The Prehistoric landscapes of Stonehenge and Avebury are familiar. The astonishing Thornborough Henges are works of staggering, bewildering scale and meaning. The passage tombs of Anglesey are wonders, the dolmens of the West Wales coast and quoits of Cornwall fascinate and beguile. They continue to ask questions of our ancient past - questions without definitive answers. Mystery like clay, moulded into images of our own making and imaginations. And where does North East Wales feature in this ancient tale? You would perhaps be forgiven for thinking that this corner of Wales was devoid of such a very distant past. Cairn and tumulus, certainly, but hardly a Bryn Celli Ddu or Barclodiad y Gawres - little lumps and bumps.
Yet, there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that North East Wales, centred on its rivers, the Dee, the Alyn and the Clwyd, was a hugely important centre of the Neolithic and Bronze Age - and older, the Mesolithic and even Palaeolithic. In truth, that evidence has always been with us, but nevertheless, Clwyd has been quietly ignored it seems. But the remains of the Proto-Neanderthals in Pontnewydd Cave, and the Mesolithic rock art of Rhuddlan suggest Clwyd should be seen very differently.
A ghost in the landscape - The Holywell Henge and Cursus suggest a landscape of the greatest importance.
The second largest prehistoric monument in the British Isles, Y Gop stands overlooking a landscape of the very greatest antiquity. How is it possible that a monument of the size and stature of the Y Gop could be so casually shrugged off. And the frankly staggering density of cairns around the Y Gop and in the near vicinity have led many antiquarians and historians to suggest this was the site of a major battle. And of course, a little further south we have the discovery of the stunning Mold Gold Cape, an early Bronze Age treasure, and the Caergwrle Bowl. It would seem obvious that what we have here is an area of the very greatest importance.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the fairly casual dismissal of an ancient Clwyd is its lack of a Bryn Celli Ddu or Barclodiad y Gawres. Outside of Capel Garmon in the Conwy Valley, our chambered tombs are broken shadows in the earth. Our stone circles are distant from centres of population. Our discoveries are hidden away in storage in London and Cardiff, or on display three hours or more distant from their home. And we have no Stonehenge or Avebury.
And yet, between Ysceifiog and Holywell, within the confines of the much later Holywell Racecourse, is perhaps an indication of just how very important this area was to our ancient ancestors. There, just south of the A55, is the remains or what would seem to be a henge. These circular (sometimes oval) earthen enclosures date from the late Neolithic, early Bronze Age (3000-2000BC), and our best guess is that they performed some form of ritual function in society. Guess work is all we really have.
What was particularly interesting to historians and antiquarians was how what was thought to be Offa’s Dyke abutted the henge, ending at its south east and continuing to its north west. Was this evidence of the Saxons utilising the ancient henge in some fashion, possibly respecting the ancient landscape? This always seemed unlikely, given the undoubtedly pragmatic, practical purpose of the Dyke. Curiously, it took some time to come to the conclusion that perhaps this linear earthwork was not in fact Offa’s Dyke, but rather a cursus. These earthwork enclosures, incorporating parallel banks and ditches, are startling aspects of our ancient landscape, linking further earthworks, henges more often than not. They are perhaps some of the most intriguing evidence of our ancient ancestors. And here, in Clwyd, we have a henge and cursus of our own.
The cursus itself is better described as a bank barrow - two parallel ditches with a central mound running from the south east to meet the henge before continuing to the north west. It remains visible to the naked eye as mere lumps and bumps, but is quite visible as a henge and linear earthwork from above.
The henge has been excavated on several occasions, firstly by Cyril Fox in 1925. Within the henge is what has been described as an ‘eccentrically placed’ cairn, a little of centre to the mound. Fox found within the local stone and boulders a cremation burial within the remains of an urn - a later, secondary burial. Beneath the cairn, within a grave pit he found the much reduced remains of the original incumbent - a much reduced skeleton of a man, aged some 35-45 with notably large teeth, it seems. The henge was found to be surrounded by a circular trench some 6ft wide and 3ft deep with sharp, vertical sides. An entrance into this trench leading from the outer berm was found to the north, while within the henge an entrance to the grave pit was discovered.
Two further later burials were found, one in the circular trench to the south of the henge and another, a woman of middle age, close to the cairn within the henge itself. It is not unusual to find later cremations and burials added to existing cairns - evidence of the continued reverence for these ancient structures. There seems little doubt that the henge and cursus are contemporary to one another, and so it's clear that this area was one of high status. The later burials here must have been of individuals of considerable stature, as was the original. Dating the henge, bank barrow and original pit burial are problematic, but would seem likely to be later Neolithic - the later burials cremations of the early Bronze Age.
Later excavations in the 20th century have seemed to indicate that the henge is indeed connected to a bank barrow or cursus, that in fact Offa’s Dyke runs a little further to the east.
The identification of a henge and cursus (bank barrow) is further evidence that this area of North East Wales was one of huge importance - and likely so for a very long time. The henge would have likely been a centre of society, a coming together of peoples throughout the area, perhaps for ritual, perhaps for more overt political and practical reasons. The bank barrow or cursus might well have been a simple avenue to enter the gathering within the henge, but likely a more formal approach to a more formal gathering.
Together with the enormous presence of Y Gop, the astounding number of cairns (probable indicators of a large number of high status individuals) the later presence of a people capable of producing wonders in metal such as the Mold Gold Cape and the Caergwrle Bowl, and what we have here is a landscape of almost unimaginable importance. One wonders what further investigations would reveal.
E. Davies, The Prehistoric and Roman Remains of Flintshire, Cardiff (1949)
Ed. A. Barclay & J. Harding, Pathways and Ceremonies. The cursus monuments of Britain and Ireland, Neolithic Studies Seminar Papers 4, Oxbow Books, Oxford (1999)