The Carneddau Landscape: An Archaeological Overview

One quick look at an OS map of the Carneddau range, especially the Northern lowlands, around Tal y Fan and the area to the east of Abergwyngregyn (Aber), and something becomes immediately apparent. There are an awful lot of archaeological sites, especially prehistoric ones, in this relatively small area. What even a cursory glance can tell us is that this is perhaps one of the most important archaeological landscapes in the whole of Wales, if not Britain. After Salisbury Plain it is certainly one of the most concentrated. The area is packed with standing stones, chambered tombs, hill forts, hut circles and much more besides. A rough estimate (from the Snowdonia tourist board) places the number of ancient monuments in the area at well over a thousand. It is clear, even just by looking at a map, that from the Neolithic period right the way through to the medieval period and beyond that this was a region of extreme significance and importance.

The earliest evidence of human activity in the area goes back to the Neolithic. We have, for instance, two chambered tombs to the south of Tal-y-Fan: Rhiw and Maen y Bardd. It is probable that Rhiw originally formed part of a much larger structure of which only this small part is still visible today. The most significant Neolithic sites, however, are located around the southern base Penmaenmawr, including a number of stone circles. Indubitably, these must have had some connection with the nearby axe factory of Graig Lwyd. Axes from this site have been discovered as far away Cornwall, putting it on a par with Langdale in Cumbria as a major centre of stone axe production. The significance of this cannot be understated for it is one of only a few such sites, not only in Britain but in Europe.

A polished stone axe (Via the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

A polished stone axe from Graig Lwyd (Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Despite numerous Neolithic sites across the Carneddau, however, there is very little physical evidence of permanent human habitation. The majority of the Neolithic sites, barring the axe factory, are related to death or ritual. The nearest settlement site for the period is at Llandygai, some nine miles down the coast from Penmaenmawr. That isn’t to say that people were not living in the vicinity of sites such as the axe factory, it is just that no evidence of habitation has been found. This should come as no surprise as it ties into the situation in the rest of England and Wales. Whilst there are plenty of Neolithic sites there are only limited examples of settlement or habitation, a situation that is in stark contrast to the rest of Europe. The Carneddau landscape, it seems, is no exception to the rule.

Evidence for settlement in the Carneddau only goes back as far as the Bronze Age. Examples include hut groups at Aber, similar structures in the south western corner of the range above Rachub, the Pant y Griafolen hut group near Dulyn and a small enclosed group of hut circles to the south of Ffynnon Llugwy. The evidence for settlement certainly significant but the population would have by no means been a large one, less than two thousand across the range. It is hard to imagine today why anybody would want to live in these places. They are often bleak, desolate and unsuitable for any kind of farming barring the herding of sheep. However, in the later prehistoric period these sorts of upland areas would have been ideal areas for arable farming.

The situation here would possibly have been akin to places such as Bodmin Moor and the Peak District where environmental evidence from select sites, for example the settlement at Rough Tor, has shown that during the later Neolithic and into the Bronze Age people in such areas were farming things such as Wheat and Barley, crops that would be impossible to farm in such areas today. Unfortunately we have no direct environmental evidence to support the fact that the same crops were being grown in the region of the Carneddau, or even any crops at all, but if arable farming was taking place here the crops grown would have doubtless been something similar to those on Bodmin. The warmer climate of the period meant that it was certainly a possibility.

Unlike the sites at Bodmin, which were abandoned when the climate cooled towards the end of the Bronze Age, habitation in the Carneddau continued into the Iron Age and Roman periods. Certainly, the sites on the higher ground such as those in the South West corner would have been abandoned but around much of the northern lowlands human habitation continued into the Iron Age, with some of the Bronze Age sites around Aber showing evidence of continuous usage. We can see this reflected in the positioning of the archaeology. All of the post Bronze Age sites are located in the northern lowlands with the sites on the higher ground to the south being exclusively Bronze Age and Neolithic. This is down to the change in climate and we can safely say that when the change occurred there was a northward migration towards the lower ground.

