Jaime Conrad


 

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Category: Ancient Wales

3 Periods of Prehistoric Wales That Gave Us Mysterious Ruins

The era we refer to as “prehistoric Wales” comprises three periods: the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. What makes these ages prehistoric? They are the periods of human history that transpired before written records of events. For Wales, this is anything before 48 AD when the Romans invaded.

In terms of human occupation and settlement, prehistoric Wales covers the years from about 228,000 BC to 48 AD, when the Romans began their military campaign against the Welsh tribes. The timeline is based on the earliest human remains discovered in Wales, which date to 230,000 years ago—those found at Pontnewydd Cave just outside St. Asaph in North Wales. The period from 228,000 BC to 48 AD encompasses the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

However, because the last Ice Age left the climate inhospitable until about 12,000 years ago, it wasn’t until the Mesolithic Period (Middle Stone Age) that people began to settle in Wales more permanently. This early settlement period continued into the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and concluded with the end of the Bronze Age in 800 BC. So, the prehistoric human settlement timeline in Wales runs from approximately 10,000 to 800 BC. This time span within prehistory has given us some of Wales’ most intriguing and mysterious ruins.

Prehistoric Wales: The Earliest Beginnings


When does the story of prehistoric Wales begin? Well, that depends on how far back you’d like to go. The tale of the place we now know as Cymru begins before Great Britain was even an island. 450,000 years ago, the peninsula began to separate from the continent of Europe. Caught in the throes of its current Ice Age, the area that would become Great Britain was more like a tundra in Siberia than the green hills and fields we know today. The splitting away from the European land mass happened in two stages: 1) a separation by water and 2) a much later, complete separation of the land itself.

First, the chalk ridge between what is now Dover, England, and Calais, France, cracked when a lake flooded. This event breached what had been acting as a natural dam. As the Ice Age ended, the rising water completely filled the valley between the two areas. That was the point where Britain first lost its connection to the mainland. 

However, it wasn’t until much later, in 6,100 BC, that the British peninsula broke away from the continent completely. A violent tsunami struck—one of the largest tsunamis ever to occur on Earth. It turned the lowland areas into what is now the North Sea and the southern marshlands into the English Channel. Britain became an island. A small part of it would one day become Wales. 

A modest hunter-gatherer population of perhaps 5,000 called the island home. Although the tsunami no doubt took some lives, those who survived would leave behind artifacts and monuments to tell us stories of the prehistoric world they lived in. 

Stone Age Wales


Although Wales didn’t exist as an entity as we know it today, it’s been home to many people since the most primitive times. Neanderthals settled in Wales as much as 230,000 years ago. Archaeologists found stone tools and bones of this extinct hominid species at Pontnewydd Cave near St Asaph. You can view this intriguing find at  National Museum Wales

Our ancestors, Homo Sapiens, arrived much later, near 31,000 BC. Although early hominid remains have been found all over Europe, the earliest known human burial remains were discovered in Wales. Excavation of the site in the sea cave on the Gower Peninsula revealed what came to be known as the “Red Lady of Paviland.” “She” actually turned out to be a man. His bones had been dyed red, and his fellows ritualistically and formally buried him. Most surprising of all is that this occurred around 33,000 years ago!

Prehistoric Sites in Wales


Wales boasts some truly incredible monuments left to us by prehistoric people, such as stone circles, cairns (mounds of stones), and dolmens. A “dolmen” is a megalithic structure created when its builders place a large, flat stone on several upright stones. Dolmens were built in Britain starting in the   Neolithic Period , from about 4000 – 2500 BC. 

Prehistoric Sites: North Wales


On Ynys Môn (the island of Anglesey), you can find Barclodiad y Gawres burial chamber. Its name translates to “The Giantess’s Apronful.” This dolmen is one of the country’s most impressive examples of its type.

Another burial chamber not to miss while visiting Ynys Môn is Bryn Celli Ddu—“the mound in the dark grove.” This Neolithic tomb is one of Wales’ most famous prehistoric landmarks. It also harbors a fascinating secret. Once a year, the sunrise of the summer solstice shines shafts of light down the passage and illuminates the inner chamber. 

