Archaeology, Cymru, Europe, Ewrop, History, Uncategorized, Wales

New Shoots and Tree Roots

Apologies for the lack of activity. I have been chronically unwell (again). That, coupled with the shear volume of material I had collected, and unfortunately also curated, meant I felt I had nothing constructive to offer by the way of a blog post. Finally however, my last operation – hopefully for a while at least – will be on the 22nd of April 2016, so I expect to be able to write happily unencumbered by the usual ever growing rock army of kidney stones.

In among all this internal excitement I have also moved house. We (my wife and our three cats) now live in the flat which used to belong to my paternal grandparents. Built in the 1970s, it is light, bright and airy and most importantly my desk is now by a big window rather than tucked away in the far corner of the last place we lived.

As part of the moving in process I decided I would re-establish the container garden my grandfather maintained, and pots and soil in hand I planted up some heather and lavender and replanted my wife’s strawberry plant. As I stood and admired my handy work from the kitchen window, arm deep in washing up suds, I decided I would work on the material for my PhD chapter on gardens. It is by far the weakest chapter in terms of content and structure, but the strongest in terms of the new discoveries I have made during the research process. Unfortunately, many of these ideas have gone straight into the lecturing notes and Power Point presentations, rather than into the chapter as they should have.

Last summer I was fortunate enough to be one of two archaeologists working on an archaeological excavation in Rhuddlan (Latitude 53.288595; Longitude -3.463749). I’ve blogged about Rhuddlan previously, see:

https://medievalparksgardensanddesignedlandscapes.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/our-dark-garden/

and

https://medievalparksgardensanddesignedlandscapes.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/the-medieval-magic-in-pit-t349/

for some context to the area of North Wales I’m talking about.

The excavation was undertaken for a client who had planning permission to build a new house within a medieval burgage plot directly opposite the north-west corner of the Edwardian castle [A burgage was a town rental property owned by a king or lord. The burgage usually, and distinctly, consisted of a house on a long and narrow plot of land with a narrow street frontage]. A preceding archaeological evaluation, which examined only a small percentage of the total area of the site found medieval and post-medieval pottery and hints of some kind of ditch system within the plot.

Documentary research established that the front of the burgage plot was now lost under part of a row of nineteenth century cottages, but the rear of the plot, as far as all the evidence indicated had been unencumbered by buildings and appeared to have always served as a garden in one form or another. My fellow archaeologist and I employed the services of a mechanical excavator to remove the considerable overburden dumped on the plot from the building of both the cottages at the front of the plot but also from the construction of another row of nineteenth century cottages to the western side of the plot.

The archaeological excavation of the medieval deposits revealed that the rear of the plot had not been occupied by a property, but had served as open space within which over the following centuries a series of pits and ditches had been dug, some of which had animal bone within them. However it was something far more ephemeral which was uncovered that I was more excited about for my PhD research.

The natural ground surface (that is the surface into which we find cut the earliest archaeological deposits on any site) was on one part of the site imprinted with the ends of tree roots. This was where a tree had established itself within the soil higher up than the natural and had then tried to extend its tree roots through the natural. In this case, the natural was a very hard and impermeable clay, meaning the tree roots left ‘dents’ as it tried to force its way into the ground.

Tree Roots Not Marked
The site post excavation (after all excavation had been completed). Rhuddlan Edwardian Castle is at the top of the picture. Scale 1x1m.
Tree Roots Marked
The indentations within the red circle are those left by the tree roots as they tried to push through the natural clay.

Why are tree root indentations exciting? The Edwardian castle garden was only 80 metres (262 feet) away and planted on identical geology. Although all above ground evidence, except for the well within the garden has disappeared, the excavations reveal the kind of archaeological evidence we should expect if an excavation on the site of the Edwardian Castle garden was undertaken. And I haven’t given up on the idea that I could be the person to lead and carry out that excavation.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

My Manchester Metropolitan University page – which describes the aims and objectives of my PhD research:

http://www2.mmu.ac.uk/hpp/research/current-phd-students/

You can also help fund my research – which has reached its original funding target. However if you like what you read, then you can still donate.

http://www.gofundme.com/medievalgardensandparks

My Academia.edu page – where you can download my published research:

http://mmu.academia.edu/SpencerGavinSmith

 

 

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Avengers Assemble…but where?

