Neolithic & Bronze Age Field Monuments

 A survey by  Herbert E. Roese


Wales lies at the western edge of Great Britain. Geographically, it is a mountainous block of land, surrounded 
by sea on three sides and, in the East, by the broad vales of  the  Severn and Dee. Both rivers form a distinct 
geographical boundary that is plainly visible when travelling from Gloucester via Shrewsbury to Flint. Hills and mountains rise abruptly in an impressive façade on the western side of both valleys to the arching back of the 
upland mass that forms Wales, a distinct topographical entity of ca.20,520
Its characteristic geography has always given Wales a certain degree of isolation. This would explain why, originally, its landmass was not colonized from the lowlands to the East, but from the seaward shorelines. For several millennia this situation prevailed and in some respect has survived even to this day, for example when it comes to a modern infrastructure. It was not entirely due to their desire to keep the inhabitants of Wales out of their 'back yards', that the Anglo-Normans and the Anglo-Saxons of the Middle Ages built the great earthen barrier of Offa's Dyke along the line of the two Rivers. The brooding hills in the West were threatening in themselves. The dissected nature of the land, i.e. its long ridges, blocks of mountains and plateaus, divided by deep, seemingly endless valleys are prominent features to this day and proved problematic even to the masterly road builders of the Roman Army when they entered Wales after A.D.75. Like most of Great Britain, Wales possesses a large number of ancient field monuments, which date back to the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, i.e. roughly between 3500 and 1600 BC. Wales, as a distinct topographical entity, seemed ideal for investigating the relationship between field monuments of these periods and their topographical distribution in one of Britain's Highland Zones. In order to do this, the topographical features associated with the field monuments were identified, named and illustrated as three-dimensional block diagrams. 53 topographical features were recorded, ranging from major summits to the lowest valley floors. These were then arranged in seven groups, each representing a particular range of relief and the view potential it has. It had become customary to assume that barrows and cairns especially were placed on the edge of ridges and summits, so that they could be seen from below. This idea then lead to all kinds of speculations, mostly of a cultural nature. The block diagrams made it possible to look at monument distribution statistically, and it emerged that there was no meaningful concentration of monuments in sight specific positions. Monuments occurred in all types of location. It also emerged that the false impression was caused by the blocky nature of the Welsh terrain.
The survey covers approx. 2600 monuments, which originated in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Radio carbon dates extracted from excavated materials of some of the sites vary from 3290 BC±150 from a Neolithic settlement below Llandegai Henge (R.Pye, 1976, inArchaeology in Wales Vol.16, p.29) to 1120 BC±90 from the Brenig VI round cairn (F.Lynch, 1975, in Denb.Hist.Soc.Trans.,Vol.24, p.13-37). Some more recently obtained carbon dates reach beyond the limits listed here but on the whole the range remains as given. The survey also reviews the Sub-Boreal environment in which the structures are thought to have been erected. A substantial number of sites in Wales have produced pollen remains, some of which are archaeological sites. 
The following types of ancient monuments have survived to date and were surveyed: 
(* for comments see RCAHM, 1997, 
An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Brecknock, p.69 & 71.)
For a comprehensive bibliography on archaeological issues in Wales click HERE

i) CHAMBERED TOMBS / BURIAL CHAMBERSvariously classified as: Portal Dolmens / Western Long Cairns / Court Tombs / Severn-Cotswold Long Cairns / Atlantic-Type Passage Graves / Passage and Chambered Tombs / Segmented Long Graves / Burial Chambers. These descriptions indicate already that very large stones, monoliths of many tons in weight, were used to build the tombs. Afterwards, most were covered by long, oblong mounds of earth or rubble. The mounds themselves were stabilized by revetment walls some 2 or 3 feet high. Very few of the mounds have survived, their material having been removed for agricultural purposes. As far as one can tell, these monuments were used for multiple burials. 
Approx.160 sites were surveyed.   For more details click HERE .

ii) ROUND CAIRNS and/or ROUND BARROWS, variously classified as: Round Cairns or Barrows containing Neolithic features / Early and Middle Bronze Age Round Cairns or Barrows / Late Bronze Age Round Cairns or Barrows. Post-Bronze Age sites (i.e. Iron Age, Roman etc.) were excluded. As their names suggest these monuments were, in contrast with their predecessors, round in shape. Some contained so called cists, stone settings in the shape of a box, in which a single burial took place. Their mounds were also stabilized by revetment walls. On the whole, however, they were very much smaller in size than the burial chambers of the Neolithic.
Approx. 2,000 sites were surveyed, too many to list here.    For more details click HERE.