Bryn Cader Faner is a Bronze Age ring cairn that lies east of the small village of Talsarnau in Snowdonia National Park. Its name translates to “hill fort flag” in English, with the complete meaning being closer to “the hill of the throne with the flag.” The builders certainly positioned it to make a statement. Looming on the brow of a rise in the remote moorland, it bares its jagged teeth against the horizon as one approaches. This wonder of the prehistoric age consists of a mound of stones surrounded by 15 upright slate pillars. Initially, there may have been as many as 30 standing stones. This site most likely contained a grave beneath the cairn. However, there’s evidence that treasure hunters removed its contents in the 19th century. 


At the other end of the country, you’ll find another top-rated and mysterious attraction: Pentre Ifan. Pentre Ifan translates to “Ivan’s Village.” While Pentre Ifan was originally covered with earth to contain the stone burial chamber inside, you can now view it as a group of standing stones. The giant capstone (stone placed on top) appears insecurely balanced. However, it has remained there for 5,000 years!

This dolmen’s “bluestones” are the same material from which Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England is made. These bluestones get their name from their bluish color when freshly broken or wet. They’re composed of volcanic and igneous rocks. The most common types of bluestones are dolerite and rhyolite. Historians still don’t know how the   ancient people   did it. Yet, somehow, they transported the large stones from Preseli hills in what is now Pembrokeshire, Wales, and erected them on Salisbury Plain in southern England 140 miles away.

Mynydd Y Gelli, sometimes called the “Welsh Stonehenge” or “Rhondda Stonehenge,” is located in Gelli, Glamorgan. It gets its name from one of the mountains surrounding the Rhondda Valley. The burial site is a complex circle of stones about 30 feet in diameter. A low embankment surrounds it. Nearby are three cairns, one of which is in an unusual platform shape. A small standing stone, no longer upright, rests beside it.

Are you looking for a prehistoric Wales map broken down by region? This post on  Britain Express about ancient site locations  includes a map of ancient sites in Wales. 

Stone Age Animals


After the dinosaurs disappeared, a new type of beast dominated the landscape: giant mammals. Herbivores and carnivores alike were massive. At one time, these megafauna lived alongside humans. They eventually went extinct due to the changing climate and human hunting. Not only were they unable to adapt quickly enough to warmer environments and vegetation differences, but they also had to contend with a new apex predator that could throw spears.

Animals by Period 


Paleolithic : Prehistoric Wales’ animals of the Old Stone Age were massive compared to the wildlife you’ll find in the country today. Before 8,500 BC, the land was home to not only wooly mammoths but also to giant oxen (aurochs), giant deer, wooly rhinoceros, straight-tusked elephants, cave hyenas, saber-toothed cats, cave lions, and even hippos.

Mesolithic : From 8,500 to 4,000 BC, prehistoric forest started replacing the plains where these giant beasts thrived. During this period, smaller creatures like horses, boar, deer, and foxes began appearing in larger numbers. Meanwhile, the populations of larger animals of the Ice Age began to decline and die out. The native wild horses also go extinct during this period.

Neolithic:  As more people settled in farming communities from 4,000 – 2,400 BC, we find the remains of cattle, pigs, and sheep added to the timeline. 

Bronze Age:  From 2,200 to 700 BC, farming became even more popular, and livestock raising grew considerably. People still hunted deer, boar, ducks, and other water birds. Traders from Eurasia reintroduced horses to the British Isles. Along with cattle, settlers used horses for both transportation and food. 

For more  prehistoric Wales facts , Cadw, Wales’ historic environment service, has a wealth of information on the subject. 

It’s been almost 2,000 years since the period we know as prehistoric Wales drew to a close. However, this exciting age is hardly lost to us. The mysterious monuments of these ancient people still challenge historians as to their construction. They hold us captive with their otherworldly energy. And most importantly, they let us glimpse the idea that almost anything is possible. 

3 Reasons Ancient Woodland Wales Is More Valuable Than Ever

Why is ancient woodland Wales so rare and valuable? Forests with trees dating back to at least the year 1600 cover only about 2 – 2.5% of the United Kingdom. However, these woods are the most biodiverse habitats in the country, are home to native Welsh broadleaf trees, and contribute to the environment in unique ways. 

