Ten years digging at Bornais: Cardiff in the Western Isles 1995 to 2004

Professor Niall Sharples
Cardiff University

When I took up my post as lecturer at Cardiff University in 1995 I was involved in a project researching the settlement history of the Western Isles with my friend and colleague Mike Parker Pearson. We had completed our excavations of a broch at Dun Vulan and were considering what else we wanted to dig. The idea was to develop our knowledge of the periods either side of the Middle Iron Age periods that were represented at Dun Vulan and which were less thoroughly explored on the island. Mike had field walked a large mound near to Dun Vulan and a trial excavation in 1994 supported the survey interpretation that this was a Norse settlement that may well have continuity back to the Late Iron Age that was identified at the end of the sequence of settlement at Dun Vulan. 

I was persuaded by Mike that this would be a good field project for Cardiff University students and I began taking them up to South Uist in the summer of 1996. The initial years of excavation at Bornais were relatively small scale and involved survey  (undertaken by Mike Hamilton) and trial trenches of the various mounds to try to define the settlement.  

It soon became clear that this was a very large Norse settlement that covered a large area. Late Iron Age settlement was present and the sequence eventually exposed spanned at least a millennium from the 5th century AD to the 15th century AD.  

Most of the later years focussed on the excavation of two areas, known as mounds 2 and 2A, in the centre of the settlement. Large teams of Cardiff students worked on these areas for eight weeks in the summers of 1999, 2000, 2003 and 2004 and exposed complex sequences of archaeology that provided evidence for the structures occupied and the  social and economic life of an exceptionally large Norse settlement.  

The logistics of this excavation were problematic as getting everyone all the way to South Uist with all the equipment and provisions,  accommodating about 30 people on a small sparsely populated island and returning and processing all the finds and samples every summer was challenging. It also required a substantial budget; petrol and food are much more expensive on these small islands and the transport costs were significant as the ferries are not cheap. Fortunately as the sites were threatened by erosion Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland) provided a substantial grant and have supported the post excavation analysis through to publication.  

The information recovered from the excavations has been considerable and resulted in the publication of four substantial volumes as well as many specialist papers and numerous PhDs and undergraduate dissertations. There are many important discoveries but amongst these have been the excavation of a range of important houses that have very well preserved floors that provide very important information on what people were doing in their homes.  

Two houses were exceptional. A Late Iron Age house dating to the fifth century AD was burnt down and the carbonised remains of the roof timbers were preserved between the primary occupation and a secondary reoccupation.  On the floor of this house were a clusters of stone tools that appear to have been in bags hanging from the roof around the edge of the house. Slotted between two of the rafters in the roof was a whalebone axe that may have been used to cut the turves for the roof. In the floor deposits were a range of bone tools and amongst the more prosaic objects was a bone dice and an unusual decorated astragalus which it is argued these might have been used in act of divination to decide whether the house should be rebuilt and reoccupied. 

A later Norse house dating to the late eleventh century AD is possibly the most impressive and well preserved Norse longhouse excavated in Britain. It had stone walls surviving over one metre high which indicated a bow-walled almost 20 m long and over 5.8 m wide. It was divided into three aisles with a central area covered in ash from the central hearth.

The floor deposits produced an amazingly rich assemblage of finds that is one of the most spectacular assemblages recovered from this period in Scotland. The most exceptional finds included an antler cylinder incised with a beast in the distinctive Ringerike art style, a fragment of green porphyry ultimately from Lakonia in Greece, a fragment of amber cross, two cut coins, a folded strip of gold, glass beads, antler finials and large quantities of bone pins and composite combs. These were accompanied by large numbers of tools such as bone points, whetstones, iron knives and pottery.  

The careful excavation of this floor resulted in very detailed understanding of how this material was deposited and provides invaluable information on the nature and organisation of activities in the house. The interior was divided into a cooking area at the west end of the house away from the door which was located in the south east corner. Immediately in front of this cooking area was a living space where most of the finds were deposited, apparently just left lying around on the floor. The east end produced far fewer objects and may have been used for sleeping and storage. 

As we move into the later 13th and 14th centuries the architecture of the houses evolves and the way the internal space was used changes significantly; small well-defined hearths being located opposite the entrance in the final houses.  This probably reflects the changing nature of gender relations as we move from the Scandinavian influenced societies of the 11th and 12th centuries to the much more Gaelic influenced societies of the 13th and 14th centuries.  

There is much more that could be discussed but this provides an insight into some of the interesting things we discovered on our summer holidays in the ten years from 1995 to 2004. 

Kinship Analysis in Early Medieval Wales

Ciara Butler, PhD candidate
Cardiff University

Warning: this post contains images of human remains for educational purposes.

Hello! My name is Ciara, I’m an osteoarchaeologist and second year PhD student here at Cardiff University where I am studying cemetery organisation in Early Medieval Wales. For my Tiny Talk I’m going to discuss my PhD project and the commercial cemetery excavations I was involved in that prompted my research questions. The project is funded by the archaeological unit I work for, Archaeoleg Brython Archaeology, who excavated these cemetery sites.  

My project researches cemetery populations in Early Medieval Wales, from AD 400-1100. I am investigating the presence and extent of kin-structured burial within cemeteries, and whether the importance of burial in family groups changes throughout the period. Differences in grave location, structure, materials and orientation are visible within Early Medieval cemeteries in Wales. Factors such as age, sex and status are often explored to account for these differences, so this project will add evidence for biological and social kinship to the discussion.  

The primary methodology of the project is biological distance analysis based on dental measurements. Biodistance analysis aims to identify genetic affinity between individuals, or more commonly between populations, based on the evidence of skeletal and dental morphology. This involves collecting metric and/or non-metric data (traits that are part of normal human variation) from skeletal remains and using statistical analysis to see who groups together. 

This will be supported by targeted isotope analysis of geographic origin, and spatial analysis of grave location and type. Using this multi-analysis approach, both the biological and social relationships between individuals within a cemetery population can be explored, allowing a holistic exploration of the range of familial identities emphasised through burial practice.

As we know, units based around immediate relatives are only one of the ways a family group may be organised. A nuanced understanding of kinship is necessary to explore these ideas in the past, using diverse family models and considering the range of familial identities an individual can have. This consideration of family organisation and its relevance in a mortuary context can illuminate many other aspects of an individual’s social identities and lived experiences in the past (Johnson 2019).

The ideal family unit. Image by puppytoob.com

West-east orientated burials, without grave goods, are characteristic of Early Medieval cemeteries in Wales, as in much of the rest of Britain at this time (though this is not to say these kinds of graves don’t exist in other periods). The use of stone to line the edges inside the grave, called a cist, is also found in quite commonly. A lot of variation exists in the form of these cists – they may have side stones, capstones, floors stones, or any combination of the above. Many cemeteries present distinct groups of burials, often focused around a central “special” grave, or graves (Thomas 1971). Burial in family groups has been suggested as a possible reason for these patterns (Britnell et al. 1990; Brassil et al. 1991; White and Smith 1999).

Early medieval cist cemetery, Anglesey. Image: Brython Archaeology

The questions posed by this research were first considered when I was working as a commercial archaeologist, excavating Early Medieval cemeteries on Anglesey with Archaeoleg Brython Archaeology. At these sites we observed a range of different cist types and distinct areas of burial, as well as evidence for successive and double inhumations. Some dental non-metric traits were also identified in the osteological analysis at one site (Rusu and Madgwick 2017). These features suggested that further research was needed into genetic affinity between individuals and what role, if any, this plays in their burial treatment. This led to Brython’s sponsorship of the PhD project, to further knowledge not just about sites they excavated, but about patterns of Early Medieval burial throughout Wales. Being sponsored by the company who excavated these sites has been a huge benefit to the project, through promoting local involvement in Welsh heritage research and providing me with resources and insider knowledge!

Excavating a cist cemetery. Image: Brython Archaeology

Stay tuned for results! Data collection has been paused due to covid-19, but I hope to start back up again soon. Thank you for coming to my Ted Tiny Talk!

Excavating a cist cemetery. Image: Anglesey Council
Cist grave with reused quern stone. Image: Brython Archaeology


Brassil, K. S. et al. 1991. Prehistoric and early medieval cemeteries at Tandderwen, near Denbigh, Clwyd. Archaeological Journal 148(1), pp. 46-97.

Britnell, W. J. et al. 1990. Capel Maelog, Llandrindod Wells, Powys: excavations 1984–87. Medieval Archaeology 34(1), pp. 27-96.

