‘We dig Caerau!’ Cardiff’s Hidden Hillfort and the power of community archaeology.

Dr Dave Wyatt, Reader in Early Medieval History, Community and Engagement
Cardiff University

Caerau Hillfort surrounded by the housing estates (Crown Copyright RCAHMW)

I’d like to talk about the significance of co-producing archaeological and historical research in close partnership with communities, and to think about the ways in which valuing local heritage and the collective discovery of the past has power to create new and positive life changing opportunities for all involved.  

To illustrate this, I want to talk CAER Heritage Project (@CAERHeritage) from its humble beginnings to becoming Times Higher Education award winning, flagship civic mission and development project for both Cardiff University and our community development partners Action in Caerau and Ely (ACE) (@elycaerau).

Caerau and Ely constitute the largest social housing estate in Wales and are located on the western edge of the capital city. Home to around 26,000 people, these communities were built on manufacturing industries that thrived in the early 20th century but that collapsed throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  

As a result, these neighbourhoods face a range of significant social and economic challenges including higher than average unemployment, high levels of insecure or poorly paid work and particular challenges relating to learning, with low incomes having a negative impact on the ability of families to support educational opportunities and low numbers of young people entering into higher education.  

The Rich Heritage of Caerau and Ely

Yet these are also communities with significant assets including: strong social networks, community spirit and activism, and the skills, knowledge, experience, kindness and talent of local people.

Caerau and Ely are also communities with a remarkable heritage. From a Neolithic causewayed enclosure to a massive Iron-Age hillfort and large Roman villa, from a medieval castle, churches and deserted village, to a civil war battlefield and twentieth century estates that were at the cutting edge of a social housing revolution. The rich heritage assets of this area encapsulate over 6,000 years of Wales’ history concentrated into just 8 square kilometres. 

Action in Caerau and Ely

These many community assets are the driving force of ACE, an amazing community development organisation and key founding partner of CAER Heritage from whom we have learnt so much about the strategies and value of co-production. See https://www.aceplace.org/ 

Collage of co-production

So what is co-production you ask? It is made up of many things but essentially entails: 

  • a positive asset based approach. 
    valuing equally the contribution of all participants. 
  • project sustainability and continued or long-term involvement (trust). 
  • the development of social networks through face-to-face contact (trust). 
  • reciprocal and mutually beneficial partnerships (trust). 
  • collective effort, benefits and ‘ownership’

CAER Heritage has taken these strategies and applied them to archaeological and historical research. The project is built on objectives that were hammered out early on with ACE, local residents and Cardiff West Community High School (Cardiff West CHS) (@CardiffWestCHS). These objectives have underpinned all our activities and funding successes. They are to:  

  • raise interest in discovering and valuing local heritage.  
  • create new life and educational opportunities for people of all ages through that discovery.  
  • challenge unfounded negative perceptions and create positive stories for of Ely and Caerau. 

CAER is made up of a myriad of partnerships, friendships and collaborations including: Museum of Cardiff (@TheCardiff Story), Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales (@AmgueddfaCymru), Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust (@GGAT) and Cardiff Council (@cardiffcouncil), Glamorgan Archives (@GlamArchives), Guerilla Archaeology (@GuerillaArchae), Centre for Community Journalism (@C4CJ), Community Gateway (@CommunityGtwy), Carenza Lewis (@CarenzaLewis), Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (@RCAHMWales) to name a few… 

In particular, artists and film-makers are hugely important to project development, especially Paul Evans (@Origin010) – who has ensured that creativity has always been central to CAER Heritage co-production, see:  

Local schools have been huge project contributors too especially Cardiff West CHS. See: 

Caer Digs

There is no better way to illustrate the power and dynamics of community co-production than through our community excavations (5 to date!)  

Caerau is one of the largest hillforts in our region, but before CAER Heritage had received almost no archaeological attention.  Geophysical surveys and excavations co-produced with local people have revealed that it was densely occupied in the Iron Age, and it was clearly an important centre hosting a powerful community.   

Community excavations have also discovered that the hillfort overlies the remains of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure.  Such sites are extremely rare and represent the earliest known examples of the enclosure of open space at a time when people were first beginning to settle down and farm the land nearly 6,000 years ago.   

So discoveries made by local people working with Cardiff University School of History, Religion and Conservation (@CUHistArchRel) archaeologists have revealed Caerau to be a monument of international significance. This place was once the power centre for the region – the original Cardiff! An important story to tell for communities that are frequently labelled as marginalised. Watch:   

CAER Heritage began as a research project funded by a series of Arts and Humanities Research Council (@ahrcpress) grants secured by the University – this allowed for community discovery and creativity, embedding academics in community contexts over time to build trust and partnerships.  

But why had it taken so long to recognise this gem of a monument & these amazing and talented communities? Why are there still no facilities, decent accessible trails or information at this remarkable place?  

Hidden Hillfort Heritage Centre

These are issues that CAER Heritage hope to remedy thanks to success in acquiring major Heritage Lottery Fund (@HeritageFundCYM) grant held by ACE in the community and that will see the co-production of a brilliant Hidden Hillfort heritage centre, trails, heritage playground (thanks to Wales and West Housing, @WWHA), information, heritage themed art, film, a VR experience in partnership with First Campus (@firstcampus) and Digichemistry (@Digichemistry).  

ALL co-produced with the remarkable communities of Caerau and Ely! See: 

https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/news/view/1463026-1.65m-community-project-to-reveal-6,000-year-old-hidden-historic-site-in-cardiff

#HiddenHillfort slide

Heritage infrastructure and interpretation will integrate with further discovery of the past through ongoing co-produced research, developing new skills, building confidence, embedding research led teaching in the curriculum of Cardiff West Community High School together with Cardiff University funded scholarships for local young people and adult learners to break down barriers to higher education. See: 

https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/news/view/1271014-new-learning-opportunities-for-caer-heritage-project

In these difficult days of pandemic and the challenging times to come it is essential that we recognise that Universities are an integral part of their host communities and that they have an immense responsibility to fulfill their social and civic mission.  

As we celebrate #CUarch100 let’s remember that research creates knowledge and knowledge is power. The power of archaeology, the power of community, the power of co-production means that when we come together then we can harness the potential of heritage and create new pasts…and new futures.

Website: https://caerheritageproject.com/ 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CAERHeritageProject/ 

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