In search of the prehistoric landscape of Ceredigion

Excavations on a farm in Talsarn, Ceredigion, have found evidence for late Mesolithic and late Neolithic activity, helping illuminate a period that has been little explored in this region of Wales.

The project at Talsarn began in 2019, when a mysterious mound was investigated by students from the University of Wales Trinity St David, led by Professor Martin Bates. While the mound was quickly revealed to be a natural ‘island’ in the middle of what was once a glacial lake, the team also found a polished Neolithic stone axe, as well as many pieces of worked flint – a material which is not natural to this part of Wales. Rather, flint pebbles arrived in Ceredigion with ice from Northern Ireland, and then eroded on to the beaches as sea levels rose at the end of the glaciation. The archaeologists believe these beaches are the source for this flint.

Image: Martin Bates

After a pause during the pandemic, the team returned to the site over the past two years, this time with funding from the Portalis project (a €1.5m initiative by the European Regional Development Fund, through the Ireland Wales Co-operation programme), which aims better to understand the prehistoric landscape and archaeological connections on either side of the Irish Sea. Under this project, they first investigated another ‘island’ on the farm, which uncovered more flint, as well as a late Mesolithic microlith, and a possible burnt patch adjacent to it. In their latest season, they also returned to the first island (right) where they found a small feature filled with charcoal, which has been dated to the late Neolithic, in keeping with the probable date of the stone axe.

While work is ongoing, for now no substantial pits or post-holes to indicate occupation have been found on either island. The team suggests, then, that these islands, surrounded by open water and reed swamps when occupied, may have been used instead for more mobile activities, such as fishing or hunting. Since Ceredigion is characterised by very acidic bedrock, no bone from the processing of animals is likely to survive, but pollen and other environmental samples are helping to reconstruct the palaeoecology of the site.

The finds at Talsarn represent just one of several sites in Ceredigion that are being investigated as part of the Portalis project. Others include the Submerged Forest at Borth, the Ystwyth Estuary south of Aberystwyth, and the river valleys and cliff lines that now lie under Cardigan Bay. Combined, these projects will provide a new understanding of how the prehistoric landscape changed over time and how the people living there adapted to it.