Johnson, K. 2019. Opening Up the Family Tree: Promoting More Diverse and Inclusive Studies of Family, Kinship, and Relatedness in Bioarchaeology: Deep Time Perspectives on Contemporary Issues. pp. 201-230.

Rusu, I. and Madgwick, R. 2017. The Human Remains from the Llangefni Link Road

Thomas, C. 1971. The Early Christian Archaeology of North Britain. Oxford University Press.

White, S. I. and Smith, G. 1999. A funerary and ceremonial centre at Capel Eithin, Gaerwen, Anglesey. Transactions of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society and Field Club, pp. 17-166.

Viking Combs Revisited

Ian Dennis, Archaeological Illustrator
Cardiff University

I‘m an archaeological illustrator (traditional and digital), field and experimental archaeologist at Cardiff Uni, since graduating in 1992. I teach archaeological skills (including illustration) and run excavations at Piepenkopf Iron Age Hillfort near Detmold, Germany.

Archaeological illustration of artefacts over the years has allowed me to examine them in an extremely close way. I have illustrated numerous Norse composite (made up of many parts) antler combs, especially from the Norse site of Bornais, on the Isle of Uist in the Western Isles, Scotland. The varying detail and complexity of these objects captured my attention, I love illustrating them. It was during illustrating these wonderful objects, that I was able to de-construct how they were possibly made (fig 1.).

Fig. 1. Illustrated Norse combs from Bornais.

While illustrating, I notice how objects are made, and sometimes am even able to identify the tools used in manufacture, from the tool marks left on them. For example, during the illustration of the combs I was able to identify that the incised line decoration was created using fine saws, which were also used for cutting the fine teeth (which were only 0.5mm to 2mm apart). The dot and ring decoration, which occurs regularly on the combs was made using a two-pronged tool, and not a stamp.  The literature is limited on how these combs may have been made in the past, so I thought why not just knock one out?  I could use the sequence of construction observed when illustrating the combs and test this against the literature available. This gave me the motivation to experiment with making objects from the past using the tools they probably would have had at hand, supported by evidence for tools found from archaeological excavations.

Now it was beginning to escalate, I decided to do an experiment and make a comb or two. I quickly realised that when making combs, not only would I need antler from a red deer (most commonly used), I would also need tools similar to the ones used by the Norse/makers of the combs to make it a valid experiment. I based these on some of the iron tools recovered from the Bornais excavations.

To describe the whole making process here would take a few thousand words, therefore if as they say a picture is worth a thousand words, several pictures are worth several thousand words! Here are some images showing the process I undertook to produce the combs, using various techniques and tools. Enjoy.

Fig. 2. Cutting up the antler following the tool/saw marks found on discarded antler waste from Bornais.
Fig. 3. Splitting the cut-up antler beams to make the tooth plates. Splitting them with antler tines and chiseling them flat, this was quick and easy.
Fig. 4. Shaping the side plates and grinding the tooth plates smooth.
Fig. 5. Decorating the side plates before assembling the composite comb.
Fig. 6. Applying the dot and ring motif decoration using a two-pronged tool.
Fig. 7. Drilling the holes for assembly and riveting, using hand made rolled sheet rivets, as observed in the original combs.
Fig. 8. This illustrates the sequence used to assemble the combs. Top, a single sided comb (note how the rivets are every other plate, this replicates how the earlier combs were made). Below a double sided fish tail comb (note here, in the later style they are rivetted completely differently).
Fig. 9. Trimming off the not required parts of the antler tooth plates and finishing before the teeth are cut.
Fig. 10. This shows examples of how the comb may have been held/clamped for the teeth to be cut. The microscope image shows how fine the saw cuts are and an antler tine with a possible tang from a broken saw from Bornais.
Fig. 11. Probably the most nerve wracking and worrying part of making this comb: cutting the teeth. One mistake and you will have to pop out some rivets and replace the incorrectly cut plate (Phew, stressful!).
Fig. 12. Three examples of the types of composite combs found from Bornais.
Fig. 12. Previous reconstruction found in the literature.

People are often surprised at how hardwearing these replica combs are, they are also fairly easily repairable. My experiments making theses combs, proved my suspicions regarding the straight line decoration being saw cut and the dot and ring motifs being made with a two pronged ring boring tool. I was also able to estimate roughly how many combs you could make from one antler: one, if you’re lucky! This is a much smaller amount than the literature had suggested. My most signifiacant finding was that combs are actually fairly easy to make. It is the tools that required extremely high skill to make, and then the techniques that are employed using the tools. This hierarchy of skill and importance is backed up by evidence from early medieval Irish Brehon law, where a blacksmith was ranked higher in importance than a lowly combmaker. A combmaker was not particularly valued and could be made fun of by all other professions, just like me!

Mark Lodwick is Living in the Past

Mark Lodwick, Archaeological Photographer
Cardiff University

I consider myself fortunate to have been

I consider myself lucky to have been working on the archaeology of Wales (mostly) for the last 25 years. I graduated from Cardiff University in 1992, by which point I was keen to take a break from academia and archaeology. I spent the next 18 months volunteering with homeless people in and around Cardiff. I was then tempted into volunteering for an excavation of a Neanderthal cave site in North Wales run by the National Museum of Wales. I did not realise it, but the excavation provided the footing for my work over the coming years. I was subsequently invited to undertake post excavation work at the museum and began to be offered opportunities to work with the National Museum on a number of short term contracts and fieldwork projects including working to record the timbers of a medieval ship excavated at Magor Pill on the Gwent Levels, Monmouthshire and supervising an excavation within Caerleon Roman fort, Newport. 

Fieldwork at Llanbedergoch, Anglesey, showing the excavation of burials in the upper fills of an Early Medieval ditch.
© National Museum of Wales

In 1994 I was invited to join a small team assembled by Dr Mark Redknap to assess an area of farmland at Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey where a significant Early Medieval coin hoard and a number of Viking Age finds had been recovered by two metal detectorists. That year’s geophysical survey and subsequent ground-truthing established the presence of an Early Medieval enclosure around a spring and identified the first Hiberno-Norse settlement in Wales. I spent the next 12 summers on Anglesey supervising the excavations conducted by the museum and working alongside Cardiff University student placements.  

Archie Gillespie, Metal Detectorist and Field Archaeologist
© National Museum of Wales

Working with the metal detector finders at Llanbedrgoch and in Working with the metal detector finders at Llanbedrgoch and in particular, forging a friendship with Archie Gillespie, provided me with an understanding of how members of the public can become engaged with archaeology. I was beginning to understand how conducting archaeological work with diverse public participation is hugely rewarding and of mutual benefit, ensuring a more rounded and diverse team and embedding an appreciation of the rigours of the archaeological process to participating members of the public. These principles were reinforced by an inspirational colleague at the museum, Kenneth Brassil, who ensured that contemporary, as well as past communities are put at the heart of archaeological discovery. 

Mark Lodwick investigating the site of a Late Bronze Age hoard with the finder, Alan Jenkins

An appreciation of these skills enabled me to move across to the Portable Antiquities scheme (PAS) in Wales, where I have worked for the last 18 years. PAS work is public-faced, working alongside finders to ensure that archaeological information is captured and shared for all. Working with PAS enabled me to respond to significant discoveries made in Wales, with the support of colleagues in archaeology at the National Museum.

Mark Lodwick with Steve McGrory, the finder of the ‘midden’ site at Llanmaes during the initial visit while cows feasted on our tapes!
© National Museum of Wales
Tim Fowler, Llanmaes resident, excavating and sharing some of the finds with the community.
© National Museum of Wales

Of particular note, was the discovery and excavation of the Later Prehistoric feasting site at Llanmaes in the Vale of Glamorgan. Nine excavation seasons at Llanmaes revealed a significant Bronze Age landscape where communities lived and buried their dead.

A Middle Bronze Age building at Llanmaes with Cardiff University students as posts and an excavated cremation burial.
© National Museum of Wales
A school visits the Llanmaes excavations and re-enacts some of the rituals with their pre-made cauldrons
© National Museum of Wales

Later, through the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, people began to arrive to feast and carefully deposited the extensive material culture from these gatherings within a midden, which included pig bones, pottery and cauldrons and axe fragments. The excavation has produced a highlight archaeological find: a tooth from a Great White shark, heavily-worn through handling before being carefully deposited in a post-hole of a Middle Bronze Age building and excavated by Archie, now a skilled field archaeologist. 