iii) HENGES & STONE CIRCLES, variously classified as: Circle Henges / Embanked Stone Circles / Stone Circles / Ring Circles / Kerb-Rings or Cairns / Square and Triangular Settings. Again, their names indicate of what material these monuments were made. Some were built of substantial monoliths, others of small rocks no larger than 12 inches across. The name Henge refers to a structure which is a combination of one or more banks of earth and ditches, external as well as internal. Occasionally rings of post holes were found; rings of monoliths are also known to have been part of some of the structures.
Approx. 70 sites were surveyed.  For more details click HERE.

iv) STANDING STONES & ALIGNMENTS, variously classified as: Single Menhirs (ca.280 - some are illustrated here) / Pairs of Standing Stones (15) / Single-line Stone Rows (35) / Stone Avenues or Dual Rows of Standing Stones (4) / Stone Fields (2). The figures in brackets represent the numbers of sites surveyed.  
Approx. 280  were surveyed.   For more details click HERE.

Parts of the survey and some related subjects are accessible in the following publications by H.E.Roese: 
1978'Recent Field Observations on Neolithic and Bronze Age Monuments in South-East Wales', in The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies (also referred to as B.B.C.S.), Vol.28, pp.129-135 (for comments see D.K.Leighton, 1997, Mynydd Du & Fforest Fawr, pp.67, 76.)
1979'Some unpublished Objects from excavated Neolithic and Bronze Age Sites in Breconshire', in Brycheiniog, Vol.18, pp.31-46. (for comments see RCAHM, 1997, An Inventory...Brecknock p.91)
1979, 'Archaeological Discoveries by T.C.Cantrill', in Archaeologia Cambrensis, Vol.128, pp.147-155. (for comments see RCAHM, 1997, An Inventory...Brecknock p.92)
1980, 'Some Aspects of Topographical Location of Neolithic and Bronze Age Monuments in Wales - I. Menhirs', in B.B.C.S., Vol.28, pp.645-655 (for comments see G.Williams, 1988, The Standing Stones of Wales & SW England (B.A.R.), p.3-7. )
1980'Some Aspects of .....II. Henges and Circles', in B.B.C.S., Vol.29 pp.164-170 (for comments see G.Williams, 1984, in B.B.C.S.31, p.185).
1981, 'Some Aspects of ....III. Round Cairns and Round Barrows'in B.B.C.S., Vol.29, pp.575-587 (for comments see D.K.Leighton, 1984, in PPS 50, pp.328; or P.Crew, 1985, in B.B.C.S.32, p.314; or RCAHM, 1997, in An Inventory ... Brecknock, p.73; or R.Moore-Colyer, 1998, in Arch.Camb.CXLV, p.21).
1982, 'Some Aspects of ....IV. Chambered Tombs and Burial Chambers'in B.B.C.S., Vol.29, pp.763-775 (for comments see C.T.Barker, 1992, The Chamber Tombs of South-West Wales (Oxbow Monograph 14), p.73).
1985, 'Developments in Prehistoric Interments in Wales'in B.B.C.S., Vol.32, pp.241-259. (for comments see G.Williams, 1988, B.A.R., p.115.).
1986, 'The Victorian Barrow Diggers of Wales - I. The Period', in B.B.C.S., Vol.33, pp.236-244 
1987, 'The Victorian Barrow Diggers of Wales - II. The Personalities', in B.B.C.S., Vol.34, pp.205-219 (for comments see L.V.Grinsell, 1990, Barrows in England & Wales (Shire Publ.), p.8).

The survey is supported by many diagrams, statistical analysis and a number of distribution maps, some of which are large scale. It shows that superficial observation of monument location is not reliable enough to assist with the interpretation of the monuments' distribution. This requires more detailed investigation. The survey has passed the test of time and has proved to be a useful point of reference (e.g. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 1997, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Brecknock, Part: i ; or: Frank Olding, 2000, The Prehistoric Landscapes of the Eastern Black Mountains, BAR 297).

(all  images & text are © Dr. Herbert E. Roese;