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The Boss (with apologies to Bruce Springsteen)

Today I had the opportunity to visit the archaeological excavations being undertaken at Holt Castle (Longitude 53.077958; Latitude -2.880319). Of the Lordship castles constructed in north east Wales after the Edwardian Conquest of 1282, Holt is the most incomplete structurally, but has arguably the most fascinating story.

Holt Castle was constructed by the Lord of the new Lordship Bromfield and Yale, William Warenne, to replace the burnt out and partially demolished shell of Castell Dinas Bran. This castle had been constructed by Gruffydd ap Madog for his Principality of Powys Fadog.

Essentially – the Edwardian Conquest saw a redrawing of the administrative boundaries, with the new Lordships replacing the old Principality, and a Welsh Prince replaced by an English Lord.

William Warenne decided he need a new castle from which to run his new lordship, and decided (although we don’t know how he came to this decision) that a site on the bank of the River Dee and close to the English Border was the most suitable. There he had the masons in his employ quarry away the sandstone river bank to create a boss of rock, on which the central block of the castle was built.

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The central boss of rock on and around which Holt Castle was built

The boss of rock was five sided, and an outer wall was constructed parallel to it. Which as the photograph shows has now gone, robbed out to construct Samwell Hall, the predecessor of the current Eaton Hall in Cheshire.

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The remains of one of one of the bases of the outer wall towers visible in the centre of the trench

The excavations are a fantastic example of how organisations, in this case:
Cadw http://cadw.wales.gov.uk/
Northern Marches Cymru http://www.northernmarchescymru.co.uk/
Wrexham County Borough Council http://wrexham.gov.uk/
and
Holt Local History Society http://holtlhs.weebly.com/index.html

can all work in partnership in order to bring this monument back to life – and as today was the ‘Day of Archaeology’, I couldn’t imagine a more apt example to highlight what archaeology is all about.

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Archaeological Arrogance?

The A55 expressway across North Wales passes many archaeological and historical sites. Many of them are preserved and respected, either by national bodies or in private ownership. Occasionally they are compromised by the whims of succeeding generations, for example the later road and rail bridges around Conwy Castle, but on the whole those which were deemed of sufficient importance were protected by legislation of one form or another.

One site I am writing about in my PhD thesis has disappeared from the landscape. I pass its former location twice a day as I drive from my house to the office and look up at the jagged hole in the skyline which was once the site of an Iron Age Hillfort.

This jagged hole was created because the solid geology which made up the Hillfort was Limestone, and the Limestone was needed to provide the flux in the blast furnaces for making steel at the nearby steelworks in Shotton, but what of the archaeological and historical significance of this site being removed lorry load by lorry load?

The most recent name for this site is Dinorben (Latitude 53.265522; Longitude -3.545362). The voracious appetite of the steelworks saw an intermittent programme of archaeological excavations from 1912 to 1978, with the result that the understanding of the archaeological context of the Hillfort is now well understood through various publications.

Or is it?

This Hillfort has previous, both archaeological and historical, which has been neglected in the drive to tell one story over another. In 1334, the Hillfort was recorded in ‘The Survey of the Honour of Denbigh’. This is one of the extents which I mentioned in a previous blog post (https://medievalparksgardensanddesignedlandscapes.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/si-longtemps-et-merci-pour-le-poisson/) and 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.

The Hillfort is known as ‘Pendinas’ (Top of the City) and is described as a wood of nearly five acres, covered with poor scrub and in the possession of Johannes of Rhuddlan. Whilst ‘Pendinas’ may have been the official name, by the time the archaeologists arrived in the early Twentieth century it was known as ‘Parc y Meirch’ (The Horse Park). The Hillfort defences were reused during the medieval period as the location of a horse stud, and if the horses were ill, then they could avail themselves of a holy well, dedicated to St. Siôr, titular saint of horses.

This narrative however, merited only the briefest of mentions in the archaeological reports produced on the site, and the archaeologists changed the name of the site from ‘Parc y Meirch’ to ‘Dinorben’ – the name of a land division. Quite why the archaeologists felt the need to change the name I’ve yet to fully decipher, but it appears that medieval name and story was known by the archaeologists, but it did not fit with the story they wished to tell.

To compound the issue further the medieval finds, consisting of horse shoes and pottery, were confined to an appendix of the main site report written in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The reason for this confinement may be because the principal archaeologist was a prehistorian, and again, the story was not the one which needed to be told.

Parc y Meirch is a very important site in terms of understanding how a medieval horse stud related to the wider landscape within my PhD study area. The side lining of one interpretation over another because it does not fit your personal archaeological aims can never help the overall understanding of a monument in a landscape, and ensuring that archaeological and historical evidence is presented in a balanced manner will always advance the archaeological agenda, even if you don’t agree with the findings, or even the name of the place you are excavating.