Neolithic water shrine found in Welsh forest

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Archaeology Correspondent

A unique prehistoric structure, thought to be a religious shrine, has been discovered by archaeologists and forestry officials in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales.

The structure, dating from 4,700 years ago, was built around a marsh or pond which was probably regarded by neolithic tribespeople as sacred.

A stretch of water, roughly 60ft (18m) by 45ft, was enclosed on its northern, western and southern sides by a 30ft walkway made of horizontally laid timbers. A wooden structure on a timber platform seems to have stood on the eastern side.

In the middle of the pond stood at least a dozen 9in (23cm) thick square- section wooden poles, some of which may have been connected at their tops by horizontal wooden lintels. The uprights had been shaped from 2ft diameter oak and would have protruded up to 18ft above the surface of the water.

The uprights and lintels could have resembled a miniature wooden - and wet - Stonehenge.

Neolithic religious shrines were normally laid out in a circular or oval pattern, whether made of stone or wood. In Britain hundreds of neolithic stone circles are known, and dozens of timber equivalents have been discovered through aerial photography. What makes the Welsh site unique is its location, around the apparently sacred water, and its state of preservation.

Neolithic religion was concerned with the movement of the sun and moon, the propitiation of gods and spirits influencing the agricultural cycle, hunting, life and death, and special respect for topographical features, including springs, rivers, lakes and marshes.

It has long been known that wet locations were of great importance in prehistoric religion - but never before have British archaeologists found a partially intact neolithic water shrine. Prehistoric ritual deposits - including preserved human corpses such as the famous Lindow Man found in a Cheshire bog - have been discovered in former swampland areas in various parts of Britain and Northern Europe, but the Welsh shrine is older than most of the other ritual water sites, and no votive offerings have been found so far.

The site, at Abercynafon near Talybont in Powys, was discovered by John Dodd, a local forest ranger, while digging a pond.

Some 550 timbers - some 8ft long - have so far been recovered by an excavation team led by the archaeologist Caroline Earwood, of the Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust.