part 4 - Mysteries in the Mountains!
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a lack of interesting weather of late, I thought I might head up into
the hills on a sunny August afternoon, into the heart of the Plynlimon
range, pictured below on a thundery day in late June. The obvious track
winding its way over the hills is manageable with a 4x4 but is getting
very rutted in places - car drivers are better-off avoiding it and
walking. It passes Foel Fadian and the incredible ravine of
Esgairfochnant, runs above the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust Reserve
at Llyn Glaslyn and up over a shallow ridge, before moving on to one of
my favourite areas, the country around Bugeilyn. Here is a wilderness
to walk in dreams...
times I have been up here, sitting in quiet contemplation or looking
for flint arrowheads (with a complete lack of success!), amid the
peat-hags and their blazing fringes of heather. The first thing you
come to along the track is the ruined farmstead of Bugeilyn with its
stand of ash trees. I remember this place when it was in a better
state, but that was many years ago....
A right turn here takes you
out across the moor to the dam of Llyn Cwm-Byr, the smaller of the two
lakes and connected to Bugeilyn by a short sluggish channel....
Beyond, the ground plunges away steeply down to the rolling
hill-pastures that form the immediate flanks of the Dyfi Valley...
Heading back to the track, stopping to pop a ripe bilberry into my
mouth here and there, I came across this unusual sight, literally in
the middle of nowhere (my walking staff - a standard broomhandle - for
A large (and tough) tussock of bilberry, heather and moss with a chunk
blown clean out of it! 2 litre water-bottle for scale...
a few metres away, the resting-place of the ejected mass! It would have
weighed few tens of kilos....
What had happened? Well, a lot of thunderstorms affected this area
about 6 weeks ago (see the last but one diary-entry), and in the
absence of a better explanation (yes, you bet I searched for the
meteorite!), I decided to attribute this damage to a powerful
bolt of lightning, vapourising the water content of a wet tussock and
blowing it apart by explosive steam expansion. If anyone has a better
idea let me know! I have seen similar (but more dramatic) features in
rocky soil up on the Arans and the National Park warden for Cadair
Idris contacted me some time ago to report one found high on that
I retraced my steps to the ruined farm and turned along the track that
runs down to and then alongside Bugeilyn, with its yellow water-lilies
and reedy margins. The boathouse pictured below caters for anglers,
seeking the quiet solitude of this place and the brown trout that can
sometimes go into feeding-frenzy mode when there is a major hatch of
flies or beetles....
Beyond Bugeilyn lies the valley of the Hengwm that runs down to
Nant-y-moch reservoir. The water from Bugeilyn does the trip more
quickly via a tunnel - these lakes are all parts of a hydro-electric
system. Climbing down to the valley-floor, I walked amongst tussocks of
heather and out across flat eroded peat - old turf-diggings over a
century old. This is the view west towards Bryn Cras,
with Plynlimon hidden beyond....
Ancient bogwood protruded from the ground in places - birch, hazel and
other woods that once flourished here at 450m above sea-level. I
continued past drifts of waving
cotton-grass, keeping to the near-black peat, scanning its surface as I
had done on other occasions over the last 20 years...
a corner, I at last espied a familiar sight - well, familiar in that it
I had seen before: if only illustrated in an archaeological journal
in the 1920s.....
perfect Beaker-period chalcedony arrowhead,
lying flat on the peat where some eroding current of floodwater had
left it. Whoever made it did so between 4500 and 3800 years ago. Let's
go for the vaguely middle ground and give it 4150 years old. I
stopped and for a time contemplated the changes, the transitions that
had taken place between its manufacture and my finding it. It seemed
appropriate to photograph it where it lay, next to a modern pound coin.
whoever had so painstakingly made it (detail in image above brought out
with my scanner), the notion that in two millennia the land would be
part of the Roman Empire would have seemed pure fantasy: likewise that
the trees amongst which they hunted would in four millennia simply be
crumbling fragments in the peat on a windswept moor. And how about the
notion that during that fifth millennium that followed, I would obtain
the first ever digital image of it, using a camera with more computing
power than was available to the system that succeeded in putting men on
the moon 40 years previously. How would they have got their heads
around that one?
Such things are vast, impenetrably to outrageously
concepts, as incomprehensible as our imagining the year 6000 AD. The
future can seem so big and terrifying sometimes, especially with the
looming spectres of climate change and oil depletion, but in reality we
know even less about it than we do about the lives of the people who
hunted here along Afon Hengwm in late Neolithic times.
Perspective got the
better of me. I carefully wrapped the find, put it in my shirt pocket
and went on my way.
So, what can we tell about the culture and the climate back then, when
our arrowhead-maker lived up here? Let's look at this in the context of
the known history of Man in Britain. This goes way back!
Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) -
2,500,000-10,000 years ago
This vast timespan represents the earliest known period of human
occupation of what is now the UK. It's amazing to think that on the
timescale above, the Palaeolithic (in red) occupies virtually all of
the black time-bar! It encompasses several glaciations and interglacial
periods, both of which would have radically affected the viability of
human settlement. The inhabitants of the UK at this time would have
been bands of hunter-gatherers who roamed throughout northern Europe
following herds of food animals or catching fish. Who were the earliest
UK inhabitants? There is evidence from bones and flints found in
coastal deposits in East Anglia that a species of Homo was at large
around 700,000 years ago, while other sites in the southern UK indicate
the later arrival of another species approximately 500,000 years ago.
These early peoples made primitive flint hand-axes and hunted the large
native mammals of the period, such as elephant, rhino and deer.
