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An Attempt to Buck the Trend

Dolbadarn Castle (Latitude 53.116526; Longitude -4.114234) sits on a promontory above two lakes, the Padarn and the Peris, with the village of Llanberis the nearest modern settlement. Tourists today visit to walk around the village and some climb Mount Snowdon, either by using the railway which was installed to transport them to the top at the turn of the twentieth century (weather permitting) or by walking up the Llanberis Path.

A century prior to the construction of the railway, a very different sort of tourist came to admire the view. Not for them the strenuous clamber to the top of the highest mountain in England and Wales, but rather a more sedate walk to find the perfect viewpoint of the castle and paint it in the very new and very fashionable ‘landscape’ tradition.

In 1990 an exhibition of these paintings was brought together and exhibited by the National Library of Wales. As a landscape archaeologist I was fascinated by the fact that so many of the paintings were painted from the same narrow viewpoint, with the main, round castle tower being the only discernible feature. An example of this is ‘Dolbardarn Castle’ by J M W Turner, painted in 1799-1800.

http://www.llgc.org.uk/index.php?id=581

In many ways, the prototype for the angle and viewpoint depicted in the ‘landscape’ tradition can be seen in the illustration produced by the topographical artists Samuel and Nathaniel Buck in 1742.

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And, in many ways, many other modern day tourists specifically visiting the castle unconsciously mirror this viewpoint to encompass what they feel makes the ‘perfect’ view. But the ‘perfect’ view doesn’t always tell the ‘perfect’ story.

As part of my PhD research I’ve been looking at how academics and non-academics alike interact with castles and their landscapes and Dolbadarn provides a particularly interesting case in point. For example, the other people working in proximity to Dolbadarn Castle whist the landscape painters were exploring the lakeside had a very different view of their surrounding landscape.

Dolbadarn 13.05.05 025

This view, taken from the Dinorwig slate quarry workings, gives a different perspective of the castle and its surrounding landscape and has enabled me to begin to understand how and why the castle was constructed where it was and the symbolism it contains – and it is a topic I will return to in a future blog post.

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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.

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Hand Axis

Archaeology – and matters related to it, have been in the news this week. With the death of Mick Aston, we have lost someone who knew how to communicate his passion for several layers of informative dirt piled on top of each other to the public, in a way they found engaging and interesting.

Mick was part of a team, and we should remember that many of us in the profession have been involved with at least one show during its long run in one capacity or another. We, and the watching public are all part of that team and must continue to keep archaeology in the minds of the public, in whatever form it may take.

Announced in the Government Spending Review was that £80 million pounds will be provided by the Government to establish a charity to care for the historic properties in the National Heritage Collection of English Heritage on a self-financing basis http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/80million-boost-heritage/.

Also announced was £100 billion pounds to be spent on infrastructure improvements http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23080965 including upgrades to the A14, a new Mersey Gateway Bridge and the first stages of work on the HS2 rail link.

By association, some of this money will have to be spent on the archaeology effected by these announcements. We should embrace the opportunity to do justice to whatever is found, whichever archaeological units secures the contracts.

At the same time as the commercial units will be opening up swathes of countryside in advance of the road and rail building programmes, or working with the new charity to better interpret the properties in their care, Heritage Lottery Funded archaeological projects will be opening their own smaller, but no less important holes in their towns and villages.

Answering specific research questions and aided by professional archaeologists, these focused pieces of work will in essence, fill gaps which the commercial units will never be able to reach. http://www.hlf.org.uk/HowToApply/whatwefund/Pages/Archaeology.aspx.

Publicising the findings, whether through personal Twitter accounts, newspaper articles or television programmes, we must demonstrate that this money was well spent and increased our knowledge of the island palimpsest we live on.