriw (81215), near Pant-y-dwr . Here, a single surviving standing stone is recorded as originally having been associated another monument comprising four other such stones ‘two large and two small stones arranged quadrangularly’, named ‘Dau fraich a dau law’ (two arms and two hands). The stones were removed in the 19th century during agricultural improvements.

CPAT photo CS00-68-32

Right: Four Stones stone circle © CPAT CS00-68-32

The Six Stones circle, on Glascwm Hill, seemingly has the distinction of being constructed of the smallest stones of any circle in Radnorshire, with the tallest standing only 0.2m above the ground. The circle was surveyed in 1986 when probing and observation revealed twenty-three stones forming an elliptical stone circle 27m by 23.5m, with the long axis aligned north-west to south-east. The stone circle at Gelli Hill, east of Howey, measures c. 22m in diameter, with only eight stones now visible and apparently in situ, although other stones have been added to the west side in recent times. The Cefn Wylfre stone circle, south-west of Glascwm, is also elliptical, measuring 23.8m by 22.5m. Twelve small shale slabs have been identified, along with one large boulder of volcanic origin, although noticeable gaps suggest that some stones have been lost. Within the circle is a round barrow with a shallow ditch surrounding it. The remaining sites are in poor condition or are only known from documentary sources and cannot now even be confirmed as stone circles.

Stone rows

A stone row is defined as one or more roughly parallel rows of three or more upright stones. There are ten potential stone rows in the study area, three of which are recorded as having been destroyed or lost. The surviving examples are of simple character, with no double rows, or avenues. On the whole stone rows are thought to belong to the early Bronze Age, although avenues may be Neolithic in date .

CPAT photo CS02-21-12

Right: Tre-hesglog stone row © CPAT CS02-21-12/10/4

The longest row in Radnorshire, at Bryn y Maen south-west of Llanfihangel-Nant-Melan, is 16.5m in length comprising five stones of between 0.8m and 0.3m in height, two of which are now recumbent. The area surrounding the Elan Reservoirs boasts three stone rows, including the county’s most impressive example at Rhosygelynnen, where there is an east-west alignment 9.5m in length. The six stones, three of which are recumbent, range in height from 0.62m to 1.6m, although one recumbent stone is 2.75m long. The other two rows are somewhat smaller, with that at Tre-hesglog measuring 5.2m long and comprising three, or possibly four stones in close proximity to a cist, while the Esgair Penygarreg row, near the Penygarreg Reservoir, is composed of three stones, only one of which is still standing.

There are two stone rows in close proximity at the southern end of Gilwern Hill, between Howey and Llansantffraid-in-Elwel, both of which have disproportionately large stones, in excess of 2m in height, at one end of the row. One row is aligned north-south and formed by three stones, while the other is aligned east-west and comprises four stones. To the east of Llansantffraid-in-Elwel, at Bryn Twppa, is a row of three stones, 4.5m long and aligned roughly east to west, closely associated with a barrow.

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. Some are found in association with stone circles, as outliers, and a large recumbent stone close to the stone circle at Gelli Hill may fall into this category.

Around fifty potential standing stones have been recorded in the county, of which only half are still upright, five are known to have been destroyed, nine could not be identified on recent visits, and a further thirteen are recumbent. Although most are single stones, there are pairs of stones at Cefn Llanerchi (3736), in the Elan Valley, and Cwm y Saeson (81214), near Pant-y-dwr, and a further two possible pairs, one again in the Elan Valley (80133) and the other near Llanwrthwl (5183). The pair at Cefn Llanerchi includes the largest standing stone in Radnorshire which, although now recumbent, measures 3.6m in length. The most impressive single stone, measuring 2.35m high, 1.35m long and 0.7m thick, is at Neuadd Glan Gwy (395), overlooking the Wye near Boughrood. Most stones, however, are of rather more modest dimensions, with some as small as 0.4m high, although a height of between 0.9m and 1.5m is more typical. In general the stones reflect the local geology, but in some instances glacial erratics appear to have been utilised.

CPAT photo CS03-17-08

Right: A typical standing stone overlooking the River Wye © CPAT CS03-17-08

The distribution of standing stones reveals significant concentrations in central Radnorshire, between the Walton Basin and Llandrindod Wells, with very few sites to the north, and a scattering to the south and west. Their general locations would appear to give some further credence to the suggestion that at least some may have been erected as route markers. Five stones lie close to routes crossing the uplands, either in a pass, or close to one, such the Brunddel Felen stone on the route now followed by the road from Rhayader to Cwm Ystwyth. A further eight stones lie in river valleys which could have acted as major prehistoric routeways. It has been suggested that the standing stones in the Walton Basin mark two routeways diverging from Burfa Bank, where the Hindwell Brook leaves the basin, with a central westward route towards the Four Stones stone circle, presumably following the Summergil Brook to its source and beyond, and a north-western route towards Kinnerton .

