Who was the first nation in Wales, why Stonehenge is not as unique as you might think, where to look for the largest ancient mine in the world, and what mysteries lie behind local attractions.
Welcome to the ancient land of Wales, the oldest settlement in the north-west of Eurasia 225,000 years ago. Neanderthals, the first inhabitants, adapted to the severe and cold climate, but the real development started with the end of the Ice Age around 12,000 BC. The first population of hunters lived in mobile tribes. Gradually they assembled on the coast and developed connections via the west trading roots.
And here comes the historical puzzle of who was the first nation to inhabit this territory. There is a common association with the Celts, but some researchers suggest Iberians were the indigenous inhabitants who migrated to Britain around 4,000 BC. Therefore, the Welsh might trace their roots back to Spain and Portugal.
Migration, however, is not the only curious detail. The shift towards an agrarian economy triggered further changes. People united into small social groups mastering the building craft. Some monuments from the Neolithic period survived until today. In particular, those known as "henges" - circular embanked earthworks, used as burial and ceremonial sites.
The most popular and famous "henge" is Stonehenge in England. However, there are even more ancient sites preserved in Wales. For example, Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber dating from 3,500 BC. Located within 2.5 hours driving distance from Cardiff, it's open 24/7 and can be visited any time if you happen to pass by.
Population growth and technology advancement continued during the Bronze Age, 2,500 - 700 BC. Metalworking and specialist crafts emerged. The first mines appeared in Wales as copper, tin, gold were becoming valuable assets. You can see a preserved example at Llandudno, North Wales. The Great Orme Mine is considered to be the largest prehistoric mine discovered in the world so far. Their website provides a great video and photo overview of the place.
The Bronze Age is associated with the spread of the Celtic culture. There are no specific time frames though. Earlier theories suggested the invasion to Britain after 700 BC. Nowadays it's assumed the arrival and assimilation of Celts occurred gradually over the longer period of time.
Supposedly, Celtic culture originated in the area between Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Western Hungary and Eastern France. They never formed an official empire despite their large expansion across Europe. The name comes from the Greek "Keltoi" and roman "Celtai". Greek and Romans treated them as Barbarians - uncivilized people with unfamiliar language.
At the same time, Celts were recognized for their great military achievements and rich material culture. Today we are fascinated by their mysterious religious practices. Complex rituals were normally performed at special sacred locations - rivers, lakes, marshlands. Llyn Fawr and Llyn Cerrig Bach are the two lakes in Wales, where ancient artifacts were discovered. They were clearly used to propitiate the gods. Llyn Fawr is a beautiful place to visit and is relatively close to Cardiff – around a 1-hour drive, not far from Aberdare.
Continuing the topic of lakes, it's worth mentioning Llyn Y Fan Fach. A few years ago it was named as one of the 1,000 must-visit places in the world according to Lonely Planet. It's located in Brecon Beacons National Park - 2 hours drive from Cardiff. There's no particular connection with Celts. However, it's associated with the romantic medieval legend about “The lady of the lake”. So check out this hiking route if you're a fan of breathtaking scenery and active leisure.
The worsening climate contributed to social transformations during the late Bronze and Iron Age, 700 BC - 75 AD. Heavy rains and strong winds imposed harder conditions on farmers. The issue of economic and military security became the priority. The solution was found in the massive fortification of Wales. Bastions were raised on hilltops to protect locals from external invaders. Around 600 hillforts were discovered throughout the country. In particular, Castell Henllys Iron Age Fort in Pembrokeshire.
Besides being a means of protection, hillforts served as a symbol for tribal power and authority. This marked the emergence of new social organizations. Yet, the new millennium promised even more significant transformations. The pre-Roman period was coming to an end and a new chapter in a history of Wales was about to begin.