At the edges of this lower ground are no fewer than three Iron Age hill forts across the northern ridge; Maes y Gaer near Aber and one each on Alltwen and Mynydd y Dref at the north eastern point. As well as these we have another Hill Fort, Pen-Y-Gaer, in the eastern lowlands near Llanbedr-y-cennin. Little study has been undertaken into these sites and their usage so we cannot say how long they were occupied for, though there is evidence that the Romans took advantage of at least two of these sites (Pen-y-Gaer and Mynydd y Dref. The hut circles upon Pen-y-Gaer would certainly suggest habitation but as no study of these has been undertaken it is impossible to say this for certain. The circles could have easily been used as animal enclosures and not for habitation, for example.

Braich y Dinas before it was destroyed (Courtesy of RCHAMS)

Braich y Dinas hill fort, before it was destroyed (Courtesy of RCHAMS)

Until the nineteen twenties there was also Braich-y-Dinas on the summit of Penmaenmawr but today almost all of the hill fort and its archaeology has been destroyed by quarrying. This was supposedly one of the largest hill forts in Europe and before its destruction some limited excavation work was undertaken. This excavation revealed that the fort was occupied until well into the Romano-British period and determined a total of seventy nine roundhouses on the site, at least one of which was discovered to have had double walls and a paved floor and was suggested to have been used for iron working. Braich-y-Dinas was, it appears, the most important hill fort in the area. Modern excavation using modern techniques at a site such as this could have provided a valuable insight not just into the Iron Age of this area, but in all of Europe generally. Because it has been destroyed this knowledge has been lost to us forever.

When it comes to Roman archaeology in the area the main sites are not only few, but also predominantly military. It seems that by the end of the Iron Age activity in the Carneddau had declined greatly, even in the low lying areas of the north. Activity now appears limited to the very edge of the area with the mainstays of Roman archaeology being the fort of Canovium and the road linking it with nearby Segontium (modern day Caernarfon.) Canovium lies on the very edge of the Carneddau landscape, it could even be argued that it lies beyond it, and guarded the crossing point of the Afon Conwy. The fort included a bath house, traces of which can still be seen above ground next to the churchyard that now occupies one corner of the site, and a civilian vicus outside the walls. In general its layout resembled that of any other Roman fort. It followed the standard pattern which can be seen at places like Segontium, Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall and at Caerleon.

The road which links the fort to Segontium hugs the boundary between the high and lowlands of the mountains. Visible traces begin just beyond the village of Rowan and continue until it reaches the edge of the range at Abergwyngregyn. Although the road is Roman, and visibly so for it follows the contours of the landscape and contains several long and straight sections, the route itself may well be an ancient one, based on the number of prehistoric monuments (such as the two chambered tombs mentioned above) which lie beside it. However, this may simply be a coincidence and there is little other evidence to suggest that the route is that ancient. Certainly, it has remained in continuous usage since Roman times, largely as a drover’s route. It was suggested for both a turnpike road in the late seventeen hundreds and as a route for the A55 before the construction of the Penmaenbach tunnel.

Excavation of the royal building at Aber. The hump in the background is Y Mwd. (from BBC news)

Excavation of the royal building at Aber. The hump in the background is Y Mwd. (from BBC news)

We see further migration out towards the edges in the medieval period and, apart from where there is evidence of animal farming such as sheepfolds, the almost complete abandonment of the centre. Activity becomes restricted to the very lowest and remotest fringes of the range. Once again Aber becomes an important place for in the medieval period it became a centre of royal power. Excavations in 1993 and 2010 revealed the remains of a substantial building in the centre of the village. It was certainly used as some kind of administrative centre but there are doubts as to whether it was this site that was the royal palace that was known to be here in the time of Llewellyn ap Gruffudd. The other candidate for the palace is the nearby manor house of Pen y Bryn, which forms part of a larger complex known today as Garth Celyn. It is entirely possible, of course, that both sites have some sort of royal connection, perhaps with the Garth Celyn complex being a family residence and the remains in the village being for administration purposes.

Adding a further complication to the sites at Aber is the mound of a motte next to the remains in the centre of the village, known as Y Mwd. Little is known of its construction and it is probable that it was done so during the Welsh campaigns of Hugh d’Avranches in the late 1000’s but it may instead be a later native Welsh structure associated with the remains beneath it.

