Excavating the CA archive: Mid- and South-West Wales

11 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 1 April. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI374, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.


In last month’s Current Archaeology, I began a tour of Wales in the north of the country, examining its rich prehistoric archaeology. In this and the next column, I will turn my eyes gradually southward, visiting first mid- and south-west Wales, and then south and south-east Wales.

Archaeological Top Guns

Several early issues of Current Archaeology feature the professional origins of two of the most influential archaeologists of late-20th-century Britain: Philip Barker (1920-2001) and Geoffrey Wainwright (1937-2017). CA 2 (May 1967) met the latter at Walesland Rath in Pembrokeshire, five miles west of Haverfordwest. Here, Wainwright was examining – with a gusto that he became infamous for – an Iron Age enclosure. CA returned to the site in issue 12 (January 1969) and, later, to the man, following his career at a series of sites and professional appointments of increasing importance, including serving as Chief Archaeologist of English Heritage from 1989 to 1999. During this time, he was instrumental in establishing the planning archaeology system of PPG16 that influences approaches to archaeology across the UK, and around the world, to this day. While mainly employed in England, Wainwright had been born in Wales, and maintained connections with the country throughout his life, ending his days there, living in the village of Pontfaen in Pembrokeshire. In an act of accidental obituary just prior to his death, CA 324 (March 2017) examined his work on the Neolithic archaeology of Pembrokeshire, undertaken in partnership with his long-term research collaborator Tim Darvill.

right Geoffrey Wainwright took us on a tour of his work at the Iron Age site of Walesland Rath in Pembrokeshire in CA 12.
Geoffrey Wainwright took us on a tour of his work at the Iron Age site of Walesland Rath in Pembrokeshire in CA 12.

A very different archaeologist, and a very different site, featured in CA 5 (November 1967): Hen Domen in Powys, just outside Montgomery. There, Philip Barker was at the time excavating a medieval timber motte-and-bailey castle, the site of the original Montgomery castle, built in AD 1070. CA returned to the site in issue 111 (September 1988), and Barker’s life and work cropped up regularly elsewhere in the magazine. His obituary in issue 174 (June 2001) tells of a quietly influential personality (an absolute contrast to the physical force of nature that was Wainwright), whose fieldwork at sites like Wroxeter (see my column in CA 338, May 2018), and whose publications, notably his textbook Techniques of Archaeological Excavation, would influence generations of archaeologists.

An Iron Age Way of Life

Two different early issues of Current Archaeology featured mid-Welsh Iron Age sites of note: Breidden hillfort near Welshpool, which featured in CA 19 and 33 (March 1970 and July 1972), and Castell Henllys near Eglwyswrw, to the east of Fishguard, which featured in CA 82 (May 1982). These are two of the most iconic Iron Age sites in Wales: the former a dramatic hilltop location (its highest point is 367m), said to have been the site of the last stand of Caractacus (the 1st-century AD chieftain who resisted the Roman conquest of Britain), and the latter a popular visitor attraction with extensive experimental reconstructions of life on site. Writing in early 2021 amid a renewed national lockdown, I cannot be certain when the latter will reopen to visitors, but keep an eye on their website (www.pembrokeshirecoast.wales/castell-henllys) and plan a visit in happier times – you won’t be disappointed by their work there.

RIGHT CA 174 included a tribute to the life of Philip Barker. A trained artist, the cover featured one of his works: painted c.1975, it was possibly inspired by Anglo-Saxon halls.
CA 174 included a tribute to the life of Philip Barker. A trained artist, the cover featured one of his works: painted c.1975, it was possibly inspired by Anglo-Saxon halls.

A similarly iconic pair of Bronze Age sites then featured in CA 133 (March/April 1993), on a visit high into the Brecon Beacons. Here, the magazine visited work then under way by the National Trust, who were consolidating erosion to the barrows within their landholdings at Pen y Fan and Corn Du. At 886m above sea-level, Pen y Fan is the highest mountain in southern Britain, followed by Corn Du at 873m, and each (non-COVID-19) year more than 250,000 pairs of feet make the trek to their summits. Protecting the fragile archaeology of such exposed upland sites is a continual challenge for organisations such as the National Trust, which remains as actively involved in protecting the site now as it was then (see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/brecon-beacons/features/the-beacons-peaks—pen-y-fan-corn-du-and-cribyn).

RIGHT CA 113 provided a bird’s-eye view of excavations taking place at Pen y Fan and Corn Du, the two highest peaks in the Brecon Beacons.
CA 113 provided a bird’s-eye view of excavations taking place at Pen y Fan and Corn Du, the two highest peaks in the Brecon Beacons.

Monuments of a Golden Age

Moving forward in chronological terms, a series of Roman and medieval sites featured in Current Archaeology across the 1990s and early 2000s. Carmarthen, for example, has a claim to be the oldest town in Wales, and its Roman origins were explored in CA 202 (March/April 2006). There, rescue excavations took place sporadically from 1978 onwards, and the results of these investigations were collectively published in a report edited by Heather James in 2006, entitled ‘Roman Carmarthen: Excavations 1978-1993’. This revealed much about life in ‘Roman’ Wales, in both its modest urbanised centres and its wider hinterlands, exploring interactions between existing and incomer communities and its connections, both domestic and international. Exploring this region during the early medieval period, CA 262 (January 2012) visited fieldwork at the Pillar of Eliseg, near Llangollen. Here, teams from Bangor and Chester Universities examined the site and wider setting of the pillar, a fragment of an early 9th-century round cross-shaft sitting within its original base. This fieldwork established that the erection of the cross on this site concluded, rather than began, its long history. The site appears to have first come into use around 2000 BC, with the construction of a kerbed platform cairn, and continued with a second phase of construction in the early Bronze Age that raised the height of the cairn and inserted a large cist into it.

LEFT Dolforwyn Castle the last castle of the last Welsh prince of North Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd featured on the cover of CA 120.
Dolforwyn Castle the last castle of the last Welsh prince of North Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd featured on the cover of CA 120.

Finally, from the ‘high’ Middle Ages come two fascinating castle sites: Dolforwyn Castle near Abermule (see https://cadw.gov.wales/visit/places-to-visit/dolforwyn-castle) in CA 120 and 197 (June 1990 and May/June 2005) and Dryslwyn Castle, halfway between Llandeilo and Carmarthen (see https://cadw.gov.wales/visit/places-to-visit/dryslwyn-castle) in CA 223 (October 2008). The former was the last castle of the last Welsh prince of North Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. It was built in 1273 and was a flashpoint in Anglo-Welsh relations from the very beginning, not least after its capture by the English in 1277. In the 1990s, a team from Leeds University began work here that stretched to 20 consecutive seasons, conclusively establishing its chronological development and so informing its future management. A few years later, in 2008, CA visited Dryslwyn to report on the publication of a landmark volume on excavations of that site. One of the last bastions of Welsh independence in the 13th century until its capture by the English in 1287, the site saw similarly long-running excavations between 1980 and 1995.

In the next issue, and my third and final column devoted to the archaeology of Wales, I am going to examine sites and structures across the south and south-east of the country, visiting, among others, Roman legionary fortresses and medieval shipbuilding sites.


About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently –central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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