Wales in the Vanguard: Pioneering protection of the past

28 mins read

Fortieth birthdays rarely pass without a moment of introspection, but Wales shows no sign of resting on its laurels as its Archaeological Trusts notch up that anniversary. Instead, the country is blazing a trail through the landscape of heritage protection. Chris Catling casts his eye over how Wales got to where it is today, and why other nations may want to follow its lead.

Landscape shaped by quarrying, at Glanrafon slate quarry, Snowdonia.

Many archaeologists who are approaching retirement age now gained their introduction to the discipline working as a volunteer on a research-based excavation, supervised by university staff and students. Crucially, the excavations would have taken place during the summer vacation – roughly from June to the late August bank holiday. For the many hundreds of young people who spent their summer working out of doors at tasks that were physically demanding but intellectually stimulating, it was a wonderful time to be alive: evenings spent bonding with fellow diggers round campfires or in the pub, singing ‘folk’ songs, and dreaming of a world of endless carefree summers meshed perfectly with the hippy ethos of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But this essentially amateur and seasonal approach to archaeology was never going to be able to provide a complete response to the needs of rescue archaeology, as the pace of development picked up during those same decades, as historic town centres were torn down and rebuilt, as new schools, hospitals, industrial estates, and housing estates were constructed on the edge of every town, connected by the new bypasses and motorways of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat’ era.

Beyond the summer

It is impossible to know how many important archaeological sites were destroyed without record during that period simply because nobody did archaeology outside the summer months. Nor did the profession of field archaeologist yet exist: those who studied archaeology at university aspired to be academics, museum curators, civil servants, or to work for the Ministry of Works – and for all of these posts a PhD (or at least a doctoral thesis in progress) was the minimum entry requirement.

Shortly after it was founded in 1974, the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust excavated a 12th-century medieval farmstead on a site at Cefn Graenog threatened by gravel extraction: this is still one of the best excavated examples of a medieval settlement in North Wales.

Plenty of would-be archaeologists lacked that vital qualification. For them, making a living as full-time archaeologists was an all-but impossible dream: a few intrepid excavators, such as Margaret and Tom Jones at Mucking (CA 312), had begun digging non-stop, and big year-round projects were starting up at Winchester and York; UNESCO-funded excavations at Carthage also absorbed the lucky few, but most volunteers left archaeology once they graduated (many trained as teachers or went into local authority work) or had to fall back on a variety of largely manual and unskilled jobs during the rest of the year.

For that reason, when the talk around those summer campfires turned serious, the conversation would dwell on the prospects for full-time employment, until one small group of archaeologists in Wales decided that talk should turn to action: along with half a dozen colleagues, Chris Musson formed the Rescue Archaeology Group (RAG) in 1970, creating a small team of highly skilled diggers ready to go wherever there was a rescue need, no matter what time of year. Indeed, they were motivated not just by the desire to earn a year-round living from archaeology – they were convinced that summer was the worst possible time of year in which to dig, and that, as Chris wrote in Current Archaeology at the time (CA 21), ‘in the (sometimes mythical) heat of summer, sun-baked deposits, whatever their original colour, texture, and stratigraphical significance, tend to merge imperceptibly into one another’.

To prove it, the highly motivated RAG team took on the excavation of the Breiddin, a 28-hectare hillfort crowning a dolerite ridge high above the River Severn south of Oswestry and west of Shresbury, which was rapidly being quarried for roadstone. One might speculate whether RAG would have obtained the funding for this rescue excavation had the Breiddin been located on the English side of Offa’s Dyke. Instead, RAG was able to count on the support of Dai Morgan Evans, then working as Inspector of Ancient Monuments in the Cardiff Office of the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, who secured the funding – though not much of it.

Chris Musson recalls that ‘we paid ourselves £30 a week (quite a lot of money, so long as you didn’t have to live on it!), worked six days or more a week, in all sorts of weather, often for ten hours a day, followed by evenings spent drawing and writing up, unencumbered by worrying distractions about holiday pay or pension provisions – and we completely misjudged the amount of time and effort that would be needed to bring our work to fruition’. (The Breiddin Hillfort was eventually published in 1991 as CBA Research Report No.76.)