Tooth from a Great White Shark excavated from a post hole of the building pictured above
© National Museum of Wales

In recent years there has been less opportunity to conduct fieldwork, although internationally important discoveries continue to be identified, such as the recent discovery of an Iron Age chariot burial in Pembrokeshire – the first recorded from Southern Britain. So, when I was offered an opportunity to supervise students on Cardiff University excavations of an Iron Age hillfort in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, I jumped at the opportunity of a different archaeological adventure. 

Excavations at Piepenkopf Hillfort, Germany
Excavations at Piepenkopf Hillfort, Germany
Excavations at Piepenkopf Hillfort, Germany

Recording finds for PAS and site recording over the years has provided me with the experience of archaeological photography and enabled me to start a new role back with Cardiff University as the photographer in the School of History, Archaeology and Religion, while I continue to work with PAS but now on a part-time basis. 


Animals, People, and Power in Ancient Sardinia

Dr Emily Holt, Marie Curie Fellow
Cardiff University

When you think of archaeology, what do you imagine? Pyramids? Temples? Researchers in broad-brimmed hats scraping the ground with their trowels? What about animal bones – do animal bones come to mind when you picture archaeologists at work? 

Animal bones may not be the first thing you think of, but zooarchaeology – the study of animal remains in archaeological contexts – is a vibrant and informative part of archaeological research. Animal bones tell us all kinds of things about ancient people – not just what they ate, but also about their economies, political structures, home lives, and patterns of travel.  

I’m a zooarchaeologist studying the Nuragic Culture of Ancient Sardinia. The Nuragic Culture flourished during the Sardinian Bronze Age (c. 1700-900 BCE), when the Nuragic people built thousands of monumental stone towers called nuraghi all over their island. They built just a few hundred at first, expanding over the centuries to build thousands more, many of which were also larger and more architecturally complex than the early towers. These patterns of settlement expansion suggest that interesting processes of political consolidation were taking place, probably supported by changes in how Nuragic people used their natural resources. 

Studying the towers themselves can only tell us so much, however. Resources like animal bones excavated from inside and around the towers provide helpful additional evidence. My project ZANBA is using animal remains excavated from an early and a later Nuragic tower to look at changes in how much territory Nuragic leaders controlled. I’m going to do this by analyzing the strontium isotopes in the teeth of the domestic animals the Nuragic leaders ate and comparing them against the strontium isotopes in the regions around the two sites. 

Strontium isotopes come from the particular geology of a region and get into animal teeth through the food chain: plants take up strontium from groundwater and soil, herbivores absorb strontium through the plants they eat, and carnivores absorb strontium through the animals they consume. Fortunately, the strontium isotopes aren’t really changed by going through the food chain, so the isotopes in animal teeth at the end of the chain are closely related to the isotopes of the plants at the beginning. 

Sardinia has a highly varied geology, so the first part of my study is to map the strontium isotopes around my study area. I’ll do this by collecting plants from across the different geologies and testing their strontium isotopes. This will allow me to establish a base map of how strontium isotopes vary across my study area. Once I’ve completed the base map, I’ll test the strontium isotopes in the teeth of animals from my two sites and compare them with the base map.

This will allow me to identify where the animals that were eaten at the sites originally came from, which will give me an idea of how far the political power of these Nuragic leaders stretched. I expect to see an expansion of power between the early site and the later site, showing that Nuragic leaders were able to bring more territory under their control over time. 

Right now I’m in the early stages of my project, planning the best locations to collect plants to produce the most accurate and representative base map. The next step will be to travel to Sardinia and collect both the plant and animal specimens and bring them back to the lab to analyze with the help of my colleagues. If you’re interested in learning more about my research, you can check out my personal blog errant.live or follow @ZANBA_Project1 on Twitter and zanba_project on Instagram. 

Material cultural regionalisms in Early Iron Age Thrace

Donald Crystal, PhD Candidate
Cardiff University

The topic of cultural regionalism in Iron Age Thrace (1100-300 B.C.) is a subject which is often overlooked within English speaking academia. Academics often assume that Thrace, or the area which encompasses northern Greece and south Bulgaria consisted of one single cultural entity, often label as the ‘Thracians’. Yet, as I have shown as part of my PhD research, Early Iron Age Thrace was anything but a single and homogenous cultural zone. Instead, what I have found is that what we call ‘Thrace’ was actually inhabited by a number of materially distinct communities which expressed their own regional identities through the objects they used in their daily life and the different ways that they buried members of their community.   

Within the writings of contemporary ancient Greek historians we are told that Thrace was inhabited by numerous tribal groups. Herodotus gives us one such account during the 5th century B.C. in his description of the Persian king Xerxes’ route to Greece via Thrace: “Xerxes marched past these Greek cities of the coast, keeping them on his left. The Thracian tribes through whose lands he journeyed were the Paeti, Cicones, Bistones, Sapaei, Dersaei, Edoni, and Satrae.” (Hdt. 7.110). Unfortunately, beyond this account we know little about these tribes and what made them distinct from one another beyond their names. Yet more critically, we do not know if the tribes within the region thought of themselves as different, past what the ancient Greek authors wrote about them. It was, therefore, the purpose of my research to look behind what the ancient Greek authors wrote about Thrace, to look to the archaeology, in order to assess whether or not it offered something different. One of the ways through which I attempted to analyse this was through a typological and spatial analysis of tomb types around different parts of Thrace.  

Map showing the distribution of tomb types around Iron Age Thrace

For my analysis, I plotted the distribution of six different types of graves that I identified around Thrace that occurred during the Early Iron Age II period-Late Iron Age (8th-4th centuries B.C.) around Thrace. The results from my analysis stood in direct contrast to what many people assume of Thrace during this time, specifically that it was a culturally similar region. What a rudimentary analysis into the distribution of tomb types around Thrace showed, however, was that Thrace was anything but homogenous, and in fact even from the perspective of tomb architecture, Thrace exhibits large levels of regional cultural diversity. Of course, some tomb types did not reveal anything in particular and seemed to be spread randomly throughout Thrace due to the existing excavation bias.  

Dolmen from the outskirts of the village of Hlyabovo, Bulgaria
Rock-cut grave from Tatul, Bulgaria

Nevertheless, the most notable results from the spatial analysis of tomb types, however, was the concentration of dolmens and rock-cut graves in east Thrace, cairn inhumations in central Thrace, and the concentration of pithoi inhumations on the Aegean Thrace coast. The regional specificity of several of these tomb types stands to show, that Thrace was a materially diverse and dynamic place. 

Cairn inhumations in central Thrace
Pithos inhumation from the Virbovo cemetery in central Bulgaria

From the perspective of typology, clear distinctions could now be made between largely contemporaneous architectural forms which, along with the regional extent of these forms, underpin significant evidence for cultural diversity during the Iron Age in Thrace, contrary to much of the information that we are told from English speaking academia. What has been highlighted is on one level clear heterogeneity in terms of funerary architecture with regions opting for funerary forms which seem almost isolated within their respected regions, and on another level strong levels of architectural regionalism which hint at reflecting the wider social and ideological similarities and differences between communities in these areas. Typology and spatial distribution, therefore, have served to complement one another in an attempt to better understand the potential nuances of architectural forms and levels of regional cultural diversity around Iron Age Thrace.  

Cladh Hallan Tails: a day in the life of…

Professor Jacqui Mulville
Cardiff University

It had been a stormy night. Waking up, I could hear the cows starting their day by itching their backs on the house roof timbers.  I remained curled up in my sheepskin rug on the sleeping platform for a few moments more, listening to the stock. They were getting restless waiting for their calves to be born.  Out on the blacklands my brother was already holed up minding this year’s leaping lambs.  I reached out with my toes to tickle Dog awake; he was still curled up by the smouldering hearth. 

The people of Cladh Hallan lived in a stone walled timber and turf/plant roofed house with a soft sand floor. Inside the houses were divided into areas associated with different tasks and included a sleeping platform and central hearth. The fuel of choice for the fire was mostly peat, and the stone surrounded hearths became mounds of brightly coloured ash. 

The most numerous animals recovered were sheep, with fewer cattle and only the occasional pig.  Dogs were also kept and after their death some were found buried either side of the hearth, a place where, as living creatures, they may have rested.  

Breakfast was porridge, along with the last crumbs of winter cheese and a duck egg I had sneaked from a nest. I threw the remains to our tethered pig, receiving a grunt as thanks. Then Dog and I headed out across the spring flower strewn machair with the cattle.  Dog was limping, as result of getting too close to a bad-tempered cow recently.  