Obliteration.

A very powerful word. It tends to be used to describe the removal of an item from the landscape – and conflict – where ever it may happen, can provide examples of something that was there at one moment only to have ceased to exist in a recognisable form the next.

If you visit a medieval site today, with manicured lawns and helpful guidebook, the most obvious thing to notice is that there is actually something left to visit. Even with a tumultuous event like the Dissolution of the Monasteries, where the communities were removed and buildings stripped of useful materials, much of the fabric can have survived the 500 or so years since the event, albeit with piles of fallen masonry removed and a gift shop for all the essential purchases.

Valle Crucis Abbey (Latitude 52.988696; Longitude -3.1868157) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/1e/Valle_Crucis_Abbey.JPG
Valle Crucis Abbey (Latitude 52.988696; Longitude -3.1868157)
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/1e/Valle_Crucis_Abbey.JPG

Sites composed of earthworks, for example motte and bailey castles, can appear at first glance even more ephemeral. Understanding how each individual lump and bump relates to another does take practice, but an understanding of the typology of different monument types means that even these can be interpreted as the visitor walks around the site.

Earthworks of Tomen y Bala Motte and Bailey Castle (Latitude 52.911565; Longitude -3.5954770)
Earthworks of Tomen y Bala Motte and Bailey Castle (Latitude 52.911565; Longitude -3.5954770)

Some sites however, defy simple interpretation if they have been ‘removed’ from the landscape because of their social, political or cultural importance. During the Croat-Bosnian war in 1993, the 16th century Stari Most bridge over the river Neretva in the City of Mostar, Bosnia (Latitude 43.205425; Longitude 17.483822) was destroyed by Croat forces.

Stari Most bridge over the river Neretva in the City of Mostar, Bosnia (Latitude 43.205425; Longitude 17.483822) prior to destruction.
Stari Most bridge over the river Neretva in the City of Mostar, Bosnia (Latitude 43.205425; Longitude 17.483822) prior to completion of the destruction process.

The removal of the bridge had a twofold purpose. Firstly, access from one side of the river by the inhabitants of Mostar to the other was limited, and secondly the Stari Most bridge was considered one of the most important pieces of Islamic architecture in the Balkans, and designed by Mimar Hayruddin, an apprentice of architect Mimar Sinan. With the cessation of hostilities, reconstruction of the bridge was considered a priority as the destruction was seen as a deliberate removal of cultural property by the Croatian forces. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) headed up a process which saw the bridge rebuilt and reopened in 2004 http://www.gen-eng.florence.it/starimost/

Here then, we see that cultural pressure can be brought to bear both to destroy and replace an important monument, but what happens when only the first part of the process is carried out?

During the Edwardian Conquest of Wales, part of Edward I’s strategy was to construct a series of castles at strategic points around the North Wales coast. As well as providing places where soldiers could be based in order to react to any Welsh threat, perceived or otherwise, these castles replaced the pre-existing system of llysoedd which served as the administrative centres for the Welsh Princes. The main hall of the llys complex was an important meeting point, and as such Edward had each of them removed, either taking them down and recycling their component parts into other buildings or moving them to be reconstructed within one of the new castles.

Ystumgwern Hall, reconstructed within Harlech Castle (Latitude 52.859926; Longitude -4.1092917). Originally from the Llys at Ystumgwern - location not known but general centre of Ystumgwern at Latitude 52.795159; Longitude -4.1002822.
Ystumgwern Hall, reconstructed within Harlech Castle (Latitude 52.859926; Longitude -4.1092917). Originally from the Llys at Ystumgwern – location not known but general centre of Ystumgwern (Latitude 52.795159; Longitude -4.1002822).

