Ardudwy early landscapes project
The project is investigating the relatively understudied later prehistoric (3rd-1st millennia BC) agricultural and settlement remains in Ardudwy, north-west Wales. The ongoing programme of fieldwork is funded by the Board of Celtic Studies, the Robert Kiln Charitable Trust, Research Centre Wales and supported by the University of Wales, Bangor, and Gwynedd Archaeological Trust.
There are two main areas of focus:
- assessing the later prehistoric archaeological deposits and palaeo-environmental sediments in the study area;
- testing a range of methodologies for identifying subsurface archaeological features in upland soils
Gwynedd, and in particular central and western Caernarfonshire and Meirionnydd, has among the best preserved prehistoric settlement remains in Wales, and in the western seaboard of Britain generally. Yet some of the most visually impressive features of these landscapes - the dispersed pattern of hut circle settlements with associated field systems and cairnfields - are also the least understood. The broadly accepted view is that these sites date from the late Neolithic to the Iron Age (Lynch et al 2000). Yet the attempts at a typological classification of the settlements (e.g. Griffiths 1950) have not been supported by the limited intrusive fieldwork that has so far been undertaken (e.g. Crew 1998).
The study area
The study area is located in Ardudwy, Meirionnydd; a region roughly bounded by Afon Dwyryd to the north, Afon Mawddach in the south, the high uplands of the Rhinog Hills to the east and Cardigan Bay to the west. Ardudwy is rich in upstanding archaeological remains of all periods, primarily distributed throughout the enclosed and unenclosed pasture between the coastal flats and the high slopes to the east. The area is included in the Register of Landscapes of Outstanding Historic Interest in Wales (Cadw 1998).
Considering the extent and quality of the archaeological sites, there has only been a limited amount of fieldwork in the area. The major upstanding archaeological remains were recorded initially by the RCAHMW (1921), then by Bowen and Gresham (1967) and subsequently enhanced through a broadly-based programme of fieldwork (Kelly 1982). Most recently, air photographic mapping has been undertaken at a scale of 1:5000 by the RCAHMW. Thematic surveys have recorded hut circle and deserted rural (medieval) settlement (Smith 1999; GAT 1999). The only intensive ground survey has been at Egryn Abbey (de Lewandowicz 1982). Twentieth century excavations include those by Crawford (1920), Powell (1973), Lynch (1984) and Kelly (1984). The last investigated two Iron Age enclosures, one of which produced two hearths of Neolithic date. The palaeo-environmental context of the enclosures was examined by Chambers and Price (1984; Chambers et al. 1988). A review of the environmental research undertaken in the region is presented in Caseldine (1990).
Reasons for and circumstances of the project
The need to examine the extent and character of later prehistoric settlement in north west Wales is identified as a research priority by the following: Smith (1999), GAT (1999), GAT (in prep), and Caseldine (1990). Cadw and the RCHAMW (1999) encourage the initiation of research projects that build upon the findings of thematic threat related surveys (e.g. Smith 1999) and the Uplands Initiative. Addressing these priorities will require a major research project incorporating archaeological and environmental fieldwork with clear, academically-informed aims and objectives. This project has a dual role: it will be a small-scale investigation of the issues outlined above, and it will act as a scoping study in advance of preparing a bid for substantial funding from one or more of the British funding trusts or councils.
Project Aims & Objectives
- Gain an understanding of later prehistoric human occupation of north west Wales through a study of the agricultural and environmental context of settlement.
- Assess the potential of natural sediments located within the study area for a research-led environmental sampling strategy.
- Assess the potential of archaeological deposits considered to be of later prehistoric date to produce good quality stratigraphical, dating and palaeo-environmental evidence.
- Assess the potential of survey methods such as geophysics and test pitting to identify sub-surface archaeological features in the study area.
The project began in September 2001 with a 10 day field season. A core area of c.1km², roughly centred upon the settlement enclosure and ring cairn at Hengwm (SH 615 203), was selected for intensive investigation. A topographical survey was undertaken of the distinctive natural terraces upon which much of the visible archaeological remains are located. Individual earthwork plans (1:50) were drawn of the later prehistoric archaeological field monuments. Geophysical surveys were carried out upon two of the 'terraces'. The magnetometer and resistivity surveys revealed two anomalies which may be archaeologically significant. Several transects of test pits (1x1m and 1x½m) were excavated across the same terraces. They provided useful information on the local soils, and they exposed a number of possible archaeological features and finds.
A four week field season during July 2002 involved the more detailed investigation of three areas.
