4. The Destructive Phenomenon – Chronological Implications

The chronological position of the exfoliated flakes can be established from the radiocarbon dates obtained from the pit depositions in Parc Bryn Cegin (Table 1). Four of the pit groups contain pottery of mid- to late Neolithic date – pit group I containing Mortlake ware with residual early Neolithic sherds, and pit groups III, V and VI with Fengate pottery. All four pit groups produced a range of radiocarbon dates which places the deposits within the period 3400-2500 cal. BC, the allotted time range for Peterborough pottery in Wales (Gibson 1995). Further chronological confirmation for Peterborough pottery may be obtained from Pit FA 370 at the adjacent henge at Llandygai, which produced a date of 3360-3010 cal. BC, although polished flakes were not present in this context. At Parc Bryn Cegin, pit group VIII produced four radiocarbon dates between 2900-2670 cal. BC and 2880-2580 cal. BC, which establishes the chronological position of Grooved Ware at the site and this chronological marker may serve as the terminus ante quem for the exfoliation practice at Parc Bryn Cegin. Although the Peterborough and Grooved Ware chronologies show considerable overlap, it still allows for the primacy of Peterborough-styled ceramics and, as a corollary, extends the practice of axe exfoliation into the mid- to late quarter of the fourth millennium BC. It would also appear from the radiocarbon dates from the Llandygai henge monuments that the ritual activity conducted there would have been contemporary with the pit depositions in Parc Bryn Cegin. The Llandygai dates establish that Henge A was built between 3200-3100 cal. BC and retained its ceremonial functions for at least 300 years (Lynch and Musson 2001, 55-6). There is no date for the construction of Henge B but the period 2700-1900 cal BC spans its ceremonial use (Lynch and Musson 2001, 76).

The question arises whether exfoliation was practised in the timber structure at Parc Bryn Cegin. The early Neolithic date of the structure is confirmed by a series of radiocarbon dates which, when analysed using Bayesian statistics, give a period of use of between 3760-3700 cal. BC and 3670-3620 cal. BC. This places the associated Graig Lwyd lithics in the early fourth millennium BC. Of this assemblage of ten flakes, only two specimens have a polished surface – a small flake and a minute flakelet – and so the evidence for exfoliation is correspondingly tenuous. It is not unusual for polished flakes to be present in Neolithic lithic assemblages, as a cursory glance through the literature indicates – for example, in the causewayed enclosure of Great Wilbraham, Cambridgeshire (Evans et al. 2006), in the lithic scatters of Soham, Cambridgeshire (Edmonds et al. 1999), in the clay-with-flints areas of Sussex (Gardiner 1984), and in the cursus monuments of Springfield, Essex (Buckley et al. 2001), stray polished flakes have been recorded. The presence of such objects neither proves nor disproves the practice, but it can only be confirmed if the exfoliated cores are also represented, as in pit group VIII at Parc Bryn Cegin. What the Parc Bryn Cegin evidence does, however, indicate is that the practice of depositing a broken and deformed axe in Pit 1619 was undertaken contemporaneously with, or slightly later than, the occupation of the timber structure, thus dating it to the first quarter of the fourth millennium BC.

4.1 The destructive phenomenon – a case for ritual fragmentation

Although the destructive acts undertaken in the pits at Parc Bryn Cegin are separated by a considerable time gap, they nevertheless confirm that laboriously constructed objects such as axes may have had an equal if not greater social value than their use simply as utilitarian artefacts. It could be further argued that the value of Graig Lwyd axes may have been considerably enhanced by their premeditated destruction.

Depositional practices involving the burial of fragmented stone axes are a consistent feature in the Neolithic of Britain, and it appears that exfoliation is but one, and possibly the least documented, aspect of this phenomenon. In this respect the calcined axe from pit 1619 at Parc Bryn Cegin exhibits this practice, as do the numerous examples from the adjoining henge complex of Llandygai. In Henge A, for example, Pit FA 536 produced a Great Langdale (Group VI) axe in mint condition that had been placed standing vertically, blade downward, in the pit (Lynch and Musson (2001, 46, fig. 21). A second pit (FA 370) containing a cremation, two sherds of pottery in the Peterborough tradition and a flake of crystal tuff, also included a large axe polisher, of uncertain petrographic provenance, placed beside the cremation (Lynch and Musson 2001, 45-6, figs 18-20). In Henge B, pit FB39 replicates the evidence from Henge A whereby a triangular slab of sandstone, interpreted as a possible axe polisher, had been placed as a cover stone to seal the deposits below.

The deposition of axes is particularly well attested in association with late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery. Roe (1999) has recorded 28 instances in England as far north as Yorkshire in which axes are associated with a variety of organic materials and artefacts of a specialised type. Sixteen of the examples noted by Roe are in pit depositions and invariably the axes are in a fragmentary condition; examples from well-defined petrographic groups are represented and five are associated with Graig Lwyd axes. The recently reported ancillary pit at Rothley, Leicestershire (Cooper and Hunt 2005), may now be added to the list. This site featured a large pit complex containing a rich assemblage of Grooved Ware pottery, in association with a sandstone plaque with a stylised face, flint debitage, 25 flint scrapers in mint condition and the remnant cores of two Charnwood Forest axes (Group XX) with their polished surfaces systematically removed by flaking. A smaller ancillary pit contained a single Grooved Ware sherd, a large sandstone rubber, a golf-ball sized ceramic ball, animal bone and calcined flint debitage, among which was a flint axe fractured by extreme heat to the point of almost total disintegration.

Cleal (1984, 148) has defined the nature of the artefactual items in Grooved Ware pits as either 'rare, unusual, difficult to obtain or upon which a large amount of labour has been expended', and invariably such items have been deliberately deposited. In such cases the burial of material wealth may have been used to further social and political relations. There has been much speculation (Richards 1984; Thomas 1984; Thorpe and Richards 1984) on the type of society that could, in the mid/late third millennium BC, command and control the exchange of such extravagant wealth with the sole commitment of expending it on ritual activity, and in the process establish in specific parts of south central England well-defined ritual landscapes. It would appear that while the makers of Grooved Ware pottery intensified their participation in ritual activity within certain prescribed areas of southern central Britain, the process of demarcating the landscape had begun during earlier stages of the Neolithic with the creation of labour-intensive communal sites, such as causeway enclosures and henge monuments, where equally potent ritual practices may have played a central role. In such rituals the deposition of axes in complete or fragmented form must have been of some importance, as the evidence from Parc Bryn Cegin and the related henges of Llandygai indicate. The chronological evidence from Parc Bryn Cegin further confirms that the practice of axe fragmentation is associated with Neolithic pottery that is earlier than Grooved Ware, extending the practice further back in time by a period of approximately one thousand years.

It may be further suggested that Parc Bryn Cegin may have formed part of a well-defined ritual landscape encompassing the Llandygai ceremonial monuments and that the placing of the pits along the crest of the ridge overlooking the henge complex may have demarcated one boundary of this landscape. Its territorial extent, however, may have continued beyond, to the northern shore of the Menai Strait in Anglesey where a number of structural features could further demarcate its limit. Prominent among these would be the henges at Bryn Celli Ddu (Lynch 1969) and Castell Bryn Gwyn (Wainwright 1969), the ritual activity associated with Bryn yr Hen Bobl (Hemp 1935), the purported presence of the Bryn Celli Wen causeway enclosure (Edmonds and Thomas 1991) and the dense distribution of axes from western Anglesey (Lynch 1991), all vestiges of this much-fragmented third millennium ritual landscape on the shores of the Menai Strait.


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