The Neolithic Palisaded Enclosure at Hindwell, Powys, Wales

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Alex Gibson

Abstract

Neolithic systems of ditches, embankments and - sometimes - palisade structures represent the majority of the European causewayed enclosures. Enclosures consisting purely of palisades  are quite an exception up to now, especially, if they are as monumental as the Hindwell site in Wales. What might well be interpreted as a single-ditch system from the air, turns out to be a "megadendric" structure of impressive dimensions, dating to the Later Neolithic.

Introduction

Hindwell lies in a basin of rich agricultural land around the village of Walton, near New Radnor in the county of Powys in eastern Wales. The area has long been known to be rich in prehistoric archaeology. Prehistoric enclosures have been located from aerial photography, round barrows, standing stones and a stone circle survive as earthwork monuments, and some 6000 flints have been recovered from ploughed fields. In 1993, the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT) were commissioned by Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments to undertake a survey of the archaeology of the basin to quantify and characterise the resource and make recommendations for its better management.

Fig. 1: Location of the Hindwell site. Abb. 1: Lage des Fundortes im Walton Becken in Ost-Wales.

© Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust

During routine flying in 1994, a large arc of ditch was observed in ripening cereals. This ditch described an arc from a circle some 400m in diameter. Its monumental size made investigation essential and consequently a small excavation was mounted in the summer of 1995 to try and ascertain the nature of the site and to obtain dating evidence.

Fig. 2: Cropmarks at the western part of the enclosure, showing an entrance (circle). Abb. 2: Bewuchsmerkmale im westlichen Abschnitt der Palisadenanlage. Die Palisade ist für einen Zugang unterbrochen (Kreis).

© Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust

Features

This excavation revealed that the enclosure ditch was, in fact composed of a series of closely set postholes. Each one measured around 2m wide at the surface and was approximately 2m deep. Each held the partially carbonised remains of a large oak post measuring on average 0.8 m in diameter which had been placed into the pits down 4 m long ramps. No artefacts were recovered from the excavations, but two radiocarbon dates from the outer growth rings of the posts indicated a construction date of around 2700 BC, the Later Neolithic in Britain.

Fig. 3: A series of postholes during excavation. Abb. 3: Pfostensetzungen während der Ausgrabung. Die einzelnen Pfostenlöcher haben einen Durchmesser von ca. 2 m und eine Tiefe von ebenfalls 2 m. Holzkohlereste erlauben die Rekonstruktion von Eichenpfosten mit einem Durchmesser von 0,8 m.

© Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust

In the summer of 1995, another faint arc of ditch was revealed some 800m to the east. This cropmark was showing as clover regeneration in a recently harvested hayfield. If the line of this ditch was continued, it seemed to coincide with a curving lane and then join up with the 1994 cropmarks to the west. Was this fortuitous or did this arc of ditch represent part of the Hindwell enclosure identified some 800 m to the east? Trial excavation in 1996 proved that this latter hypothesis was correct and produced two radiocarbon dates, once more calibrating to around 2700 BC. Meanwhile, flying over ripening cereals in 1996 located further areas of the southern perimeter of the site. By the end of 1996, some 75% of the perimeter of the site had been detected on various aerial photographs (cropmarks are shown as red on the survey). The enclosure was seen to be far larger than the 400 m diameter originally estimated. It could now be seen to have enclosed an area of 34 ha and to have had a circumference of 2.35 km. This allowed some calculations regarding the enormity of the enclosure to be made.

Fig. 4: Hindwell palisade enclosure - contour survey and cropmark evidence.
Red = cropmarks
Dark green = Bronze age barrows (309, 314)
Roman period features:
313 marching camp
315 fort
33124 road

© Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust

Abb. 4: Hindwell - Höhenschichtenplan und Bewuchsmerkmale.
Rot = Bewuchsmerkmale
Dunkelgrün = bronzezeitliche Grabhügel (309, 314)

Römerzeitliche Befunde:
313 Marschlager
315 Kastell
33124 Straße

 

The spacing of the posts revealed in the two trial excavations suggested that some 1400 posts might be expected over the 2.35 km circumference. The posts were sunk 2 m deep in the gravel subsoil suggesting that they could have stood in excess of 6 m high above the ground. A post with a minimum length of 8 m and a diameter of 0.8 m, would have a volume of some 4.02 cubic meters and with green oak weighing 1.07 tonnes per cubic metre, then each post would have a weight of approximately 4.3 tonnes. This may well be a minimal figure for the Hindwell posts since it assumes that the trees were cylindrical whereas in reality trees can thicken dramatically towards their bases. In this case, their centres of gravity may have been towards the lower third of their lengths and such a tree, bedded 2 m deep in the ground, may well have stood much more than 6 m high. Nevertheless, allowing for this conservative estimate, then the construction of the site would have involved the felling of over 6000 tonnes of oak. This figure is purely for the uprights. There is also circumstantial evidence from analogy with similar sites elsewhere in Britain to suggest that the uprights formed the frame for a solid barrier and therefore extra timbers would have had to be felled and split to form the horizontals. Perhaps as much as another 6000 tonnes, though this figure is derived from little more than guesswork.