Area A (small circular embanked enclosure / probable ‘ring cairn’) – evaluative excavation revealed a stone bank, the structure of which varied around the circumference. On the south and east sides, the bank consisted of a loose rubble core revetted by large pitched stone slabs that were, in one section, pitched inwards towards the core of the bank, and, in another segment, pitched outwards. A redy brown soil sealed beneath the bank was interpreted as a possible sealed land surface. On the north and west sides of the enclosure there was less pattern to the spreads of stone. Within the interior, towards the north-west side, a large shallow oval pit was uncovered. The pit was filled with a dark brown, organic rich soil with frequent small charcoal inclusions. The southern half of the pit was sealed beneath a substantial stone slab.
Area B (complex embanked enclosure / possible hut circle settlement with later reuse) – evaluative excavation exposed a complex pattern of deposits that can only be partially understood from the limited investigations that were undertaken. On the west side, within the enclosure, a series of roughly cobbled and paved floor surfaces were found, the most regular of which lay inside an arc of walling and is taken to represent the interior of a hut circle. An irregular cobbled surface extending beyond the arc of stones is interpreted as a surfaced yard or working compound external to, but contemporary with, the hut circle. A series of poorly defined stakeholes were noted cutting this floor deposit. A pit, containing significant quantities of burnt stone as well as a few pieces of burnt clay and fragments of charcoal, was sealed by the cobbled floor surface and truncated by one of the stakeholes. The outer wall of the enclosure overlay a broad shallow feature which is interpreted as a slight hollow way formed at the edge of the cobbled yard. The earth and stone / boulder walls visible on the surface of the site prior to excavation appear to derive from later reuse, possibly medieval or post-medieval, which respects and possibly part-utilises the outline of the earlier hut circle settlement.
Area D (small embanked enclosure / possible hut circle) – evaluative excavation was inconclusive regarding the character of the structure. The loose stone was cleared within two quadrants of the structure revealing a low ‘wall’ with clearly defined outer facing stones, a rubble core, and less well defined inner facing. The eastern, upslope, segment of the wall appeared to revet a relatively deep external soil profile. The two quadrants of the wall uncovered during the excavations were overlain by loose stone and soil, which was concentred towards the possible inner face of the wall, with a relatively stone free surface towards the centre.
Three weeks fieldwork were undertaken during June and September 2003. We concentrated our efforts on the embanked enclosure in Area D.
Area D (small embanked enclosure /possible hut circle) – following on from evaluative excavations in 2002, it was decided to extend the trench to include the whole of the feature and to sample external areas to the north, south and west. The low ‘wall’ was shown to have clearly defined outer facing stones, a rubble core, and less well defined inner facing. A prominent gap, flanked by upright stones, was identified on the north-east side. The interior was relatively free of stones at the level of the basal course of the wall facing. A small number of worked flints were recovered from the interior of the structure, but aproximately 100 pieces of worked stone (flint, rock crystal and quartz) were found in a dense concentration next to an earthfast stone a few metres beyond the south-east edge of the enclosure.
Two further trenches were excavated in order to sample ephemeral features and likely occupation areas that showed no visible archaeological traces. A possible intermittment stone clearance bank situated close to Area D was shown to be a geological feature. A second trench, excavated across what was thought to be a natural terrace, produced no evidence of human occupation.
We hope to be in the field during September 2004. Anybody interested in volunteering on the project should contact either of the project co-cordinators (details available in the introduction section) for further information. The proposed work programme is as follows:
The excavation of the embanked enclosure / probable hut circle in Area D will be completed. A radiocarbon date is awaited from a sample of charcoal collected from the primary surface in the interior of the enclosure.
Environmental sampling and analyses
An assessment and analysis of the environmental samples is ongoing at the University of Wales, Lampeter.
- Bowen, E.G. & Gresham, C.A. 1967. History of Merioneth. Dolgellau: Merioneth Historical & Record Society.
- Cadw 1998. Register of Landscapes of Outstanding Historic Interest in Wales. Cardiff: Cadw, CCW and ICOMOS UK.
- Cadw & RCHAMW 1999. Recording, Preserving and Presenting the Welsh archaeological Landscape. Cardiff: Cadw.
- Caseldine, A. 1990. Environmental Archaeology in Wales. Lampeter: Archaeology Department, St David's University College Lampeter.
- Chambers, F.M., Kelly, R.S. & Price, S.M. 1988. Development of the late-prehistoric cultural landscape in upland Ardudwy, north-west Wales. In Birks, H.H., Birks, H.J.B., Kaland, P.E. & Moe, D. (Eds). The Cultural Landscape: past, present and future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 333-348.
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Crew, P. 1998. Excavations at Crawcwellt West, Merioneth 1990-1998. Archaeology in Wales 38, 22-35.
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- RCAHMW 1921. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire Volume VI- County of Merioneth. London: HMSO.
- Smith, G. 1999. Early Settlement in Gwynedd, North-West Wales: approaches to archaeology and management. Unpub Draft Report #328, Gwynedd Archaeological Trust.