The Archaeology and History of the Wider Historic Landscape

This is an area in Central Wales of over 400 square kilometres which contained the estates of the Abbey. We are primarily interested in the Abbey's own land, but the area also includes the territories of secular owners and tenants and these are also being studied to provide contemporary context for the landscape study.

One of the first tasks has been to create a GIS mapping database incorporating information about the specific location of the lands held by the Abbey, from both the initial charters and the post-medieval management documents of the successor great estates, including early maps. This is an extensive landscape and in Phase 1, beyond the broad mapping, we have only been able to sample certain aspects of what survives, which is extensive.

This part of the project will be looking at both the wider and core landscapes of Strata Florida in an attempt to enhance the holistic and long-term narratives which are so important historically and in terms of sustainable future management and use. In a sense this is a large and ambitious undertaking, but with careful sampling some key issues about the history and development of the upland landscapes of Wales will be addressed in our future strategies in the study of the Wider Historic Landscape.

One of the key concepts in studying this landscape is that of the 'ancient farms', the centres of agriculture on the best land of the valley floors and lower slopes. In our early regressive analyses we have proposed that this essentially dispersed landscape is one of great stability for at least the last 800 years or so. The extent to which these ancient farms were incorporated into the classic Cistercian organisation of estates into units called granges is a matter for debate and study. Different approaches have been taken in two specific case studies within the project. The first is a retrogressive analysis of the structure of a whole grange known from later documents as Blaenaeron where there is a strong indication that it consisted largely of pre-existing ancient farms held by tenants under Welsh systems of render commuted to rent at a very early stage. The second is an archaeological examination of what appears to be a grange centre at Swyddffynnon on the western side of Cors Caron.

An important aspect of these landscapes is the network of roads and tracks which binds it all together. This has been linked in the past to ideas of pilgrimage and to the post-medieval system of livestock droving. It is now clear that the precinct of Strata Florida was carefully designed to straddle the junction of two, perhaps quite ancient, tracks crossing the Cambrian Mountains from east to west. One is the Monk's Trod coming from Rhayader and Abbey Cwmhir and Professor Andrew Fleming has been studying its course for some years with two important publications in the journal Landscapes.

The project of reconstructing the landscapes of the Middle Ages and later is now well advanced, but the aspiration to look also at the antecedents of this world is not so far on. The Dark Ages remains obdurately dark, although it is likely that the ancient farms documented in the 12th century charters had been in existence for at least a couple of centuries previously if not earlier. Rather better understood is later prehistory with several local sites and an important piece of work has been done by Catriona Gibson on the north-western edge of Cors Caron, near Swyddffynnon, where a burnt mound and part of a hut circle have been excavated.

Aerial photograph of Llanllyr

An important element of the study of the Strata Florida landscapes has been the aerial photography done by Toby Driver of the RCAHMW. He has been flying over and photographing the site of Strata Florida and its related landscapes for a number of years, as part of its contribution to the research partnership. The images have revealed a large number of new sites, but even more importantly have added new understanding to sites already known and have demonstrated also the holistic connections which make up this complex landscape.

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