The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 101

Issue 101

July / Aug 2008



Early Scottish gardens unturfed

Axes could be 0.5m years old

In the press

Listing lobby was no hot air

Kent Anglo-Saxon cemetery could be royal

Poetry to assist transfer of Hadrian's Wall collection

In Brief & Phase 2


The Copper Age
Special: did Britain have a fourth age?

Portable Antiquities
The Scheme must go on

Drawing Stonehenge
A major fieldwork project is explored by six artists

Severn estuary
Martin Bell describes the unique world of ancient mudflats

Gin Drinker's Line
Insights into WWII Hong Kong defence system

A Professional Mockery
Gary Lock on difficulties in obtaining "grey lierature"

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones explores the realms of archaeological fiction and a look at Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society's website


your views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth says it's time to think big – The CBA at Discover Archaeology LIVE, London Olympia


An exhibition to make you think (and a bog body)

Mick's travels & more travels

Mick Aston goes to Glamorgan in search of monasteries, and Jon Cannon tours south-east Wales

in view

New columnist Greg Bailey probes a coming major TV series – BBC's Bonekickers

my archaeology - NEW!

Neil MacGregor: The accidental archaeologist and new director of the British Museum


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

Mick's travels

Early Monasteries in Glamorgan

Wales has a surprising number of fine medieval inscribed stones. Mick Aston sees indications at some of their sites for continuity from late Roman villas to early Christian foundations

The recent publication of two of the three volumes on the early medieval inscribed stones in Wales (see end note) reminded me of when I first went to live in Oxford (to work, not to study, unfortunately). Very early on, in August 1970, I bought a second hand copy of Nash-Williams's great corpus of The Early Christian Monuments of Wales (University of Wales Press 1950) – always known as ECMW – for three guineas! I have always had more than a passing interest in early medieval stones and sculpture and they are, of course, particularly relevant to my interest in early medieval monasteries. The new volume on south-east Wales draws our attention to a particular series of stones in Glamorgan at sites such as Llantwit Major, Llandaff, Margam and Merthyr Mawr.

Years ago, Wendy Davies, in her study of the Llandaff charters (Wales in the Early Middle Ages, Leicester University Press 1982), drew our attention to the large number of religious foundations in south-east Wales in the early medieval period, some going back to the sixth and seventh centuries. Important early medieval monasteries in Glamorgan which she highlighted were Llandaff, Llandough, Llancarfan and Llantwit Major.

These early monasteries with their crosses and memorial stones occupy a relatively fertile part of Wales, the Vale of Glamorgan, an area that was more intensively Romanised with civilian as well as military sites of great interest and importance. There are, for example, a number of villas in this area – unlike further west and north in Wales – and some of them seem to be directly associated with succeeding medieval religious sites. Indeed, Jeremy Knight and others have suggested that in this area there is probably some of the best evidence for continuity between the civilian use of Roman villas and the development of succeeding early monastic sites. Although some of the villas have been studied, far less has been achieved on the early medieval aspects of these sites (with the exception of Llandough); the crosses and memorial stones are often all we have left.

At Llantwit Major the Roman villa was excavated in 1887–8, 1938–9, 1948 and 1971. A number of fourth century buildings were traced and several courtyards. Skeletons found on the site were suggested to be the victims of a massacre; others were more formal burials, cut through the ruined walls of the villa. No radiocarbon dates seem to be known for these. Around AD500, St Illtud is said to have lived there, but not surprisingly no archaeological evidence was found for occupation at the site at that time.

About a mile away the church of St Illtud stands on the edge of Llantwit Major village (also known as Llanilltud Vawr), in an irregular churchyard with a stream on the west side. The church building itself has an odd western end and looks, perhaps, like a series of early churches in line, which have been rebuilt together. In the western end is a fine collection of stones ranging in date from the late eighth century (or before 800) to the 11th–12th centuries (before 1200), and including several fine crosses (the Houelt Cross and the Samson Cross) and memorial stones, some with long inscriptions. It is clear that a religious community could have developed out of the villa estate; the monastery was famous later for its associations with St Samson (of Dol) who crossed Cornwall and Christianised Brittany in the sixth century. It became a mausoleum for the local aristocratic family in the early medieval period as well.

The association between a villa and an early monastery is seen most clearly at Llandough just west of Cardiff. A Roman villa was found in 1979 on the south side of a shallow valley. It was occupied until the early fourth century. At least 30 burials on the site produced radiocarbon dates of the eighth to 10th centuries. The present church of St Dochdwy's, to the north, is a 19th century building but it has a cross of late 10th to early 11th century date in the churchyard.

In 1994 a large area north of the church was excavated before housing development began, and a cemetery of 1,026 burials was found – the largest early medieval burial population so far recovered from Wales. Sherds of imported Mediterranean pottery found in some of the graves indicated activity on the site in the late fifth or sixth centuries, and radiocarbon dates showed that the cemetery had been in use fromaround AD650 to 1000, when the early Welsh monastery ceased to exist.

