History and Archaeology


History of common land rights

The concept of commons or common land has a very long history. Several centuries ago, individuals were given rights by the Lord of the Manor to collect firewood, fish and graze animals on areas of his land.

Other rights of land use, subject to local need, were also provided through local custom or for political gain. Such land was often referred to as manorial waste because it was of little economic value to the owner.

Registration of common land

In 1965 an Act of Parliament made it compulsory for all common land to be registered. All commons were catalogued and the rights of commoners and land owners were registered. The Gower Commons were the first to be registered in Britain, as recorded in the Gower Commoners Association minutes from 9th March, 1965:

The Deputy President, in his opening address informed the members that the Gower Commons were registered on 2nd January and were the first commons to be registered under the new commons registration act: ‘This was the first step in a new era that was a beginning for common land and commoners of this country and providing there is a strong Association the prospects for the future were favourable.’

Archaeological background of the Gower

The Gower Peninsula contains a wealth of archaeological remains from prehistoric and historic periods. This material provides some of the earliest evidence of human activity in Britain.

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic history of the Gower

The earliest human activity on the Gower Peninsula, during the Palaeolithic, would have been relatively small groups of nomadic hunters and gatherers. They left behind little evidence of their visits as they moved through the landscape.

The most common evidence of Palaeolithic activity comes from discarded or misplaced stone tools or the waste from construction. However, excavations in the limestone caves of the region have revealed more evidence for Palaeolithic and Mesolithic activity.

Perhaps most famously this evidence includes the human remains excavated from Goat’s Hole Cave known as the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’. Despite the name, these were in fact the remains of a Cro-Magnon male from approximately 26,000BC. The remains appear to have been buried with a degree of ceremony, as they were found with seashells, ivory rods and rings and red iron oxide (Aldhouse-Green 2000).

The chance find of a flint axe on Rhossili beach has pointed to human activity in this area as early as 125,000 to 70,000 years ago, according to Dr Stephen Green (Stephen Green 1981).

Neolithic history of the Gower

During the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, the evidence of activity on the Gower Peninsula is more plentiful.

People living in the area began to construct various funerary monuments for their dead. These include chambered tombs and cairns like those at Parc-le-Breos, Penmaen Burrows and Sweynes Howe on Rhossili Down.

Scatters of flint from this period have also been found on Gower. The communal graves and the flint scatters suggest that groups of people inhabited the area and it is generally believed that people began to turn to a more settled lifestyle of farming. However, no evidence of Neolithic settlements has been found.

Bronze Age history of the Gower

Numerous Bronze Age cairns survive in the area, particularly on the upland areas of west Gower, such as Rhossili Down, Llanmadoc Hill and Cefn Bryn. Excavation has determined that some of these cairns were burial monuments containing human remains dating from the Bronze Age, such as Pennard Burch and Bishopston Burch on a former part of Fairwood Common.

Limited evidence has been found for domestic activity in the area during this period.

Iron Age history of the Gower

During the Iron Age, many enclosures were constructed on the Gower Peninsula. These were built on hilltops and coastal promontories, with the remains of earthwork banks and ditches defining the enclosures still visible. Hardings Down and Llanmadoc Hill provide easily visible examples.

Quite why Iron Age peoples felt the need to create promontory forts is unclear, but it does not appear to have prevented the Romans gaining control of the area.

Limited excavation at a number of the enclosure sites has found evidence for domestic activity. Iron Age pottery has also been recovered during the excavation of caves on Gower.

Roman history of the Gower

Little structural evidence for Roman activity has been found in Gower, despite the presence of military forts at Loughor to the northeast and Neath to the east.

However, the recovery of Roman finds from the region, including two large coin hoards, illustrates that there was a degree of Roman activity on the Gower Peninsula.

Roman administration ended in 410 AD and the lack of written evidence for the following period until the arrival of the Normans has led to its label as the Dark Ages.

Medieval history of the Gower

A number of carved stones have been identified, attesting to early medieval activity in the Gower Peninsula. The stones originate from early Christian sites and have been found at Llangennith, Llanmadoc and Bishopston (Llandeilo Ferwallt). Documentary evidence indicates that in the 6th century St Cenydd founded a priory at Llangennith, although no structural evidence has ever been found.

During the medieval period, the peninsula, now known as Gower, was part of a larger Welsh commote of Gwyr. Gwyr extended between the rivers Tawe and LLwchr and as far north as the rivers Amman and Twrch (Morris 2000).

Following the Norman conquest of South Wales in the early 12th century, Henry I granted the right to conquer the Welsh region of Gwyr to Henry Beaumont, Earl of Warwick in around 1106. He ruled Gwyr as a Marcher lordship, the control of which subsequently passed between a number of Norman families throughout the Medieval period (Evans 1983).

The remains of several castles survive from this period such as Penmaen Castle Tower and Pennard Castle and many of the village churches on Gower. The remains of medieval strip field systems can still be discerned in parts of South Gower, specifically at Rhossili.

Post-medieval history of the Gower

There is substantial evidence for post-medieval settlement in the Gower area, with many surviving farmhouses and associated outbuildings.

The large number of lime burning kilns in the region reflects agricultural activity during this period. A detailed survey of Gower lime burning industrial activity includes the remains of quarries, bell pits and collieries.

More recent defensive activity is also represented on the Gower Peninsula, with the construction of Swansea Airfield and the remains of World War II coastal emplacements having been found.