RAG went on to undertake several more excavations of note in Wales, including Llanstephan Castle, Moel-y-Gaer hillfort, and the site of the Brenig Valley reservoir. Some members peeled off and worked at Gussage All Saints for the team that would later evolve into Geoff Wainwright’s legendary Central Excavation Unit. Even so, Musson and colleagues would by now be little more than a heroic footnote in the history of archaeological endeavour had not Dai Morgan Evans recognised that RAG was the future. Some 15 years before developer-funded archaeology in England gave rise to today’s contracting units, the Ancient Monuments Branch of the Department of the Environment came up with a bold and innovative plan to create four permanent Welsh Archaeological Trusts, one for each of the new Welsh counties created by local government reorganisation in 1974: Gwynedd, Dyfed, Clwyd- Powys, and Glamorgan-Gwent.

Trust issues

The big difference between the four Welsh Archaeological Trusts (WATs) and the various units that later evolved in the rest of the UK was that WATs were initially protected from competition: developers were encouraged to select their local WAT as a contractor for archaeological rescue work; the WATs in turn would do so from the advantage of a deep working knowledge of the archaeology and landscape of their ‘county’, which would develop and grow richer over time. To have a group of active, curious, and enthusiastic archaeologists working within a region for a protracted period of time would, it was argued, create a new body of information over time to deepen, change, and extend our knowledge of the region’s history of all periods, and its place in the wider national history.

Another early Gwynedd rescue excavation was carried out on the site of Brithdir Roman fortlet, threatened by housing development. The excavations led to the discovery of the fort’s putative bath complex and to a series of later workshops, including this timber-lined tank used for tanning leather.

In the case of central Wales, there was a readymade team with sound local knowledge. Chris Musson recalls that ‘the proposed formation of a Trust for “our” part of Wales led us, after much soul-searching, to exchange our treasured independence for the relative comfort of state-funded research and rescue work amid the hills and valleys and moors of central and north-western Wales.’ Chris thus became Chief Executive of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust in 1974, the same year that Gwynedd Archaeological Trust came into existence; Dyfed Archaeological Trust was formed in 1975, and the fourth and final WAT, Glamorgan-Gwent, formally came into existence on 13 September 1976 – the reference point for this year’s 40th anniversary celebrations.

The system that was put in place 40 years ago has lasted well and stood Wales in good stead. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Trusts were buoyed up by Manpower Services Commission funds – hundreds of people employed on jobcreation schemes learned new archaeological skills, went on to read archaeology at university, and entered the profession – some are still employed by the Trusts today. MSC money enabled Gwynedd to excavate a large early medieval cemetery in Bangor and Viking Age sites on Anglesey; Glamorgan-Gwent to investigate Roman, medieval, and post-medieval Cowbridge and the Roman fort at Loughor; Dyfed to work on Roman remains in Carmarthen and the medieval Friary; and Clwyd-Powys to excavate Bronze Age round barrows at Trelystan. Landscape and building surveys became part of the Trusts’ work, and at Cosmeston, in South Wales, Glamorgan-Gwent’s excavation of a medieval village in 1978 was used as the basis for a visitor attraction, featuring reconstructions of 600-year-old dwellings, that won the Heritage in Britain Award in 1985.

A major challenge to the Trusts’ continuity came with the ending of MSC funds in the late 1980s, and the rise of developer-funded archaeology. The Trusts now had to tender for work in their own backyards, often in the face of ferociously competitive pricing. This is a tension that remains at the heart of archaeology in the UK, and when the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group, formed in 2001, published its first report on the state of archaeology in the UK in 2003, the impact of competitive tendering on pay and conditions was top of the list of concerns expressed by those who gave evidence to APPAG.

The report said that: ‘urgent consideration should be given to replacing the current system of competitive tendering in developer-funded archaeology with a more stable regional franchise system’. The Welsh model was commended as a solution, but the idea of giving a monopoly to a unit to work in a particular region was never going to be accepted in a free-market economy. Instead, the Welsh Trusts have survived by building strong relationships with major clients and trading on local knowledge, dedicated staff, and commitment to high quality, supported by curatorial staff in the planning system who insist on archaeological work in their regions being carried out to nationally agreed standards.

