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Pond Life…

My PhD isn’t all about animals that can walk or fly…it also has fish in it. Medieval Fish Ponds were an important part of the lord of the manor’s resources, and there is still evidence of their fishponds visible.

On the western outskirts of Holt (Latitude 53.078597; Longitude -2.8907025) are a series of fishponds. They no longer contain any water, so you might not have noticed them when you drive past – those of you who aren’t local – the ‘maps’ provider of your choice is always available.

This is them today:

Holt FP

Holt FPAP

Notice it is ‘Fish Ponds’ in the plural. Not just one big pond, but a series of smaller subdivided ones. This is so that fish can be bred in one fishpond, and when they are the right size for eating, they can be transferred to another fishpond to make their catching easier.

fishing

So examining medieval fishing and fishponds seems quite straightforward.

However. There are some problems. Fish bones are invariably incredibly small and so finding them in the first instance requires the archaeologist to be aware that they are looking for them. If they are suspected, then the soil being excavated will be sieved, using a method like that shown below:

flotank2

But, let’s be honest…it usually ends up looking something like this once in use…

Flotation1

And then you have to have the collected evidence over to a specialist…

fischbestimmung_sw

Who works out what has been found.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. My research is looking for the fishponds themselves, which don’t all have ‘Fish Ponds’ written across them on the map like the examples at Holt.

So. How to find them? Well, sometimes the medieval documentary records say there was a fishpond which belonged to a certain lord, but won’t always say exactly where it was – because of course at the time – everybody knew where it was.

As an example – here is a case from the Ruthin (Latitude 53.114477; Longitude -3.310576) Court Rolls in 1324: The son of notable Ruthin burgess Cynwrig Scissor and his wife Isabel was indicted for fowling by night with John Trigomide’s son in the park of Ruthin and fined 40s, with 30s of this suspended for good behaviour.

No indication is provided of where the ‘park of Ruthin’ is, but we do know that it had ducks on it, and it was these the two men were attempting to catch when they were caught. The fishponds, with their ducks were here – in the field under the ‘Nantclwyd y Dre’ sign.

RuthinFP

Ruthin FPAP

The idea with my research is that once sites have been identified and plotted, other archaeologists can carry out the research of what the ponds contained – meaning that all the ponds can be examined as one distinct group and their contents compared to each other.

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I’m Welsh…my Father had me tested…

When I began my PhD research in 2004, I was working as the researcher and archaeologist for a Welsh Language Television Series entitled ‘Tywysogion’. Seven one hour programmes examining the history and archaeology of the medieval princes of Wales from Hywel Dda (c.890-950) to Owain Glyn Dŵr (c.1346/56-c.1415/16).

Although the programmes have since been taken down from the online player, the website is still maintained http://www.s4c.co.uk/tywysogion/e_index.shtml and gives some idea of what the programme set out to achieve.

Part of my remit was to arrange the interviews with the various academics who would provide their perspective on the events and themes which were discussed in each programme. As someone who had spent time working away from academia in the commercial world of archaeology and surveying, some of the names were unfamiliar to me, particularly those people working in disciplines such as medieval Welsh literature.

As each interview was recorded, and as I read more about the history and archaeology of the period through the articles, journals, books that each person had published, one theme came through above all others.

That theme? How European in its outlook medieval Wales was.

For someone brought up on the Wales / England border, I found this fascinating. The teaching of medieval Wales when I attended a Welsh language secondary school in the 1980s felt like a very much ‘us’ and ‘them’ siege mentality.

We lost, they won…simple.

But it is so much more subtle than that…

In 2011 my father and I supplied DNA samples to a University of Sheffield project
http://shef.ac.uk/archaeology/research/copper-mines/index after an appeal for contributors http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-east-wales-14173910

As with such projects, analysis of the results takes a little time, but eventually my father received a e-mail from the project team. It turned out that our Patriarchal DNA showed we had lived in the Wrexham area for 1000 years. 1000 years!

So our ancestors had been here prior to the Norman Conquest and had watched the town of Wrexham growing and changing…they had survived the Edwardian Conquest, the Black Death and the revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr.

What I found most fascinating however was that their names must be somewhere in the medieval extents of Bromfield and Yale taken in 1315 and 1391. I use these every day as part of my research and I get a thrill out of knowing that I am writing about my ancestors and their lives, and that they knew the world was far wider than any distance they might have travelled in their individual lifetimes.

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Si longtemps, et merci pour le poisson

Writing a PhD thesis can raise questions you never thought you would have to contemplate finding an answer for when the research began. I assumed (naively perhaps) that I would just sit down, write about Welsh Castles, show where their landscapes were and be made a Doctor.

