Back in a gloomy February I began my quest to hunt down ancient monuments on the trail of the wild boar. I trudged through muddy fields, forded turbulent streams and climbed over wind ravaged hilltops through hail, rain and snow with archaeologist Dewi Bowen and film maker Melvyn Williams. Neolithic and Bronze Age burial chambers, ceremonial circles and standing stones lie scattered like quoits across the landscape of Wales and are as striking today as they were five thousand years ago. Coming face to face with these symbols both of a long lost culture and of continuity in a rapidly changing world has had a profound impact on me.
The ancient sites we sought out are supposed to be linked to the legends of The Mabinogion. Although it was first written down in the 11th century, the roots of The Mabinogion go back to a much older oral tradition. Within its rich landscape are many tales with specific references to geographic locations. The story of Culhwch and Olwen features a wild boar hunt which ranges over the whole of South Wales and aligns with many Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments.
Could these sites, often located along even older animal trails, be the inspiration for later stories? Could their location be the result of a rich culture of myth and legend far older that we ever imagined? We will probably never know but the mystery and the presence of these magnificent sites stirs the imagination and it is easy to see how they would inspire writers and artists. They also pull us back to our origins and make us feel grounded in a way that only a really good story can.
When I was much younger I used to read a lot of mythology so I read The Mabinogion, as well as Greek and Viking mythologies. But I hadn’t revisited any of those mythologies for decades so doing this work has led me to start looking at The Mabinogion again and its connection to my ancestors. I’m starting to feel the landscape in a different way, in a way that my ancestors might have experienced it.
In most artists there is the desire to leave something behind which will outlive them and contribute to a wider culture. I believe these monuments make our fleeting lives seem insignificant by comparison and force us to confront our values.
I get a sense that the people who put these on the landscape, as works of art or spiritual works or simply something pragmatic like marking the way; they put them there to last. Not just their lifetimes but through civilisations that have forgotten about them. We have no idea who these people were. Just fragments of legend and there’s something really poignant about that. There’s something that I think is relevant to us. We want new stuff all the time and we want to change our kitchen every five years and change our three piece suite every three years.
It’s just this cycle of consuming stuff and getting rid of stuff and consuming more. We can’t keep on doing it. And this sort of embeds me, not just in the past but in the future because in five thousand years these monuments are still going to be there.
Another aspect is the sheer physical presence of the stones and their locations. A photograph cannot do justice to the feeling of encountering a megalith that has stood in the same location for millennia and seen civilisations rise and fall. I just have to sit down and draw. Get my feelings down on paper and hope I can convey something of the emotional impact.
I’ve been looking at ancient art in other countries and ignoring my own heritage. This is my heritage and I haven’t really paid much attention to it. And I guess it’s time that I did.