The Lost Kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod: The Welsh Atlantis?

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In the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, Plato wrote, lies the lost city of Atlantis. But not far from where the philosopher knew how to place it in theory, there was another mythical land swallowed by the waters. And its history is not only just as interesting but vestiges have recently been found that point to its true existence.

In the county of Ceredigion, Welsh legends dating back to the Middle Ages tell of an ancient forest near the coastal towns of Borth and Ynyslas that once surrounded a kingdom. The forest was on fertile ground and stretched some 20 miles west of the current coastline between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay.

A myth mentioned in the Black Book of Carmarthen —the oldest surviving complete manuscript written in Welsh—going back to at least the 13th century, tells of how the forest was part of an ancient kingdom known as Cantre’r Gwaelod or the ‘Hundred Lowlands’. This 4,500- to the 5,000-year-old kingdom was allegedly ruled by a wealthy king named Gwyddno Garanhir, who ruled at least 16 bustling market towns that served as trade centers and marketplaces.

Black Book of Carmarthen.

According to legend, the land was fortified against the sea by a dike that was guarded by two princes; however, one of them, named Seithenyn, got drunk and allowed the water to enter through the floodgates, drowning the forest and the kingdom. Another tale tells of Mererid, a maiden in charge of the floodgates, who was lovingly distracted by Seithenyn and therefore unable to close the floodgates when she needed to, allowing water to enter.

While these stories have remained part of the collective imagination of Wales for millennia, they were brought back to life by a violent storm a few years ago.

The legendary forest emerges

In late April 2019, Storm Hannah hit Britain with wind gusts reaching over 80mph, causing power outages and travel disruptions across Wales. When the storm hit the coasts of Borth and Ynyslas, remnants of peat-covered trees resurfaced that had been buried under saltwater and sand for thousands of years. Some associated these ancient stumps with the forest of the mythical Cantre’r Gwaelod .

Petrified stumps like these have been showing up here and there in the area for a number of years, particularly in 2010 and 2014 when previous storms uprooted pebbles and sand from the shoreline. However, Hannah caused a much larger stretch of forest to be revealed, and every day since then, at low tide, the sea reveals hundreds of creepy-looking stumps that resemble jagged jaws along the black sand beach of two miles long.

Are these stumps the remains of the forest that surrounded the mythical kingdom?
Credit: Chris Griffiths.

Scientists have discovered that the submerged forest contains stumps of pine, alder, oak, and birch trees, which have been preserved due to the lack of oxygen and high alkaline levels found in the swamp. The living trees were gradually inundated with peat when the area was submerged by rising sea levels about 4,000-5,000 years ago. As the level rose and a thick layer of peat formed from natural sedimentation, the trees stopped growing and eventually died.

Old animal bones and a pair of deer antlers have also been discovered here, suggesting that this stretch of land once flourished when sea levels were lower and before the area had completely succumbed to the ocean.

The Welsh Atlantis

Whether or not the forest is the one mentioned in the Cantre’r Gwaelod myth , archaeologists believe there was life here dating back to at least the Bronze Age (3000 to 1200 BC), in part due to the discovery of a wooden walkway made of cut branches and upright poles (designed to cope with rising water levels) believed to be between 3,100 and 4,000 years old.

Various other archaeological discoveries have been made here, including fossilized human and animal footprints preserved in the hardened top layer of peat, along with scattered burnt stones believed to come from ancient hearths. Due to this evidence of human settlement, the area is often referred to in the media as “the Atlantis of Wales”.

“This 4,500 to 5,000-year-old kingdom was allegedly ruled by a wealthy king named Gwyddno Garanhir, who ruled at least 16 bustling market towns that served as trading centers and marketplaces.”

Archaeologists believe that extreme weather due to climate change is exposing older artifacts such as those from Borth and Ynyslas.

As reported by  Wales Online, Alun Hubbard, a professor in Aberystwyth University’s department of geography and earth sciences, suggests that the discovery of the stumps could also be due in part to sea defenses installed at Borth in 2012. While they have protected the town from crashing waves, they have also changed the continuous movement and movement of sand, pebbles, and stones that once hid stumps from view.

Other submerged forests unearthed by recent storms turned up at Newgale Beach in Pembrokeshire and Mount Bay in Cornwall, both in 2014. In that same year, 850,000-year-old footprints considered to be the earliest evidence of humans outside of Africa were revealed by storms in Norfolk, England. An ichthyosaur fossil was also unearthed, narrowly averting total destruction of the site—after a storm toppled cliffs and rocks along the Jurassic Coast of Dorset and East Devon in southern England.

However, the discovery of the hundreds of petrified tree stumps from Storm Hannah has become perhaps the most talked-about revelation locally, as historians and archaeologists now have more reason to think the forest may be related to the myth of the Hundred Lowlands, as mentioned in The Black Book of Carmarthen .

hearing the bells

The aforementioned medieval manuscript is currently in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, while a facsimile copy can be viewed online here. Along with the famous Welsh folk song, The Bells of Aberdovey – also believed to allude to the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod – the references mentioned in the book have helped keep the legend alive – indeed, locals insist that On a calm day, they can still hear the bells of a submerged church from the ancient kingdom.

Similarly, one of the stories in The Mabinogion — a book of Welsh stories compiled from oral traditions from the 11th century and earlier—refers to the “drowning” of the kingdom that once lay between Wales and Ireland.

“According to legend, the land was fortified against the sea by a dike that was guarded by two princes.”

And while there are no historical records documenting that an entire kingdom was wiped out, scientists think this land was lost to the sea when the oceans gradually rose to their current levels, beginning about 8,000 years ago, after the ice sheet of the most recent Ice Age will decrease. Boulder clays and gravelly sands deposited by melting ice sheets began to form beaches and shingle ridges, which drifted over forested areas along the coast.

In this way, the petrified trees discovered at Borth and Ynslas point to some truths in the legend, showing evidence of a previous life that existed under the sea. But perhaps more importantly, they are also connecting a new generation to the stories of their ancestors.

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