Submerged forest at Borth, Ceredigion. Trees are mainly pine trees with occasional oaks. The forest dates from the late Mesolithic to later Neolithic periods. Photo credit: Professor Martin Bates

Professor Martin Bates, Team Lead for the Portalis Public Archaeology Team, reflects on the role played by the sea in the ways in which we think about early prehistoric peoples in West Wales and South East Ireland

As a small child building sandcastles and paddling in the sea at Borth in West Wales the ever-present stumps of the half-submerged trees of an ancient forest (1) always cast their shadows across our intricate network of moats and channels built to protect our handiwork. These trees (and the peat encasing the trees) were well known in our family as my father was a geologist at the university in Aberystwyth and we were always on the lookout for them when we paid a visit to the beach after school in those seemingly endless warm days of our primary school years.

Fast forward to 2012 and my father (now long retired) found some burnt stones in the peats that started a series of regular visits, for both of us, to record and sample the forest.  This is on-going to this day even with dad in his mid-80’s and has so far involved three generation of Bates’.  Periodically uncovered by storms during the winter the forest has revealed a number of interesting finds over the years including a magnificent set of red deer antlers (2), human footprints (3) and most recently a Neolithic hearth (4) in which wood was being used to heat stones.

But turn away from the forest and look out to sea. Cardigan Bay (5) is enclosed by the high mountains of North Wales and the ground of the Preseli mountains to the south but directly west one can only see the ever-changing waters of the bay. However, if you climb high enough on a clear day it is possible to see parts of the Irish coastline.  Today we think of the sea (Cardigan Bay/Irish Sea) as a barrier between the countries, the Irish Sea separates England and Wales from Ireland.  A fact made all too plain by the endless problems generated by an ill-thought-out Brexit.

Left image – Footprints from a small child impressed in the peat at Borth. Probably Bronze Age. Middle Image – View northwards along the Cardigan Bay shore looking towards Llanon, Aberystwyth and Aberdyfi and the snow capped mountains of North Wales. Right image –  Loose collection of burnt stones and charcoal of Neolithic date from the peat at Ynyslas, Ceredigion. Photo credit: Professor Martin Bates

However, rather than a barrier the sea has traditionally been the glue that joins places together. Indeed, until the coming of the railways fast transport around the country was typically accomplished by boat and water rather than across land. As far back as the Neolithic we can see evidence for these links and contact through things such as the burial monuments that are common through Wales, Ireland and Scotland, the distribution of polished stone axes and from later periods ogham/runic inscriptions and the many stories that link our two countries. If we attempt to go further back, we begin to struggle for evidence of these links. Which brings us to Portalis, the project that attempts to understand how humans, from the time before farming, used the space between these modern countries and what, if any, contact was possible between these peoples.

To allow us to think about people in these times we must first recognise that the landscapes of the times, around 10,000 years ago, were very different to those of today.  Lower sea levels meant Cardigan Bay was dry land. Rivers, marshes and forests teeming with red deer, pigs and perhaps wolves existed where nowadays reefs, sandbanks and submerged caves support bottlenose dolphins, sea lamprey and Atlantic seals.  These dryland landscapes were probably inhabited by humans, but their traces are long lost beneath the sea and today only sites such as that at Tanybwlch (6) in Aberystwyth (a Mesolithic site excavated in the early 20th century) stand as testament to the presence of peoples in the area at this time.  By the time the first farmers reached West Wales around 6,000 years ago sea levels had risen and the coastline we all know today had been established.

The shared material culture and monuments of the Neolithic period indicate that these people appear to have good contacts across the sea, and we can assume that travel back and forth, while perhaps not common, was not unknown.  This contact would have been bi-directional with ideas and knowledge flowing in both directions. But evidence for earlier contact, in the Mesolithic, is elusive. We need to remember that most of the evidence we have for these earlier times in both Ceredigion and South East Ireland are the stone tools they left behind. These seem to have been made on locally available stone and we have no evidence of raw materials being moved across the seas at this time. What does however link the peoples in these places, at these times, are the ever-changing environments. Rising water levels, changing vegetation and animals were all challenges to be met and overcome by these peoples.

Left image: Aberystwyth Harbour and mouth of the river Ystwyth. In the middle foreground to the left of the bridge is the location of the Mesolithic site at Tanybwlch. Middle image: Storms of spring 2018 on Aberystwyth sea front. Right image: Sunset across the submerged forest at Borth. Photo credit: Professor Martin Bates

Returning to Cardigan Bay we can surmise how these changes impacted on these peoples. How did our Mesolithic ancestors cope with rising water levels, loss of lands to the sea, coastal erosion? Some geographers and geologists see the tales around the world of flooding (think Noah, Atlantis, Gilgamesh) as memories handed down from these times. In Cardigan Bay we have our own story of flooding, that of Cantre’r Gwaelod, so is this the story, mutated through time, of our Mesolithic ancestors dealing with post-glacial flooding? Very unlikely I would suggest. What these simplistic views of complex narratives fail to address is the nature of both story telling and memory.

Consequently, these stories are more likely to record local flooding (7) and catastrophe rather than one single period of flooding. So when we look at our records both in Wales and Ireland what we are actually seeing is a record of successful adaptation to change and this is where the shared approaches of the teams of archaeologists working on both sides of the water has worked together to produce a narrative of peoples linked by a shared space before, during and after sea level rise changed the geographies of both countries (8).

Prof Bates is a Quaternary scientist who specialises in the study of the ancient landscapes of the Ice Ages.  He has worked across the UK from southern England to the North of Scotland, West Wales to Norfolk as well as in the English Channel, Middle East and East Africa.  He was part of the team that discovered the Dover Bronze Age boat in 1992 and discovered the Happisburg Footprints (the oldest human footprints in the world outside Africa) in 2013.  In 2021 he was awarded the Henry Stopes Memorial Medal by the Geologists’ Association for his significant contributions to understanding the geological environment of Prehistoric Human occupation of Britain.

Photo: Bronze Age red deer antlers recovered from a channel cutting through the submerged forest at Borth. Photo credit: Dr. D. Bates