Why are areas designated “ancient woodland Wales” special? These forests, which date back at least 400 years, are the most complex environment in Great Britain. They protect wildlife, help the environment through soil and air quality, and preserve another piece of Wales’ rich history.

Wales’ forests provide a haven for more threatened wildlife species than anywhere else on the island. The undisturbed soils and centuries of decaying wood in these forests have created the perfect climate for fungi, slugs, snails, and insects. Many species of birds and mammals also reside in these natural sanctuaries. 

These ancient woodlands also positively impact the environment by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and preventing land erosion. They can help keep large earthworks in place. Many ancient woods are also important archaeological sites that preserve the past. Stone circles, dolmens, burial mounds, and other structures have been found in these living history museums made of ash and oak. 

The Four Classifications


There are four different classifications of ancient woodland.

“Ancient semi-natural woods” are those that have developed naturally. Humans didn’t plant the original woodlands, although people used timber from these forests. These areas have had continuous woodland cover for at least 400 years. 

“Plantations on ancient woodland sites” are ancient forests in which the trees have been cut down and replanted with non-native species. Usually, these non-native species are coniferous (pine trees, etc). However, these areas still have the complex soil found in ancient woodland. Environmentalists are working to restore these areas. 

“Restored ancient woodland sites” are forests that once contained more than 50% non-native species but now contain less than 50% due to human efforts at restoration. They’ve had continuous woodland cover for at least 400 years. While people have restored these forests to a more natural condition, the woods aren’t necessarily in good ecological condition or wholly restored. 

“Ancient woodland sites of unknown category” may fall into any of the three mentioned categories. It may be a forest that is going through a transition phase. Therefore, it may contain shrubs, trees that have been removed, young trees, or ground that is being made ready for planting. 

Ancient Woodland Inventory


The first inventory maps date back to the 1800s. In more recent times, the Forestry Commission Wales performed an initial count of Wales’ ancient woodlands in the 1980s. At that time, the count recorded 62,000 hectares or 153,205 acres. However, newer digital mapping in 2012 showed that ancient woodland Wales is much larger than that. This new count shows 95,000 hectares or 234,750 acres. It also means that the ancient woodland areas make up 30% of all forests in Wales. 

There are 20 woodland Special Areas of Conservation, which are protected habitat areas in the United Kingdom. These protected sites in Wales also belong to the Natura 2000 network of  European protected wildlife sites . These areas are safeguarded by European and international law. 

Why is this significant? Well, for several important reasons. 

Forestry Commission Wales is responsible for protecting these forested areas from development. A complete ancient woodland map helps guarantee that no sites become neglected or developed due to improper zoning. 

The trees in Wales’ ancient forests date back at least 400 years. Some of the most common native tree species include ash, oak, and birch. Other ancient woodland tree species include beech, sycamore, alder, rowan, cherry, hazel, hawthorn, and holly.

Ancient woodland Wales is one of the country’s most abundant wildlife habitats. These woods are also home to more threatened species (at least 152) than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. 

Are Areas Designated as Ancient Woodland Wales Left Completely Wild?


The short answer is “no.” No ancient woodland in Wales has been left completely undisturbed. However, there are areas where the woodland is semi-natural, meaning that some parts of it have been left relatively undisturbed. 

However, these areas are managed responsibly, and their resources are used with care. Ancient woodlands provide a certain amount of sustainably sourced timber. Because of this use, the woodlands also give people jobs, which helps the economy.

How These Natural Areas Help the Environment


By leaving enough of the forests in their natural state, the woodlands also aid in an action called “carbon sequestration.” Carbon sequestration is when carbon dioxide is removed from the Earth’s atmosphere, captured, and stored. There are two types: Biological and Geological. In biological carbon sequestration, carbon dioxide is captured and stored in vegetation, soil, and oceans. With geological carbon sequestration, carbon dioxide is secured and stored underground in rock formations. This second type is generally done industrially via machinery, whereas biological capture happens naturally. 

