The aim of this site is to illustrate, in pictures and words, some of the ways in which the man-made landscape of Snowdonia has developed and to show how much evidence of past activities has survived to the present day. The hard rocks and poor soils have limited the agricultural value of the area, especially in the uplands, and each generation has only partially erased the traces of earlier occupation. The area has thousands of individual remains from all periods of prehistory and history, such as the early ritual sites and burial chambers, prehistoric and Roman forts, Medieval abbeys and castles and settlement sites of all periods. Less well known, and more difficult to recognise on the ground, are the extensive traces of early field systems, which can place apparently isolated settlements into a wider context. In some areas the field systems are so continuous that we can recognise large areas of ancient landscape, sometimes of several periods.
Aerial photography is a particularly useful tool for showing the patterns of early settlement, allowing us all to appreciate in an immediate way the imprint of man on the landscape. Indeed, without the view from the air it would be considerably more difficult to recognise, to record and to interpret this information. Although the evidence is presented in a thematic and approximately chronological manner, almost every photograph shows remains from several periods of activity, underlining the complexity and multi-faceted nature of the present-day landscape.
Despite a century of intensive archaeological and historical study many aspects of Snowdonia are still imperfectly understood. In particular there have been few detailed studies of the early settlements and field systems and it is rarely possible either to date them closely or even to be sure of their precise function. There are, of course, many human activities which do not leave sufficiently distinct traces for them to be seen from the air and this is reflected by the choice of themes illustrated.
Few of us will ever have the opportunity to appreciate this landscape from the air and must be content with examining it at ground-level. Many of the ancient monuments are marked on the Ordnance Survey 1:25000 maps, but it must be stressed that Snowdonia is a living and actively farmed landscape. Most of the sites lie on private land and permission to visit them must be obtained form the landowner. Further information on the sites and areas illustrated can be found in the books listed on the Acknowledgements page and details of those sites which can be visited easily are given in the recent guidebook to the ancient and historical monuments of Gwynedd in which Frances Lynch gives an excellent introduction to the riches of Snowdonia.
The flanks of the Carneddau are littered with early remains. The dominant feature in this view is the Roman road, climbing steeply from Rowen towards Bwlch y Ddeufaen. Communications round the northern flank of the mountains have always been made difficult by the Penmaenbach headland and this high pass was one of the main routes until Telford’s coast road was built in the 19th century.
The use of this route as an early trackway is indicated by a cluster of burial sites and stone circles beside the road and, of course, by the two large standing stones on the crest of the bwlch. The Roman road cuts through an extensive early field system amongst which lie a Neolithic tomb and settlements of a variety of dates. The upper slopes have extensive traces of cultivation ridges and rectangular buildings, probably of early Medieval date. The continued land clearance and re-modelling of the field boundaries has denuded the earlier remains and has resulted in the high field walls which now dominate this landscape.
This oblique view of the multi-period landscape shown above picks out some of the evidence of early settlement in greater detail. The dominant feature, in the upper part of the photograph, is the prehistoric hill fort of Pen Dinas, with its large rampart built of massive stones from the boulder clay and with an extra line of defence protecting the entrance. Below this, on the edge of the ravine of Ceunant Egryn, is a circular enclosure with a central round hut. On the opposite bank of the river lies another circular enclosure probably of prehistoric date.
In the centre of the photo is a small 19th centuary slate quarry. To its right, on the other side of Ceunant Egryn, a patch of rough ground indicates an area of Egryn Freestone which was first used in the 13th century to provide stone for Harlech Castle. Detailed accounts from this period show that considerable amounts of charcoal were sent to the smithy at the quarry where the quarrymen’s and mason’s chisels would have been sharpened. On the slope in the lower centre of the photograph is a series of irregular fields associated with rectangular buildings, one of which has three compartments. A similar settlement can just be made out on the slope below the hillfort where the rectangular houses are actually located in the entrance passage to the fort. On the right centre of the photograph are two small enclosures, each with a rectangular building. The date of these remains is uncertain. They are most likely of 13th to early 14th century date, but it is possible that some of the remains may be later encroachments onto the Medieval bond township, abandoned after the mid-14th century plague. The more recent boundaries in the foreground are part of an extensive system of linear field walls in this area, traditionally said to have been built by the cheap labour force provided by soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. In the field to the right of the hillfort and in the foreground are traces of narrow cultivation ridges. It has been said that these are from recent war-time ploughing, but evidence from other parts of Britain suggests that they may have a prehistoric origin. Agriculture was only possible in areas like this after large quantities of glacial boulders had been cleared from the surface, creating this striking proliferation of field walls and clearance cairns. The importance of this landscape has been recognised by Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments, most of the visible remains being designated as Scheduled Ancient Monuments.