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Neolithic in the Marches

25 July 2013

In the May/June issue of British Archaeology another Neolithic complex is explored – this one in Powys, in the Marches, the border land between Wales and the former Kingdom of Mercia. It is known as the Walton Basin, an isolated valley 30 miles NW of Hereford, and it contains a causewayed enclosure, two cursus, (one over 4km in length), three palisaded enclosures, ring ditches, a stone circle and standing stones, an Iron Age hill fort and various camps, a Roman marching camp, a Roman fort (and a settlement), Roman roads, an early medieval church and settlement, a piece of Offa's Dyke, and variousd medieval castle mottes (earthen), a medieval town and a stone castle at New Radnor. A lot of this was discovered by aerial photography and most of it has been largely ploughed out and there is very little to actually excavate.

The Neolithic enclosures built between 4000 and 2300BC are probably the most interesting remains – but it depends on which piece of history interests you most. The large palisaded enclosure around a large penannular ring ditch is almost as big as the earthwork surrounding Stonehenge – which gives you some idea of the size and importance of the complex. As in all such things the key is the topography in which it is all situated. It lies directly on an old route that remained in use over the centuries, between the Welsh uplands and middle England, between Radnor Forest in the west and Herefordshire to the east. Farmers exploited the river valleys throughout the year and made use of the uplands as summer pasture – it happened everywhere throughout the country, and across mainland Europe. Spain is a good example. The springs in the Walton Basin caused the grass to grow early – almost as early as late winter. An ideal location for livestock. In fact, Welsh drovers in the late medieval period used it as a route from the Welsh hill farms to the cattle markets of lowland England – such as Shrewsbury, Banbury, and Northampton. This began in the 14th and 15th centuries, especially during the Tudor dynasty with its origins in North Wales, and escalated in scale during the 16th and 17th centuries, at the height of the Little Ice Age, when pasture on the uplands of Wales (and Scotland) was reduced by the longer winters and short summers. The drovers, when they emigrated to N America and Australia, became the cowboys, herding cattle long distances – distances that dwarf the journey from Wales to London.

In the Mesolithic era, preceding the arrival of farmers from the continent, and the adoption of animal husbandry (domesticated cattle and sheep) it was the herds of deer that the hunters followed, tracking them from the uplands (in the summer) to the lowlands (in the autumn). Not a lot changed really in the Neolithic – apart from a more direct control of animals. So what was the enclosures all about?

That is the big big question. It took an hour to walk from one end of the Hindwell cursus to the other end – and if procession of some kind were involved, as conjectured, that is a mighty long festival (just the walking prior to the feasting). They would certainly have fired up an appetite and a roasted bullock or pig might have seemed just fine and dandy – after all the chanting (as depicted in the picture books). We don't know what went on – or very little. The cursus was superseded by the large palisaded enclosure – a feat in itself. It was big enough to house the Olympic stadia. The Hindwell Cursus had involved the excavation of 90,000 tons of gravel (and soil) and the Hindwell Enclosure (which cuts through the cursus) required the excavation of just 6,700 tones of gravels – but just for the trench and ditch. It also required the felling, dressing and transport and erection of over 3,300 tons of timber. These were big projects – especially as the population numbers were small in comparison with modern ones. 

Again, water and springs played some as yet unknown role, as springs fed the Hindwell Pond near the palisaded enclosures (a succession of such structures) and became the Hindwell Brook, a tributary of the famous River Wye. More information is available at www.cpat.org.uk/outreach/exhtwww/exhtwww.htm

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