When Wales’ ancient woodlands are protected and managed sustainably, their ecosystem remains strong in helping to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In fact, grasslands, rangelands, and forests capture about 25% of the world’s carbon emissions. Since the buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses can contribute to  climate change , the forests’ natural air-cleansing properties are vital to life on Earth.  

How Can I Find Ancient Woodland Near Me?


Each country in the United Kingdom keeps its own records of ancient forests. For an ancient woodland UK map, you can use  Woodlandr  to locate an ancient woodland near you by entering your postcode. This database covers ancient woodland Scotland, Wales, and England. 

To find a complete list of ancient woodland in Cymru, please consult an  ancient woodland Wales map . Below are a few examples of sites that are well worth the drive. 

South Wales


Tenby, Wales, was built in the Middle Ages and is still enclosed by a remarkably intact wall. In this charming seaside town, you can find  Pembrokeshire Coastal National Park . It’s the only national park situated on the coast anywhere within the United Kingdom. Within it is Pengelli Wood, an ancient oak woodland with clearly marked footpaths. Pengelli Wood is one of the largest ancient oak forests remaining in Wales. 

Ty Canol is another forest in the national park, and this one dates back some 6,000 years. The landscape is atmospheric and mysterious, with its moss-covered trees and rocks. A 2.5-mile circular walking trail will take you around the wood and through a small section of it. You’ll continue on a dirt track once you reach the ancient woodland from the park.

Wentwood Forest is another of South Wales’ ancient woodlands. This enchanted place is steeped in folklore and hosts a stone circle older than Stonehenge, which was built around 4,500 years ago. There’s also a Bronze Age burial mound about a mile to the north of Gray Hill. 

North Wales 


In North Wales, Erlas Black Wood is a small ancient woodland of about 2.5 hectares enclosed by the Wrexham Industrial Estate. This wood is quite an exciting find. It survived the Second World War when factories were built in the surrounding area to make artillery. It’s home to some very large oak and ash trees. Erlas Black Wood also provides the perfect environment for delicate and beautiful spring flowers such as yellow lesser celandines, wood anemones, dog violets, and vivid magenta early purple orchids.

Few people know that North and Mid Wales boast ancient woodlands known as “Celtic Rainforests.” Yes, those are really a thing! While the biggest rainforests are located in the tropics, rainforests exist in cooler climates, too. Most of Wales’ Celtic Rainforests are located in the river valleys of rural Ceredigion, Powys, and Gwynedd. A few to check out are  Llechwedd Einion Coed Cwm Einion  woodland, and  Coed Felenrhyd and Llennyrch

The  Din Lligwy  prehistoric Celtic settlement in Anglesey, Wales, is surrounded by ancient woodland. Here, amidst oak and ash trees, you’ll find an Iron Age village, a Neolithic burial chamber, and an old and quite charming stone church. 

How to Identify Ancient Forest


If you’re out for a stroll and spot a lovely forest you’d like to explore, how can you tell if it’s ancient woodland? You may have to consult an ancient woodland inventory to get confirmation. However, below are a few indicators of whether you’ve encountered an ancient woodland. 


  • Trees: Guelder rose, Lime, small-leafed, Wild service tree, Spindle
  • Flowers: Bluebell, Wood anemone, Primrose, Lily-of-the-valley, Wild garlic, Dog’s mercury, Red campion
  • Ferns: Scaly male fern, Hard fern, Hart’s tongue fern
  • Lichens: Barnacle lichen, Lungwort lichens
  • Slugs: Lemon slug
  • Evergreen perennial: Pendulous sedge
  • Fungus: Hazel gloves fungus
  • Insects: Violet click beetle

The boundaries of ancient woodland may resemble ditches or banks. They might have overgrown hedges, boundary trees, or correspond with parish boundaries on old maps.

There may also be evidence that humans used it in earlier times. Some telltale signs include the remains of mine pits, furnaces and hearths used for roasting ore, and trees that show signs of being cut back. 

The only drawback of stumbling upon an ancient woodland is that you may not want to leave! But don’t worry. Sometimes, you can find areas in woodland Wales for sale, like in 2023 when 28 acres of ancient  Pembrokeshire coastal woodland  went on the market. 

