Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Fascinating Day Out

Yesterday I got to do something very interesting indeed.

You may remember that I recently did some voluntary work with the National Park down here in Pembrokeshire? Well, while doing that I met a very interesting couple who, in addition to their work with the NP, also do work with the local Archaeological Society.

I was chatting to them about their current dig, which sounded fascinating, and so I asked if it was possible to visit as a member of the public. I was delighted when they not only answered “yes”, but also said that all of the archaeologists are very friendly, and that even if the couple I had met weren’t there, then not to be shy about introducing myself and asking questions, as whoever was there would be more than happy to explain everything!

My mum is really interested in archaeology, so I thought that this would be right up her street. I had made sure that I had gotten directions to the most accessible dig (at Craig Rhosyfelin), and that my mum would be able to get to it ok as she has reduced mobility, so as soon as I got in I told her the exciting news. She was as happy about it as I had hoped, and so we planned a day out revolving around visiting this site, plus another famous megalithic site nearby that she has been wanting to visit for ages - Pentre Ifan burial chamber.

So what was quite so interesting? Well, you may have heard of a little monument in England called Stonehenge? – it’s a little bit famous ;)

Some of my pictures of Stonehenge from a visit a few years ago - not the best quality as I couldn't find the originals so I had to download these from my facebook!

It has been known for some time that some of the bluestones of Stonehenge originate from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, and this dig that I had found out about was excavating a bluestone quarry site that had been discovered. Not only that, but they had used chemical fingerprinting to confirm the exact bit of rock that one of the bluestones had been cut from!! How incredible!

Yesterday, after I had taken my car for its MOT, we set off into the hills, following the directions I had somehow managed to remember for almost a week! 

Heading into the Preseli Hills

We went through a ford to get there, not something too common any more I think? I used to get really excited about fords when I was small!

Then we arrived at the dig site. I spotted a lady who was near enough to the edge of things that I could chat to her, and said hello. Her name was Kate and she was busy, but very friendly, and she said that if I gave her a few minutes to finish what she was doing, then she would be able to explain the site to us.

I took a few photos, and then when Kate was ready my mum and I went over to her and she gave us a fascinating insight into the site. I wrote down everything I could as soon as I got home, as I didn’t want to forget anything! So, here is a tour of the site in pictures :)

The rock outcrop above is a confirmed Bluestone quarry site. One stone is definitely from here, and it is likely that one or two others are from here too.

Archaeologist Kate giving us a guided tour of the site

Above is an abandoned monolith that was uncovered by the excavations. It is still resting on stone rails that were prepared for the removal of the rock, but at some point during the manoeuvre it cracked and so was left in situ.

In these pictures you can sort of see the stone rails that the monolith is resting on. This was all totally buried beforehand, and was identified by geophysical techniques before being uncovered.


Next to the bluestone quarry and in front of the megalith, these white tags mark the soil layers of the half of a significant find which has been 'left in section'. This means that where the archaeologists have found something significant, they have not dug the whole thing out, but have left a cross section intact so that the structure of the layers can be seen. 

This find was a fire pit, which had been dug and dressed with stones of quartz. This pattern of using it as a fire pit and then dressing it with quartz had been repeated on multiple occasions. Carbon dating of the layers showed that the pit had been used on different occasions over a period of 500 years. The pit itself dated back 10,000 years - so much older than Stonehenge, which is about 4000-5000 years old, and indicates that this site was perhaps significant long before bluestones were quarried from there! I wonder if there was something intrinsic in the area that appealed to those who saw it all those thousands of years ago, or if it was a cultural significance that was passed on down generations - 5000 years of passing-on does seem like a long time though...


Above is a view of the site from the other direction: the rock strewn area contains patches of soil that had been packed down with crushed stone/gravelly bits, possibly as a firm working area for moving the stones. There are also scrape marks on various rocks, showing where the large stones had been shifted over them. 

Towards the far edge (from this angle) of the excavation, this type of ground just drops off and is replaced by fine alluvial silt, indicating that from this point on towards the now-small stream (the other side of the hedge in the background - where the ford was) was all underwater at that time. Beavers would have lived in Britain back then, so their damming activity could well have contributed to flooding localised areas. Fascinating to think of how different everything would have looked back then!

This little part of the quarry area has been positively identified, by chemical fingerprinting, as the exact site from which one of the Stonehenge bluestones was taken. The gap left behind lies behind the first upright finger of rock.

Kate guiding a student - they had found a potential post hole site, so now the student had to begin trowelling instead of brushing the soil away, so as not to blur the demarkation of the find. That area of more browny-orangey soil where they are working did not have the stone/gravel pressed into it, and in this patch they hope to find evidence of living quarters or similar for the stone workers. Back at that time, people put a huge amount of effort into building stone burial chambers for the dead, however they didn't go to the same lengths for their living homes, so evidence of these is relatively scarce.

After this fascinating tour of the dig site we watched a while as archaeologists dug, brushed, measured and recorded, until we decided it was time to head off to Pentre Ifan - a stone burial chamber - which was a short drive away from the dig site. 

We parked up and walked the short path from the road, and once there we had our picnic. My mum was really happy to have been able to go there - as she struggles a bit with mobility she doesn't often get out to places like this, and we were having a lovely and fascinating day out.

Pentre Ifan has been labelled the most impressive megalithic site in Wales, and it dates from a similar time to Stonehenge. You can read more about it here (or of course do an internet search of your choice!) but I'll leave you with the pictures I took yesterday - it may look familiar to you if you have been on my facebook page!

Thank you for joining me for another bit of my local history. I do find it so interesting, and I hope you enjoy it too :)

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