Early Invaders and Settlers

The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Ages


During the Ice Age Glamorgan bore a resemblance to Antarctica, but periodically the temperature would rise to produce a milder climate. Compared with the timescale of geological evolution, man's presence on this planet is brief. It was, however, during one of these milder intermissions that evidence of his existence first appears in South Wales. A quartzite handaxe was picked up at an allotment site on Penylan Hill in 1953. It is now in the National Museum and estimates of its age vary from 75,000 to more than 200,000 years old.

The axe was owned by a man from the Palaeolithic Age. Knowledge of his lifestyle is meagre but the axe might have been used for cutting up meat, digging edible roots out of the soil, or for extracting the marrow from animal bones. "Penylan Man' was capable of making a fire to cook his food and he supplemented his diet by foraging for berries and plants. He used a wooden spear to hunt bison, deer or smaller animals such as rabbits, all of which were in abundance whenever the Ice Age relented its freezing grip. These early humans were nomads, living wherever game could be hunted in reasonable safety. Much of their time was spent in avoiding danger, for this was a time when lions, bears, rhinoceros and wolves prowled throughout Wales in search of food. So it is unlikely that the wanderer who mislaid his axe remained at Penylan for very long. In the whole of Wales there were probably no more than fifty of these nomads. When the climate became colder they moved further south, unrestricted by the barrier of the future English Channel until the final stages of the Ice Age.

Few traces remain of this era when life was so precarious. However, we have a glimpse of man's existence in the later Palaeolithic period, following the discovery in 1823 of the "Red Lady of Paviland' at Goats' Hole cave in Gower. Today the cave lies alongside the sea but 30,000 years ago the area was a broad plain. The remains of wolves and reindeer, in addition to creatures now extinct such as the mammoth and woolly rhinoceros, have been found in the cave. Their flesh provided food, their skins were made into clothing, and their bones were used to make tools or ornaments. Scrapers, primitive saws, ivory bracelets and a pendant are among the discoveries from Paviland. Incidentally, the so-called "lady' was really a male of about twenty-five, whose body was coated with a kind of red ochre, presumably suggesting some religious significance. An artistic impression of his funeral can be seen in the National Museum.

At last the ice receded, and between 8000-4000 BC there are signs of a less nomadic existence. Archaeological finds at Friars' Point, Cold Knap and Ogmore suggest that families were beginning to settle in the Vale of Glamorgan. These people of the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age were still few in number and possibly there were no more than 5,000 of them in the whole of Britain. They were able to fashion crude pottery and their skills in the manufacturing of flint tools were improving. Methods of hunting were becoming more sophisticated, as wooden arrows with blunt tips were used to stun an animal, leaving its pelt undamaged. Dogs, wolf-like in appearance, were now sufficiently domesticated to take part in the hunt. Yet horticultural and farming techniques remained a mystery to Mesolithic man and, not until the New Stone Age, would settlers change the natural landscape which had taken so long to evolve.


Further Research:


Prehistoric galleries at the National Museum of Wales

Green H.S.”The Old and Middle Stone Ages: The  

          Palaeolithic Period”, in “Glamorgan County

          History Vol. II”, ed. Glanmor Williams (Cardiff



Neolithic Settlers


About 4000 BC the first Neolithic migrants crossed Southern Britain into Glamorgan. While they found a climate similar to that of the present day, the environment around the Taff Estuary was inhospitable. Watered by three rivers - the Rhymney to the east, the Taff at the centre, and the Ely to the west - the terrain was marshy and waterlogged. Hence it is not surprising that these early settlers bypassed the site of the future Welsh capital, though they may have explored its rivers and estuaries in their primitive boats.

It was the Vale of Glamorgan with its fertile soil which attracted immigrants and the display of tools at the NationalMuseum reveals how they began the task of curbing the wilderness. Flint knives, saws, sickles, and a wide-ranging variety of polished stone axes have been discovered at St. Fagans, Ely and in the Vale. The remains of sheep, pigs and other domestic animals at Tinkinswood Burial Chamber are indicative of pastoral farming, though the bones of wild animals, such as the roe deer, suggest that hunting continued to be an important activity.

In the Vale, no evidence has been found of buildings from the Neolithic Age. Possibly the inhabitants lived in turf huts which have long since decayed, or they may have made seasonal dwellings from skins. Some kind of tribal pattern is implied by the presence of stone burial chambers at St. Lythans, Pentyrch and, most important of all, at Tinkinswood near St. Nicholas.

Tinkinswood was constructed in the same era as Stonehenge, nearly 4,500 years ago. Its burial chamber was 40 metres long and its sides were held in place with a dry stone wall. The most staggering feature at Tinkinswood is the capstone which weighs 40 tons. It has been estimated that 200 people were required to lift it into its position more than two metres above ground level. To do this, a tribal organisation sharing similar religious beliefs must have existed, though the deities these people were worshipping, and the form of their social hierarchy, remain a mystery.

That brilliant artist of reconstruction, Alan Sorrell, who spent a part of his career at the National Museum, has depicted his impression of a burial ceremony at Tinkinswood. The entrance to the tomb was in the shape of a pair of horns, providing a forecourt where sacrifices were offered to placate the gods. Pottery and tools were also buried with the deceased, in the expectation that they would be needed on the journey into the unknown.

At least fifty people - men, women and children - were buried at Tinkinswood. The discovery of beakers suggests that the site was used until well into the Bronze Age. These new immigrants, versed in the art of forging bronze from tin and copper, arrived in Glamorgan soon after Tinkinswood was built. Their skeletons show them as a distinctive race with broad skulls and high cheek bones. They tended to inhabit new sites and did not seek conflict with the native population which was still relatively small. If a clash did occur, the superior technology of the invaders overcame any opposition. 