5 Ways Life in Neolithic Wales Changed the Land Itself

I wrote this for my blog yesterday and, in the process, learned some really fascinating things. Sharing for anyone else who loves a bit of ancient history!

Neolithic Wales was a time of transformation. During this era, the nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in ancient Wales were mostly wiped out or absorbed by immigrant farmers from the Mediterranean an event that changed not only the way people lived but the landscape of Wales itself. 

The time period we refer to as “Neolithic Wales” began in approximately 4000 BC and lasted until 2400 BC. Archaeologists also call this the Neolithic period or the “New Stone Age.” It wasn’t just that the inhabitants of Britain began farming or using stone tools at this time that brought about a change. It’s more about how and why this transition came about. 

About 6000 years ago, there was a migration of farmers from the Mediterranean to the British Isles. These farmers were the ancestors of the people living in what now is Turkey. When they arrived in Britain, these prehistoric European agrarians found a small population of hunter-gatherers already living on the island, and both groups soon integrated.

The incoming farmers, however, brought with them not only greater numbers in terms of their population size but also better tools and more advanced ways of doing things. Hence, the “New Stone Age” began. They mingled with and eventually mostly absorbed the hunter-gatherers into their own group. The more primitive people learned to farm, raise animals for food, and build homes to live in permanently rather than roam the land. 

New People, New Ways, and Megalithic Monuments


Before the New Stone Age, Neolithic Wales’ people were hunter-gatherers who moved from place to place and found shelter where they could. They built temporary dwellings and stayed in caves or other suitable places. These nomadic peoples looked distinctly different from modern Welsh people, with medium brown to black skin and hazel, blue, or blue-green eyes. 

The Mediterranean farmers who migrated to ancient Wales around 4000 BC were also dark-complected with medium brown skin and dark brown hair and eyes, according to data collected from archaeological finds. Research suggests that they didn’t mix well with the inhabitants of Britain and, within a short period, wiped most of them out. 

Some of the decline of the existing population could have been due to new diseases being introduced. There’s also evidence that the takeover may have been a violent one. In some places, the hunter-gatherers and farmers may have co-existed peacefully. At least a small portion of the hunter-gatherers must have integrated, as some people in Wales today carry DNA that traces back  10,000 years  to the last Ice Age.

Farming in Wales in the New Stone Age


By about 3500 BC, many people in Neolithic Wales were farming. In wooded areas, they cleared forests and used the lumber to build wooden houses. Beyond their villages, they cleared additional land where they could plant their crops. 

The farmers grew wheat, barley, beans, peas and flax. They ground the wheat and barley into flour. They used the flax plant to make linen cloth for clothing, a versatile addition to furs and animal skin garments. However, they continued to find certain plants by foraging, like berries, nuts, and mushrooms.

Another thing these Neolithic farmers in   ancient Wales   did differently than the hunter-gatherers was the amount and kinds of animals they kept. They raised cattle, sheep, goats, and wild pigs that they domesticated. All of these provided meat, but the cows also gave the farmers milk and cheese. The farmers could produce cashmere from the goats’ fleece and, of course, wool from the sheep. They also kept dogs as pets and guardians to protect them against some of Neolithic Wales’ animals, such as wolves and wild boars. Dogs also worked the farms, herding sheep and cattle.

Neolithic Wales’ history is significant because these early farmers shaped and changed the land into what it is today. By clearing trees for growing crops, making grazing areas for livestock, or luring game animals, the soil’s nutrient levels fell over time. The earth also became more acidic. In these conditions, plants such as heather, gorse, and coarse grasses thrived. As the heathland was also being constantly used, it never turned back into woodland, giving much of Wales the landscape it has today. 

Grave Mounds and Stone Circles


The people of this period built stone structures for religious purposes and to honor their dead properly. Cromlechs, cairns, and stone circles are among some of the megalithic structures that tell us more of their story. 

Cromlechs are tombs made of several upright stones with a flat stone laid on top of them. The stones were then covered over with a mound of earth, with the inside being left hollow. There are other meanings of the word “cromlech,” but the above definition is the one that most applies to Wales. 