Burnt grain survived in the floors and show that a barley and oats were grown, whilst lipid residue analysis indicates that milk was heated in pots.  Putting these together would provide  a type of porridge. Tiny fragments of eggshells were also preserved in the sandy floors and some came from (probably wild) ducks. We know from isotopic studies that pigs and dogs were both fed varied diets of meat and plant foods, probably made up of whatever waste was spare or that they could scavenge. Whilst pigs were slaughtered for food when young – dogs continued to be valuable into their older age, and many showed the worn teeth of animals at the end of a long working life.   

Our stock were scrawny after the long winter. To save feed, we had killed all those we could spare and stored the meat and fat before the winds and rain came. The breeding cattle had spent the wintertime sheltering around the settlement, picking over the remains of our harvested fields and the plants we gathered and dried in the autumn. 

During excavation we found the footprints of cattle close to the house, preserved in the sand, where the low stone  buildings would have provided shelter during storms. Cattle and sheep grazed on the machair plains, their teeth are very worn from the sandy soils, probably moving across to the blacklands in the summer.  A lack of good winter fodder would make keeping excess stock difficult, and the age profiles demonstrate that many cattle and sheep died in their first autumn.  

The new flush of spring grass was a welcome sight.  This would help the mothers and their calves to survive and produce milk. My job was to care for the animals and persuade the mothers, and their calves, to share this precious resource with us. Some calves would die, and I would have to trick their mothers into continuing to be milked. Any spare milk would be transformed into butter and cheese and stored in the cold peat beds for later in the year.  

Isotopic analysis shows that cattle and sheep lived on grass.  Cattle were precious animals. Genetic analysis of has revealed that our cattle came from a small (and mostly female) population, so herds were managed locally. We have little evidence for them being eaten as prime animals, rather they were killed young (the males) or lived to an old age (the females). Many young calves died shortly after they were born which would have made milk production something of a challenge, as ancient cattle need the presence of the calf (or a substitute) to ‘let-down’ their milk. 

The sky was now clear and the skylarks were singing.  The calf-heavy cattle and I drifted slowly down to the beach. The herd hungrily grazed the short turf and I headed down to the beach; strewn with debris from last night’s heavy seas.  There were hummocks of seaweed torn from the rock and thrown onto the shore. Reaching the beach, the cows promptly headed to the strand line and began to munch on the wrack. 

Seaweed was a valuable resource, it was dried and burnt, and used as fertiliser on the fields.  The shells of small snails that live on the seaweed survive and show us where it was used. Stock also occasionally grazed on the seaweed, but not to a level that affected their isotopic signatures. 

I wandered over to search the rockpools for crabs.  Using my bone spatula, I popped off a few limpets as treats for the pig. The seagulls wheeled overhead and the lines of gannets dipped and dived into the sea.  In later summer the plump young gannets would be hunted, but for now we were netting the smaller auks as they came on shore to breed. 

There are many seashells and the occasional crab found at Cladh Hallan; people collected winkles and limpet and took them back to the house. Limpets may have been cooked and eaten, but they could also have been fed to the pigs and dogs.  Sea birds were hunted seasonally using nets or snares. Seagulls, auks (including the now extinct great auk) were taken for their meat, fat, feathers and for their bones.  We find beautiful points made from their slender bones. 

As I turned to check on the cows, I noticed a shape on the distant shore, lying between the strand line and the sea.  From its size and form I immediately knew what it was. I dumped my limpets and, shouting at Dog to watch the cattle, ran down the beach to claim this prize.  As I got closer the shape resolved and I realised my luck; I had found the sea giant that gave us so many useful things. We would harvest meat, blubber, oil, perfume, and bones to build, to burn and to craft. 

Marine resources were very important to the islanders.  Beside the chance to fish or to hunt seals and small cetacea, the sea threw up all sorts of other gifts including valuable wood that floated across from north America and the occasional beached sperm whale.  Sperm whales were too big, too fast and swam too far out for them to be easy prey, but if they stranded their huge bodies and bones were fully exploitated. They were the most common species found at Cladh Hallan, and their bones and teeth were used as furniture, ornaments, tools and as fuel.  

I lowered my head and silently thanked the marine gods. With my antler pick I levered a tooth from the giants mighty jaw. This would prove to the family what I had found. To fully stake my claim, I tied my bone pendant to a stick and stuck this in the sand next to the beast.  

I turned and sprinted for home shouting ‘It’s a whale! Come quick, bring tools’. 

One whale would have provided a huge amount of meat and keeping an eye on the shoreline to find these giants would have been important. We have found sperm whale teeth on the site, and they were sometime carved into items. We do not know quite how people butchered whales, we do have some bones with chop marks from metal tools, but stone and bone tools may also have been useful. Deer were hunted for food, but their antler provide the means to make handy picks that could be used for a variety of tasks. 

If you enjoyed this story, check out Enda’s Island by Paul Evans:


‘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.  


Archaeology and STEM in Primary Education

Poppy Hodkinson is a 3rd year PhD student at Cardiff University and University of Southampton. Her research is funded by South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWWDTP) and is investigating the potential impact of archaeology on STEM engagement in primary education. The following is a summary of her findings so far!

A shortage of people working in the STEM industry is well documented. Not enough STEM graduates are entering appropriate jobs, leading to employers looking outside of the UK to fill roles. This may become even more difficult in the future with changes to working visa policy.

Reasons for the employment gap are complex: gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status all play a role and often intersect. These factors are influential in A-level choices so it is crucial that interventions happen early as possible – in Primary School for example!

So why Archaeology? It’s a unique combination of science and humanities, giving it a wide appeal and making it a perfect way to demonstrate ‘real life’ applications of STEM skills. It’s practical and ‘hands on’ nature is particularly well suited to Primary level teaching. This project tried to see whether archaeological interventions could impact how primary pupils perceive STEM. It delivered 3 STEM-based archaeological workshops (with content relevant to curriculum requirements) to 233 Year 4 pupils at five schools in Cardiff and Hampshire.

Workshop 1: Pupils were set a zooarchaeological challenge. They identified and quantified animal remains, and used graphs to present their data. Pupils looked for patterns in their data to try and understand human/ animal relationships in the past.

Workshop 2: Pupils became ‘Pollen Detectives’ to study Climate Change in the past. They learned that different plants grow in different environments, so the pollen remains left behind can give clues about past landscapes. Credit to Rhiannon Philip (@rioannon) for the pollen ID cards.

Workshop 3: Pupils learned about Roman aqueducts and made their own out of recycled materials. Their aim was to transport as much water from one end of their design to the other. They wrote success criteria for their projects and designed a method to fairly test their work.

Questionnaires and interviews were used to observe pupils’ STEM perceptions. All pupils filled out questionnaires and four from each school were interviewed. Both methods encouraged pupils to reflect on how certain skills and personality traits might be suited to a STEM career.

The impact of workshops on questionnaire results was limited. The only significant change was to the percentage of pupils agreeing with ‘STEM is an important part of my life’ after Workshop 1. Pupils enjoying science but not wanting to ‘be a scientist’ mirrors findings of ASPIRES Research (@ASPIRESscience) https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/departments/education-practice-and-society/aspires-research.

Pupils used word sort activities to explore skills and personality traits that might be important to someone working in STEM. Over time, conversations shifted from vague statements, to thoughtful and specific considerations of how skills and traits might be applied in a STEM career.

While workshops appear to have had limited effect, this project introduced STEM to pupils who were not previously aware of it. Factors in STEM uptake are complex, and additional focus/ reflection on individuals’ skills and personality traits may be needed to effect change.

Links to resources/ packs:

Aqueduct challenge used some elements from Practical Action’s (@PracticalAction) resource packs, all available online:

WISE campaign’s ‘People Like Me’ activity has since been replaced with an online quiz (the pack no longer exists online, that I can find) which can be found at: https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/what-we-do/expertise/welcome-to-my-skills-my-life/

Science Capital Teaching Approach Teacher pack available from: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10080166/1/the-science-capital-teaching-approach-pack-for-teachers.pdf

Science Grrl Case for a Gender Lens in STEM:

Aspires Summary report:

Most recent Aspires Summary report:

How did I get here?! Using taphonomic analysis to understand Neolithic cave burials

Eirini Konstantinidi, PhD candidate
Cardiff University
Twitter: @EiriniKonstant9
Instagram: @supervillaintheme

WARNING: This thread contains images of human remains for educational purposes.

