Have you ever been to the Llŷn Peninsula? This highly popular holiday destination, with its captivating coastline and magnificent mountains, is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful places in Britain.
Something which the area’s many visitors may not know, is that the peninsula is peppered with hundreds of archaeological sites and monuments which can help us to piece together the ancient story of this remarkable place. In this blog, Julian Maxwell Heath takes us through the earliest chapters in the tale of the Llŷn Peninsula.
By Julian Maxwell Heath, author of From Hunter-Gatherers to Early Christians | 4 min read
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Jutting out south-westwards, into the Irish Sea from the north-western edge of Snowdonia, the Llŷn Peninsula remains one of the most stunning and unspoilt regions of Britain. It has justly been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, boasting miles of stunning coastline and a beautiful rural hinterland. Small wonder, then, that every year thousands of holidaymakers and day-trippers are drawn to enjoy the pleasures of the peninsula, which was aptly described (in the poem, Retirement) by one of Wales’ most famous sons, the poet and Anglican clergyman, R.S. Thomas, as ‘a bough of country that is suspended between sea and sky’ (Thomas was the vicar of the Saint Hywyn’s Church, Aberdaron, a coastal village near the peninsula’s end, and spent his retirement at Sarn y Plas cottage, Rhiw, one of the most beautiful parts of the Llŷn Peninsula).
A bough of country that is suspended between sea and sky– R.S Thomas
Many of these annual visitors, however, are probably not aware that, scattered throughout the peninsula, are many hundreds of archaeological sites and monuments that bear fascinating witness to the diverse ancient societies who inhabited this long and narrow finger of land (which measures 30 miles long and only about 11 miles across, at its widest point) over a period of some nine thousand years.
I first became aware of the ancient heritage of the Llŷn Peninsula, over twenty years ago, whilst an Archaeology undergraduate at the University of Liverpool, deciding that for my final year dissertation, I was going to write about the Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual and ceremonial monuments that survive in its landscape. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I got a particularly great mark for my completed dissertation, but I had a wonderful time travelling the length and breadth of the peninsula visiting the megalithic tombs constructed by its Neolithic communities and the standing stones and burial mounds raised by its Bronze Age ones. Thousands of years later, they stand as a compelling testament to long-vanished late prehistoric families and groups, also providing a striking reminder that the story of the Llŷn Peninsula is a very ancient one.
The First Chapter in a Truly Ancient Story
To date, no evidence from the Palaeolithic has been found in the Llŷn Peninsula; the earliest chapter of its ancient story, discovered so far, dates to the Mesolithic. It would not be unfair to say that the archaeological evidence left by the hunter-gatherer groups of the peninsula is ‘unspectacular’, in comparison to that of their prehistoric successors, comprising as it does of simple stone tools (although this does not negate the skill that went into the making of many of these objects), which have been picked up as stray finds or found in ‘lithic scatters’, mostly at sites around the coastline. However, this does not lessen the importance of these artefacts, which survive as a fascinating reminder of a time far removed from our own, when people lived lives that were intimately bound up with the natural world.
…a fascinating reminder of a time far removed from our own, when people lived lives that were intimately bound up with the natural world.
It is hard not to be impressed by the megalithic tombs that were built by the succeeding Neolithic communities of the Llŷn Peninsula, with some of the examples that have survived, possibly raised by immigrants who hailed from other parts of Wales (or even Ireland). Furthermore, although there is little sign of its existence on the surface today, an archaeological investigation carried out on Mynydd Rhiw, by Christopher Houlder in the mid-twentieth century, and more recently by Steve Burrow, in 2005-2006, unearthed fascinating evidence that there was once a Neolithic axe ‘factory’ on the summit of this rather remote, but wildly beautiful hill.
As in the preceding Neolithic, the most visible and impressive reminder of the peninsula’s Chalcolithic and Bronze Age peoples, are the ritual and ceremonial monuments that have survived from these two periods. Comprising standing stones and burial cairns, most of the latter are now somewhat denuded, having been robbed-out for building material by local farmers (and, also damaged by treasure hunters), in more recent times. However, surviving on the summit of Mynydd Carnguwch – a distinctive, dome-shaped hill near village of Llithfaen – is one of the largest Bronze Age burial cairns found in Wales.
An Iron Age Jewel
The Iron Age and Romano-British periods represent the penultimate chapters of the ancient story of the Llŷn Peninsula. It was during the Iron Age, that the jewel in the archaeological crown of the peninsula was built – the magnificent hillfort that sits on Tre’r Ceiri, the south-eastern summit of Yr Eifl, the striking trio of high hills located on its northern coast. This superbly preserved site, which continued to be occupied well into the Romano-British period, is one of the finest hillforts in Britain – if not Europe. It is also worth mentioning that a Roman auxiliary fort was once located on the eastern edge of the Llŷn Peninsula, at Pen Llystyn; excavations here in the mid-twentieth century, uncovered an abundant collection of fine artefacts.
We finish this brief foray into the archaeology of the Llŷn Peninsula’s ancient societies, in the early Medieval period. As is the case in other parts of Wales, it is the inscribed stones raised by the peninsula’s early Christian communities that have best stood the test of time, with evidence for early medieval settlement sites, scanty. These stones bear carved epitaphs to the dead, commemorating elite members of early medieval society, or alternatively simple crosses, with the latter probably marking land owned by the early Celtic church.
The Archaeology of Ancient Societies in the Llŷn Peninsula