A cairn is a mound of stones covering a burial chamber, such as a cromlech, or a cairn could be laid directly over graves beneath the earth.  

Stone circles came later in time than cromlechs. Stone circles of varying sizes were often erected around cairns. Sometimes, they may have been constructed to denote places of worship and other times to mark areas for meeting and trade.  

Neolithic Sites: Wales’ Incredible Burial Chambers


Wales is home to many examples of the megalithic structures above, some remarkably well-preserved. Some of these include Bryn Celli Ddu, Lligwy, Parc le Breos, Carreg Coetan Arthur,   Bodowyr , Dyffryn Ardudwy, St Lythans (“Gwal y Filiast” in Welsh, which translates to “Kennel of the Greyhound Bitch”), and Pentre Ifan Burial Chambers.

Pentre Ifan, for example, dates back to about 3500 BC. It is perhaps the largest and one of the most intact of Wales’ Neolithic portal tombs. A “portal tomb” is a burial chamber with two large stones on either side of an entrance. A huge “capstone” (stone placed on top) is then laid across the upright stones. Portal tombs are also called “dolmans.” In Pentre Ifan’s case, the capstone is thought to weigh close to 16 tons. For that reason, it has a third upright stone supporting it from the back. Even though it appears precariously balanced, the monument has stood firm for the last 5000 years.

There are also similar Neolithic sites in Scotland and elsewhere in the British Isles. One of the most famous and insightful examples of a Neolithic stone house built in a place where wood was scarce is  Skara Brae  in Orkney. 

Click here for a  map of ancient sites in Wales Cadw  (Wales’ Historic Environment Service) and  Amgueddfa Cymru  (National Museum Wales) are also excellent resources for ancient artifacts, prehistoric finds, and many fascinating historical gems from Wales’ past. 

Timeline


Neolithic Wales’ timeline spans from roughly 4000 to 2400 BC. This means it began 3000 to 3400 years before the ancient Celts set foot on the island.

4000 BC : Waves of farmers from the area near the Aegean Sea arrive in Britain.

3500 BC : Many people in Wales and across the British Isles are now farming and raising livestock. They also made simple pottery and established more permanent settlements.

3300 BC : Early builders erect some of the first henges and stone circles.

3000 BC : People construct some of the first passage graves. More land is cleared for farming as settlements spread.

2400 BC : The Beaker People arrive in Wales. Metalwork improved with the introduction of bronze, and more sophisticated tools and weapons were developed.

The Neolithic Period for this region drew to a close when a second wave of farmers—the group we now refer to as the “Beaker People”—immigrated to the British Isles. They came from Europe around 4400 years ago, mainly from the Eurasian Steppe (grassland extending about 5000 miles from present-day Hungary to Manchuria). The Beaker People are so-called because of the bell-shaped pottery they made. Their newer technologies of crafting weapons and tools from bronze marked the beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain. 

Neolithic Wales: Facts of Note


In summary, 5 significant ways life changed for people in Wales during the New Stone Age were:


  1. Agriculture replaced the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, meaning people could now establish more permanent dwellings and live together in growing communities.
  2. Over time, farming and animal husbandry altered the land by depleting the soil’s nutrient content and making it more acidic. The landscape went from woodland to cropland and eventually to heathland, which covers many parts of Wales today.
  3. Keeping herds of cattle meant not only a plentiful meat supply but also that milk and cheese became staples in the diet.
  4. Growing flax meant that linen cloth could be spun to make clothing. This durable, breathable, and easy-to-care-for fabric was a considerable advancement over garments made from animal hide.
  5. Because people now lived in communities, they built stone structures to honor their dead, worship, meet for ceremonies or trade, and sometimes act as astronomical observatories. Bryn Celli Ddu, for example, is aligned to the midsummer sunrise. Many of these megalithic monuments were built before the great pyramids of Egypt!

If you’re a fan of ancient artifacts, archaeology, and megaliths, you may enjoy visiting some of Wales’ most intriguing places.  The Old Stones of Wales  is a helpful field guide from a series that covers these historic sites in the country.