There is a great body of data available from karst and cave studies underlying the importance of  these environments which have encapsulated and protected osseous remains throughout the years as opposed to more open sites where harsh conditions have eroded the remains (Dinnis and Ebbs 2013: 28). However, their ability to preserve contextual archaeological evidence does not imply that difficulties in studying those sites are not apparent. The same sources of sedimentary infillings that can cause depositions (e.g. disintegration of the rock ceiling and walls, colluviation from overlying slopes, aeolian deposition) (Strauss 1990: 258) can also erode and remove information, often leaving a peculiar set of data that cannot always be thoroughly understood.   

Fig. 1. Agents that can affect remains in burial. Human: H1 Retrieval; H2 Selection; H3 Arrangement; H4 Damage. Natural: N1 carrion birds; N2 carrion mammals; N3 burrow animals, N4 soil chemistry; N4 weather. (King 2003)

Natural caves, rock-shelters and fissures are well identified locations which have the ability to preserve and protect archaeological remains as they can act as ‘ready-made traps’. However, they are hardly immune to erosion and disturbance (Strauss 1990: 260). Seismic activity can cause breaching (rock fall, sediment and rock accumulations, collapses, even gradual blocking of entrances/shafts), resulting to gradual transformation of the sites (ibid. 257); Water displacements, the soil chemistry,  human occupations throughout the years, animal scavenging and displacements by trampling and ground movement do not favor steady conditions in these sites. As opposed to open air locations, where cultural depositions are stacked, caves are susceptible to continuous depositions that are, subsequently, altered due to the abovementioned factors (ibid. 256). Thus, whilst remains can be insulated from extreme forces of erosion (Holderness et al. 2006: 1), a series of unstable parameters can still affect them before entering the cave and after more agents impact them (Figure 1).

Following the laws of burials (i.e. taphonomy) 

Emphasis on all these issues underlines how important the depositional history of a site is as well as the combination of analyses that need to be used in order to fully comprehend past activity. Taphonomy is considered a palaeontological subdiscipline, which is the study of the agents and processes that influence the body from the moment of death until remains are discovered. (Andrews 1990: 2). It derives from the Greek word taphos (τάφος), meaning “burial” and nomos (νόμος), meaning “law”. Taphonomic analysis, brings these  abovementioned aspects at the forefront and aims to reveal the ‘disguised’ burial history that has not only been impacted by natural causes but also by human interference. More specifically, macroscopic taphonomic analysis provides information on the degree and duration of exposure of the remains, the nature of manipulation and/or disturbance of the bones and the agents of these modifications impacted on the bone (examples in Figures 2,3). 

 Taphonomic indicators:  
– Weathering
– Gnawing
– Abrasion
– Erosion/root etching
– Staining

Fig. 2. Ifton Quarry, Monmouthshire – Cranium displaying root etching and staining on the surface. (Photographs: Author)

Combining the site and the analysis:  

Caves constituted one of the burial contexts were people ‘interred’ or disposed their dead. The multiple burial trends with a predominance of disarticulated, fragmentary and incomplete individuals, specifically in the Neolithic period, have amplified suggestions of general circulation, movements and arrangement of human skeletal material at that time (King 2003: 193). This uneven representation of human remains has created imprecise understandings of the way people handled their dead. Thus, the reconstruction of mortuary practices is truly important as it can help us get a better understanding not only about the treatment of the deceased, but also about the living. 

During the Neolithic, bodies were: 
– left out to naturally deflesh (excarnation) – the practice of removing flesh and organs of the dead before burial, leaving only the bones (putrefaction);
– moved being around (circulation) and placed in collective tombs or caves and rock shelters (as part of secondary burials;
– moved to make room for more interments in reused tombs during the Middle Neolithic, whist single burials and cremations alter the traditions in the Late Neolithic.

Fig. 3. Ifton Quarry, Monmouthshire – Cranium: cutmark on the frontal bone. (Photographs: Author)

Mini case study: Example of cave where a peculiar set of human remains have been discovered:  

Little Hoyle Cave: More than 14 individuals are represented in this site (four Neolithic radiocarbon dates available). This site has a very large quantity of mandible fragments (Figure 4) – Mandibles are one of the first elements that disarticulates from the body. Only a few cranial fragments, including a reconstructed cranium were discovered from this site, hence, this suggests that: 
1) either remains were circulated as part of a mortuary practice to a new context. Craniums could have been removed from the cave after primary deposition leaving the disarticulated elements (i.e. mandibles and phalanges, which disarticulate rapidly, back in the cave). There are also not enough cranial remains that could explain that large quantity of mandibles found in the site  
2) or were brought disarticulated in the cave from another context for secondary burial. 

Fig. 4. Little Hoyle Cave, Pembrokeshire – Different degrees of staining on mandibles. Evidence of weathering is also present on the left mandible. (Photographs: Author)


Andrews, P. 1991. Owls, Caves and Fossils: Predation, preservation and accumulation of small mammal bones in caves, with an analysis of the Pleistocene cave faunas from Westbury-sub-Mendip, Somerset, UK. London:  Natural History Museum Publications.  

Dinnis, R. and Ebbs, C. 2013. Cave Deposits of North Wales: some comments on their archaeological importance and an inventory of sites of potential interest. Transactions of the British Cave Research Association 40 (1), 28-34.  

Holderness, H., Davies, G., Chamberlain, A. T. and Donahue, R. 2006. Research Report – A Conservation Audit of Archaeological Cave Resources in the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales. ARCUS 743b, 1-144. 

King, P. M. 2003: Unparalleled behaviour: Britain and Ireland during the ‘Mesolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’. Oxford: Archaeopress. 

Strauss, L. G. 1990. Underground Archaeology: Perspectives on Caves and Rockshelters. Archaeological Method and Theory, 2, 255-304. 

Llangorse: a unique Irish crannog in Viking Age Wales

Dr Alan Lane, Senior Lecturer
Cardiff University

The crannog in Llangorse Lake is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Wales. A unique example of a crannog, its construction is precisely dated by dendrochronology and its destruction by historical documentation. 

 It was first discovered and dug in the 1860s by two local antiquarians but the absence of datable artefacts and the failure to find similar sites in Wales or England led to scepticism about the identification. Archaeologists don’t like unique sites as they challenge our ability to get comparative meaning from them. But in the early 1980’s I visited the site and was amazed to find oak planks sticking out of the water and apparently encircling the site just as the 19th century excavators had claimed. 

I realised it was what it claimed to be – a crannog or artificial island settlement. With a small Cardiff team, Ewan Campbell and I cut pieces of oak for dendrochronological dating which showed that the trees from which the planks were split had been cut down some time after the mid- 9th century AD, indicating the crannog was built in the Viking Age.  

At this point we were joined by a team from the National Museum of Wales led by Mark Redknap, an experienced underwater archaeologist, and a series of water and land explorations of the site were launched. This work with student and professional teams ran intermittently from 1989 to 2004. The whole of the exposed shore and adjacent waters of the island was examined but only limited areas could be excavated. Post-excavation analysis has taken decades and involved many different specialists leading to publication in January 2020 of the definitive report. 

The combined underwater survey and land excavation has allowed us to understand its process of construction, to date it, and place it in precise historical context.  

At the core of the crannog is a small natural peat island which was enclosed by a series of oak plank palisades. It began as small D shaped enclosure some 20 metres from the north shore of the lake. An oak plank palisade enclosed a brushwood raft, pinned down by oak beams.  

This supported a stone mound and probably turf and soil. This initial enclosure was expanded several times till it was about 35m by 45m across. An entrance probably lies on the northern edge of the site where posts for a bridge ran out to the shore. 

Erosion of the site has eaten into the southern half of the island and removed any surface structures from the small areas we were able to excavate.  

Tree ring analysis of the oak palisades encircling the site show that the site was constructed in the 890’s.  This places it in the middle of the Viking wars when Welsh kingdoms were faced with threats from competing English, Viking and Welsh kings. The detailed Anglo-Saxon accounts of the decades around 900 allow us to see movement of Viking armies through Wales and provide a context for the crannog construction. Remarkably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 916 Brecenanmere, the English name for the lake, was destroyed by Aethelflaed, the Mercian queen, and the queen of Brycheiniog was captured. It seems clear that the crannog was a short-lived royal site. 

The erosion of the site stripped the surface deposits but dumped objects and food remains in the lake. These finds allow use to see something of the status and life of the crannog. This site was not a farm but was receiving food supplied probably as food rents as recorded in the medieval Welsh laws. Large quantities of well-preserved animal bone show pigs, sheep, and cattle were being supplied to the site but the remarkable quantity of wild species suggest that deer hunting and feasting was an important part of the aristocratic behaviour of the residents. 