Except it doesn’t really work like that.

You sit down, start writing, and then find a reference. This reference takes you off to a book you’ve never heard of – and before you realise it a whole sub-plot has appeared in your research.

Which is what happened to me with the Otters.

It all began so innocuously. As part of my reading I have to look at the medieval extents which were compiled in the Fourteenth century describing who owed what service to the ‘new’ English Lord of the Manor – who had replaced the Welsh Prince after the Edwardian Conquest of 1282-1283. Within them I found a reference to something called ‘Cylch Dyfrgwn’ – with literally translated means ‘Otter Circuit’.

As an archaeologist, I’d never heard of an ‘Otter Circuit’. And, having thought about it, I’d not read about any otter bones being found on the excavations I’d been reading about. Was there a connection between the two?

An ‘Otter Circuit’ was a service which had been carried out under the Welsh Princes, and which was subsequently carried over to the English Lords. Essentially it was a hunting party who travelled around a prescribed piece of land from place to place keeping the ‘uneatable’ animals under control, of which the otter was classed as one.

Just because the animals were ‘uneatable’ did not mean that the event to hunt them was not without symbolism and ceremony. The ‘Devonshire Tapestries’, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum and dating to the Fifteenth century depict an otter hunt in detail http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/d/devonshire-hunting-tapestries/ and, although stylised, the detail of the hunting equipment and methods is clearly depicted. The main piece of equipment, a two pronged spear, continued to be used unchanged well into the Twentieth century.

otterhunt

The lack of archaeological evidence for the Otters from the ‘Otter Circuit’ can be explained by the fact that they were killed where they were caught, so the remains which were not useful were left at the spot. The skins were subsequently used for high-status clothing, and unfortunately these materials have not survived to the present day.

I’ve probably spent way too much time unpicking this story to try and understand the place of Otters in the medieval world, but the data I’ve collected can be used by modern researchers to understand the medieval range of the Otter and hopefully aid in ensuring the continued growth of the population.

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Giant Novelty Roundabout

To an archaeologist, context is everything. Show them a find and because they invariably know what it is from the vast store of broken objects in their head, the question will be “Where did you find it?”. Sometimes however, the relationship between context and object becomes eroded, or even worse, lost completely. The object can sometimes then take on a life of its own, generating a history and archaeology which can hamper its further interpretation or reinterpretation.

Caernarfon Castle (Latitude 53.139370; Longitude -4.2769593) is one of the most famous castles in Wales, and probably Europe (with perhaps a bit of North America and Canada thrown in for good measure). It’s big, bold, brash, iconic and an illustration of the power of the myth that is King Arthur.

The last one? Really?

The history narrative the majority of people know, and more importantly believe in, is that written by the victors. And as a consequence certain phrases assembled from the narrative become part of the stock phrases of description, ‘Edward the First’s Iron Ring of Castles’ is almost always included for example – just type it into a search engine of your choice just to see how ubiquitous it has become.

Over time, the archaeological context between the castle and the town has slowly been eroded, with the excavations within the castle walls being small scale, piecemeal affairs and excavations around the castle walls having to contend with the 19th and 20th development and redevelopment of the Slate Quay (to the south of the castle) and the former medieval quay (to the west of the castle).

The construction of the principal Local Council Administrative Offices (to the north of the castle) during the 1980s and the development of Castle Square, known in Welsh as ‘Y Maes’ – The Field (to the east of the castle), most recently in 2009, have all made for a very different experience for today’s visitor, compared to their medieval predecessor.

Where can we visit then, to gain at least some idea of the original context of the current Caernarfon Castle, and its predecessor, the original Caernarfon motte and bailey Castle?

I lived in Caernarfon for six years, and during this time, part of my PhD research concentrated on the landscape context of the Castle, Town Walls and its hinterland. Which is when I found this view.

DSCF1610

I’ve never seen this image published in any of the academic books on the subject, and it gives a very good idea of how the castles (built one on top of each other) could be seen in the wider high status landscape of the associated medieval park.

I identified the park from a combination of aerial photographs, tithe and ordnance survey maps, fieldwork and place name studies. The fieldwork proved to be particularly rewarding, with the pebble-dashed building in the centre left of the image marking the eastern edge of the park boundary and surviving banks and ditches are visible on the northern side. From the point of view of high-status vistors availing themselves of the facilities available in the park, both the Welsh Princes of Gwynedd and the subsequent English Crown enjoyed the same opportunities, if not quite the same view.

What ever you may think of the current Caernarfon Castle, it is certainly an impressive backdrop to a landscape created and managed by the Royalty they deposed. And importantly provides some context for the reasons behind the construction of the Edwardian Castle on the shore of the Menai Straits.