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5.6 Dating and discussion

The excavation showed that the boundary consisted mainly of a bank of stones, to which, later in its life, larger boulders had been added, the latest and largest being those forming a line along the crest of the bank. Boulders had also been added to the forward slope of the bank. The original bank was fairly neatly constructed of smaller stones with a rough facing. The bank overlay a buried soil that was dark and humic.

The apparently significant height of terrace proved to be mainly a result of the difference in natural slope on either side of the boundary. Cultivation had cut into the slope a little at the downhill side of the bank, and the topsoil was shallower there, at 0.22m depth, compared to 0.35m at the uphill side of the bank but there was no build-up of soil behind the boundary.

The nature of the buried soil showed that the natural soil in the area was once deeper, less stony and had developed over fine, light brown, possibly periglacial loessic silt. This soil profile was only preserved beneath the bank indicating that it had been mixed and altered by cultivation elsewhere.

The soil micromorphological analysis of the buried soil showed it to be a brown earth typical of the post-glacial woodland soil and that it had not been cultivated. It was a good-quality pasture/grassland soil but had been in the process of increasing soil acidity. Charcoal pieces in it were coarse rather than finely comminuted, which indicated that they derived from original clearance rather than subsequent manuring for instance.

Micromorphological analysis was also carried out on soil from the junction of the eroded buried soil (14) and lower topsoil (3) at the downhill side of the boundary, preserved in the slight negative lynchet. It was hoped that this might show evidence of early cultivation but in fact showed that the soil there had been subject to considerable animal trampling.

The pollen evidence from the buried soil suggested that it had been associated with an environment of grassland with some woodland but with evidence of wheat or oat cultivation nearby.

The charcoal recovered from beneath the boundary bank could have derived from clearance and so provide a date for the establishment of the field system. The charcoal from the lower buried soil (15), identified as alder, produced an AMS date of 4525±30 BP (SUERC-33060), 3250–3100 or 3360–3260 cal BC at 95% probability. However, the hazel charcoal from the pit or post-hole (16) produced an AMS date of 8155±30 BP (SUERC-33061), 7190–7060 or 7300–7220 cal BC at 95% probability. These dates, therefore, derive from human activity in the area long before the period when it might be expected that these early fields were created. That from pit (16) is of the Early Mesolithic period, of which there is only sparse evidence from North Wales, mainly coastal (Jacobi 1980), although charcoal has been noted in sediments of that period (Chambers and Price 1988, 98) and its presence is usually taken to denote some kind of ill-defined human activity. The Middle Neolithic period referenced by the date from the buried soil (15) is contemporary with the construction of several chambered tombs on the coastal slopes south of Harlech. This distinct group of tombs indicates that this area was attractive for early agriculture and became a focus of settlement. However, the buried soil (15) was uncultivated so there is no indication that the field system here began that early, although as grassland it had probably been cleared for pasture. The charred wood was alder, which is more likely to have come from a less-well-drained area elsewhere so is unlikely to have derived from clearance here and its presence is unexplained. Excavation of the Middle to Late Iron Age settlement at Moel y Gerddi, in the nearby uplands, also identified some evidence of activity at about the same period as that from the buried soil at Fronhill (Kelly, 1988, 107 and 137–138).

The post-medieval cultivation identified by the geophysical survey represents a major agricultural improvement phase and is likely to have erased any earlier cultivation evidence. It may similarly have been accompanied by stone clearance that could have removed settlement features from within the central enclosure.

The area is now used for permanent grass pasture but, in summary, the buried soil evidence shows that the early fields would have benefited from an original woodland brown earth soil of reasonable agricultural quality. It had already changed to grassland and begun to acidify before the field boundary was built. Subsequent long-term cultivation would have extended this process, reduced the soil structure and brought more stones to the surface from the fluvio-glacial subsoil. This is probably evidenced by addition of larger stones to the field bank and possibly by creation of at least two substantial clearance cairns here, as well as many more elsewhere on the hillside.


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