‘Archaeology’ in Cardiff before ‘Archaeology in Cardiff’

Professor James Whitley
Cardiff University

In  the first volume of T.H. White’s re-working of the Arthurian legends The Sword in the Stone (the book, not the Disney film) – when the ‘Wart’ first meets Merlin – there is an elaborate description of Merlin’s rather eccentric possessions. These include a copy of A.B. Cook’s Zeus, a three-volume work of classical scholarship published in the early years of the twentieth century. This deliberate anachronism is of course part of Merlin’s oddity (in the book) – whereas everyone else is travelling forwards in time he is travelling backwards. Merlin himself – though he clearly has antiquarian interests – therefore cannot be an archaeologist. But he possesses a book by someone who, in his time, was considered an archaeologist – in that, in the last few years of life, he held the Laurence Chair of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge.  

Today we would not call A.B. Cook ‘an archaeologist’ nor his great study comparative study of the Indo-European sky-god a work of archaeology (though it does include archaeological material). But in his time he was a kind of archaeologist. In the decades before and after 1900 the word ‘archaeology’ still meant ‘the science of ancient things’. These ancient things might include words, customs and practices as well as things. So Sir James Frazer’s commentary on Pausanias (Frazer 1898) could be considered an example of ‘archaeology’ just as Jane Ellen Harrison’s Themis (Harrison 1912)Archaeology then could embrace ethnology, comparative philology, the study of religion, folklore as well as concrete, material things. Archaeology was, at that time, still largely conducted by scholars with a classical background.  

In this short piece I want to take a brief look at two of these scholars who practised a form of ‘archaeology’ in this earlier sense: R.S. Conway and P.N. Ure. Both were at Cardiff briefly (presumably in the Classics department) in the years between 1900 and 1912, before moving on to Manchester and Reading respectively. Both were well-known and highly regarded scholars – so both have Wikipedia pages (though neither mentions Cardiff).  

R.S. Conway (1864-1933 -above) was the elder of the two. In 1901 when Conway was at Cardiff he was asked by the then Director of the British School at Athens, R.C. Bosanquet, to comment on some of the philological aspects of the inscriptions that had been found at Praisos in Eastern Crete (a region Bosanquet was later to call a ‘Cretan Wales).  

Conway was not an epigrapher but a comparative Indo-European philologist. His publication (Conway 1902) does contain pictures of the inscriptions which are written in a local (regional) version of the Greek alphabet. Though written in the Greek alphabet these late Archaic and Classical inscriptions are not written in the Greek language. What language were they then written in? Homer had talked about the ‘Eteocretans’ (‘True Cretans’) as one of the five peoples of ancient Crete; and Herodotus had mentioned that the people of Praisos claimed descent from the pre-Greek inhabitants of the island. These inscriptions seemed to confirm these ancient sources.  

Conway was not able to decipher these ‘Eteocretan’ inscriptions – there were too few of them. His best guess was that they were in an Indo-European language related to Venetic (the ancient Italic tongue once spoken in the area close to Venice). In this he was not alone – no-one has since been able to decipher them. Of the many wild claims that have been made since then (perhaps the wildest being that these inscriptions whose context strongly suggests they are legal are in written in a Semitic language and are in fact tombstones) none has been accepted. In his definitive study of the language Yves Duhoux reckons that Conway’s guess remains the best we have.  

By the time Conway wrote his second article on ‘Eteocretan’ inscriptions (Conway 1904) he was in Manchester. He is now best known for his study of ancient Italic languages – Venetic, Oscan, Umbrian, Messapian and so forth. These interests are now maintained in Cardiff by one of our colleagues in ancient history, Guy Bradley.  

P.N. (‘Percy’) Ure  (1879-1950) arrived in Cardiff soon after. His first publication as a Cardiff scholar (Ure 1906) is, on the face of it, not very archaeological. It is a study of ancient – particularly Archaic – tyranny in Greece in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. It proposes a thesis that was to become an orthodoxy though much of the twentieth century – that tyranny arose in part because of a class struggle between a landed aristocracy and a rising mercantile class (a thesis later discredited by another scholar who was briefly at Cardiff, Hans Van Wees). This idea – that there was an economic basis for major social and political change – drew Ure to what we would recognise as more directly archaeological material. With R.M. Burrows (Burrows and Ure 1911) he published an article on a rather odd vase shape – the kothon. 

What was the function of this curious type of Greek painted pottery (also known as an exaileptron), found largely in late Archaic and early Classical times? Was it a lamp? Or an incense burner? This focus on function (and on economics) was very much at odds with the kind of study of Greek painted pottery practised by J.D. Beazley – with its emphasis on style, attribution and iconography.  

In 1911 P.N. Ure left Cardiff to become Professor of Classics at Reading. Though a Professor of Classics his interests remained largely archaeological and economic. He built up the archaeological teaching collection at Reading and published numerous articles on vase shapes (such as the ‘Droop cup’) as well as pursuing investigations of the site of Rhitsona in Boeotia. 

So the ‘study of ancient things’ in Cardiff precedes the establishment of an archaeological department here.  With its with institutional links to the National Museum of Wales Cardiff archaeology after 1920 went on to develop a marked emphasis on the material remains of Britain (and Wales) in all periods from prehistory to the present. Under Mortimer Wheeler it developed a strong focus on excavation – excavation conducted with increasing accuracy and stratigraphical refinement. Of course Wheeler famously declared that he was ‘digging up people, not things’. Partly through this the meaning of the word ‘archaeology’ was to change radically after 1920. The presence of ancient historians and comparative philologists in SHARE is, however, is a continual reminder of the older sense of the word ‘archaeology’. 


Burrows, R.M. and Ure, P.N. 1911. Kothons and vases of allied types. Journal of Hellenic Studies 31, 72-99. 

Conway, R.S. 1902. The Pre-Hellenic Inscriptions of Praesos. Annual of the British School at Athens 8: 125-56. 

Conway, R.S. 1904. A Third Eteocretan Fragment (The Neikar-Inscription). Annual of the British School at Athens 10: 115-26. 

Cook, A.B. 1914. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion: Volume I: Zeus, God of the Bright Sky Part 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Cook, A.B. 1925. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion: Volume 2: Zeus, God of the Dark Sky (Thunder and Lightning). (2 volumes) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Cook, A.B. 1940. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion: Volume 3: Zeus, God of the Dark Sky (Earthquakes, Clouds, Winds, Dew, Rain, Meteorites). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Duhoux, Y. 1982. Les Étéocrétois: Les Textes, La Langue. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben. 

Harrison, J.E. 1912. Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Frazer, J.G. 1898. Pausanias’ Description of Greece. London: Macmillan.  

Ure, P.N. 1906. The origin of the Tyrannis. Journal of Hellenic Studies 26, 131-42. 

White, T.H. 1938. The Sword in the Stone. London: Fontana-Collins.  


‘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: 


#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: 


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/