An artist’s impression of the crannog at Monmouth by Peter Bere.

Prehistoric fortress island discovered on English-Welsh border

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Archaeologists excavating a modern housing estate on the English-Welsh border in Monmouth, UK, have discovered an ancient fortress consisting of a wooden island with a fortified farmhouse elevated above the ground on stilts. The structure used to stand above the waters of an ice age lake and may be older than Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids. The structure, known as a ‘crannog’, has been dated to 4,900 years ago. The lake surrounding it would have served as a natural defence against attackers.

“We never thought the timbers were as old as they are, it's an amazing discovery” said archaeologist Steve Clarke, speaking to the Western Daily Press . “The inhabitants would have been surrounded by water up to ten feet deep and there's no evidence of a walkway so it was probably only accessible by canoe. This is surely one of the most stunning of prehistoric discoveries. An exceptional feature is that the construction was based on three massive parallel "sleeper beams" – timbers roughly hewn from complete trees set in the ground horizontally”

A reconstructed crannog near Kenmore, Perth and Kinross, on Loch Tay, Scotland

A reconstructed crannog near Kenmore, Perth and Kinross, on Loch Tay, Scotland ( Wikimedia Commons )

Mr Clarke added that the farmhouse was occupied at around the time when humans in Britain first started to live communally and is only the second such structure to be discovered in England and Wales, being much older than the first. Many more of them have been discovered in Scotland, most of them dating from the Iron Age (800 BC to 100 AD). Clarke first discovered that the area had once been underwater when the foundations for the new housing estate were being laid by Barratt Homes several years ago in 2013. Three 100 foot channels, each about the width of a canoe, were found close to where Mr Clarke believes the shore of the lake would have been. These channels date from 1700 BC and are evidence of probably one of the oldest boatyards ever discovered.

Clarke subsequently discovered a series of timber posts, which had once been preserved beneath the clay and peat of an ancient lagoon, formed after the lake had drained. He sent them to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre for radiocarbon dating and scientists employed there informed him the posts were around 4,900 years old. At that time the ground in the area would have been under 20 foot of water, however the posts themselves were found at a location that would have been somewhat shallower, leading Mr Clarke to believe they were evidence of a crannog.

The newly-discovered timber posts are believed to have been stilts upon which the crannog was built. Reconstructed crannog on Loch Tay, Scotland

The newly-discovered timber posts are believed to have been stilts upon which the crannog was built. Reconstructed crannog on Loch Tay, Scotland ( Wikimedia Commons )

The first crannog in the country to be discovered was at Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons which is believed to have been built around 2,000 years earlier than the one now discovered at Monmouth. It stood closer to the shore and was connected to it by a wooden walkway. Reconstructions of crannogs can be seen at the Scottish Crannog Centre at Loch Tay in Perthshire.

Crannogs would have been able to accommodate around 20 people who slept around against the walls, some of them in timber bunk beds. The space inside would have also featured an area for animals and a fire in the centre provided heating, light and a means of cooking food. The floor would probably have been covered with bracken. 

The crannog at Monmouth would probably have been occupied by a wealthy family who would have farmed the fields nearby and gathered fruit, nuts wild cabbage and medicinal herbs from local woodlands . They would probably have hunted wild boar and other animals as well. When attacked, they would have retreated to the fort. There are over 600 such sites in Scotland.

Mr Clarke is chairman of Monmouth Archaeological Society and is also the author of The Lost Lake – Evidence of Prehistoric Boat-Building .

Featured image: An artist’s impression of the crannog at Monmouth by Peter Bere.

By Robin Whitlock

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