The artefacts in iron, copper alloy, bone and stone indicate domestic occupation, but a few finds are exceptional and confirm its royal identification.  Two objects, a fragment of religious ‘house shrine’ and a penannular brooch are probably of Irish origin. 

However the most remarkable find was the fragments of a linen, silk embroidered tunic decorated with animals and birds. This find required many years of highly skilled conservation work and analysis to understand and preserve it, and it has rightly been regarded as one of most remarkable archaeological discoveries of any period from Wales.

The crannog remains unique in Wales and it seems that crannogs did not become a feature of the Welsh cultural landscape. But the crannog helps give credence to the origin legend of the kingdom of Brycheiniog which claims part Irish descent for Brychan from whom the kingdom is named. The site is remarkable evidence of the genuine links with Ireland and the dramatic, but poorly recorded, history of the Viking Age in Wales. 

You can also read more about Llangorse in the latest issue of Current Archaeology!

CAER Heritage: Walking in Wheeler’s Footsteps

Dr Oliver Davis, CAER Heritage Project Co-director
Cardiff University

In 1920, Sir Mortimer Wheeler was appointed jointly as Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Wales and the first Lecturer in Archaeology at Cardiff University. Wheeler arrived in Cardiff passionate about both training students in the methods of excavation and promoting public interest in archaeology. These were radical views at the time, but fittingly, are now key principals of the archaeology degree at Cardiff. 

In many ways CAER Heritage is a logical evolution of this approach. At its heart is the commitment to the training of archaeological skills, but we do not seek to simply tell the public about archaeological discoveries, but to actively involve them in the research of their past. Since its humble beginnings in 2011 CAER has grown into a major community archaeology and civic mission project at the University. We work closely with a range of community groups and interested individuals to explore the heritage of the Cardiff suburbs of Caerau and Ely. These are two of the most socially and economically challenged areas in Wales, but are also home to several nationally important heritage sites, including Caerau Hillfort and Ely Roman villa.  

The villa under excavation (Wheeler 1926, fig. 9)

When Wheeler came to Wales he was desperate to dig and planned to concentrate on Roman military sites.  In 1921 he excavated at the Roman fort of Segontium (Caernarvon), but in May and June 1922 he undertook excavations at Ely Roman villa before his second season at Segontium began later that year. In Wheeler’s account of the excavations he provided a typically detailed and self-assured discussion of the findings. He interpreted the villa as being built by an incoming Roman settler around 130 AD, with occupation continuing for 200 years before abandonment in the early 4th century as a result of increasing insecurity from sea-borne raiders. 

Wheeler’s plan of Ely Roman villa (1926, fig. 2) 

Our work with CAER has followed Wheeler out to Caerau and Ely, although whereas the area was little more than a collection of small villages and dairy farms in Wheeler’s day, it is now a bustling housing estate of some 26,000 people. We have largely focussed on exploring the site of Caerau Hillfort, located about half a mile from Ely Roman villa. It is one of the largest hillforts in south-east Wales, but had previously received little attention from archaeologists. It is unlikely to have escaped Wheeler’s notice when he was excavating the villa, but surprisingly, it is not mentioned in any of his published accounts. To date, we have undertaken four major community excavations involving over 100 students, more than 1,000 local volunteers and 5,000 visitors. These have shown that people were gathering together on the hill from the Neolithic (3,600BC), before the hillfort was built around 600BC at the beginning of the Iron Age.  Three enormous, concentric ramparts were constructed surrounding the hilltop while the interior was intensively occupied by a population of a few hundred people who lived in timber roundhouses. 

Aerial view of Caerau Hillfort during excavation in 2013. Ely Roman villa can be seen in the green parkland in the top right-hand corner of the image (Crown Copyright RCAHMW AP_2013_2756) 

In order to understand the development of the hillfort our thoughts have now turned to the landscape surrounding it. Our excavations suggest that in the early first century AD the hillfort went into decline and was apparently largely abandoned as a settlement. The resident population presumably moved back out into the surrounding countryside, but where and why remain big questions to answer. Intriguingly, geophysical surveys by Dr Tim Young have shown that Ely Roman villa was surrounded by a triple-ditched enclosure of unknown date. Another enclosed settlement, typical of many Late Iron Age sites in the region, has also been discovered around 200 m south of the villa. It is tempting to suggest that both these sites may well have origins in the Iron Age, possibly around the time the hillfort was abandoned.  

An enormous part of CAER is widening access to higher education for local young people and adults, many of whom have been directly involved in the excavations working alongside students from the University 

In many ways CAER has followed in Wheeler’s footsteps, both literally and figuratively. One hundred years after Wheeler first brought the University to Caerau and Ely, we are still working hard to raise the profile of the important archaeological sites in the area and to develop educational opportunities for students and local people through the practical skills of excavation and archaeological science. 

Cardiff Conservation in Practice

Phil Parkes, Reader in Conservation
Cardiff Universtiy

Cardiff Conservation Services 

I joined the University in 1993, working on the conservation of archaeological objects from Cadw excavations throughout Wales.  Archaeology at this time was changing, with the introduction of ‘Developer Funding’ meaning that private companies and organisations were looking for contractors to carry out conservation work. Conservation is the examination, analysis, cleaning and repair of objects to ensure that they can be studied and displayed for generations to come. With my colleague, Susanne Ryder, I launched ‘Cardiff Conservation Services’ in 1994 to bring in commercial work from archaeological and other organisations, museums and private individuals. Over the years this has brought in over £1 million in funding, and a wide range of projects, some of which are included below. 

Museum of Cardiff 

The Museum of Cardiff (formerly The Cardiff Story Museum) was officially opened on Tuesday 28th June 2011 by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. Cardiff is an incredible city with a rich and fascinating history. The museum aims to tell the full story of our social history. 

On show at the Museum are objects that have been collected from across Cardiff and were in need of cleaning and repair prior to being displayed. I supervised the £30,000 conservation project which involved myself and David Pearson, a graduate of our BSc Conservation course, working on almost 200 of the objects so that they could be displayed in the museum.  

The objects have been donated to the museum by members of the public and all of them have personal stories attached to them, be it how they were used, who owned them or what event they commemorated. The objects date from the 19th / 20th century and include items such as medals and badges, household objects, tools used in the docks and factories. There are also objects with resonant links to Cardiff including a Clarks Pie stand and trays used in the bakery, early vinyl records from Spillers, and a jukebox from Clwb Ifor Bach. 

Rudolph the marionette being conserved by Phil Parkes, Reader in Conservation, Cardiff University. Rudolph was used by the donor Marian’s family to entertain parties all over Cardiff in the early part of the 20th Century. All the marionettes were handmade by her father.
This CD jukebox from Clwb Ifor Bach presented a challenge as it was locked and the inside was dirty with loose CD sleeves. Sourcing a key from the US I was able to open it, clean and repair the sleeves and leave it so that it is showing some of my favourite Welsh bands.

Advisory Work – Welsh Assembly Government 

Conservation work isn’t always about working directly on objects. Some of the most effective conservation can be carried out on collections as a whole, looking at how they are kept and stored, and over the years I have carried out a large number of surveys of collections held by museums throughout the UK. Looking after our heritage is not just about advising individual museums, it’s also about national policies and alongside my colleague, Jane Henderson over the last 20 years I have carried out surveys and produced advisory documents for the Welsh Assembly Government, providing evidence to inform and shape our national cultural heritage policy. This work continues to date, with the Spotlight 2020 survey that is being carried out right now for heritage collections throughout Wales. 

Jane Henderson providing collections care and packaging training for Welsh museums
Jane Henderson advising on collections care, Yangon, Myanmar. 
What’s in Store – a survey of Welsh archaeological archives and recommendations for improving their future management and access to them. 
The Spotlight on Museums reports provide baseline information to inform the development of Welsh Assembly Government policy for museums. 

Cardiff Castle 

Cardiff Castle, in the care of Cardiff City Council, has a long history with remains from the Roman, medieval and early post-medieval periods accessible to visitors as well as the iconic neo-gothic restoration. 

In 2005 the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust carried out excavations in the castle ahead of the construction of a new interpretation centre. These works were required as a condition of both planning and scheduled monument consents for the development. During 2018/19 I supervised the conservation of archaeological finds from this excavation by Chris Wilkins, a graduate of our BSc Conservation course who had recently completed his PhD at Cardiff University.  