The APPAG report also said that ‘Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) should be made statutory, with additional funding from central government to ensure that they meet a minimum standard of content and service delivery. Public accessibility should be improved and recognition of the community and educational value of SMRs must be included in the development’. This is an aspiration that has remained at the top of the agenda for archaeological policy-makers ever since, and there has been at least one instance of dashed hope: the Heritage Protection Bill, on which so much time and energy was expended between 2003 and 2008, had statutory SMRs – or Historic Environment Records (HERs) as they are now known – as a core aim. That Bill failed, ostensibly because the government ‘ran out of parliamentary time’ in the run up to the 2010 election – in reality, it is questionable whether the government of the day ever understood the bill or had any intention of allowing it to pass into law.

Where there’s a will…

In a devolved Wales, Welsh Assembly Members have dared to think differently: on 9 February 2016, they voted in favour of new legislation to protect Wales’ historic environment, which includes the duty to ‘compile and keep up to date a historic environment record for each local authority area in Wales’. Wales can now claim to be the first country in the UK (possibly in the world) to put HERs on a statutory footing – what better 40th-birthday present could there be for the Welsh Archaeological Trusts, on whom the duty of maintaining the HERs will fall.

For, though Wales might not have invented the Sites and Monuments Record – that credit goes to Don Benson, who, when based at the City and County Museum in Woodstock, created one for Oxfordshire (with the late Mick Aston as his assistant) that is generally credited with having been the very first – it was in Wales that SMRs were first created on a systematic national basis, thanks to Benson again, who was appointed as the first Chief Executive of the Dyfed Archaeological Trust in 1974. He not only ensured that all four Trusts created an SMR, he made sure that they were computerised from the outset, and complied with common standards to provide uniform coverage across the whole country, starting first with existing data drawn from Ordnance Survey record cards, and then bringing in records created as a result of the inventorial work of the Royal Commission.

The multiple ditches and central burial pit of a round barrow at Four Crosses.

Radical and new in 1974, SMRs (or HERs) have grown in value over time as a record and a summary of our knowledge of the historic environment, and a vital tool for planning decisions. HERs, along with the National Monuments Record for Wales curated by the Royal Commission, represent the knowledge base that has been built up over many decades about the historic environment – and not just nationally significant listed buildings, scheduled monuments, parks and gardens, battlefields, and World Heritage Sites, but also sites and places of local historic, archaeological, and architectural interest, places that contribute to local distinctiveness and character.

Of course, nobody believes that the existence of a list is going to change the world: the value of HERs lies in their use, and Wales has embarked on an experiment that will be watched with interest by other nations in order to learn the lessons and decide whether to follow Wales’s lead. HERs are not static entities: they have to be kept up to date. The moment that an HER ceases to be enhanced and maintained by the addition of new knowledge about existing sites or about previously unrecorded sites, identified during the course of new fieldwork, it rapidly ceases to be fit for purpose. Maintaining HERs therefore requires skilled staff, and it is very welcome indeed that the Welsh Government has made a commitment to providing the resources for an effective HER service.

HERs must also be used: and you cannot force local authorities to take cognisance of historic environment issues when they take planning and development control decisions – especially if, as is increasingly the case, the local authority no longer employs conservation or archaeological officers to advise them. Local government reorganisation is once again on the agenda in Wales: the pendulum has swung from the four big counties created in 1974 to the 22 county, city, and borough authorities of the 1996 reforms, and now a further review has proposed reducing this to 11 or 12. It remains to be seen whether fewer planning authorities will mean better resourcing of those that remain.


What is certain is that the Trusts, along with Cadw and the Royal Commission, will be doing their best to ensure the experiment succeeds, and that Wales not only delivers on the promise that HERs will lead to better planning decisions: HERs also have enormous potential for research and public engagement, as well as for social change and for economic development. That might sound like pie in the sky, something to hope for that is unlikely to happen, but there are positive signs that this is not the case.

