Mynydd Rhiw Axe Factory

Written in 1960

Caernarvonshire has long been acknowledged by the archaeologist to be one of the richest counties of Wales, and recently another monument of major importance has been added to its already impressive list. On the north-eastern shoulder of Mynydd Rhiw on the Llyn Peninsula is a tract of common grazing land, whose smooth, windswept surface would seem a most unlikely scene of prehistoric activity. The view to the north-east is dominated by the mass of Garn Fadryn, its summit occupied by one of the largest Iron Age hill-forts of the district, while some dilapidated cairns, presumably of Bronze Age date, occupy the skyline to the south-west. But on the open slope of the hill, beneath a blanket of dwarf gorse, lie remains, which are not only of this great antiquity, but are also the more remarkable because of the high degree of organization and skill of the craft to which they bear witness. For here, from deep in the hillside, Neolithic man had gone to a great deal of trouble to quarry a type of rock especially suitable for the manufacture of stone axes, and other tools of great importance to his way of life.

The site on Mynydd Rhiw was first seen several years ago, but was only recognized as an axe factory in 1956, when recent gorse-burning had revealed that the low banks around a row of hollows were largely composed of flakes of fine-grained rock, with occasional roughly shaped axes. A preliminary excavation in 1958, by the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments of Wales, showed that the hollows were the silted up remains of a quarry. A further excavation was sponsored by the Prehistoric Society in 1959, with the Board of Celtic Studies of the University of Wales, and yielded important information about the site, about the people who had worked there, and about the role of the axe factory in Neolithic cultural pattern.

The separate hollows on the surface today are all that can be seen of what was a more or less continuous opencast working, in all about 100 ft. long by 20 ft. across, following a seam of the desired rock. When one section of the quarry had been exhausted, it was partially filled with debris as the scene of activity moved away, and the resulting hollow was used for shelter by the axe-makers. In the one hollow, which was the main subject of investigation in 1959, a series of four hearths was found, the two earliest belonging to this Neolithic “squatting” occupation, which must have continued in one part or another of the site throughout the working life of the factory.

Enough was learned from one full cross-section of the workings to allow some conjecture as to the method of quarrying. The seam of rock that was so keenly sought after is 2 ft. 6 ins. Thick, dipping into the hillside at about 25 degrees, so that the quarry it from a depth of more than about 10 ft. would have meant the removal of an uneconomic amount of overburden, even though the overlying shale was very easy to break up. After the attainment of a working depth (11 ft. in the 1959 cutting) the seam was followed laterally, resulting in a gradual shift of the open part of the quarry.

How, the seam was found by Neolithic man is a matter for some speculation. It could have been found reaching the surface at some point in spite of the four-foot thickness of drift that appears to cover the bedrock today. But the drift had been disturbed in several places around quarry, presumably for the extraction of the fragments of axe material, which it contained, so that the seam could have been discovered beneath the drift by chance, at the bottom of such a disturbance, and quarrying would naturally have developed from that point. The actual detaching of the rock from its seam was no mean achievement; it was probably by percussion from above after the removal of the overlying shale, since a frontal attack with a modern crowbar and sledgehammer had little effect where the overburden remained. There was no trace of the use of fire, but frost-weathering during periods of winter abandonment may well have made the task easier.

The information gained from this new site contained much to confirm the finding of Mr. Hazzledine Warren’s excavations at Graig Lwyd, Caernarvonshire’s other great centre of axe manufacture, and also those of the investigations of the factories at Tievebulliagh in N. Ireland and Great Langdale in Cumberland. But in some respects Mynydd Rhiw has amplified our knowledge of the axe trade in general. In the first place, the extraction of rock from quarries cut deeply into the surface of a moderate slope results in the accumulation of the well seal, stratified deposits within the exhausted workings, whereas the recovery of stratigraphical evidence from the steep scree slopes of the other factories is too much to expect. As we have seen, it was possible at Mynydd Rhiw to trace the whole sequence of events, from the earliest stage when the seam of axe rock was followed down from the surface, through the expansion of the workings and the use of the partly filled pits for shelter, to the final stage of abandonment when the heaps of waste rock and earth began to be smoothed by the elements.

The record extends still further, for in the upper part of the filling of the hollow investigated were two further hearths which bore witness to its use for shelter when a considerable amount of silting had already been washed in over the two Neolithic hearths. A date in the second half of the twelfth century BC is provided for this later occupation by the assessment of the radio-carbon (C-14) content of the charcoal from one of the hearths. At this date the squatters were apparently no more than wandering herdsmen, with no particular interest in the qualities of the rock, which had been so important to their predecessors. Unfortunately the charcoal from the Neolithic hearths was not suitable for C-14 examination, but it would be reasonable to assume that the factory dates from the beginning of the second millennium BC, along with the other factories, whose products have well-known associations in the British prehistoric record.

It is now common knowledge that, with the help of the Petrologist, stone implements can often be traced to their place of manufacture by microscopic examination of the material used. The Mynydd Rhiw rock has been so examined, and the rock type has been defined as the hornfelsised shale. But whereas the Graig Lwyd rock (for example) is unique, and products of that factory are easily recognized, it is in the present case geologically possible that identical altered sedimentary rock may have been available elsewhere. For this reason a note of caution is introduced by the Petrologist, making it the duty of the archaeologist to ensure that no stone implement is claimed as a product of the factory unless it has been proved by excavation that its type was being made there. Thus it is important that a full typological series should be available from a well sealed primary context at the factory, and such a series would also give some idea of the cultural status of the axe-makers themselves.

The rapid primary filling contained many rough outs of axes rejected during flaking operations around the pit; flakes and other debris were left where they fell, thus forming banks. As soon as the hollow began to be used for shelter, domestic tool forms (scrapers, knives, borers etc.) made of the same material as the axes, were incorporated in the deposit in association with the first two hearths.

From the mass of material available for study, certain types can be singled out as of special significance. In general terms, this factory’s products resemble very closely those of the other factories around the Irish Sea. All were producing tree-felling axes for Neolithic agriculturalist, but the men who made them show their Mesolithic, hunter-fisher ancestry in the distinctive domestic tools of so-called Secondary Neolithic types. At Mynydd Rhiw were heavy scrapers, knives and choppers made on flakes pre-shaped on the core, even a burin. But the most telling products are adzes and predominantly light and slender axe forms, surely intended for woodworking rather than tree-felling. The few Mynydd Rhiw axes so far identified in Wales and the Marches are all of the heavier type. The probable explanation, which need specialized tools were the economic requirements of the craftsmen themselves. With their familiarity with the sea (to which the distribution of the factory sites themselves points), they may well have needed them for boat-building. And since the sea was their medium of transport, perhaps it also provided their subsistence. The carefully made discoidal and lanceolate knives found at Mynydd Rhiw would be in place in such an economy, for flensing and other sea-hunting purposes. In the case of this new factory at least, if not the others, it can be seen that the craftsmen were primarily concerned with their own needs, and that the manufacture and distribution of larger axes was of secondary importance, with the initiative presumably coming from those agriculturalists who required them for their own economy.


Many thanks to Mr C Hughes for all his help with this article.

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