This project saw the x-ray and conservation of a large number of finds including 200 coins and 500 copper alloy objects. Chris also carried out analysis of several of the objects, looking at the composition of the materials. As part of the project we produced a series of blogs about the conservation work which can be found here and give much more information about the finds and the work that has been carried out.  

Film of Chris Wilkins working on Roman coins from Cardiff Castle.

The Egypt Centre

Cardiff University has a long working partnership with The Egypt Centre, Swansea University, since the 1970’s when Cardiff Conservation students worked on objects from the Wellcome Collection belonging to Swansea University. Prior to the Egypt centre opening in 1998, Cardiff Conservation Services conserved a number of objects ready for display in the new exhibition.  

This work continues to the current day, with both student projects and the Association of Independent Museums funding the “Provisions for the Dead in Ancient Egypt” project. This is to conserve a number of items from the collection to enhance interpretation and display. With my colleague Ashley Lingle, who recently completed her PhD at Cardiff University, I have been digitising the conservation records for objects worked on at Cardiff University, which includes coffins, cartonnage, figurines, stone stela and ceramic vessels. You can find out more about these items at The Egypt Centre website. Ashley has been working on the objects and is currently in the process of rebuilding a large decorated ceramic vessel from Armana.  

Ashley Lingle working on a large ceramic vessel from Armana. The painted decoration is very fragile and Ashley is painting a wax coating onto it to protect it during transport back to our labs at Cardiff. Having protected the flaking paint during transport, the wax will slowly ‘volatilise’ and disappear over a number of days, leaving no trace that it was there. 
Students from the MSc Conservation Practice course study objects from The Egypt Centre collection as part of a study visit. 


I have worked on hundreds of conservation projects during the 25+ years that Cardiff Conservation Services has been in existence at Cardiff University, from conservation of treasured items for private clients through to major projects for national and international heritage organisations and museums. I hope that this has given you a brief taste of some of the work that I carry out and please follow on @CUConservation and @PhilParkes4 on Twitter for news on projects as they arise. 

Roman Geophysics in South Wales

Dr Tim Young, Teaching Associate

Each spring I train a small group of Cardiff students in the art and science of geophysics using a real research project. Over 260 students have now passed through the course. We have developed projects that have not just investigated archaeological ‘sites’ but the broader landscapes containing them. Landscapes will contain features of many ages, but our particular focus has been the Roman period: a legionary fortress and its surrounding settlement, an auxiliary fort, an industrial centre, a major town, two villas and three other rural farmsteads, all within 35km of Cardiff. 

Between 2000 and 2004 that focus was Caergwanaf, where I was drawn by historical accounts of a slag dump that proved to be enormous, in excess of 10,000 tonnes, placing the smelting into the same league as the largest Roman smelting sites of SE England. Further excitement followed, as the ditches of a previously unknown Roman fort were discovered to the west of the dump. Excavation in 2002 and 2004 by teams from Cardiff showed that the fort was constructed in c.AD75 – 85, with the iron smelting starting around the time the fort was abandoned a decade later and lasting into the early third century. 

We had to take a year away from Caergwanaf in 2001 as Foot and Mouth Disease prohibited access to agricultural land. Instead, we addressed the Roman villa at Ely, set below the Caerau hillfort in a complex multi-period landscape.  

From 2006 to 2011 our focus switched to the Caerleon fortress. Most of what was then known came from development work and the open areas both within and outside the walls remained virtually uninvestigated. The first year of the project looked at Priory Field in the southwest corner of the fortress, identifying both the fortress granaries and a storehouse, later excavated in a joint Cardiff-UCL project (2007 to 2010). Later, still within the fortress, survey revealed an enormous metalworking building, and then then civilian buildings with horticultural plots behind lining the road outside the west gate of the fortress. The most unexpected discoveries were to the southwest of the fortress where a large area of formal buildings was discovered running down the slope towards a quay. This area was investigated through excavations in 2010 and 2011, but much remains unknown about the purpose of this monumental section of the canabae

In 2008 and from 2012 to 2014 our research moved to Caerwent, initially ‘tidying-up’ the plans of the Edwardian excavations, but it was a swathe of land over 1.2km long outside the town to the south and west that was our main focus. Caerwent had long been known to have a slightly irregular street system but the survey demonstrated that settlement had originated within an acute road junction, with the nascent settlement developing streets that were arcuate, meeting both the roads orthogonally. With time, however, the town condensed along just one of the roads with its defences cutting the lines of the early streets. 

Since 2015, our interest has been in the Vale of Glamorgan. This work is starting to define the nature of Roman rural settlement there, with its enclosed farmsteads, ‘infields’, droveways and unenclosed areas, together with demonstrating the importance of water supplies. At Ffynnon y Brychau two rectangular enclosures lie to the south of a spring, with curvilinear features around, as well as a post-medieval stone-walled sheep fold, cut by a 19th century quarry. In the Caermead area a similar story was observed: rectangular enclosures form one of the earlier elements of the settlements, with each sited close to a spring. The springs are even more directly related with curvilinear banked enclosures with internal ditches of uncertain age. The Roman farmsteads are similar in their early phases but have a spectrum of subsequent development, becoming strongly differentiated in the later Roman period. 

Those 260 geophysical beginners achieved a remarkable amount and advanced beyond all expectation the understanding of South Wales in the Roman period. Each site examined produced an exciting revision of understanding and extension of the ‘archaeological site’ beyond that which was previously recognised. The project has fostered the realisation of just how important geophysics is for looking into the apparent gaps in the distribution of archaeological evidence. 

Cardiff Archaeology Made My Childhood Dream Come True

Lisa Backhouse, PhD candidate
University of Reading

I remember being seven years old and telling my parents: ‘when I grow up, I want to be an archaeologist’.  Inspired by my mother’s love of history and my grandparent’s watching of the classic, TimeTeam, I set about conducting mini excavations in the garden.  Most of what I found was pretty boring – until the 1960s, the land my childhood home was built on had been cow pasture. However, I vividly remember my most exciting discovery – fragments of what turned out to be part of a Victorian Era china doll.  During my teens, I became distracted from archaeology by my love of literature and wanted to study this at university.  It was almost on a whim that when searching for undergraduate courses I revived my childhood dreams of archaeology and came across my perfect degree: a joint degree in English Literature and Archaeology at Cardiff University.   

Excavating a 16th century horseshoe in Hungary, 2016
One of the very many bags of pottery I excavated in Hungary.

As an undergraduate at Cardiff, I was the only student studying this joint degree but in spite of this, I always felt ‘at home’ and more suited to the archaeology department and I quickly realised that was where my passion lies.  The combination studying two subjects was, however, crucial to my academic development.  My literature course gave me the opportunity to study Old English and Medieval English, which later became essential in opening up the opportunity for me to read and use written sources of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval date in my Masters and PhD theses.  My three years at Cardiff not only created and instilled my love of archaeology, but cemented my fascination with the study of the medieval period, inspired by the passion I observed from my lecturers and the excavation opportunities I was fortunate enough to partake in. I completed placements near Burghead, Scotland, excavating an Iron Age to Pictish site and in Esztergorm, Hungary, excavating a medieval castle.  It was during this excavation in Hungary that I developed a fascination of medieval pottery, something which grew when I met Dr Ben Jervis joined the department at Cardiff in my final undergraduate year and eventually evolved into my current PhD project.

The addition of further excavations I arranged myself gave me enough experience to be offered a commercial fieldwork archaeologist contract for the summer I graduated which saw me join Cambridge Archaeological Unit, where a number of my colleagues were also Cardiff Archaeology alumni.

Following a year at Sheffield University completing my master’s degree, my current PhD project saw me partially return to being part of the archaeology department at Cardiff as my co-institutional partner with the University of Reading where I am based.  Despite not being based full-time at Cardiff, two of my three PhD supervisors are associated with Cardiff; Dr Ben Jervis who is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Cardiff and Duncan Brown (currently Head of Archaeological Archives at Historic England) who is a Cardiff Archaeology Department alumnus.   

Taking over one of the teaching rooms at Cardiff to record my PhD pottery assemblage.
Supervising Cardiff undergraduates at Cosmeston, giving some on site pottery lessons.

My current PhD research examines the relationship between people and pottery in early medieval Kent, focusing on social and cultural identity.  The Archaeology Department at Cardiff has played a vital role in my PhD, particularly during my data collection phase, allowing me to take over one of the teaching laboratories to record a large proportion of my main pottery assemblage.  I was also an excavation supervisor for the undergraduate fieldschool at Cosmeston Medieval Village, near Cardiff, coming full circle from my own undergraduate experiences on Cardiff field schools.

