Wales is an upland country where hills, mountains and moorlands dominate the rural scene. Overall, 40 per cent of the total land mass lies above the 250-metre contour, but this rises to almost 70 per cent in north-west Wales.
The uplands are diverse in character and display marked regional contrasts: for example, the long fingers of high ground separating the densely populated South Wales valleys; the steep scarp face of the Brecon Beacons; the rolling moorland of the Cambrian Mountains; and the craggy summits of Snowdonia.
Types of Upland
Despite their local distinctiveness they all have certain things in common. Much of the uplands is enclosed farmland, but more notable are the large areas of rough grazing, open moorland and blanket bog which lie beyond and sometimes around the farmland.
The Limits of Farming
Today, the uplands lie at the very limits of farming and settlement, and they are economically marginal and under-populated. We know that this was not always the case. People have lived, worked and farmed in these hills and mountains for at least the last 9000 years, modifying the landscape and leaving behind remains of their activities. A lack of intensive agriculture in recent centuries means that the uplands are home to a remarkable series of archaeological sites and landscapes dating from the earliest times to the most recent past. Unlike similar sites in lowland settings, these have often never been ploughed or disturbed, leaving fossilised landscapes rich in remains of all periods. In addition, there are widespread deposits of peat containing valuable botanical data which tell the story of the human impact on the environment. The uplands seem remote compared to the more populated lowlands, and this gives the impression that they are a detached wilderness, separate from the broader landscape. In fact, there were always physical and economic links, and the nature of those links and how they changed through time is of interest to us.
Relict Sites in the Uplands
The Uplands Archaeology Initiative project was set up to promote a deeper and wider understanding of the uplands and their role in the history of Wales, through programmes of exploratory survey, research and publication. For a hundred years or more archaeologists and antiquarians have been wandering the hills discovering the more obvious prehistoric and Roman remains that interested them, such as burial mounds and forts. It is only since the start of the project in the early 1990s that archaeologists have been funded by the Royal Commission to walk upland landscapes systematically at parallel intervals of 30-50 metres. The integrated methodology of ground searching and air photo mapping National Projects has led to a vast increase (eight- to eleven-fold) in the number of registered archaeological sites in the areas explored. This in turn has revolutionised perceptions of the type and density of remains, emphasising the complex history of human activity on high ground.
Even though there have been close physical and economic links between uplands and lowlands throughout history, the land-use contrast between the two is striking. The reasons are complex, involving both the natural processes which created and conditioned the landforms in the first place and the history of human activity specific to each area. A key ingredient in the story is climate and, perhaps more importantly, climate change.
The familiar picture of mist-shrouded uplands above clearer lowlands reflects not simply localised weather but a very real climatic difference, resulting from Britain’s geographical position. In an oceanic climate the weather components change very sharply with elevation. Most of them, such as rainfall and wind speed,, increase, but temperature falls with altitude. This so-called ‘lapse rate’, between 6 and 10 degrees Celsius per kilometre rise, is particularly steep in Wales. There are several consequences of this phenomenon. Perhaps the most important is a shorter growing season at altitude, a big disincentive to permanent settlement on high ground even where other factors are beneficial. However, there were certain times, for example in the Medieval period, when improving climate favoured settlement on high ground. Continental-type climates are more stable and conditions at altitude, at least in summer, are more congenial. Temperature inversions occur when cold air sinks to lower ground, leaving the high ground warmer. These are now quite rare but are more frequent in continental climates. The growing season at these times was still short but it was intense enough for successful cultivation, and this attracted upland settlement. Episodes like this were often followed by changes in land-use, and even retreat to the lowlands, when the climate once again deteriorated and the relative effects of topography reasserted themselves.
A Fragile Environment
An important outcome of the climate contrast with elevation is that the uplands are environmentally more sensitive than the lowlands. Normal processes of erosion are intensified by lower temperatures and higher rainfall. This makes moorlands naturally unstable places and influences the character of the landscape. Even brief episodes of human intervention can unsettle delicate balances and have long-lasting consequences.
Limestone is characterised by its permeability to water, so it offers graphic illustrations of upland instability. The limestone country above Abercrave in the upper Swansea Valley is a good example. The most visible features are naturally formed solution hollows, or ‘shake-holes’. This effect occurs in limestone on lower ground but not to the same extent. Numerous archaeological features lie around these holes and many have been undermined by them. Field walls have tumbled into some, tramroad causeways, serving industrial workings, have subsided into others, and a prehistoric stone row is perched on the lip of one. In some cases shake-holes have been used as boundary features, and the base of one even supports the remains of an early circular building. This is an extreme example to show how intricate landscapes can be when natural forces and human activity coincide. The results of this interaction vary across the landscape and contribute to the diversity we see around us.