The removal of the hall from the llys complex at Ystumgwern meant that the location was subsequently lost to future generations who might have used the halls as a meeting point at which to assemble and plan a revolt against their new rulers. As archaeologists we can apply a suite of techniques to search for the llys complex and find out more about why these locations were so important, but we cannot replace these buildings in the landscape in the same way the Stari Most bridge has been replaced.

Next week’s blog post will examine the fate of a llys complex and its inhabitants with a very particular story to tell.

Again, thank you for your support through http://www.gofundme.com/medievalgardensandparks – the last fortnight brought another £25 in donations towards my PhD course fees.

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Our Dark Garden

With due deference to everyone who has tweeted, retweeted, donated or sent best wishes to me and my quest for PhD funding, I thought that this blog post should talk about some of the medieval gardens I’ve been researching, and the variety of sources available for such a study.

The earliest contemporary written evidence for the creation of gardens in Wales is to be found in the biography of a twelfth century king, Gruffydd ap Cynan, of the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. The Historia Gruffud vab Kenan says:

‘Then he increased all manner of good in Gwynedd, and the inhabitants began to build churches in every direction therein, and to plant the old woods and to make orchards and gardens, and surround them with walls and ditches, and to construct walled buildings, and to support themselves from the fruit of the earth after the fashion of the Romans’.

Some evidence for this reorganisation and improvement of Gwynedd has been identified, most recently by David Longley, and his research into the medieval landscape of the island of Anglesey. However, there are problems which mean that further work is still needed.

Archaeological excavations of medieval high status sites in Wales have tended to be small in scale, and to date very few high-status Llys (Royal Court) sites have been excavated. Exacerbating this is the fact that only some of the Llys site locations are known, as they fell out of use during the fourteenth century because they were no longer needed by the new administration.

The Edwardian castle at Rhuddlan (Latitude 53.288595; Longitude -3.463749) serves to highlight some of the issues which I have encountered during my research.

This castle was constructed from 1277 onwards to replace an earlier motte and bailey castle on a nearby site to the south, which in turn replaced a Llys, the location of which is most probably under the motte and bailey earthworks.

DI2010_1781

Crown Copyright DI2010_1781
The motte and bailey castle is in the trees to the right of the image.

Edward I, as part of the provision for his wife, Eleanor of Castile, and her household, had constructed for her a garden within the castle precinct between July 1282 and March 1284. The location for this has been suggested as within the inner courtyard of the castle, where it would have been overlooked by the Royal apartments.

The documentation states that encircling the head of the castle well (which had a boarded roof), a little fishpond lined with four cartloads of clay brought from the nearby Rhuddlan marsh was created and set around with seats. The adjacent courtyard was laid with 6000 turves and the lawn fenced with the staves of discarded casks.

Rhuddlan Castle was taken into state care in the twentieth century and following World War II conservation works were carried out. As part of the conservation works the moat was emptied:

DI2010_2242

Crown Copyright DI2010_2242
Excavation of the moat in 1949.

Unfortunately I have not been able to find any archaeological documentation to accompany the photographs taken, meaning any environmental evidence, including medieval plants, which may have existed within the moat has now been lost. In addition, there has been no programme of survey or excavation within the inner courtyard of castle, meaning that the location of the garden and fishpond is not conclusively identified.

During my research, I re-examined the historical sources, and found mention of a second garden at Rhuddlan Castle in 1285. This was described as a herber (a pleasure garden) opposite the north gate of the castle, and significantly, outside of the castle precinct. Fieldwork I undertook earlier this year suggests that this herber lay within the ditch to the north of the castle and may well have been accessible from the River Clwyd immediately to the west. The location of the herber is at the bottom left of the first photograph under the trees.

Further research of sites such as the Edwardian Castle of Rhuddlan will revolve around planning the best recording strategies for these two garden locations, whether that is deemed to be survey or excavation. Given that there is in close proximity an earlier motte and bailey and a Llys site, both of which are likely to have gardens of one form or another associated with them, there is exceptional potential for understanding the change and development of Royal gardening taste of both English and Welsh Royalty during the medieval period.

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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.

th

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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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.

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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.