The term ‘prehistory’ describes the time before written sources. The earliest surviving documentary descriptions of Wales date from some two thousand years ago, set down by Roman authors and shedding light on the culture of the Iron Age, albeit in its final phase. Both archaeological and written sources are available to interpret the material remains of cultures since then, each counterbalancing the biases of the other. In prehistory, however, we are reliant solely upon archaeological approaches.
The past century has seen archaeology progress from an antiquarian pursuit to a science, becoming a discipline informed by theoretical debate and the complementary ideas of anthropology, ethno-archaeology, geography and the environmental sciences. Archaeologists studying Wales, the staff of the Royal Commission among them, have achieved a great deal in discovering, surveying and interpreting field monuments, many of which had not been recognised before.
In the Commission’s earliest inventories prehistoric remains were documented as poorly understood curiosities of the rural landscape, frequently regarded as inferior to monumental castles or grand buildings. However, the profile of prehistoric archaeology has grown continuously since the Second World War: there has been development in scientific methods for surveying, dating and environmental analysis, and a growing appreciation of the chronology and significance of monuments and landscapes from different prehistoric periods. [5-5-1]Royal Commission studies of Caernarfonshire, Glamorgan and Breconshire documented prehistoric burial places, forts, fields and farms, and augmented traditional field survey with excavations. These have stood the test of time, often providing the only record of tracts of prehistoric Wales. Thematic projects, uplands surveys and aerial reconnaissance have further broadened the Commission’s recording of prehistory.
This essay summarises the prehistory of Wales, but the span of the Prehistoric Era is vast. Wales’s earliest human remains are those of early Neanderthals, excavated at Pontnewydd cave, Denbighshire, and dating to about 225,000 years ago. Prehistorians have long been dissatisfied with the standard compartmentalising of prehistoric epochs based on their prevailing tool technology – Stone Age (divided into Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic), Bronze Age and Iron Age – though this is division provides a useful chart with which to navigate the diversity of prehistory. Ways of life of the Mesolithic hunter or the Bronze Age farmer did not change overnight.
Communities in every age doubtless achieved small technological advances and experienced imperceptible shifts in everyday practices, rituals and beliefs as the centuries passed. Very occasionally a visitor or migrants from distant parts may have arrived with radically different tools or knowledge, but generally change came gradually and cumulatively. Over thousands of years, usually mobile bands of hunters and gatherers gradually developed more complex social organisation, tool manufacture and artistic expression. Only with the arrival of knowledge of farming and cereal cultivation in north-western Europe at the start of the Neolithic is there evidence of permanent, settled communities, longer-term food storage, and the investment of effort to create communal monuments of wood and stone.
The environment that prehistoric people inhabited was also changing constantly, if imperceptibly to any single generation. During the timespan of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, continents and seas were reshaped by successive glaciations and the climate changed substantially. The start of the Neolithic saw sea levels around the British coast gradually stabilising several millennia after the most recent ice age, establishing new coastlines that are familiar today. In recent years archaeologists and oceanographers have recognised the research value of submerged former land surfaces, and advances in underwater prospection have allowed mapping of the Welsh land mass before the Neolithic, when land now covered by shallow seas would have been wooded plains. Changes in the prevailing regimes of temperature and precipitation were constant, and they continue today. Archaeologists have long relied on environmental data to provide a context for the study of particular sites and periods, and their findings are increasingly informing perceptions of the present environment and the susceptibility of our way of life to climate change.
Human settlement in Wales can be traced to the Palaeolithic. Discoveries of tools, animal bones and, occasionally, burials in caves tell us something about these early people, but human remains from the remotest periods are exceedingly rare. Only the durable remnants of jaws and teeth survive from the early Neanderthals of Pontnewydd cave, dating from the Lower Palaeolithic (around 225,000 years ago). The people of the Old Stone Age were not all cave-dwellers, but with successive glaciations of Wales (the most recent between about 21,000 and 14,000 years ago), caves are among the few places where tangible remains are preserved. Inhabited caves have been confirmed in the north and mid-Wales limestone regions and associated with open settlements in the south Wales limestone belt beyond the maximum limits of the glacial ice.
Finds of tools and hominin remains are more widespread from the Middle Palaeolithic (about 50,000 years ago) and the Upper Palaeolithic (about 30,000 years ago). At Coygan Cave, whose site is now a coastal promontory in Carmarthenshire but was once several miles inland, evidence for occupation by ‘classic’ Neanderthals was found. Bones of mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and hyena illustrate how distant this environment was from our own. Triangular handaxes show the mastery of stone tool technology. As well as describing Upper Palaeolithic sites and finds in the Royal Commission’s inventories for Glamorgan (1976) and Breconshire (1997), the Commission assisted in surveying Paviland Cave, an Early Upper Palaeolithic site on the spectacular limestone coast of southern Gower. The cave is famous for the burial about 29,000 years ago of a young man (misnamed ‘the Red Lady’) with offerings of pierced shells, ivory rods or wands and two ivory bracelets.
Despite rich examples of cave art recorded in Europe, most famously at Lascaux in the Dordogne, Upper Palaeolithic cave art in Britain was recognised for the first time only in 2003, at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. Portable art objects such as carved bones are more common, but the only such finds in Wales so far are those found in nineteenth-century excavations at Kendrick’s Cave on the Great Orme, Llandudno: a decorated horse jawbone with zigzag incised lines is particularly fine and has been dated to around 10,000 years BC.
Following the retreat of the last glacial ice, nomadic bands of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers recolonised the warming land between about 8,000 and 5,000 BC . Sea levels were low and Britain was joined to the continent by a land bridge until about 8,500 years ago. A thick forest of pine and oak extended many miles into Cardigan and Carmarthen bays: ancient tree stumps are regularly exposed in eroding peat along coasts and estuaries. Mesolithic people left no visible monuments but traces of their hunting camps are found in coastal areas and sometimes in inland and mountainous regions.
One such settlement and tool-making site was excavated at Waun Fignen Felen, on the eastern edge of the Black Mountain in Breconshire. Environmental sampling and radiocarbon dating confirmed that there were episodes of forest clearance about 8,000 years ago, and surface collection and excavation recovered numerous microliths, left from the process of flint-knapping, and a perforated shale disc. One of the most famous Mesolithic sites to have been excavated is The Nab Head, on the west Pembrokeshire coast, where Mesolithic hunters made small flints and larger axes. Over 500 perforated shale beads were found here, as was a carved shale object that may represent a Venus figurine or a phallus, thought to be the only such carving from a Mesolithic context in Britain.