Upon the far side of the range, and again on the very edge, we find the town of Conwy. This is perhaps the most important site in all of the Carneddau region, not least because it is the largest, but also because it is the only one still in use today. The prevailing features of the town are the medieval walls and the large castle situated atop a volcanic plug overlooking the Afon Conwy and the estuary into Bae Conwy. These were constructed after the Ewardian conquest of 1282 but the town is built on the site of Aberconwy abbey, of which only the abbey church now survives in the centre of the town as the parish church of St Mary & All Saints. The abbey was the burial place of Prince Llewellyn ap Iorwerth and his two sons Dafydd and Gruffydd although after the conquest these burials were removed to the Abbey of Maenan along with the Cistercian order that resided here. Later features of Conwy include a medieval merchant’s house of Abercowny and Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan town house.

As you can see, the number of sites within the Carneddau area are indeed numerous and cover a period ranging from the Neolithic almost up to the present day. Those mentioned above are only a small sample. But what precisely makes this landscape so important? It is not the number of sites alone, though that must play some part in it. The area itself is a relatively small one, the main range being only two hundred square miles. This makes it about one hundred square miles smaller than Salisbury plain, an area with a similarly high concentration of archaeological sites. Here, however, the age range of the sites is greater, covering a further thousand years at the least, though in terms of what they are is significantly less varied, especially when it comes to Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology.

The copper mines at Pen y Gogarth (Courtesy of utaot.com)

The copper mines at Pen y Gogarth (Courtesy of utaot.com)

In some places the archaeology here is perhaps more important than that found on Salisbury plain. The presence of the Graig Lwyd axe factory is tantamount to this. To my knowledge there is no similar industrial site anywhere on Salisbury Plain, at least not with the same reach as Graig Lwyd. As mentioned above, axes from Graig Lwyd have been found as far away as Cornwall, suggesting that this area was once a major industrial centre, coming just behind Langdale in terms of significance. The wider region beyond the Carneddau, in some cases just beyond the limits of our area, continued to be a major industrial centre until well into the twentieth century. Industry continued across the Afon Conwy with the Bronze Age Copper Mines at Pen y Gogarth, Llandudno, which is a site of global significance. Recent times saw the mining and quarrying of slate at places like Bethesda and Llanberis. The quarry at Bethesda is still operating today. We can even say that industry continues in the Carneddau itself, thanks to the Penmaenmawr quarry which, like the one at Bethesda, is still operating. The history of industry in Wales, which in some respects can be argued to be the history of Wales itself, begins with the Graig Lwyd axe factory, begins here in the Carneddau. That alone makes it a site of national significance.

Many sites are also of historical significance on a political level, especially where the Edwardian conquest is concerned. Conwy, for instance. The town today is a predominant example of the lengths Edward I would go to in order to supress the native Welsh population. Welsh people were not allowed to live within the walls and the abbey of Aberconwy, including some of the less life-active residents, were moved elsewhere. Also in terms of significance is Braich y Dinas as it is rumoured that this was where Edward I and Llewelyn ap Gruffydd met to negotiate terms. Being the site of a royal palace, Aber would have also been witness to other royal meetings and decisions and events in Welsh political history. It is worth noting that just above Aber, close to Bera Mawr, is where Dafydd ap Gruffydd was caught trying to evade capture, essentially marking the end of Welsh independence.

It is clear, therefore, based on the number of sites and the significance of a select few, that the region of the Carneddau is an important archaeological landscape. Yet, especially in the interior, very little study has been undertaken concerning them. There has been some excavation on certain sites, especially in Aber, but many of these excavations have not been recent. The exceptions are excavations of the Bronze Age remains at Aber in 2009 and the excavation of the administrative building in 2010. Alas, what might be the most important site, Braich y Dinas, has been destroyed, meaning we can now never study it. There is certainly scope for an in depth academic evaluation of the landscape and its meaning as well as for further excavations at places like Aber, both with the motte of Y Mwd and at Garth Celyn, and with the surviving hill forts. The importance of this landscape is clear as crystal and more study, in depth study, should almost certainly be undertaken in order to further understand both how and why it became so important.

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