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Origins: Anglesey's Earliest History

© Hawlfraint y Goron (2012) Croeso Cymru / Crown copyright (2012) Visit Wales

Fire and ice forged the Isle of Anglesey. Today on its shores you can still touch rocks spewed from primeval volcanoes over 600 million years ago. These are some of the oldest rocks in all of England and Wales.

After the lava cooled, oceans covered the land, until the Earth's plates moved again, twisting and folding the rocks into complex forms. Later glaciers, huge rivers of ice, carved out the hills and valleys we see today.

Early humans

The oldest human remains in Wales are Neanderthal, coming from the Pontnewydd cave in Denbighshire and dating from about 230,000 years ago, but no people remained during the big freeze of the last glacial period. 

Mesolithic life; © National Museum of WalesBy about 10,000 BC the world was warming up again, and the glaciers melted. Pine and birch now grew in North Wales, and by about 6,000 BC alder and hazel.

Rising sea levels gradually filled the Menai Strait, rendering Anglesey an island. Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers camped along the shoreline. They left behind finely crafted weapons of flint, wood and bone.

By about 4000 BC the island's first settlers came. They planted on the more fertile soils and slowly, with stone axes, began to clear the forests. During the New Stone Age, these settlers built enduring monuments. They moved large rocks, to create both standing stones like those at Penrhos Feilw and burial chambers, like those at Lligwy, Barclodiad y Gawres, and Trefignaeth.

They knew the seasons and the stars

Bryn Celli Ddu as a henge; © Cadw, Welsh Government (Crown Copyright)What can these sites tell us about the people who built them? At Bryn Celli Ddu, a stone henge monument that was later covered by an earthen mound, archae-ologists have discovered that the passage is perfectly aligned to catch the first rays of the midsummer sun. So we know that the islanders, even 4,300 years ago, already understood something of the spinning Earth they lived on.

We also know from how they decorated the monument that they were exchanging goods and ideas with people as far away as Orkney and Portugal.

In about 2000 BC metal objects begin to appear. At Parys Mountain, near Amlwch, islanders began mining copper. Then they mixed the molten copper with tin (brought in, most likely, all the way from Cornwall) to make the strong, durable alloy called bronze, which was then cast in moulds to create axes, spearheads, and swords. 

Trading across the sea -- metals, goods and ideas

© Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum WalesA trading network developed across the Irish Sea and down the Atlantic coast to Spain. The Bronze Age islanders prospered. At burial sites they left pottery, bronze axes, spearheads, tools, and beads of jet and amber.

Iron is harder and tougher than bronze, and its manufacture spread across Europe, arriving in Wales by about 800 BC. With the Iron Age came a culture that historians would later call "Celtic." 

Some continental peoples did invade and settle parts of Britain, but it seems likely that the Celtic way of life was spread primarily through trade and absorbed by native populations over a long period. Large hillforts dominated Anglesey in the Iron Age. You can still see their remains at Caer y Twr high on Holyhead mountain, Dinas Gynfor on the north coast, and Din Silwy at Bwrdd Arthur, in the east.  These may have been centres of rule, refuges in time of war, or places to trade or store grain.

Roundhouse life

Roundhouse at Din Lligwy; © Cadw, Welsh Government (Crown Copyright)Islanders lived in thatched  'roundhouses', built from timber and stone or clay, like those evident at Din Lligwy. Farmers ploughed the land with a simple iron-plated pole called an ard. They harvested with a sickle and used grinding stones called querns to make flour.  They raised sheep, cattle and pigs, and wove woollen clothing.

The surviving archaeological evidence from across Wales suggests that people lived in dispersed farmsteads, with local community life circulating around focal hillforts.

The Iron Age Celts worshipped spirits, gods and goddesses related to the land and the water, so groves of oak trees, springs, and rivers were sacred sites. For hundreds of years, people came from across Britain to give offerings to the gods at one small Anglesey lake, called Llyn Cerrig Bach. Into the lake they threw their most valuable possessions: iron swords, spears, bronze ornaments, trumpets, iron bars, cauldrons, tongs, horse harnesses, and parts of chariots. All these items were discovered in peat near the lake during World War II, when the RAF extended its runways at nearby Valley. The Llyn Cerrig Bach deposits probably date from about the third century BC to the second century AD.

-- by Philip Steele