Gelligaer Common: permanent and temporary settlement

Deserted rural settlement sites are common in some parts of south wales. What are called ‘platform sites’ represent the main category of these sites. They date from the medieval period, sometimes revealing the outline of buildings upon them, and in places grouped together and accompanied by enclosures or fields. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, increasinmg expansion and encrachment onto the hills and commons is demonstrated by the presence of large numbers of long huts and farmsteads, some chjosing only as low foundations, others as abandoned buildings. In parallel with these permanently occupied settlements are sites occupied only in the summertime. These seasonally occupied sites or hafodydd, can also show only as platforms or as building foundations. Hafodydd contined in some areas into the 19th century.

Gelligaer Common lies in the uplands, to the south-west of Merthyr Tydfil and north of Caerphilly. It takes the form of a north–south plateau at a hight of 400m, between the valleys of the Bargoed Taff and Bargoed Rhymney. The modern mining settlement of Gelligaer lies at the south end of the ridge, in enclosed fields. The lower valley slopes to the east and west were enclosed by the 18th century but the summit area is still unenclosed common which above Gelligaer is criss-crossed by a system of linear earthworks known as dykes.

The area is situated within the medieval lordship of Senghenydd, the north part of which remained under Welsh control until Gilbert de Clare ejected Gruffydd ap Rhys in the 1260s, and built Caerphilly Castle to hold the conquered territory in the 1270s. Control continued to be disputed, and in 1316 Llywelyn Bren, of Gelligaer, attacked the Castle and town, while the 1320s saw further warfare between the Marcher Lords and Edward II. In the peace that followed, Caerphilly developed into a small but prosperous market town, but the remainder of Senghenydd remained undeveloped until the 19th century. This historical background becomes significant in the context of the platform sites and their date, since the troubled history provides a number of windows for encroachment and corresponding periods of manorial control, and possibly reduction in population.

The group on the western side of the common, overlooking the Bargoed Taff Valley, was partly excavated by Aileen Fox in 1936-8 (Dinas Noddfa' or Col-y-uchaf). The Lower House proved to be a posthole timber structure with opposing doorways, effectively filling the platform. The Upper House was a smaller building, with only one doorway. No indication of a hearth or fire was found in either building. Clearly associated with these sites is a pair of linear field banks to the south, running up the slope, terminating in a scatter of cairns which may be medieval or prehistoric. The finds from the excavation were sparse: no pottery was found, and the only artefacts were a whetstone and ‘12 pieces of iron slag ... embedded in the surface of the floor ... there were no signs of burning or smelting near them' (Fox 1937, 257). Thus, despite the presence of the field banks and cairns, there is no evidence of permanent occupation here. The same is true of the group of three platforms to the north. Indeed, the apparent relationship between the platforms and adjacent enclosures may be misleading, since there are further platform sites to the south-west, well within the enclosed land.


On the eastern side of the Common there is a group of platforms running along the contour to the west of the modern enclosed fields on the steep valleyside The northernmost group of three was excavated in 1938; the north and south houses proved to be simple rectangular structures; the southern had a yard area at the hood end. The central house was more complex and substantial, including a hearth slab at the hood end and opposing doorways. It is worth noting that even this building would not qualify as a longhouse (strictly defined) since there is no evidence for stock use of the lower part of the building. This site is critical to the history of the interpretation of the type, since it was the recovery of pottery sherds (of coarseware and a glazed jug) from the house that provided a date, of the 13th-14th centuries, and led Fox to suggest that it was occupied all year round. The floor also produced a whetstone, iron slag, fragmentary iron objects, and a stone mould for casting a dress ornament. Thus the assemblage was a typical domestic group, with indications of occupation and craftworking somewhere in the vicinity (although no evidence for ironworking within the building was found). If this does indeed represent permanent occupation, it would appear to be unusual. The lack of contemporary enclosures and the number of platforms are much more similar to the groups elsewhere in south-east Wales, assumed to represent seasonal exploitation of pasture, than to posited medieval encroachment.

While there are indications for permanence from the excavations at Gelligaer East, they are not comprehensive or compelling. It seems more likely that any seasonally occupied medieval platforms which did develop into permanent occupation sites were those in the now-enclosed land to the south, rather than those on the common, which may be the summer end of a transhumance pattern, either from the valleys to east and west or from Gelligaer to the south. It can be hypothesised that the entire lordship of Sengehenydd was involved, and that the trigger for abandonment of the sites was the replacement or disruption in the course of the Norman offensive in the Caerphilly area. If this were the case, then the enclosure of the valleys may represent a change in exploitation pattern in which long-distance transhumance ceased to play a part, and thus a shift in economy directly resulting from the political context of the late medieval period.

Roberts, K. (2006) Lost farmsteads deserted rural settlements in Wales.
CBA Research Report 148 Council for British Archeology