Marvellous, mysterious, mundaine - how the past’s silent witnesses speak to us

Heritage starts with people. For many folk that piece of heritage probably started out as the horrible new carbuncle built in their backyard (against their wishes). It's then passed down through the years by people whose own stories are linked with it. With the time it becomes invested with more and more meaning, as life, work and death happen around it, within it. Then, it ends up being a valued old something-or-other, and then enjoyed and maintained by people today. But what if there's no human narrative left to tell the story and help us make sense of the past?

The twin neolithic chambers at Dyffryn Ardudwy near Harlech, North Wales. An Irish Portal Tomb, and a Cotswold-Severn tomb © Tim Prevett

I'd like to introduce some aspects of heritage that I particularly love: prehistory, and old roads and the components that form their story.

Prehistoric marvels

Prehistory is defined as 'before writing'. It's before documentary sources began being created to give an arguably realistic impression of what life was like, or the significant tales (imagined and actual) were recorded and retold for posterity. The word 'prehistoric' may evoke impressions of dinosaurs stomping around the land, but in this specific context, it relates to people's interaction with the landscape, and the development of tools for hunting, and changing the environment for desired living conditions.

The Neolithic and Bronze Age are when (for me) many of the most captivating pieces of our heritage were created. So we’re talking about 4,000 to around 600 BC for Britain. Neolithic tools gave the ability to clear forests, begin constructing large stone and earthen monuments, and of course domesticate animals, keeping them for resources (as opposed to chasing them over the landscape and living in temporary or seasonal shelters). In short: humans settled down, became farmers of crops and animals, and built tombs and monuments to give a sense of connection with their ancestors and the land.

There are thousands of ancient monuments across the British Isles to see, which do not have an obvious personal human element to tell their story. Neolithic tombs, which you can crawl into. Henges and stone circles or rows of stones that invite you to ponder over why they are where they are. Marvellous heritage. As in heritage to marvel at. The monument is the story. How did it get there? What was it used for? Does it have alignments with the sun, or the moon, and other heavenly bodies. The setting gives an interpretation. In the mountains? Near a meeting of rivers? Next to a road? Built into a church?

Tracking history

In 2005, I organised an event for the Time Team Big Roman Dig, looking at the Roman route from the fort at Caerhun, south of Conwy, through the mountains on the north and east edge of Snowdonia to Caernarvon. This lead to my 2008 book Roads and Trackways of North Wales. It looked at the development of routes from prehistory, Roman roads, through the early middle ages, drovers’ routes, pilgrimage ways, right up to the arrival of turnpikes and Thomas Telford’s radical opening up of so many roads.

Travelling through the countryside, you become aware of disused stretches of road. Low tracks etched into mountainsides. Long parallel lines testifying to Roman roads, and indeed, modern roads following the courses of milennia of old ways. Old toll houses built right on to the edge of trunk roads - sometimes even with details of the fares once incurred still on them.

Street names also testify to the roads’ heritage. Green Lane. Holloway. Old Road. Pack Horse Lane. These are just some of the names I’ve come across. In Wales, place names are descriptive, so "Sarn" means an old track, and "Rhyd" a ford. If you know a Stratford, Stretford, Stretton, these are referring to the Anglo Saxon names for Roman routes. Stratford - the crossing of the a river by a Roman Road. Stretton - the settlement next to the old road, and so on. Road heritage is literally right outside your door, under your boots or wheels.

In touch with history

Heritage can come to life just in its interaction with people. As Phil Beadle opined in an issue of ‘Heritage Today’ several years back, “These monuments are not just charred pieces of dead history to be ignored. They breathe. They breathe when children touch them and are touched by them; and both come alive - the object for the millionth time; the child, maybe for the first.” It's my conviction this is true for anyone who is prepared to stop, reflect and feel any historic site.

So, even if the origins of parts of our heritage remain obscure, these features create a physical link and bring us in touch with our civilisation's history, our cultural roots. It needs a vigilant eye to spot the evidence and a combination of knowledge and imagination to reveal the stories of past life. But of course, some questions will never be solved. That's OK. Like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, heritage doesn’t need to give answers. Perhaps more meaning is gained by exploring the questions rather than having neat understandable answers to wrap it up.