Excavating the CA archive: North Wales

6 mins read

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

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I am aware that, in my tour of Current Archaeology’s ‘county archaeologies’, I have yet to step outside England. In the next few columns, I will make partial amends for this by focusing on Wales – for this column, on North Wales. I apologise in advance – and imply no slight – for not touring Wales county by county as I have done so far in England. Alas, the reality is that CA’s coverage of Wales is patchy in places, and so I will pick instead from the richest offerings by general region rather than individual county.

By way of introduction, I will begin by flagging some national reviews that have featured down the years, surveys of the overall archaeological greatness of the country. The first of these came in issue 53 (November 1975), which considered the historic towns of Wales. This reported on the work, begun in 1973, of the Welsh Urban Research Unit, part of what was then the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments (which became part of Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic environment service) based at University College, Cardiff (later becoming the University of Cardiff). CA 228 and 249 (March 2009 and December 2010) then reviewed the history of the Royal Commission of Wales, the latter considering the particular issue of Welsh vernacular housing. It was written by no less an individual than Chris Catling, Chief Executive since 2015 of that same-said Royal Commission, and a long-standing columnist and feature-writer for this magazine. Most recently, CA 358 (January 2020) explored Wales’ maritime heritage, when Chris returned to consider the contents of a new book Wales and the Sea: 10,000 years of Welsh maritime history, which makes clear the extraordinary sites and shipwrecks that lie along its coastline.

Chris Catling took readers on a deep dive into the maritime heritage of Wales in CA 358.

A series of Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age sites on Anglesey have featured in Current Archaeology over the years, for the richness of this island has long been recognised by archaeologists. Chronologically, we can begin at the Neolithic site of Barclodiad y Gawres, situated between Rhosneigr and Aberffraw on the south-west coast. This site, which is in the care of Cadw and featured in CA 211 (September/October 2007), has an extraordinary wealth of art carved deep within its structure. These markings cannot be seen from the entrance, though, as they are intended to be viewed only by those who pass within. Terrence Powell and Glyn Daniel excavated here in 1952-1953, and more recently George Nash and Adam Stanford returned as part of the Anglesey Rock Art Project. Another stunning Neolithic site is Bryn Celli Ddu, on the south-east coast near Llanddaniel Fab, again in the care of Cadw. CA 310 and 318 (January and September 2016) visited fieldwork underway there thanks to a collaboration between Cadw and Manchester Metropolitan University. And, most recently, CA 332 (November 2017) examined a previously unknown Neolithic village at Llanfaethlu, to the immediate north of the village of the same name in the north-west of the island, which was discovered during works for a new community school. This was the first early Neolithic multi-house settlement ever to be identified in Wales, with a cluster of four houses almost 6,000 years old.

The Neolithic site of Bryn Celli Ddu in Anglesey, featuring one of the best-preserved passage tombs in Wales, made the cover of CA 310.

Anglesey’s prehistoric highlights are not restricted to the Neolithic. For example, CA 75 (February 1981) explored the Bronze Age site of Capel Eithin, in the south-east of the island near the village of Gaerwen. There, a team from the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust produced finds ranging from the Neolithic to the Viking Age, and in particular uncovered a spectacular series of 19 Bronze Age collared urns, more than had been found on any other site in Anglesey at the time. More recently, a similarly fruitful Iron Age site with an unusual history was examined in CA 273 (December 2012), that of Llyn Cerrig Bach, on the edge of a small lake located between Rhosneigr and Valley in the west of the island. A spectacular set of 180 separate items of metalwork were discovered there in 1942- 1943, including bronze swords, spears, and a shield boss; bronze horns and cauldrons; currency bars; and chariot parts. The finds, made at the height of the Second World War during the development of the airbase now known as RAF Valley, have long been a prized collection of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, and at the time the article was printed some were on loan to Oriel Ynys Môn, Anglesey’s principal museum and arts centre, in the county town of Llangefni.

CA 273 took us to Iron Age Anglesey, reporting on the site of Llyn Cerrig Bach – a small peat-filled lake that preserved a spectacular hoard of metalwork from this period.

A similarly diverse array of Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman sites from the northern areas of mainland Wales have also featured in the pages of Current Archaeology. Perhaps the most dramatic of all of these is that of Great Orme Head, a popular visitor attraction on the edge of Llandudno. CA 130 (August 1992) visited fieldwork there, which revealed that beneath the 19th-century mine workings lay a series of sites long assumed to be Roman in origin, but which were in fact much older – of Bronze Age date, proven at this time thanks to advances in radiocarbon dating. The fieldwork also demonstrated the full extent of these prehistoric mines, going a quarter of a mile, and over 200ft down, into the hillside. CA 181 (September 2002) revisited the site to update readers on the long-running research here.

Mining of a different sort then drew CA’s attention to the Iron Age hillfort of Moel y Gaer in Flintshire, at the southern end of Halkyn Mountain near the village of Rhosesmor, which was examined in CA 37 (March 1973). There, a team of rescue archaeologists – literally, members of RESCUE: the British Archaeological Trust – surveyed and excavated the site in advance of its destruction by quarrying, a sad loss of a very important site that in the modern day would likely be protected from such destruction.

More recently and more happily, CA 318 (September 2016) surveyed the many Iron Age hillforts of Cardigan Bay as part of an examination of more than 100 such sites by Toby Driver, who visited by land and air in order better to understand them and their place in society during this period. More recent sites have also regularly featured down the years. For example, CA 203 (May/June 2006) examined evidence for Roman forts in the north-west as part of a survey undertaken at this time by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. A year later, CA 211 (September/October 2007) examined the place of north Wales as the last bastion of ‘Roman’ Britain, examining the work of Roger White in his book Britannia Prima: Britain’s last Roman province.

CA 211 examined how North Wales managed to remain the last bastion of ‘Roman’ Britain, until Edward I captured Caernarfon Castle in 1278.

Moving into more modern times, Current Archaeology visited the ever-popular location of Conwy in two very different guises in CA 150 and 212 (November 1996 and November 2007). The former examined the history of stabilisation and improvement works to the castle since 1953, when Cadw’s predecessor, the Ancient Monuments Branch of the old Office of Works, assumed responsibility for the care, conservation, and management of the site. The latter saw Robert Stephenson’s iconic 1848 tubular railway bridge subjected to archaeological analyses as part of stabilisation works there to secure its future – a blend of ancient and modern techniques of which the great engineer would surely have approved.

Medievalists, meanwhile, were satiated in CA 32 and 81 (May 1972 and March 1981) with visits to Rhuddlan, where fieldwork over many years examined the Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and medieval phases of occupation of the area in a sequence of planned towns. And to reach even further forward in time, into arguably the most-iconic North Welsh landscape of all, CA 303 and 306 (June and September 2015) explored some of the post-medieval history of Snowdonia, examining first its historic houses and second its slate industry.

So ends the first part of my survey of Wales. I will return in subsequent issues to examine Mid and South Wales, ranging widely in time and space again, from spectacular western coastal forts to the disputed English border, and from prehistoric footprints along the Gwent Levels to the historic mining settlements of the Rhondda.

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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