Holyhead Mountain rises beyond the cliffs of South Stack. At a mere 722 feet, it is only a small mountain, but then, Holy Island is a very small island of just over fifteen square miles. Yet there would be enough archaeology here to keep us occupied for far more than a single short weekend…without even considering the fabulous sites on the Isle of Anglesey itself. Had there been time, I would have liked to climb the quartzite mountain to see the ancient hillfort that crowns it, now surmounted by a Roman watchtower. Or visit the ten-feet tall standing stones of Penrhosfeilw. But time is limited and we had some wonderful sites to see, starting with an entire prehistoric village just yards away from the cliffs. I was hardly going to be complaining!
Ty Mawr, also known as Cytiau’r Gwyddelod, ‘The Irishmen’s Huts’, is a settlement that dates back a very long time. The name probably only goes back to historical times, around fifteen hundred years ago, when Cadwallon Lawhir finally drove the Irish pirates from the island. But the history of the site is longer than that. There is evidence of farming at the site five and a half thousand years ago. Grains such as wheat, oats and barley have been found, along with food gathered from the sea and charcoal of heather and sedge. About two and a half thousand years ago, the farmers built the settlement we see today. There are around fifty hut circles and rectangular structures built in the local stone. Once they would have worn conical thatched roofs, far more sophisticated that you might at first think, as we had discovered at Castell Henllys in the summer.
All that remains now are the lower walls, and twenty or so of the structures have been restored and consolidated. The rectangular structures may have been stores or pens for the animals; their purpose is not really known. The hut circles are around 22 feet across with thick walls, built to withstand the weather high on this mountainside above the sea. There are hearths for the fire which would always be burning. Stone recesses and benches are built into the walls and a curious stone basin in one of the huts. More than anything else, this small basin brought home that fact that, once upon a time, these were homes.
When that thought settles in, you begin to see the place differently. There is an echo of laughter as children play hide and seek in the sunshine, creeping in between the shielding outer walls to hide amongst the dry wood and heather for the fire. There is the hiss of steam as hot stones are dropped in water to heat the steeping herbs. Goats wander, sure-footed on the slopes and grandmother grinds the grain for bread. A forgotten life comes to life in the imagination, casting shadowy ghosts on the sunlit grass.
Once you see them as homes, the circles begin to make sense and you wander between them, yourself a ghost in another time. You can see how the morning sun would illuminate the huts, shining in through their doorways. Some have long passageways that would keep out the icy blast of winter, others are divided, creating rooms that perhaps offered the beginnings of privacy in a world too often shared.
Even without knowing the details of their lives, you begin to feel a sense of community and kinship with the people who once lived here. It is a beautiful spot, right at the foot of the sacred hill and protected perhaps, by those who called the hillfort their home. The charcoal that was found with the axes and tools show that there was heather here all those years ago, for both beauty and practicality. If the climate was mild, perhaps they too saw the wildflowers bloom in winter and the brambles offer solstice buds to the sun, promising a future harvest of sweet berries.
Although it is winter, many flowers are still in bloom. Others are recognisable by their leaves and the variety is remarkable. There is a whole pharmacopeia of herbal remedies growing right on their doorstep. You start to wonder how well they knew the properties of herbs and how they knew which ones were safe and what they were used for… and we have theories to debate as we wander.
You wonder too about the stones themselves. Some homes have huge focal stones…were they simply convenient boulders or were they somehow significant? You would have to think so to a people surrounded by sacred stones. Was the white, crystalline quartzite special to them? We have seen quartz used in many ancient sites and never, it seems, without reason. There are so many questions to which we will never have a certain answer, but maybe the answers don’t matter as much as the fact that we do question, aligning our own humanity with that of those who lived before; a step, perhaps, towards a greater understanding and acceptance of those with which we share our world today.
We don’t always get it right, even when we think we have an answer. A stash of Roman coins found in one of the huts led earlier archaeologists to believe this was a Romano-British settlement, especially with the Roman watchtower not far away. It is only with our own increase in knowledge that radiocarbon dating has pushed the date of the settlement further and further back into the past. Knowledge, like experience, alters our perspective, giving us an ever-widening view and the wider the vista of history…and humanity… the more threads we are able to pull together to form the picture in which we can live.
We gathered to share readings and listen to the first part of the story written to illustrate a human aspect of the fall of the Druids, a story that tanscended the barriers of culture and race. Somehow the spot seemed right for such a thought… a settlement that, over thousands of years, saw peoples come and go, yet all of them shared the bounty and trials of this little patch of land.
It was with some reluctance that we headed back to the car. I, for one, would have happily whiled the day away exploring. But, we can always go back…and hopefully I won’t have to wait forty years this time before another visit. We were heading towards lunch and a sunlit beach, but first, there were stones to visit…