In 1998, a grant from Cadw:Welsh Historic Monuments and the European Commission (Raphael) enabled 20 ha of caesium vapour magnetometry to be undertaken over the enclosure interior to try and locate internal features. The site was surveyed by CPAT and digital terrain models (DTM) were constructed by the Discovery Programme, Dublin. The magnetometry was undertaken by Helmut Becker of the Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege assisted by staff from the city archaeology service, Zwolle. The results of this magnetometry were draped over the DTMs to provide apparent relief to the subsurface features. The results indicated that the interior of the enclosure appears to have been largely empty of structures though a number of large pits were revealed. However, it also appears that parts of the circumference may have been double and to have burnt down. The entrance, in the west-north-west was narrow and flanked by two huge postholes 6m across.

Fig. 5: 3D view of a relief map, overlaid with the geophysical survey data. View from the south-east.
© Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust

Abb. 5: Dreidimensionales Geländemodell, kombiniert mit den Ergebnissen einer hochauflösenden Magnetometer-Prospektion. Blick nach Nordwesten.

Interpretation

The vast amount of natural and human resources involved in the construction of this site clearly demonstrates the commitment of the builders to the raising of this monument. There was evidently a compelling need to enclose this large area and define its space, but for what reason? It is unlikely that enclosures of this kind were defensive. Those with outward facing entrances were certainly not so: they would have offered little defense, but instead would have simply invited any potential attackers to burn it down. Rather than forcing would-be entrants to run the gauntlet, the narrow entrance passages would nevertheless have forced them to enter in single file or at least in ordered procession. This also appears to have been the case at other palisade sites with simple entrances. At Mount Pleasant in Dorset and at Hindwell, for example, the entrances were narrow and were marked by massive posts. Again, they would have forced the would-be entrants into single file and orderly procession. Neolithic society can therefore immediately be seen to have at least three tiers with regard to these sites: those who were excluded, those who were admitted (if only at certain times of the year) and those who controlled the right of entry.

Fig. 6: Comparison of palisaded enclosures in the U.K.
Abb. 6: Größenvergleich von Palisaden-Einhegungen in Großbritannien.

© Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust

The narrowness of the entrances served another function, that of obscuring the internal arrangements. The entrance avenues and narrow entrances like those at Mount Pleasant and Hindwell served to restrict vision into the interior, thus maintaining any mysteries that the sites may have contained. That ceremonies may have taken place within these sites is largely a matter of conjecture though logic suggests that they did. At Mount Pleasant a ditched multiple timber circle stood within the enclosure. Restricted access to this circle suggests formalised approach and ordered procession. At Forteviot on Tayside, henge monuments and pit circles within the enclosure appear on aerial photographs. Timber circles or pit circles are also found within the enclosures at Meldon Bridge in Peeblesshire and Dunragit in Dumfries. Assuming that the internal sites are contemporary with the perimeters then the palisade sites draw analogy with some of the larger henge monuments such as Durrington Walls and Avebury where circular arrangements of timber and/or stone appear broadly contemporary with the earthwork enclosures. At least a part of the interior of these sites appears to have been devoted to ritual.
  ## References and further reading

For further information on the Walton Basin project, see:

Gibson, Alex M.:
The Walton Basin Project: Excavation and Survey in a Prehistoric Landscape 1993-97. Council for British Archaeology Research Report 118. London 1999.
For the results of the Raphael-funded magnetometry survey, see:

Gibson, Alex M.:
The Walton Basin, Powys, Wales. Survey at the Hindwell Neolithic Enclosure: Summer 1998. Welshpool: Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust 2000.
For a discussion of British palisaded sites, see:

Gibson, Alex M.:
Hindwell and the neolithic palisaded sites of Britain and Ireland. In: Alex Gibson & Derek Simpson (Eds.), Prehistoric Ritual and Religion, 68-79. Stroud 1988.
For more information on the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, visit: 
http://www.cpat.org.uk/