Story of the week: Exploring prehistoric sites on the Gower Peninsula

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* The Dylan Thomas centenary is dominating news around Swansea and the Gower this year but here’s an archive story with a different theme – prehistoric sites. 

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Autumn sunshine over Gower.

The combination of the warm-air micro climate, swell-lapped Blue Flag beaches and majestic 15-mile sweep of coastal peninsula ensures the car park at visitor hub Rhossili Bay is packed as we arrive – and this is October.

The Gower Peninsula was designated the UK’s first official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1956 and it clearly remains as popular as ever. Walkers pull on their boots and surfers wriggle into wetsuits around me, but I’m here for something far more esoteric: stones.

Big piles of stones, in fact.

I’ve come to preview Andante Travel’s Archaeology of Wales and the West tour, which guides amateur archaeologists to some of the best prehistoric sites in Britain, many of them dotted along the coast of Wales.

The tour is perfect for anyone interested in history but put off by images of a fusty, academic ant trail that alienates anyone who hasn’t seen every single episode of Time Team. This trip is about bringing history to life and Andante even provides a folder of cheat-sheet notes for each site on the itinerary.

Just as well. I couldn’t differentiate the Early Upper Palaeolithic Period (35,000-20,000 BC) from the Earlier Mesolithic (10,000-8,000 BC) even if Tony Robinson was jabbing me with an Iron Age flint.

The Gower leg of the tour focuses on the first Homo sapiens reaching Wales, people who are physically identical to us today, and covers the period from Palaeolithic to the end of the Bronze Age around 2000 BC.

The era marked a major evolutionary jump for man with the first cave art, music and stone-crafted tools. Cave-dwelling nomadic humans from eastern Europe came to Britain via a land bridge from northern France. They would spend much of their day hunting, gathering and dodging the wooly mammoths, which wandered the pre-Ice-Age landscape of modern-day South Wales.

They also staged a lot of ritual burials – hence all the stones.

Today sites like the Paleolithic cave at Minchin Hole and the Neolithic, oval cairns of Sweynes Howe in Rhossili Bay are a rich source of clues to our ancestors with animal bones, basic tools and early weapons offering hints to their lifestyle.

“The Gower coast is rich in caves and tombs from pre history to the medieval period,” explains Elizabeth Walker, Curator of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Archaeology at the National Museum Wales, Cardiff. We’re sipping warming coffees at The Bay Bistro & Coffee House in Rhossili, the majestic sweep of the bay to Worm’s Head extending from the terrace where we catch some autumnal rays.

“Some are associated with legends, some offer scientific insights into our ancestors’ lives, others reveal the landscape and the effects of early climate change.”

A skeleton in the closet

I start my journey of discovery not spluttering sea spray on Gower but studying a red-ochre-stained skeleton in a glass cabinet in Cardiff.

The Red Lady of Paviland Cave is the earliest known, formal human burial in Britain and a mere 29,000 years old. Her ladyship, found in a wave-washed cave in Gower’s Rhossili Bay, is just one of the exhibits at the National Museum Wales’ Origins Gallery, a visit to which starts the tour with a crash course in the history of its and a vivid showcase of Wales’ archaeological wealth.

The Red lady currently lies in state in Cardiff without her head. More worryingly, a study in the 1980s’ proved she is, in fact, a 23-year-old bloke.

The trip to Gower the next morning is a study in autumn colours. The narrow roads are lined with rows of rusty-orange trees, sheep graze the dewy-verdant fields and wet leaves form a slippery makeshift carpet as we stop to clamber up a bank to the little-explored Cat Hole Cave.

The accompanying burial chamber, Parc le Broes, is a long, narrow expanse of interconnecting, dry-stone-wall chambers first excavated in 1869. Driving on round the coast, we don’t care when we get stuck behind farm machinery on a tight bend.

There’s no hurry with the sideshow of Gower landscapes from the window.

From Rhossili’s sturdy, stone-built church, the path leads us on a one-mile yomp across muddy National Trust heathland.

The summit of Rhossili Downs is littered with burial cairns and drop-your-Welshcakes views across to the wave-blasted outcrops of Bury Holms and limestone Worm’s Head. Paviland cave, now inaccessible without coastguard permission, is also visible.

Around 8,000 years ago the sea was some 11km further out and these outcrops inland hills.

Access is now limited by the tides and controlled by the coastguard, although little boats do still venture to explore the caves when conditions are good. But the only visitors granted a free run are the razorbills and guillemots soaring overhead, and the seals bobbing in the swell.

Elizabeth once abseiled into a Worm’s Head Cave excavation from a watery platform like a regular Little Miss Indiana Jones. She shrugs.

“I’ve got a thing about stone implements.”

The north face

After a comfortable night at a local restaurant with rooms, we set out the next day for the village of Reynoldston, where the rugged, untamed northern uplands offer a new perspective of Gower. The views look across the cockle fields of the Loughor Estuary to Llanelli to the north and the Brecon Beacons to the east.

The key site on the north coast is a colossal, 25-ton glacial boulder, forged into the capstone of the Neolithic burial chamber.

I consult my notes to learn the capstone would have originally weighed up to 35 tons, while Elizabeth spins the yarn behind the fast facts, explaining that, according to legend, the giant King Arthur cast the pebble from his shoe and it settled on the northern slope of Gower.

Arthur’s Stone, combined with a walk along the headland to nearby Cefn Bryn, a series of Bronze Age ring cairns, proves to me that life as an amateur archaeologist is not all hard and fast answers, especially where the less-documented prehistoric period is concerned.

Visiting the sites and studying the findings of excavations offers clues to our ancient ancestors, but many questions are still unanswered. Why, for example, was Arthur’s Stone was built over a natural spring when most burial places are dry sites? Nobody knows – yet.

“I’ve walked a lot of Gower and I’m always fascinated by uncovering the ancient folklore and legends,” says David Kelly, owner of Gower restaurant with rooms Maes-yr-Haf.

“People think of Gower as scenery and the beaches but exploring the ancient sites helps us connect to our past.”

Andante’s tour heads north from Gower, taking in medieval castles on the north coast around Caernarfon, and exploring both industrial-heritage and ancient-Druidic sites around the coast of the Isle of Anglesey.

By moving through different periods of history, each section led by a different expert in that era, it builds a sense of evolving cultural identity in Wales from prehistoric man through to the attempted revolution led by the Welsh nationalist hero, Owain Glyndwr.

During my time I’ve learnt that the Wales, and especially Gower, is a stunning place for an autumnal sojourn, that early man was remarkably in tune with nature, the seasons and the elements and, most of all, that a big pile of stones is rarely just a big pile of stones.

“It’s what lies beneath. Every monument has it own character and its own story to tell,” says Elizabeth.

“We were always drawn towards the sea as humans and monuments to the dead are also monuments to people from our past.”

“For me,” she adds, ” archaeology is all about people relating to people.”

* This story was first published in Coast magazine in 2009. Liked this? Try also Blogging the Dylan Thomas centenary.

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