British Archaeology, no 29, November 1997: News

Welsh fort identified as citadel of Dark Age king

The site of one of the early medieval royal strongholds of North Wales appears to have been found this autumn at a hillfort near Colwyn Bay on the North Gwynedd coast.

The fort, Bryn Euryn, is now being identified as the base of Cynlas the Red, 6th century King of Rhos – the region on the east bank of the Conwy Estuary, and the Kingdom of Gwynedd’s eastern neighbour. Bryn Euryn commands extensive views – south up the Conwy Valley, east and west along the coast. A rampart is intermittently visible on the small summit where lengths of a single course of limestone blocks protrude from the turf. What could be an enclosed terrace lies below the summit. The overall layout suggests a citadel and dependent outwork, but until now no details of the site have been clear.

Trial excavations across the ramparts, however, have revealed the base of a massive, well-built defensive stone wall, thought originally to have stood at least 3m high. The wall had been faced with good-quality quarried limestone blocks, still standing four courses high in places, fronting a rubble rampart three and a half metres thick.

Although no dating evidence was found, the general layout of the site suggests an early medieval date, according to David Longley, who directed the excavation for the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust. As a small, strongly-built hilltop stronghold it resembles sites such as Garn Boduan on the Llyn Peninsula in Gwynedd, which has early medieval associations, or Scottish sites such as Dunadd in Argyll or Dumbarton Rock in Strathclyde.

‘Bryn Euryn looks nothing at all like Iron Age hillforts in this area, ’ Mr Longley said, ‘and by the 9th to 11th centuries high-status sites in North Wales and Scotland tended to move down to low-lying, undefended, accessible locations.’

The hillfort can also possibly be associated with a documented historical figure. One of the 6th century kings of western Britain referred to by the contemporary British writer Gildas was Cuneglasus – usually taken to be Cynlas the Red – who is described as ‘the Bear . . . red butcher . . . and charioteer of the Bear’s Den’. Bryn Euryn lies in what was the medieval township of Dineirth, a name that means ‘Bear’s Fort’.

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Public disquiet over digging of graves

The discovery last month of a warrior buried with his horse in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at a US air base in Suffolk, which received wide publi city in the national press, has touched a nerve of public disquiet about the disinterment of the dead for archaeological research.

Writing to The Times, Elizabeth Dineley of Shaftesbury said it was ‘immeasurably touching’ to see a published photograph of the warrior and his horse, but that ‘to rend them apart’ in the name of science amounted to vandalism. ‘How short a time do we have to be buried, ’ she asked, ‘before it is permissible, even acceptable, for grinning archaeologists to dig out our bones, prod about among our teeth, disperse our possessions, take the head off our horse and lay us, not to rest, in boxes in museums? ’

In the same newspaper, His Honour Judge Gabriel Hutton, of Dursley, Gloucestershire, wrote that if he intended to be buried with his horse, he would be ‘saddened’ to think that they might both be exhumed at some time in the future, to make way for a new dormitory at a US air base. ‘When does sanctity, afforded to graves, run out?’

The warrior-and-horse burial is not the only recent disinterment to arouse public unease. In an unpublished letter to this magazine last month, commenting on the analysis of bones from a mass grave of the Wars of the Roses at Towton in Yorkshire (‘ Skeletons reveal brutality of warfare’, October), Paul Eaglen of Leeds wrote simply: ‘I hope the Towton skeletons are left in peace in Saxton churchyard.'

The public reaction is directed not only at archaeologists – who are usually called in after a cemetery has been uncovered during building development – but at Britain’s planning culture which appears to treat cemeteries, especially out-of-use non-Christian cemeteries, with little respect.

Over recent years, however, some in archaeology have expressed the view that archaeologists should restrain their desire to research human skeletons, especially where little new knowledge can be expected as a result (see ‘Examine the dead gently', October 1994; Letters, October and November 1994).

