Timeline — the story of South Wales’ longest dig

The pipeline snaking across the landscapeexcavation at Conkland Hill
The pipeline snaking across the landscape excavation at Conkland Hill

Timeline, a new book by Cotswold Archaeology, brings to a conclusion one of the longest (in terms of distance) digs ever to take place in Wales, if not the UK. The project known as the South Wales Gas Pipeline took place during the construction of a 317km gas pipeline that runs from Milford Haven via Felindre, skirting the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, through Herefordshire and on to Tirley in Gloucestershire. The post-excavation project, funded by National Grid, was undertaken by Cotswold Archaeology in collaboration with other archaeological organisations. The development itself was also a collaborative effort involving Network Archaeology, Cambrian Archaeological Projects, the various archaeological trusts, Groundwork Archaeology and the Rhead Group. In planning the route prior to construction great care was taken to avoid known sites of ecological and archaeological potential and importance.

Timeline cover
Timeline

Timeline is a synthesis of the results and covers over 10,000 years of human history, from at least the Mesolithic period to the beginnings of industrialisation. Pipelines by their very nature provide a thin slice across the contemporary landscape and present opportunities to explore past landscapes in areas not usually affected by commercial development. They often provide new and complementary information to existing knowledge that challenges our preconceptions of the past – where people lived and the routine of daily life. Ken Murphy (Dyfed Archaeological Trust) writes about Iron Age settlement in upland areas, Andrew David (formerly Historic England) and Prof Tim Darvill (Bournemouth University) report on Mesolithic and Neolithic activity (the latter including the discovery of a new henge monument), and Heather James (now retired) focusses on Early Medieval farming and diet. Seren Griffiths provides a radiocarbon chronology based on Bayesian analysis for many of the key sites, and James Rackham has written a synthesis of the past environment. Jonathan Hart sets the scene and provides discussion. The project produced large datasets and the book is a gateway to a significant online resource that can be explored at CA Archaeological Reports website (keyword search: South Wales Gas Pipeline).

Key discoveries include a new Late Neolithic henge monument at Vaynor farm – the subject of Mark Gridley’s visualization that depicts its reuse for ritual ceremony some 2500 years after its first construction.  A copper halberd blade with traces of its wooden haft was found during the excavation of a ring ditch at Trecastle (Powys) – a scary weapon (as depicted in the prehistoric rock art of Europe) that could have been used in ceremonial dance, ritual combat or simply for the poleaxing of cattle (see below).

Halberd and prehistoric art of Europe
Rock art figures and the halberd
site visit
Site visit

Other discoveries include a great many burnt mounds – enigmatic features of mostly Bronze Age date that may have been used to provide heated water for cleansing ceremonies. These features are a topic of much ‘heated’ debate for which the project has added some key sites and much new information, including an important set of radiocarbon dates.  Some of these features had troughs, including the preserved wooden example from Upper Neeston, Pembrokeshire. This find attracted much public interest and its lifting was witnessed by the then First Minster for Wales (the late Rt Hon Rhodri Morgan).

Not surprisingly, the route of the pipeline took in many rural areas that provided evidence for past lives and activities. The various features included crop processing ovens as well as evidence for woodland management activity including charcoal production. Charcoal was an important resource in the past and essential for small-scale iron production, as evidenced at Canaston Wood and depicted in Mark Gridley’s reconstruction.

Mark Gridley’s reconstruction
Mark Gridley’s reconstruction of the charcoal production

The publication of the book brings the project to a close and serves to promote the wealth of knowledge created during this remarkable episode in the exploration of the archaeology of Wales. Much of the information gathered during the project is available to access freely online. Copies of the book are available to buy at Oxbow.

Alistair Barclay

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