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 four sites have been classified as such, only one was positively identified during recent field visits, at Bwlch y Fedwen, east of Howey.

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. A particular good example lies within the Gilfach Nature Reserve, north of Rhayader, where there is a cairn, 7m in diameter, with an exceptional kerb of large edge-set slabs.

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 14.5m in diameter, up to 3.5m wide and 0.5m high, lies towards the eastern end of the Begwns. 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.

CPAT photo CS01-03-25

Right: one of the large barrows on Bache Hill, overlooking the Walton Basin © CPAT CS01-03-25

There are 267 round barrows or possible round barrows of various forms recorded in Radnorshire, of which 160 are earthen mounds and 82 are stone-built cairns. The remainder consist of 14 structured cairns, 10 ring cairns and one kerb cairn. Although the majority of sites are between 10m and 20m in diameter, there are nine sites, all within the Walton Basin, that are notably large, with a diameter of over 30m. They include one exceptionally large site at Knapp Mount which is 4.5m high. Traditionally regarded as a motte, it has been argued that the site could be a large prehistoric mound in the tradition of Silbury Hill, Marlborough and Duggleby Howe.

CPAT photo CS02-21-13

Right: Tre-hesglog cist © CPAT CS02-21-13

Cists

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. Three cists are known in the county, all of which have been disturbed, and none retains a covering capstone. Two sites lie in the uplands of the Elan Valley, one at Moelfryn, comprising four edge-set slabs which form a well-defined cist measuring c. 0.9m long, 0.75m wide and 0.35m deep, and the other at Tre-hesglog about 30m north-north-east of a stone row, and measuring 1.2m long, 0.6m wide and 0.45m deep. The third site lies on the edge of the upland plateau to the east of the River Wye at Banc Dolhelfa, and comprises three edge-set stones defining a square, 0.4m across internally, with a recumbent (displaced) stone on fourth side.

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, 29 cropmark ring ditches have been identified in Radnorshire and as might be expected, they have a generally lowland distribution in areas predominantly given over to arable farming and valley bottom pasture. The majority (20 sites) lie within the Walton Basin, with another possibly significant cluster of 3 sites to the west of Rhayader. Considerable variation exists in the diameter of the ring ditches, ranging between 7.5m and 48m, with the exception of the Court Farm ring ditch, which is around 100m in diameter. The site is near the Walton palisaded enclosure, and in the same field as three Roman marching camps, which has led to the alternative suggestion that it may be a Roman gyrus. Although the latter is exceptionally large, there are six other ring ditches with diameters in excess of 30m. The majority, however, are between 10m and 20m in diameter, with only five sites between 20m and 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.

Conclusions

The survey has clearly demonstrated the wealth and diversity of Radnorshire’s prehistoric past, identifying nearly 400 funerary and ritual monuments, many of which are sufficiently significant and well-preserved that they are considered to be of national importance. In many ways the monuments in Radnorshire appear to be broadly similar to those in other areas already studied. As elsewhere, round barrows and cairns predominate while other site types, with the exception of standing stones, are relatively poorly represented. One of the features which currently sets Radnorshire apart, however, is the notable concentration of monuments, particularly ritual sites, within the Walton Basin. While cursus monuments appear in small numbers across Wales, palisaded enclosures are so far unknown outside the county, although there are examples elsewhere in Britain. That the area around Walton has two such sites is remarkable, particularly when one appears to be the second largest of its type in Europe. There can be little doubt that this was an area of great importance in the Neolithic and Bronze Age and when one bears in mind that our knowledge is far from complete, future discoveries can only serve to reinforce the Walton Basin’s pre-eminence.

It is hoped that the data collected and deposited with the Regional SMR will provide a useful basis for future studies which may further advance our knowledge of this rather enigmatic period. Even a cursory glance at the distribution maps reveals the apparent sparsity of monuments recorded in the north-east of the county, a situation which almost certainly reflects the lack of systematic fieldwork in this area. Previously unrecorded sites still await discovery or recognition as more fieldwork is undertaken and new cropmarks are identified, so that the summary provided by this article should be seen very much as a statement at one particular point in time of work which will hopefully remain in progress.


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