Stonehenge at dusk

Stone circles and hillforts

Looking at the extent of stone circles in Wales, the growth of Celtic hill forts and what they reveal about the changing society of that time.

Stonehenge: Wiltshire - 2,800 BC

It may be a famous English site in the heart of Wiltshire, but Stonehenge has an important connection with Bronze Age Wales. Stone circles, versions of simple timber circles, were the cathedrals of their day.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

Within the main stone ring at Stonehenge is the Sarcen Ring of blue dolerite stones - geographically quite different friom all the others - and traced only to the Preseli Mountains in Pembrokeshire.

Archaeologists and geologists disagree over how the stones got there: either they were already in the area, carried by glaciers, or men transported them to Salisbury Hill.

Whilst these stones are something of a mystery, so is our knowledge of what exactly happened at these henges. People may have prayed for fertility, crop growth or tried to intercede with the weather. In short, they were trying to maintain the stability of their lives through a higher power.

Gors Fawr Stone Circle: Preseli, Pembrokeshire - c. 2,750 BC

Gors Fawr Stone Circle
Gors Fawr Stone Circle

Just over 22 metres in diameter, and comprising 16 boulders of igneous rock, Gors Fawr is one of a number of monuments in this area of Wales.

Great Orme Copper Mine: Llandudno- c. 2,750-700 BC

Bronze Age miners could retrieve 50 per cent copper ore with basic tools. Modern man extracts just one per cent per bulk of rock. Great Orme was the oldest industrial complex in Wales: the unique site for Wales' first 'industrial revolution'. The earliest mining at the surface dates to 1600 BC, whereas the bulk of underground workings took place in the Middle Bronze Age.

Great Orme
Great Orme

Visitors can go along special galleries, deep into the hillside, where they can witness the cramped working surfaces of their ancestors. Here they would have smelted the copper, pouring it into clay or bone moulds to make sophisticated axes and other objects.

Finds at the site underline a society in transition. At the start the mine produced mainly tools, but by the end, the focus was on weapons. It was becoming an increasingly competitive warlike world, with people starting to fight for land and food.

Tre'r Ceiri: Llyn Peninisular - 200 BC

One of the most spectacular hill forts in Wales, this site would have made a huge statement at the time. One of 700 hill forts in Wales, this 'Town of the Giants' marked the dawn of the Iron Age, and would have been home to around 50 people.

Tre'r Ceiri from the air
Tre'r Ceiri from the air

A focal point for a number of small agricultural communities, the site is the only place in the UK with masonry still standing, three metres high in places. The emphasis on defence against pillaging and wild animals, points to a well-organised community who wanted to show off to their neighbours and assert 'This is mine!'

Castell Henllys: Preseli, Pembrokeshire - 700-200 BC

This Iron Age hill fort is a perfect example of a smaller community, dominated by a local nobleman. Iron Age communities were very hierarchical, with the largest house for the nobleman, and smaller properties for farmers, peasants and finally slaves.

Iron age huts
Iron age huts

The site, which now houses a totally reconstructed village built on the original foundations, was in a very strong position with fierce defences. On one side lay a natural deep ravine, and on the other a menacing 'cheveaux de frieze' or ankle breaker.

Soldiers would pick their way through the spiky crop of stones, leaving them vulnerable to slingshot attack from above. In reality, there was little need for such defences and it is likely that these were in place to make a statement about the community's dominance in the local landscape.

Llyn Fawr: Hirwaun, Cynon Valley - 600 BC

As water worship replaced that of the Sun, lakes became the gateways to the gods' healing powers and the entrance to another world. Ritual offerings were thrown into water in a bid to appease the gods, and such ceremonies were probably arranged by professional Celtic clergy, or druids.

Image of a Welsh lake
Image of a Welsh lake

During World War Two, the construction of a reservoir revealed some of Wales' most valuable finds. Llyn Fawr produced massive cauldrons, bronze axes, triangular shaving razors, a sickle and a decorative iron sword with bone handle.

The haul in the lake is extremely important evidence of a profound belief system. These ceremonies were probably huge events with people from all over the area, and betrayed a growing sense of desperation about new, powerful enemies on the horizon.


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