Rescue excavation by Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust revealed the remains of the early medieval Capel Llewelyn in Welshpool, and its cemetery, where the team found 17 skeletons.

People in Wales are already using HERs to find out more about the history of their community or family or about the buildings and monuments that form the backdrop to their lives, accessing HER data by visiting the Royal Commission’s search room (which will move shortly to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth) or by using such online tools as Coflein, the History of Wales Portal, and Archwilio, the phone app that allows you to access HER data while out in the countryside, and to contribute to the record by adding your own observations, conditions reports, or photographs.

As for social change, a report that the former Chair of English Heritage, Baroness Andrews, produced in 2014 argued that heritage could play a vital role in tackling poverty in Wales if the sector could engage people in activities that boost their skills, self-confidence, and aspirations. The whole heritage sector in Wales has swung behind this agenda, and HERs are once again a vital component of projects that encourage people to explore their own community history. Perhaps the most exciting outcome from this process is the strong local community support for the nomination of the Welsh Slate Industry as a potential World Heritage Site (CA 306); once again, this has the potential for Wales to lead the world – it will be the first time that the Tentative List has featured a living, working, changing, and evolving cultural landscape rather than one that has been artfully conserved and managed purely for its heritage values.

Economically, the heritage sector in Wales already supports 32,500 jobs (2.3% of Welsh employment). Official statistics show that heritage products and services generate an estimated £749m of revenue (2.6% of Wales GVA), and thus contributes twice as much to the economy as the agriculture sector in Wales. The majority of this is generated by tourism: in common with other parts of the UK, Wales saw an increase in the number of visits to heritage sites last year (13.6m visits; up 4.4%); and major national events, including the Festival of Archaeology (July) and Open Doors (September), attracted a record number of visitors to special events hosted by heritage organisations.

That’s the way to do it

The Welsh Government has ambitious plans for growing this revenue, and is promoting Wales as a tourist destination with heritage-related themes: this year is the Year of Adventure, 2017 is the Year of Legends, and 2018 is the Year of the Sea. National Museum Wales has risen magnificently to this opportunity with a major exhibition called ‘Adventures in Archaeology’, bringing together material relating to adventurers from popular fiction, such as Indiana Jones and Tintin, with the finds and discoveries of real-life archaeological explorers, such as Adela Breton and Flinders Petrie.

The aim is to inspire visitors to the museum to embark on their own adventures, and here the HERs are full of potential. Town trails are already being devised that will take you to historic buildings and pump out as much information as you can cope with to your tablet or iPhone – whether you just want a quick potted history, or you would like to see detailed records, historic photographs, reconstructions of rooms and interiors, and details of who lived there and when. Trails are being devised based on HER data that cater to special interests, such as Faith Tourism – highlighting some of the great and glorious nonconformist chapels that Wales has in such rich abundance. And wherever you are in Wales, the Archwilio app, developed by the Trusts in partnership with the University of South Wales, will give you access to HER records – a sort of Wikipedia of the historic environment, where you can simply turn up in a town or village or landscape and ask ‘what can I see here?’.

There are risks to being in the vanguard, of course, and these are early days for Wales, but the record of the last 40 years suggests that heritage protection enjoys cross-party and community support, and is taken seriously by national and local government, in sharp contrast to the crisis that, many argue, is confronting archaeological services in other parts of the UK. How good it would be to hear a minister stand up in the Westminster parliament and declare, as Welsh Culture, Sport, and Tourism Minister Ken Skates did the day the Historic Environment (Wales) bill was passed: ‘we are giving greater protection to our historic environment, raising awareness of its significance and supporting its sustainable management. Our outstanding historic sites and buildings need this protection so that they can continue to fascinate and inspire people for generations to come.’

This article appeared in CA 314. Click here to subscribe!

Images: Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust; Gwynedd Archaeological Trust




1 Comment

  1. The Welsh Archaological Trusts should be nominated for this award. They are. Committed
    to leading an understanding of the developments in Wales .
    As whole they give of their time freely to educate and inform the public. I have always found them supportive and approachable

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