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.