It is perhaps ironic that some of the best evidence for the transition from Roman villas to early medieval sites should come fromWales rather than England. But as Roger White has recently so clearly demonstrated, western Britain is different to eastern England – there is more continuity. There is continuing contact with the late Roman and Byzantine empire, and less disruption from invaders and immigrants.

If Llandough shows us the potential of an early medieval monastic site, nearby Llancarfan must hold much fascinating material as yet unexamined, as well. The church today is largely a rebuilt structure, though it does have part of a cross of the period AD900–1100 built into the wall under the east window. We know that this was the monastery of the famous Welsh St Cadog, a Life of whom survives. As well as the main monastery, Flat Holm Island, out in the Bristol Channel (formerly called Echni) was used as a place of Lenten retreat (between Christmas and Easter) by Cadog and his monks. There must have been a hermitage there, and years ago a 12th century grave slab was found on the island. Nearby, Steep Holm also had a hermitage (associated with Gildas) though we do not know as yet fromwhich early medieval monastery (on the mainland in Somerset?) monks might have come.

I have visited both of these islands, and though they are close to modern civilisation (Bristol, Cardiff, Newport and Weston-super-Mare are not far away), the sense of isolation and detachment is still very strong. This is particularly true at night when the islands' darkness contrasts with the light from the surrounding urban areas.

A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones & Stone Sculpture in Wales: Volume 1 South East Wales & the English Border, by Mark Redknap & John M Lewis, ISBN 9780708319567; Volume 2 South-West Wales by Nancy Edwards, ISBN 9780708319635 (both University of Wales Press, Nov 2007)

Mick Aston has been a familiar figure on Channel 4 since helping to launch Time Team in 1994. He reports on his travels around Britain in every issue of British Archaeology

more travels: glamorgan

Jon Cannon finds everything from neolithic burial chambers to the world's first iron railway bridge in south-east Wales.

Glamorgan is at once the heart of a cosmopolitan Wales, and a focus of nationalist aspirations; both a rural heartland and the location of a capital city. Though it was created comparatively recently – in 1536, when the Norman lordships of Gower and Glamorgan were combined – the county has ancient roots, in the territories of Morgannwg, Glywysing and the Roman-era Silures. Even its landscape is split in two: the lowland Bro or Vale of Glamorgan to the south, and the mountainous uplands of Blaenau Glamorgan to the north.

These contrasts suggest a great circuit south and north, beginning with an orienting visit to Cardiff, the eastern gateway from the M4 and A48. Cardiff castle (daily, some parts accessible by tour only, admission fee) incorporates parts of a Roman fort, reused by the Normans in the 1090s: the castle was again reinvented from 1868, when the third Marquess of Bute turned it into a fantasy vision of an aristocratic, chivalrous past.

As the owner of much of both Cardiff and the coalfields beyond, the Marquess was a combination of feudal lord and modern industrialist. He went on to develop Cathays Park nearby as a civic focus for a city well on the way to becoming the world centre for the coal trade – a kind of high Victorian Dubai. The result incorporated such capital-in-the-making institutions as the National Museum of Wales (Tue–Sun), which contains many archaeological finds from across the principality – and a stone circle, built in 1899 on the occasion of a Gorsedd of Welsh bards at the Cardiff Eisteddfod. The monument reflects the early Welsh nationalist belief that Glamorgan had been the site of a great Druidic civilisation; a dream forged as the county itself was being transformed into a crucible of industrial modernity.

Continue out of the city on the A48 and one nears the National History Museum at St Fagan's (daily). Here has been moved an early terrace of workers' houses and, very recently, a parish church with a recreated medieval painted interior. A short detour en route could take in the cathedral at Llandaff, the 1107 result of the Normans' conquering military/religious strategy in the area: the military ecclesiastical complex, we might call it today.

Just a few miles further west along the A48, at St Nicholas, is one of the neolithic highlights of Wales: Tinkinswood burial chamber (ST 092733), with its wide-mouthed forecourt and 40-tonne capstone. That at nearby St Lythans (ST 101723) is shorn of its covering mound. Detours from here could take in Mick's Llandough and Llancarfan.

Continue west along the A48, and then south along the B4270, past Old Beaupre ("Bewper"; ST 009720), one of Glamorgan's finest high-status houses, an enormous ruin including the finely-carved Tower of the Orders (1600). Then almost at the coast, one of the county's hotspots is Llantwit Major. Little can be seen of the Roman villa (ST 959700), mentioned by Mick, but the church is art-historically baffling, archaeologically rich, and stuffed with fascinating fittings alongside its early Christian decorated stones. Glamorgan has more of these than all the rest of Wales put together, and some of the very best are here, and at Margam not far away.

