On January 2nd 2012 Helen and myself were invited to have a look at an area of moorland which had been fenced off at Bancbryn as part of the wind farm development on Mynydd Y Betws. This development has caused considerable local disquiet for a number of reasons and some of those actively campaigning against the wind farm wondered whether the archaeological work in advance of the development had been carried out properly. We visited on a pleasant day with no wind although at one point we were pelted by hail stones the size of marbles – very painful. There are currently three scheduled monuments on Bancbryn and we decided to head straight there. What we found certainly justified the trip. Within moments we had identified several sites including a number of stoney mounds, a few hollows, a line of pits with associated banks and leading into and returning out from the fenced off area – a line of stones. In amongst these archaeological features but significantly not actually touching any of them were the scars of archaeological trenches indicating that excavation had indeed happened but appeared to have missed all the visible archaeology. We took a few photographs and headed off to have a look at other areas where further earthworks were identified although we could not be certain if they were going to be directly affected by the development since there was no fencing in place.
Helen contacted the local archaeological trust to inform them of our discoveries. They were initially very dismissive of our claims saying that the hillside had been extensively studied. Eventually they agreed to accompany us on a visit and a date was set. On the morning of Monday 16th January we met up on site. We asked if an earthwork survey had been conducted as part of the archaeological evaluation and were told that they had not felt it necessary since the ‘desk based’ assessment had not indicated there was a need. We expressed our dismay at this decision and we then proceeded to the site. We showed the DAT officer the features we had identified and he explained to us that they had not been found previously because the area had been under thick vegetation. This response may be challenged on many levels. What evidence did he have that the archaeology was not previously visible since an earthwork survey was not conducted in any case? In addition earlier photographs of the area appear to show a low grass cover! However, for the sake of clarity let’s just accept the explanation that this area adjacent to three scheduled monuments was covered in a high sward of vegetation making it impossible to see the archaeology hiding beneath. If this was the case why on earth was the vegetation not cleared? After all a brand new road was going to be built which was to be capable of taking lorries each weighing over 100 tons, this was serious civil engineering not some puny track for a bloke on a pushbike then. Surely construction works on this scale would have a somewhat negative impact on any archaeology which might have inconveniently stumbled in the way of such progress. Our visit confirmed there were indeed archaeological remains and we are confident that future work will demonstrate that they are (I mean were) of some importance. If we accept these remains were not seen during the mitigation work because they were hiding unhelpfully or even shyly beneath a carpet of vegetation then it is imperative we bear such a possibility in mind when carrying out research. It is perfectly understandable that archaeology slips through the net for a variety of reasons and indeed if it did not we could be accused of spoiling the fun for future generations! However when one is in the ‘last chance saloon’ as archaeologists we must remember anything we miss will be lost for ever ,so surely we should try extra hard to record everything that is visible and ensure that the site record is as complete as humanly possible? It is difficult to believe that it is acceptable in any way to squander such a chance by not carrying out an earthwork survey first and then during the works failing to ensure that the archaeology is even looked at properly. If such work had been carried out in this instance and had been looked at, it is tempting to speculate the various features would have been spotted immediately. After all it took us less than 5 minutes to spot four separate monuments.
The stone row is probably the most important of the features we found and as it is associated with over 30 cairns some of which are kerbed it seems to form the focus of an incredibly important ceremonial landscape where the form of space between the numerous earthwork and built elements are as integral and important as the earthworks themselves. I have spent much of my archaeological working life on Dartmoor and for one moment as we walked along the row I felt as if I had somehow magically been transported in an instant 100miles south. This is important because the form is so identical as to suggest a definite and tangible link between these people. The small size of the stones reflects what was available and even on Dartmoor some of the rows are formed by similar sized stones. On our first visit it was not possible to trace the full length of the row. Helen has been back and using a hand held GPS traced it for 700m. The row is aligned south west to north east which is the most common alignment for South West England rows. So it looks like a row, is associated with the sorts of things rows normally hang out with and even the alignment is right! Many of the stones peep through the peat and many more are probably lurking below. The similarity with the English examples is striking and may even give some of my colleagues in the South West an excuse to brave the Severn crossing to see for themselves evidence for ancient cultural links and a row not built with granite.
The discovery of this exciting monument has been tempered by the realisation that it is being cut into three parts by the new roads and the feeling that if it had been known about before it could have perhaps been saved in its entirety. Is it greedy to wish that the whole site could have been protected? It is now too late. The site is delicate and the huge diggers which have been trundling across it have already caused irreparable damage. As well as the inevitable damage to the row its whole setting is going to be mangled by the new roads and neighbours – the 110m high turbines. It is to be hoped that the row will survive its amputation and outlast its temporary ignominy. To this end I have asked Cadw to schedule the monument as a matter of priority to ensure that any straying diggers do not complete the destruction.
The other great sadness is that the archaeological profession in Wales has seen fit to ignore us. Finding archaeology would appear to be a crime. Community Archaeology – I think not. First they refused to accept that you could have found something then they exclude you from the process – perhaps because you questioned the strategies which precipitated the situation. Who knows – perhaps they will tell us one day. Both DAT and Cadw promised to keep us up to date with developments. DAT promised during the site visit to let us know straight away what they would be recommending and Cadw have simply refused to acknowledge a request for information despite initial assurances that they too would keep us informed of the exciting developments. So 10 days after informing them of the discovery we are reduced to finding out what is going on and their current thinking from press releases alone. Between Helen and Myself we have more than 50 years’ experience of working in moorland environments and have profitably involved locals in many of our projects. Perhaps this experience is considered a threat? Who knows – we certainly don’t. Perhaps it was because we were accompanied by wind farm observers? Perhaps it’s because we live in the area and overlook the hill? Or might it be that they would rather not have admitted to missing such an obvious and potentially important archaeological monument? Could it be a combination or all of these things or perhaps something else entirely appropriate? It would be great if they could tell us one day! Or perhaps we’ll just have to wait for the press release.
In the meantime we sincerely hope that having demonstrated there is amazing archaeology on this hillside they will now carry out full earthwork surveys to record what is about to be destroyed before it is too late and follow these up with a thorough excavation of the two segments of row and the other features which because of their potentially great age have carelessly stumbled into the path of the oncoming road!
Sandy Gerrard, 25th January 2012
Sandy is a former English Heritage designation officer for 20 years. Much of this time spent on Dartmoor scheduling monuments. Now a freelance consultant mainly working on a large-scale mitigation project connected with a large mine in Devon. Have also excavated and surveyed extensively in South West England and South Wales. Interests include the impact of bracken on archaeology and the historic tin industry.