After the Ice Age
People have been visiting the uplands since the early stages of climatic warming after the end of the Ice Age. The uplands were attractive to Mesolithic groups who followed migrating herds of large herbivores onto less densely wooded high ground. The presence of these hunter-gatherers has been detected at altitude across Wales. Waun-fignen-felen is a former lake basin, now a peat bog, located four kilometres south of Llyn y Fan Fach, near Craig y Nos. Artefacts of Mesolithic type were discovered around the margins of the basin, which was first visited more than 9000 years ago. No structural remains were found, but pollen evidence from peat showed human interference with the local vegetation. Fire may have been used to create a leafier browse which supported greater numbers of game animals. Waterfowl and migratory birds would have been attracted to the lake basin, which may also have been a source of fish before it began to dry up. Hazel nuts were found in associated deposits, their gathering another indicator of the value of the site. This kind of evidence accords with a model of seasonal use in which summer activity at upland places was part of an annual round which included the use of coastal and estuarine resources and perhaps also intermediate lowland sites at other times. Seasonal and episodic use of high altitude locations is a recurring theme in the land-use history of upland Wales.
Settlement in Later Prehistory
Pollen analysis of peat cores, supported by radiocarbon dates, has shown that vegetation change caused by human interference continued in the uplands of Wales during the Neolithic period. However, it is not until the later Neolithic and the start of the Bronze Age, about 4,500 years ago, that more intensive patterns of land- use are detected. Clearance horizons and agricultural episodes of varying intensity show the expansion of farming and settlement into previously under-exploited areas. This was perhaps in response to rising population at a time when improving climate made the uplands more amenable to permanent settlement.
The foundations of circular houses, known as ‘hut circles’, are the main indicator of this early settlement. Snowdonia is particularly well-endowed with them, but new discoveries are being made elsewhere in Wales as survey proceeds across the country. Often associated with these buildings is physical evidence for farming. This takes the form of old field walls, now linear spreads of stone rubble, and stone heaps, or ‘clearance cairns’, of irregular size and shape, often in large numbers, the result of stone removal prior to cultivation. Remains like these are widespread in the Welsh uplands and, although few independent dates are available for them, they are believed to belong, at least in part, to the earlier Bronze Age.
Bronze Age ritual and burial sites are amongst the best known upland monuments. Barrows, cairns and stone settings of different types are to be found across Wales, but they are often best preserved in the uplands. Their appearance in the landscape coincides with the start of more intensive land-use activity detected in the upland pollen record. Extensive searching in recent years has led to some interesting findings. Several stone circles have been discovered. As so few of these monuments are located in Wales, new finds are especially important.
Burial and ritual monuments often appear in large numbers in distinct localities without any nearby evidence for contemporary settlement, leaving the problem of where the builders lived. Comprehensive searching allows us to make some sense of this. Ruabon Mountain, near Wrexham, is mostly heather moor. Its westerly scarp is defined by limestone crags and most of the prehistoric cairns are located there, possibly to ensure their visibility from lower ground. The interior of the mountain contains far fewer cairns and no farming or settlement evidence has been found, although this may be due to early sites lying beneath the blanket peat that has developed over the mountain. On Mynydd Hiraethog, the Denbigh Moors, there is a similar over-emphasis on funerary and ritual monuments like large cairns, stone rows and ring cairns. Often these survive on improved land adjacent to moorland, but again no traces of early farming and settlement were found. Both mountains are surrounded by large tracts of agriculturally viable lowland, which was perhaps sufficiently extensive for early settlement without the need to expand onto nearby upland. This left the mountains free for other uses. Similar locations elsewhere in Britain have been described as ‘sacred mountains’, set aside in prehistory for burial and ceremonial purposes.
The Moorland Fringe
It is on the moorland fringe that some of the most detailed and complex remains of human activity in the uplands are to be found. The interface between moorland and improved pasture has not always remained static; in some locations it has expanded and contracted, back and forth, over centuries. Enclosures on this fringe constitute land which is finely balanced at the margins of profitability. Sensitive to small economic or structural changes, they move in and out of use repeatedly as conditions change. Economically, this is the ‘marginal’ zone. Some locations with a long history of intermittent use display the layered remains of successive occupations, as at Is-mynydd in Dyffryn Ardudwy, south of Harlech. Although the land is currently farmed, its use for pasture has allowed evidence for previous episodes of activity to survive.
There is widespread evidence for intensive activity in the uplands during the Medieval period, with permanent settlement suggested by cultivation remains. These findings are believed to reflect a renewed phase of expansion onto more marginal land during the climatic optimum of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The main indicator of this activity is the so-called ‘platform settlement’. The long platform, the recognised type site for Medieval upland settlement, comprises a level area cut into rising ground and projecting outwards from the slope. They originally supported rectangular buildings, the low foundations of which are sometimes visible. They are widely distributed across the uplands, often in considerable numbers and not always associated with traces of cultivation.