We head west and north now, along the A4265 and back to the A48, via Ewenny, with its emphatically defensive Romanesque priory church. About nine miles on, the temperature of the landscape suddenly increases, as Bro and Blaenau swing within a few miles of each other, dunes line the coast, and extraordinary Margam guards the way towards Swansea and Gower.

Margam Country Park (daily Apr–early Sep; closed Mon and Tue am Sep–Mar) may sound an unprepossessing focus for the hunter-after-the-past, but here the county's themes suddenly reignite. The upland Mynydd y Castell contains a chain of prehistoric sites, including within the park, an iron age hillfort. Just before entering the park the Margam Stones Museum (Wed–Sun Apr-Sep;Wed and Fri Jan–Mar by arrangement on 01639 871184, Cadw, admission fee) continues the story through to the early medieval period. The baton is then passed to the park proper, in which are set the chapter house of Cistercian Margam Abbey; and a series of statements of lordly oneupmanship by the Mansel-Talbot family: the post-Reformation Banqueting House facade, the Orangery (the longest in Britain), and Margam castle. The shining metal redoubts of Port Talbot's Margam Abbey steelworks a little further along the A48/M4 bring the story bang up to date.

After another 20 miles one can leave the A48/M4 and head into Gower, the peninsula that stretches south and west from Swansea. Here is one of Britain's best-loved and most intimate historic landscapes, deserving a separate tour to itself. There are promontory forts and hillforts (eg Hardings Down, SS 436906); parish churches and castles (eg Oxwich castle, SS 497862; Apr–Sep, Cadw, admission fee), and some important prehistoric sites. The Parc le Breos Cwm (SS 537898) and Pen-y-Crug/Penmaen burial chambers (SS 532881) are impressive neolithic monuments.

From here climb Cefn Bryn for some 15 bronze age round cairns: a well-known focus is Maen Ceti/Arthur's Stone (SS 491905). Some 28,000 years ago in Goat's Hole cave at Paviland (SS 437859), then about 100km from the shoreline, a young man was buried in rites that left his body ochre-coloured. The discovery of his remains in 1832 was a landmark of early archaeology; recent radiocarbon dates have made the Red Lady of Paviland the oldest bone-dated human burial in Europe.

We now turn and head for Blaenau Glamorgan via Swansea. Besides the archaeological collections of Swansea Museum(Tue–Sun), or, by contrast the Egypt Centre (Tue–Sat), the city has amedieval castle, traces of a late 18th century resort, and industrial era remains reflecting former Swansea's status as the focus of Britain's copper smelting industry. These include the planned settlement of Morristown and the site of the copperworks, at White Rock on the River Tawe (SS 948663). The world's first passenger railway (1807) ran from Swansea to Mumbles, and its path is now a cycle track.

From Swansea the A465 follows the Neath river northeast towards a landscape of empty (often forested) uplands and thickly-settled valleys. Had the decline of heavy industry been more carefully managed, highland Glamorgan might boast some of themost significant industrial sites in Britain: as it is, the survivals are as much the result of accident as design. Neath Abbey has remains of both a monastery and an ironworks; nearby Aberdulais Falls (Mon–Fri Mar–Nov, Sat, Sun and some Fris Nov–Mar, National Trust, admission fee) has an early copper-smelting furnace and a large, working waterwheel.

After some 15 miles the A465 becomes the Heads of Valleys road, from which one can pick a valley and follow its river-hugging road south and east back towards Cardiff. On the Rhondda/A4058 the Rhondda Heritage Park (closed Mon Oct–Easter, fee for underground tours), incorporates the pithead buildings of the Lewis Merthyr colliery. The Cynon/A4059 passes through Trecynon in Aberdare, where some seven nonconformist chapels are set among the terraced houses: typical of the kind of settlement that has managed, just, to survive the collapse of the industry that created it.

On the Taff/A470, at Merthyr Tydfil, Cyfarthfa castle (daily Apr–Sep; closed Mon Oct–Mar), was the grand home of the ironmaster of Cyfarthfa ironworks, once the largest in the world: six enormous blast furnaces survive, and Pontycafnau (SO 036070) the first iron railway bridge in the world. For some fresh air and a contrast climb to Morlais castle (SO 049097) with its vaulted undercroft and a memorably craggy setting.

Some 20 miles down the A470 towards Cardiff and the M4 we draw near our last two sites, each echoing the other while embodying some of the county's rich contrasts. Caerphilly castle (daily Apr–Oct, hours restricted Jan–Mar, Cadw, admission fee) is the colossal forerunner of Edward I's great series of castles in north Wales; further south the High Victorian reinvention of Castell Coch (details as Caerphilly) combined millionaire chutzpah and medieval fantasy. With its site on the edge of a forested mountain overlooking the city on the plain, it is a fitting place to finish our great circuit of Glamorgan.

Many thanks to the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust

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