The Prehistoric Archaeology of Settlement in South-East Wales
and the Borders by Graham A. Makepeace
This new BAR report begins with promise: it is the product of a PhD at Cardiff under Niall Sharples which was intended to place in perspective all of the prehistoric evidence relating to settlement and prehistoric activity in south east Wales. In many ways it can be seen as a sister volume to Frank Olding’s 2000 BAR The Prehistoric Landscapes of the Eastern Black Mountains and covers much of the same chronological and geographical areas. Makepeace’s study is, however, focussed on the settlement archaeology of the region and presents much new data: the result of extensive fieldwork and survey.
The scope of the book is ambitious, covering the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, outlining the major sites recorded by previous work such as that by the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments in Wales (RCAHMW) and new sites discovered by the author. There are, however, some difficulties with the ways in which settlement is defined throughout the book: for the Mesolithic period, a ‘site’ has been defined by the presence of one or more characteristic tool types in museum and private collections of lithic material. There is no attempt to assess the chronology of these collections, the author suggesting that ‘expert analysis’ should be undertaken on this material. There is also confusion over the concept of ‘persistent places’ (Barton et al. 1995) which are here equated with permanent settlement bases/base camps and the analysis is dependent on the uncritical application of the model of Mellars (1976). Nevertheless, Makepeace suggests that the distribution of Mesolithic material appears to highlight the importance of streams, rivers, pools and small lakes, with extensive exploitation of the landscape during this period.
Evidence for settlement during the Neolithic in south east Wales, as elsewhere in the UK, is relatively poor: the record here being dominated by the chambered tombs of the Black Mountains (which the author appears to think are a secondary product of the trade in stone and flint axes across the UK). At least one of these tombs, at Gwernvale, sealed the remains of structures the function of which Makepeace is right to be equivocal about: they are not certainly dwellings and may indeed relate to the activities associated with pre-cairn activities/ritual. Similarly, the Neolithic pits from Trostrey and Abergavenny may have little to do with settlement. The largest problem with the identification of Neolithic settlement sites is, however, the meaning and significance of the flint scatters from across the region, which throughout this chapter are equated with settlement sites and there is no consideration of other functions, or indeed changing functions over the time during which the scatters of lithics accumulated. Few, if any, of the lithic scatters described in the text appear to represent single episodes and are composed of material of mixed date ranging from the Mesolithic to the Early Bronze Age.
The chapter on the Bronze Age deals with stone circles, standing stones and cairns, with a short discussion of burnt mounds. The bulk of the chapter is concerned with ‘settlement’ sites, a number of which are new to this survey. Plans and photographs of these sites are presented, alongside modified site plans originally drawn by the RCAHMW. A total of 41 sites are recorded here (including the enclosure at Grey Hill, which the author discovered: see PAST 44) and range from scatters of ‘clearance cairns’ to complex agglomerations of cairns, stone-built hut circles and associated stone enclosures. This, along with the surveys of long barrows and stone circles in Appendix 1 and 2, are clearly the result of what must have been extensive, hard and difficult fieldwork and the author should be congratulated on the clear presentation of the results. There are, however, some difficulties with the interpretations offered in the text. First and foremost is the ascription to all of the sites surveyed, despite a lack of excavation or any secure dating evidence, to the Bronze Age. As Frances Lynch (2000, 91) has pointed out, although well dated parallels for these structures exist in south-west and northern England, their ascription to the Bronze Age in Wales is far from proven. Indeed, excavations at Crawcwellt in Merioneth proved that a series of unenclosed huts associated with irregular fields were, in fact, of Iron Age date. The only finds from excavations on one of the sites listed by the author, at Cwm Moel, were iron slag and leather. In the subsequent chapter on the Iron Age, the author suggests that identifying Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age sites in the region is difficult, but that Lynch (2000, 139) suggests they may take the form of enclosed and potentially defended settlements. The possibility that at least some of the sites identified and surveyed by the author might fill the ‘gaps’ in the settlement record identified by him in the archaeology of the Iron Age, rather than belonging entirely to the Bronze Age, is not discussed.
Although strong on data, the book is weak on interpretation and context. For example, the discussion of the problems with identifying settlement is somewhat brief, re-stating Brück & Goodman’s (1999) arguments over the importance of context and emphasising the process of settlement. There are also unanswered methodological questions: although analysis of altitude is used to explain the distribution of sites, there is no description or quantification of the general altitude of the landscape: is it significant, for example, that the majority of Mesolithic sites are located between 400 and 550m OD, when at least half of the landscape in figure 16 is shown as being above 305m? Perhaps the major problem, however, is with chronology, not only of the ‘Bronze Age’ settlement sites but also with the time-depth of sites such as lithic scatters. The gradual transition from the Mesolithic into the Neolithic described by the author may relate to the use of certain places in the landscape over long periods of time rather than a slow introduction of the Neolithic way of life. Similarly the occurrence of Bronze Age material culture on sites used in the Neolithic should really not come as any surprise and, although the landscapes of enclosure, clearance and settlement surveyed and described here appear to be palimpsests, it is difficult to find evidence to support the claim that it is possible that their origins lie in the Neolithic.
There are a number of factual errors throughout the book, which appears to have been poorly proofed: Hyssington (the source of Group XII) is described as being located outside Wales when it is, in fact, in Powys; there is no evidence that the chert sources at Cheddar, Somerset, were exploited in prehistory; the flint from Arthur’s Stone was recovered from a field next to the chambered tomb, not from below the monument. The bibliography is full of typos and there is a lack of standardisation (especially for papers in edited books). Scales are missing from surveys of the barrows at Bach and Garway Hill.
Both this volume and Halsted’s M.Phil (also a BAR: Halsted 2005) have struggled with the archaeology of prehistoric settlement on the border between Wales and England. These problems have been due, at least in part, to the way in which settlement is theorised and the ways in which it is expected to be visible. The equation of surface finds of lithics or metalwork with settlement surely over-simplifies the complex processes of use, discard, survival and retrieval which have been ongoing since the material was first produced. These approaches also underplay both the role of the objects themselves and the experience of dwelling within the landscape and the meaning that this may have had not only on the perception of place, but also the actions appropriate within the context of certain locales. Similarly, there might not be a straightforward relationship between the location of ritual and funerary monuments and the settlements of the people who built them.
In summary, then, this book presents much new, and valuable, data which may have benefited from more detailed interpretation.
Review Submitted: April 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
|The Prehistoric Society Home Page|