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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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‘To Begin at the Beginning’…or ‘Has Anyone Seen That Confounded Bridge?’

Lines from Dylan Thomas ‘Under Milk Wood’ and Led Zeppelin ‘The Crunge’. Which probably seem to be an odd way to start a blog on Medieval Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes. However, in their own way, they have led to this blog being written. So, I thought I’d attempt to explain why I feel I should blog on this topic (although I am sure other topics will find a place at some point).

My name is Spencer Gavin Smith and I currently work as an archaeologist in the contracts section of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, who are based in Bangor, North West Wales.

My blog will be about the research I have been carrying out for my PhD thesis entitled ‘Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes of Medieval North Wales and North West Shropshire’. As it is still a work in progress, the blog will highlight why I’m carrying out the research, and how the disciplines of Archaeology, History, Literature and Art all entwine to make this topic so interesting to study.

I’m from the town of Wrexham in North East Wales, (Latitude 53.045083; Longitude -2.9931521). I went to both Welsh Language Primary and Secondary Schools, so I’m comfortable using either language. I chose to read Heritage Conservation at Bournemouth University for my Undergraduate Degree, and during my second year, I was, like most other students at that time of their University lives, casting around for a dissertation.

One day, I was in the University Bookshop and I saw a paperback entitled ‘The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr’, written by someone called R.R. Davies. I’d not done history at GCSE, and at A Level the curriculum I studied covered the 19th and 20th centuries. I was aware of Owain Glyn Dŵr – what school child, and especially one in North East Wales where he came from, couldn’t fail to have heard of him. But beyond a few basic facts I didn’t really know very much at all.

So I bought the book.

And within a few pages I was hooked. Not by any inherent nationalism fuelled by being in a University on the south coast of England but by the beautiful way the book was written. I ‘understood’ for the first time how history can be brought to life by the deft touch of someone who has a mastery of the sources at their fingertips. I curated that book – it became something I involved and devoted my time to in order to try and gain some understanding of a world which occupied the same space as I had growing up, but a very different time.

But, I found there was a problem with the book, and one I wanted to solve.  

Within the chapter on Owain Glyn Dŵr was a small section which dealt with his house, known as Sycharth (which probably translates as Sych ‘Dry’ and (g)arth ‘Courtyard’). According to R.R. Davies there was a contemporary poem which described the house and its surroundings, and the photograph of Sycharth published in the book showed that the site was still there and had not been built upon. In addition to the poem, in 1966 an archaeological excavation report had been published about work on the site.

Which all left me confused. If the poem described the site, and archaeologists had excavated there, why had R.R. Davies written so little?

I had my dissertation topic. Now to start on the research.