With my Cardiff associated supervisors, Ben Jervis and Duncan Brown

Over the course of nearly 6 years, archaeology at Cardiff has been a huge part of my life and I always feel a sense of great pride in being able to tell people I am both a Cardiff archaeology alumnus and current student.  Archaeology at Cardiff has been essential in my journey so far in archaeology and, I hope (!) will continue to be for many more years to come! 
Pen-blwydd hapus canmlwyddiant Cardiff!  

Twitter: @lisaback_house 
Facebook: Lisa Backhouse 

Did the ancient Egyptians make glass at Amarna?

Professor Paul Nicholson
Cardiff University

In 1891-2 Flinders Petrie excavated at Tell el-Amarna, the ancient Akhetaten, capital of the ‘heretic pharaoh’ Akhenaten (1352-1336 B.C.). However, he was interested not only in the history of the site but in its evidence for ancient technologies. 

He, accompanied by the young Howard Carter (destined for great things some years later!) unearthed “three or four glass factories, and two large glazing works”. He believed his evidence supported the view that although Egyptians did not invent glass they were able to make it from its raw materials as early as the reign of Akhenaten.  His reconstruction of the process became the standard interpretation of early glass making and was reproduced in virtually every book on early glass manufacture. 

However, by the 1980s many scholars, influenced by their interpretation of the cuneiform texts known as the Amarna Letters and by the fact that Petrie did not actually find any furnaces for glass had begun to suggest that although glass could be worked by the ancient Egyptians, the actual making of raw glass probably took place in the Near East with Egyptians simply receiving ingots to work into objects. 

In 1993, in the hope of determining which view of glass production might be correct I began a project at Amarna excavating in an area which was believed to be near where at least one of Petrie’s glass and glazing works was located.  Sadly, Petrie’s publication does not give the actual locations of these sites but there is an area on his plan of the city marked as ‘moulds’ and referring to the fired clay moulds used to produce glazed faience objects.  It is clear that these glazed objects were often found alongside glass production and so that was the area chosen for the new work. The site became known as O45.1 after its location in the Amarna grid system. 

Before excavation began the site had been subject to geophysical survey carried out by the late Mr. Ian Mathieson whose magnetometry recorded exceptionally high readings consistent with burning at the site.  It was hoped that these readings might indicate kilns or furnaces and so it proved to be. 

The 1993 season quickly unearthed kilns, believed to be for pottery and faience production, as well as two very large ‘furnaces’ of a type not hitherto known from Amarna or elsewhere in Egypt.  These large furnaces were built in a complicated brickwork pattern with walls c.0.5m thick. There was also evidence that they had been given a ‘sacrificial render’ on the interior, a plaster layer which could be removed and replaced when it became vitrified.  Enough of the walls remained to suggest that they were originally covered by a domed roof. 

There was no evidence to suggest that the furnaces were for metalworking and they did not seem to be intended for lime burning.  There was, however, evidence of raw glass from around them and it was tentatively suggested that they might be for the making of glass from its raw materials – soda, lime and silica – a process which requires higher temperatures than the working of pre-prepared glass. 

A suggestion to the effect that these were glass furnaces was soundly rejected at a conference on the history of glass held in 1995 on the grounds that they were “too big” and could never have reached the temperatures of c.1100ºC thought necessary for glass production. 

In 1996 I, along with Caroline Jackson of Sheffield University, reconstructed one of the furnaces at full size at Amarna.  It was charged with a mixture of local sand, which is naturally rich in lime, mixed with plant ashes (derived from seaweed collected at Penarth, as a substitute for other known ash sources) and with a pinch of cobalt to give a deep blue colour. Firing reached a temperature of c.1150ºC and produced an ingot of deep blue glass proving that a furnace of this type could have been used in the making of glass at Amarna.  At around the same time the team demonstrated that the size of the glass ingots from a shipwreck at Uluburun (Turkey) were consistent with moulds from Amarna and that their chemistry also matched with Egyptian ingredients.  Whilst Petrie’s famous reconstruction of the glassmaking process at Amarna proved to be wrong, his view that raw glass was made at the site has been proven to be correct, irrespective of whether it was made in furnaces such as that which was replicated. 

In 2000 the Corning Museum of Glass, U.S.A. built a reproduction of one of the Amarna furnaces as part of their origins of glass display.  Subsequent work has suggested that the Egyptians were making glass still earlier than Amarna and that although some glass was imported to the country it was also being exported.  The pattern of trade and technology in the bronze age is more complicated and more interesting than might have been imagined! 

Decoding an Anglo-Saxon Runic Inscription

Professor John Hines
Madeline McLeod
Cardiff University

I am going to talk about an object with a runic inscription on it. I have worked on this find together with colleagues within Cardiff, plus others in the museum sector in Wales and England, to try to understand what was written on it and why somebody should wish to do that. The item and inscription prove to be very interesting in their own rights, but this is also a valuable example of the importance of different areas of in Archaeology and Conservation working supportively together. 

The object was found in January 2019 near Winchester in Hampshire and promptly reported to a local Finds Liaison Officer under the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It is silver, and so falls under the provisions of the Treasure Act. That it has runes on it was clear to the Finds Liaison Officer from the outset. 

It is immediately identifiable as an Anglo-Saxon strap-end. These are quite common stray finds reported to the PAS. They were the terminals of straps or girdles worn by both men and women; there is some evidence that the wider and larger examples are from male costume. 

The runic writing system is essentially like our own. In fact it is almost certainly derived from the same Latin script, and had been developed by the second century AD. It is made up of individual graphs (the runes) which represent the sounds of the spoken language. 

It appears to start with that we have eleven runes on one side of the strap-end and twelve on the other. These include three examples of a distinctively Anglo-Saxon rune for o, confirming that the inscription is broadly ‘local’. The process of decoding a runic inscription is firstly to identify the individual runes and to ‘transliterate’ them into familiar modern letters, and then to see if we can recognise specific words or word-endings. 

What immediately stood out is a sequence that crosses the end of one line and the start of the other w o r o/o h t æ þ i s, which it is relatively easy to identify with the Old English words worhte þis: literally ‘wrought this’, and meaning ‘made this’. It is common to have inscriptions on artefacts that identify the maker, and so we can expect this pair of words to be preceded by a word or name representing the maker and to be followed by a noun that gives us the word for a strap-end. 

But there are problems with both of those words. Initially the name appears to read either æiemele or æierele, neither of which are names that exist (we have many recorded personal names from this period). There is, however, a simple and plausible solution: i.e. that the name is Hemele. (Slide 4, second click) The fact that it has become obscured seems to be explained by the fact that this character Hemele was at best semi-literate, and mis-copied an exemplar, dividing what should have been the single rune h into what looks like æi

At the other end, what is the name of the object? We can read the last four runes as æsil, but the first letter is obscured by corrosion. The nature of that corrosion led us to hope that x-ray could see through it to the underlying surface. At this point, though, we faced a practical problem in that the British Museum’s system for processing Treasure Act finds does not normally include x-ray, and is not designed take account of questions such as that posed by a runic (or indeed any other) inscription on a find. 

Fortunately, careful and patient discussions with staff at the British Museum (in two different departments) and Finds Liaison Officers both in England and in Wales enabled us to bring the object to Cardiff in late summer last year, where MSc student Madeline McLeod has taken charge of the analytical study. 

Following multiple carefully targeted x-rays, it proved that the object was still largely sound, although still difficult to read because the x-rays showed the text on two sides simultaneously so clearly: nonetheless eventually we could identify the hidden rune as g, giving us (for the very first time) the Old English word for a strap end as gæsil.  

Although we have not seen this word before, we can relatively easily explain it as an example of a word borrowed into Old English (and other contemporary Germanic languages) from Latin sigilla, ‘jewellery’: a word we are now most familiar with as ‘seal’. This Latin word has been given a purely Germanic prefix gæ-, which has a ‘perfective’ function: referring, in other words, to an item of jewellery which finishes off or terminates something — a good description of a strap-end. 

The date of the object and its inscription is around the later eighth century. It is exceptional in having been made so clearly to display the pride of its maker, Hemele, and so it would seem likely that it was intended to be a badge on his own personal costume. Presumably he remained unaware of the extent to which it exposed his own limited literacy, and yet it testifies to a community in which a skilled metalworker could claim status, and writing was familiar. 

‘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/