Sunday, 30 June 2013

Llyn Brenig

Llyn Brenig is the fourth largest lake in Wales. A reservoir constructed in the 1970s as a further part of the water supply for North West England (but also North East Wales), although no villages were drowned as part of its creation. There were, however, some Bronze Age remains that were submerged, a series of excavations revealed prior to the flooding. The whole valley here seems to have been something of a nexus for Bronze Age people, with many signs of activity here. 

Most significant, as seems usual in Bronze Age sites, are the number of cairns that dot the hillsides. A cairn is the name for a stack of stones, and was predominantly used in the Bronze Age to mark a grave. Over the centuries, these have usually vanished, leaving only the revetting kerb of stones to mark its presence. 

There is evidence of hunter-gatherer presence in the valley, dating to about 6500BC, where some remains of campfires and hearthstones have been discovered. This transient lifestyle left very little other marks on the landscape, however. It is Bronze Age sites, dating from around 2000-1500BC, that are most predominant here.

The Llyn Brenig Archaeological Trail takes in a lot of these sites, and is a handy introduction to the landscape! I'll begin with the burial mound known as 'boncyn arian', or 'silver mound', which overlooks the lake itself. 

Originally covering a single cremation, the mound was constructed around the grave through a combination of posts and stone walling. Later, six further cremations were dug into the mound, two of which were in urns. These have been dated to 1620BC and 1570BC, and one of them is said to have contained the burnt earbones of an infant, which is thought to be a practice peculiar to North Wales. 

Close to the burial mound is the ring cairn.

Thought to be a ceremonial site closely associated with the whole cemetery, at about 18m in diameter it certainly is an impressive structure. A circular stone wall, thought to be about half a metre high, was surrounded by a ring of 20 post-holes. The ring cairn has been reconstructed following the excavations to show how this important site would have looked. 

I call it an important site because it seems to have been a focus for some sort of ceremony, which an intelligent guess will lead one to assume was closely associated with the whole necropolis. A number of pits were discovered that are "associated with charcoal deposition", which seems a bit odd, but also four cremation burials were found here. Two of these were in urns similar to those found at Boncyn Arian. The level of activity here seems to have been quite prodigious, radiocarbon dates show activity to be between 2179-1880BC, and 1318-1072BC. So, whatever it was for, it had a long life doing it.

The lake now covers what was possibly a focal point for the cemetery, a Bronze Age round barrow. There is, however, another striking ritual feature further up the hillside, the platform cairn.

This cairn is 23m in diamater, with an open centre that originally housed a massive wooden post. The excavations show it was built in two stages, beginning shortly after 2000BC. It's original shape would have possibly been similar to the ring cairn, minus the surrounding posts, and with the open centre made out of a circle of 26 upright stones surrounding the wood post. The outer stone wall covered the cremation burial of an adult and a child, who were placed in an urn on the south side with the bone handle of a dagger. 

Later the open centre was filled with quartz to form a continuous platform, covering an urn filled with charcoal. At the same time, a small additional cairn was added, covering another charcoal-filled urn that also housed a burnt piece of flint.

What can be made of this? A lot of charcoal was buried here, which seems quite odd. Charcoal was used during the Stone Age to create some of the cave art that can be seen in France, for instance. It is also used in metallurgy, as it can burn to very high temperatures, though I have no idea if Bronze Age man knew this. But there is a strong tradition throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages of our ancestors purposefully 'throwing things away', as a sort of ritual offering, so if charcoal was a useful commodity at this time for the working of metal, maybe that was why they buried so much of it here. 

In addition to these possible ritual centres, there are numerous cairns that have been disturbed prior to the excavations in 1973-5. I assume this was because burial mounds were readily presumed to contain more interesting finds. One such cairn is a short way down the slope from the platform, Waen Ddafad:

No cremations were found here, though a central pit was discovered, containing a whetstone. Further burial mounds can be seen on the opposite shore of the lake, with one on the island that has formed close to that bank.

The whole complex is quite intriguing, if only for the supposed ritual monuments, the ring cairn and platform cairn, that aren't usually found at barrow cemeteries. To what exact purpose they would have been used we will never be able to say, of course, though their presence here does begin to form a bigger picture of prehistoric society as one where the dead played a large part. There were less than a million people inhabiting the British Isles during the Bronze Age (compared with the roughly sixty-three million people here today), with still something of a transient lifestyle, the settlement here at Llyn Brenig being described as 'seasonal'. It is possible that the area only saw human habitation at certain times of the year because of the rituals that were performed here. Precisely what rituals these were, we will never know, but again, an intelligent guess-work based on archaeological evidence can provide a possible answer. 

In the Cotswolds there are many examples of chambered tombs that feature a 'forecourt' between two 'horns', where evidence of fires being lit over a long period of time has been found. Burials in these tombs often take place over periods, rather than just once or twice, the tombs becoming something of a communal grave site. While we only have round barrows at Brenig, rather than Severn-Cotswold style chambered tombs, it is clear that certain rituals were performed at tombs, perhaps on the anniversary of a death, or as a sort of wake when a burial was interred. What is clear is that the Bronze-Age idea of what a grave is and our contemporary one are quite different. They aren't just leaving flowers in commemoration, we're talking about full-on feasts at some places. Bronze Age society was not hierarchical, from the evidence available, so those commemorated were just ordinary members of the family or community. Without knowing anything of prehistoric religion, it seems somewhat facile to attribute such grand resting-places to 'a wise man' or the like. 

So we have to make the assumptions that the barrow cemetery here at Llyn Brenig was a place of special significance for the community here, who returned to the site at certain times of the year to take part in certain rituals among the graves of their ancestors. Sites like Seahenge, where the trunk of an oak tree was half-buried upside-down within a ring of posts, point to a religion where the earth has a special significance. The custom of dropping objects like daggers and spears into lakes and bogs can be seen as a ceremonial offering of precious and useful objects to the earth - which perhaps accounts for the buried charcoal here. If Bronze Age religion reveres the earth as something sacred, then returning people to the earth upon their death perhaps gives these ancestors some sort of sacred power, now that they are communing with the earth. As such, it would perhaps follow quite naturally that ceremonies would take place within such graveyards. 

It's an intriguing thought, of course! But it is, after all, just a theory. We must be resigned to the fact that we'll never know what was going on here. But the mystery is part of the attraction for me as a prehistory enthusiast!

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