Further Research:


Prehistoric galleries at the National Museum of Wales

Sorrell A. Early Wales Re-created (Cardiff 1980)


The Bronze Age


These Bronze Age folk, often known as the "Beaker People' from their drinking vessels, were buried in round barrows. More than 400 such barrows have been excavated in Glamorgan and there are probably many more, either destroyed or still awaiting exploration. Interesting archaeological artefacts have been found at Breach Farm near Llanblethian and at St. Brides-super-Ely, but the most intriguing discovery was made at Coed-y-Cwmdda near Wenvoe. Set in secluded woodland, the site had been largely eaten away by quarrying, but the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Society found sufficient evidence of a fortified hill position dating back to the Bronze Age. There were no archaeological remains of any buildings. The inhabitants may have lived in flimsy little huts of wattle, daub and thatch, rebuilt at fairly regular intervals.

The Lesser Garth Cave at Radyr was used by the Beaker people for a number of purposes. It served as a burial place, a storage depot and probably a refuge whenever danger threatened. The presence of bone tools implies that the cave acted as a workshop for making leather, an activity which may have been carried out in summer while farmers were grazing their herds on higher ground.

The poorly-drained Taff-Ely plain still held no appeal for the Bronze Age immigrants. A decorated axe-head was found in the earth bank at Cardiff Castle but, as it is an isolated discovery, it is extremely unlikely that it denotes a place of settlement. A number of artefacts found on the higher ground at St. Fagans, Ely and Cyncoed are possibly signs of Bronze Age habitation near Cardiff but conclusive proof is lacking.

An interesting revelation came to light near Ninian Park football ground in 1928, when an extensive hoard of axes, chisels and sickles was excavated, together with the first example in Wales of a chariot pole. The area was far too inhospitable for any settlement to survive but this was an age of heavy rainfall and frequent flooding. Thus it is conceivable that the sacrifice of these gifts near the River Ely were intended to placate vengeful river gods.


Further Research:


Robinson D.M. South Glamorgan’s Heritage; the archeology 

              of a County (Bridgend 1985)

Savory H.N. The Early and Later Bronze Age in Glamorgan

            County History Vol.II ed. Glanmor Williams

            (Cardiff 1984)

The Iron Age


The hill fort at Coed-y-Cwmdda hints at growing unrest and tribal warfare, a trend which became even more apparent by 500 BC. Celtic invaders, equipped with chariots and weapons manufactured from iron, crushed all opposition as they pushed their way into South Wales. These Silures, according to Tacitus, had dark, swarthy complexions and curly hair. They painted themselves with woad before going into battle, thereby presenting a terrifying spectacle to their enemies. Probably the Silures were no more nor less brutal than the other Celtic tribes of Britain, but it is safe to assume that prisoners were taken only if they could be sold as slaves.

Little is known about the tribal organisation of the Silures but they were led by aristocrats who offered protection to their kinsmen. For their security they relied on a chain of strategically placed forts. A line of these fortifications, intended to meet any danger from the sea, stretch along the coast from Dunraven to Porthkerry. Viewed from the air they still stir the imagination, though some of them, Nash Point for example, have been eroded by crumbling cliffs.

The defensive network continued inland. Farms on low ground, such as those excavated at Biglis and Whitton, were turned into fortified homesteads. In the event of a serious assault, the population and their livestock retreated into larger forts, situated at key points on high ground. These strongholds were supplied with grain stores, prepared in advance to withstand a lengthy siege.

Many of these hill forts await archaeological examination, but one of the largest and finest examples of the Silurian defensive shield has been  found at Caerau on a hill overlooking the Ely estate. Probably Caerau began  to take shape during the early Iron Age, gradually expanding into a multivallate fort of 12(1/2) acres. The massive earthworks are now much reduced in size but remain a formidable testament to the ingenuity of the Silures. The ditches and the ramparts of earth and stone were constructed like the lines of a contour map. Every means of access was heavily defended and the eastern entrance was turned inwards to create a defensive corridor. At the top of the hill a wooden pallisade protected the enclosure, giving cover to the defenders as they used their slings to pepper the enemy with a bombardment of stones. Inside the enclosure, traces have been found of various timber huts, some of which were the residences of the tribal leaders, but others may have been reserved for an influx of refugees in the event of war. The whole of the Taff-Ely Estuary could be controlled from this stronghold at Caerau and a thousand years later the Normans recognised its importance, when they built a castle inside the original hill fort.

Despite the uncertainty of the times, trading in corn, cattle, iron, hunting dogs and slaves was conducted with neighbouring tribes. It seems that the traders followed a trackway which led from the Vale of Glamorgan to the fort at Caerau. The track probably took a northerly route to avoid the marsh land, following the line of modern Ely Road and Llandaff High Street until it reached the River Taff. At this point travellers forded the river and continued their journey eastwards.

Over a period of thousands of years, the light, fertile soil of the Vale of Glamorgan had attracted a succession of invaders. Each wave of immigrants  brought new technological advances which enabled them to dominate and absorb earlier settlers. The Silures were the last of these colonists and they held sway in the region until about AD 50. Then the mighty, disciplined legions of Imperial Rome invaded Britain and, with their arrival, the swampy land near the Taff, shunned by earlier intruders, assumed  a significance which would lead to the first settlement at Cardiff.


Further Research


Prehistory galleries at the National Museum of Wales

Robinson D.M. South Glamorgan’s Heritage: The archaeology

              of the county (Bridgend 1985)

Savory H.N. Early Iron Age Glamorgan in Glamorgan County

            History Vol. II ed. Glanmor Williams (Cardiff