This article introduces the history of settlement in Wales and the kinds of homes in which people have lived from a quarter of a million years ago to the present day. The Royal Commission has a long history of research and publication in this area, with volumes such as ‘Houses of the Welsh Countryside’ and the recently published 'Houses and History in the March of Wales. Radnorshire 1400 – 1800'. Details of thousands of settlement sites and buildings can also be found on Coflein or in the National Monuments Record of Wales.
The Earliest Settlers: Settlement in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic
The earliest settlers in Wales arrived in the Palaeolithic Period between 225,000 and 10,000 years ago, during the warm spells of the Ice Age, when sea levels were much lower and there were land links between Britain, the Continent and Ireland. People were much dispersed and highly mobile, living as hunter-gatherers, and it is believed that they did not have permanent homes but lived in temporary shelters or tents, made from wood and skins, the remains of which are rarely found. There is better evidence for their use of caves, the earliest of which is at Pontnewydd in Denbighshire, where artefacts such as handaxes and other butchery tools are representative of activity by early Neanderthals some 225,000 years ago.
After the glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago, sea levels rose and lower lying areas of land were flooded, resulting in the isolation of Britain. By around 7,000 years ago the coastline of Wales was generally established at its modern position. The warmer climates and resulting vegetation growth allowed the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers to exploit both land and marine resources, and settlement was probably focused in the coastal areas and river valleys, although there is evidence of the increasing exploitation of upland areas by the later Mesolithic, as seen at Waun Fignen Felen in the Brecon Beacons. But, as in the Palaeolithic period, the transient nature of Mesolithic life means that few settlement sites and no certain examples of houses are known in Wales. Excavations have, however, identified ‘task sites’, such as those for processing food or for making tools, like the Nab Head site at St Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire.
The First Houses: Settlement in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age
It is in the Neolithic Period (4500-2500 BC), with the adoption of farming and a more settled way of life, that the first real evidence of houses appears in archaeology, suggestive of people living in isolated unenclosed farmsteads, probably as part of an extended family. One of the best preserved examples of a Neolithic house was excavated at Llandegai near Bangor, where a series of post-holes delineates what would have been a rectangular wooden building, 6 metres wide by 13 metres long, divided into three rooms. Parallels with similar structures throughout Europe suggest that the large central room would have had a central fireplace, the smoke escaping through the roof, most likely constructed of straw or reeds.
As farming became more widespread and population levels rose during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (3000-1500BC), there was expansion into previously under-exploited areas, such as the uplands . Whilst people continued to live in unenclosed farmsteads, houses increasingly became circular in plan; these are commonly termed roundhouses or hut circles. Whether built in stone or wood this was to remain the dominant house form for the rest of the prehistoric period. The reconstructed roundhouses at Castell Henllys near Crymych in Pembrokeshire give a clear idea of how these structures would have looked and have been built on their original foundations within the Iron Age hillfort. One of the best-documented and dated examples of a domestic settlement of the Early Bronze Age is Stackpole Warren on the south coast of Pembrokeshire. Here, the roundhouses were constructed of wood, the best example some 4 metres in diameter, with a 1.6 metre-long porch and central fireplace.
The Defended Home: Settlement in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age
Across Wales it is possible to see and visit a number of surviving settlements of the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age (1100BC-AD50). Settlements were now predominantly enclosed, in many cases strongly defended and focused around ‘group’ living. All this suggests an increased anxiety in society and fear of attack, and thus a need to consolidate friendly groupings. One of the main factors behind this may have been climatic deterioration in the Late Bronze Age, when increased rainfall and cooler climates would have made it harder for the relatively large population to feed itself. Defended enclosures such as hillforts and promontory forts typify this new anxiety and are the most distinct and impressive settlement forms of the period, with around 1000 known in Wales. They were usually constructed in strong, naturally defensible positions, with the earliest forms tending to be constructed with a single (univallate) line of defence, such as a palisade or stout fence. This developed in later periods towards multiple (multivallate) lines of defences and outworks consisting of banks and ditches, often revetted and topped with stone walls. Inside the hillforts there is often evidence for stone or timber roundhouses, together with rectangular structures which may have been raised above the ground on posts to store grain and other agricultural produce.