A platform group in the Berwyns above Llandrillo lies close to strip fields, long narrow enclosures formerly subdivisions of larger ones. They contain direct evidence for arable husbandry in the form of broad cultivation ridges and extensive lynchets, ridges or ledges formed by ploughing on a slope. Elsewhere, platforms are found with clearance cairns.
Although remains like these have been found across Wales in favoured locations, the character and distribution of upland land-use at this time was influenced by non-economic factors which affected the landscape unevenly. Anglo-Norman lords established large hunting reserves which were often in upland areas, and activity there was strictly regulated. From the twelfth century Cistercian foundations were granted extensive tracts of remote moorland, primarily, but not only, for animal husbandry, with arable cultivation focused on lowland granges.
The stone foundations of linear buildings, usually referred to as long-huts, are widely found in the uplands. Ground searching has revealed large numbers, often in strong local concentrations with ancillary structures. These buildings are amongst the most frequently encountered monument types. So widespread are they that their absence is noteworthy. Their dating is uncertain. Lowland versions have given dates from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries. They are usually interpreted as summer dwellings in use as part of the 'hafod', or transhumance, economy. There is documentary evidence for seasonal occupation of Welsh uplands in the sixteenth century and for the use of summer dairies. However, seasonal activity is unlikely to apply in every case and a range of different uses must be imagined.
Long-huts have a variety of ground plans and in some cases are sufficiently large and detailed to suggest accommodation shared with animals, rather like the lowland longhouse. Other buildings were perhaps barns for mountain hay. Often they are accompanied by a range of small enclosures, circular, semi-circular and square. Most were probably animal pens. The small circular structures are believed to be folds for geese or pigs, though some may have been used as cold stores for dairy products. Clusters of buildings are very common and sometimes give the impression of entire communities moving onto higher ground for the summer. The presence of small cairns in some cases indicates the cultivation of garden plots close to buildings. Some nearby ‘shelters’, cut into the slope, are interpreted as root stores. Some of these habitations eventually became permanent, mainly on good land close to existing farmland. When they became part of the modern enclosure pattern, the ‘hafod’ place-name element often remained in use and can be seen today in farm names across Wales.
The most numerous site types discovered in the uplands are related to industrial activity. In addition to mountain pasture, the uplands have always offered a range of resources that could be harvested, such as ferns, gorse, peat and kindling. With the exception of peat, their use leaves no obvious trace. It is in the exploitation of other upland resources, specifically their rich mineral content, that extraction takes on a very different significance. Mineral exploitation has produced the most striking man-made features in the upland landscape.
Coal mines, their associated iron-mines, chiefly a feature of lowland areas of south and south-east Wales, and the slate quarrying landscapes of north Wales are well known and some are of international importance. These industries are localised in their occurrence, but non-ferrous metal ores are found throughout Wales and traces of their exploitation are widespread. Their extraction was especially prevalent in the uplands, where 75 per cent of known mines lie within the 200 metres-400 metres zone, others extending to as high as 770 metres. The sheer intensity of this mining is remarkable. On Halkyn Mountain in Flintshire, one of the most important lead and zinc ore fields of Wales, the mines contain some 4,500 individual shafts and adits. The most significant discovery of the last few years has been the great age of many of these workings. Of those mines which show evidence for early activity more than half lie in the uplands. In north Ceredigion metal-mining sites are the predominant upland site type. The distinctive Copa Hill landscape near Cwmystwyth, shown here, has been well studied through systematic survey and partial excavation. The entire complex spans about 4000 years, from the very beginning of the metal-working period. Most of the linear features visible there are water channels connected with a process known as ‘hushing’, the periodic release of stored water to remove topsoil and reveal mineral-bearing strata. As a method of mining it was far more extensively used than previously realised, and over a much longer period.
Where can I find out more about the uplands of Wales?
Regional summaries of the results which emerged from The First Ten Years of the Uplands Archaeology Initiative are available. A review of the first decade of the project was published in 2003. The book, The Archaeology of the Welsh Uplands, indicates the scope of this ambitious survey programme at its halfway stage. It includes period summaries, case studies, a glossary of site types and an extensive bibliography. A large survey in the Brecon Beacons, Mynydd Du and Fforest Fawr: The Evolution of an Upland Landscape, by David Leighton (published by the Royal Commission in 1997) explains much about upland archaeology. Reports on the archaeology of selected areas, regional overviews, and detailed project archives and photographs (from 1998 onwards) are held in the National Monuments Record of Wales. Site information, accompanied by digital images, can be accessed through Coflein. Information is also available from the regional Sites and Monuments Records held by the Welsh Archaeological Trusts.