We are permitted to live in the UK by its benevolent climate and the
no exception to this rule. The extreme cold of the following Anglian
glaciation almost certainly drove humans out of the UK altogether and
the region does not appear to have been occupied again until the ice
receded during the following Hoxnian Interglacial. More advanced flint
technology was introduced during this warmer stage, permitting more
efficient hunting right through to the next glaciation, the first of
three during the Wolstonian, which began about 352,000 years ago. There
were two less cold interglacials during this long period, but they were
cooler than the Hoxnian and the next major warm spell, the Eemian,
beginning about 130,000 years ago. There is little evidence of human
occupation during the Eemian. Meltwaters from the last Wolstonian
glaciation had cut the UK off from continental Europe - which may
explain the apparent lack of activity. Overall, there seems to have
been a gradual decline in the human population between the Hoxnian and
Eemian. With a massive ice-cap covering much of the country during the
Wolstonian, perhaps this is unsurprising!
Neanderthal man had arrived in Britain by around 40,000 years ago,
during the cold conditions that typified the Weischelian, the last of
the great ice-ages. Homo Sapiens seems to have followed along about
10,000 years later, but the last glacial maximum, about 18,000 years
ago, may well have pushed him back out again! By the end of the
Weischelian glaciation, Man was moving more widely and creating a
diverse range of tools, including leaf-shaped arrowheads, tabular
scrapers, spears and knives.
Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) - 10,000-6000
The Holocene era, the era we still live in, began 10,0000 years ago.
The cold of the glaciation was replaced by interglacial conditions with
temperatures rising towards levels similar to those of today. Forests
expanded as the warmer conditions set in, and sea-levels rose, cutting
Britain off from Ireland and continental Europe. The environment was
populated by pine, birch and alder woodland inhabited by wild boar,
wild cattle (aurochs), red and roe deer. The life of Mesolithic Britons
seems to have been a complex picture of part-nomad, part-seasonal
occupier and possibly in some areas in some cases, permanent occupier,
with attendant land and food source management under favourable
environmental conditions. Increasing population and the need for
reliable sources of food led to a transition to agriculture, ushering
in the Neolithic age.
Neolithic (New Stone Age) - 4000-2200 BC or
6000-4150 years ago
The Neolithic was the period when domestication of plants and animals
took off in the UK. Whether this was by the invention of new practices
by residents or brought in by incomers is a topic of debate within the
archaeological community and there is much current work involving DNA
mapping of human migrations which tends to suggest the incomers were
responsible, but the matter is not totally concluded. Forests were
decreasing and grassland increasing and although winters were typically
colder than today's, the summers were a fair bit warmer - by as much as
2-3C. The Neolithic embraces much of a time known widely as the
Mid-Holocene Climate Optimum.
According to Realclimate:
"This is a somewhat
outdated term used to refer to a sub-interval of the Holocene period
from 5000-7000 years ago during which it was once thought that the
earth was warmer than today. We now know that conditions at this time
were probably warmer than today, but only in summer and only in the
extratropics of the Northern Hemisphere. This summer warming appears to
have been due to astronomical factors that favoured warmer Northern
summers, but colder Northern winters and colder tropics, than today."
The Neolithic saw the development of societies becoming divided into
differing specialist groups of farmers, artisans and leaders. Forests
were deliberately cleared to provide space for cereal cultivation and
grazing. Domesticated native cattle and pigs were reared whilst sheep
and goats were later introduced from the continent as were wheat and
barley. These people made trackways, stone-built houses, barrows and
chambered tombs and used potteryware and much more ornate flint tools.
Towards the middle of the Neolithic, the first stone circles appeared,
whilst the later part of the period saw the erection of great monuments
such as Stonehenge. This was the time of the next transition, into the
Bronze Age, marked by the coming, during late Neolithic times, of the
Beaker People, known for their distinctive pottery, skills with gold
and exquisite flintwork, such
as the arrowhead illustrated on this page.
Bronze Age - 2200-750 BC or 4150-2750 years
The Beaker People brought with them,
probably from the Iberian Peninsula, the vital techniques of refining
metals from their ores. They must have been seen as mighty wizards! At
first, copper dominated, but from around
2,150 BC at the latest, they had worked out how to make bronze by
alloying copper with tin to make a much harder metal, from which
very effective weaponry could be made. The transition away from flint
begun. In Mid-Wales, there are several sites where these people mined
copper, including one only 10 minutes' walk from Machynlleth that I
helped excavate in 1997.
During the Bronze Age, the climate deteriorated so that warm and dry
conditions gave way to a cooler and particularly wetter regime. This in
turn forced populations away from easily-defended sites in the hills
down into the fertile valleys. Large livestock farms developed in the
lowlands that appear to have contributed to economic growth and
inspired increasing forest clearances. Social groups appear to have
been tribal but with growing complexity and hierarchies becoming
The Iron Age - 750 BC - 43 AD or 2750-1967
In around 750 BC iron smelting and working
reached Britain from southern Europe. Stronger and more abundant than
bronze, its introduction revolutionised many aspects of life, most
importantly agriculture. Iron tipped ploughs could work far more
quickly and deeply than older wooden or bronze ones, and iron axes
could clear forest much more efficiently for agriculture. There was a
landscape featuring arable culture, pasture and managed woodland. Iron
lived in organised tribal groups, ruled by chieftains, and as the
population grew, war between opposing tribes became an increasing
feature of life. This is probably a key reason for the building
of the hill-forts which started to appear around 1500BC and became
common thereafter, only starting to fall out of use a few hundred years
the Roman Occupation. There are a good number of these forts in
Mid-Wales. A cool wet climate persisted through much of this time, only
easing up significantly around 300BC - this marking the transition to
the warmer conditions of Roman times.
It just amazes me to think of what has happened in the time between now
and when that arrowhead was made. The changes, both in the evolution of
human culture and ingenuity and in how the environment permitted
various activities, have been profound. Ancient sites are good places
to sit on a still evening and contemplate such things......
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