In another letter to The Times last month, Anthony Maynard of the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project in Norfolk announced that his group had also excavated an East Anglian horse burial amid Anglo-Saxon skeletons this year. ‘We do, though, have our sensitivities, and intend ultimately to re-inter the skeletons at the site and erect a suitable memorial, ’ he wrote.

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Timber circle in Argyll’s ritual valley

The remains of a large prehistoric timber circle have been found in a commanding position at the head of the Kilmartin Valley in Argyll, home to one of the richest concentrations of prehistoric ritual monuments in Scotland.

The timber circle was set high up on a terrace on the valley side, directly in line with Kilmartin’s celebrated ‘linear cemetery’ of Bronze Age cairns. The circle seems to have been approached out of the valley along a timber avenue – reminiscent of the Avenue at Stonehenge – and within and near the circle are several cist burials, including one with a complete skeleton preserved inside.

The circle, some 46m across, is assumed to be Neolithic in origin but to have been used throughout the Bronze Age. According to the excavator, John Terry of Scotia Archaeology, it may have been one of the principal ritual centres in the valley – which contains numerous standing stone settings, a stone circle, elaborate rock art carvings, cairns and other prehistoric features. The circle is ‘littered with post-holes, pits, and multiple post-alignments’, he said, but they cannot all yet be fully explained.

The site lies within a sand-and-gravel quarry, and will be destroyed as quarrying goes ahead. The quarry itself has been the subject of controversy. It has been worked for several years, but in the late 1980s the quarry operators, M&K MacLeod of Lochgilphead, applied for permission for a major extension. Both Historic Scotland and Strathclyde’s regional archaeologist, Carol Swanson, advised against the development, because of the cultural sensitivity of the area. The regional council overruled their objections, because of the jobs the quarry would create.

Permission was granted before government planning guidance integrated archaeological protection into the planning system. The quarry operators were not required to finance an archaeological evaluation before their application went through – in order to assess what survived under the surface – and the site has subsequently proved richer than was expected.

As a result, according to Dr Swanson, the money the operators originally agreed to pay towards the dig is now likely to run out when the excavation is still only two-thirds complete.

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In brief

Scottish shrine

Traces have been found of what is thought to have been a celebrated Scottish shrine at Whitekirk near Dunbar, which attracted thousands of pilgrims during the Middle Ages including James IV and the future Pope Pius II, who walked ten miles to the shrine barefoot on frozen ground.

The shrine was established in the early 14th century after the miraculous recovery of Agnes, Countess of Dunbar, who had been wounded at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296. She is said to have been directed by a hermit to drink from a well. News of her cure spread throughout Europe and people started travelling to the site. James I built pilgrim houses for those hoping for a cure. The shrine was smashed to pieces during the Reformation, however, and the water of the well has since dried up. The site was lost.

Now, restoration work on a building known as Whitekirk tithe barn has produced evidence of medieval stone buildings thought to be remains of the pilgrimhouses, containing pottery of the 12th to 15th centuries. Survey work by Chris Lowe of Headland Archaeology has found one fireplace blocked with pieces of rubble carved with the Cistercian rose motif and cross. These are thought to be parts of the original shrine itself, which was brought to Dunbar by Cistercian monks from Melrose in 1309.

Roman Silchester

Aerial photography and a new excavation at the Roman town of Silchester near Reading – which was heavily excavated last century – suggest that more survives at the site than was thought. More stone buildings existed than were known, as well as a number of ‘blank’ areas that could have been open spaces.

The excavation, directed by Michael Fulford and Amanda Clarke of Reading University, has revealed shops, workshops, and a large timber building built at a diagonal to the street grid. The house, which is thought to date from the 5th or 6th centuries, was built over a period of time in a classically Roman style but with declining standards of workmanship. It may have been the residence of a post-Roman chieftain, trying to maintain a classical life-style at a time when society as a whole was breaking down.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997