In my third column exploring Current Archaeology’s coverage of Wales, I will tour the south of the country, focusing on Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. Before I head into the detail of some of the sites explored in the area, let me begin by flagging a piece of coverage that ran right through this area in CA 216 (March 2008), when the magazine reported on fieldwork in advance of the expanded National Transmission System for gas. For anyone interested in the archaeology of south Wales, this survey is an excellent place to start. Billed as the ‘biggest dig in Welsh history’, it examined sites across more than 300km of south Wales and western England, from Milford Haven in the west to Tirley (near Tewkesbury) in the east. Along the first 120km alone, 129 sites were identified, of which 20 developed into major excavations by teams from Cotswold Archaeology and Cambrian Archaeological Projects.
Another similarly landscape-scale perspective was then explored in CA 234 (September 2009), when CA reported on the Green Mines Project, an EU-funded initiative to promote sustainable tourism in areas affected by mining activities. In this case, works were being undertaken to conserve and present the physical remains of industrial heritage across Blaenau Gwent, regenerating this landscape plundered for its iron and coal.
These two features alone speak volumes for the intensity of human occupation in south Wales across the millennia, a theme that runs across this column.
Prehistoric peoples of the Severn
From industrialised landscapes, I head next to a foraged coastscape: the Severn Estuary, where Current Archaeology has featured work at a number of important prehistoric sites over the years. To anyone interested in wetland archaeology, the Severn Estuary – especially the northern coastline of the Gwent Levels – has long been known as an area of remarkable finds and fieldwork. Issue 172 (February 2001) first featured work here, reporting from sites including Goldcliff (with Bronze Age timbers reused in Iron Age contexts) and Caldicot (also Bronze Age). CA 314 (May 2016), 331 (October 2017), and 367 (October 2020) all then revisited the area as part of larger surveys of the prehistoric occupation of the areas that later became known as the British Isles. Issue 314 reported on work here as part of a wider investigation into the implications of recent finds around ‘Doggerland’ in the North Sea; issue 331 did so as part of a consideration of Mesolithic settlement types and densities; and, most recently, issue 367 featured this area as part of a superb review of human mobility in prehistory by Martin Bell, doyen of Wales’ prehistoric wetlands.
The latter report came thanks to Martin’s latest – highly recommended – book Making One’s Way in the World: the footprints and trackways of prehistoric people (CA 365). This publication features, among other highlights, the extraordinary, emotive survival of a series of footprints made by a Mesolithic child, then aged around 10-12 years old, in the foreshore muds of Goldcliff in south Wales. Martin’s work at such sites has led him to conclude that relatively settled Mesolithic communities based in such locations followed a seasonal pattern of harvesting: living in temporary coastal camps during the autumn to fish, returning to sheltered inland locations in winter, and moving upriver to follow deer to upland grazing sites in summer.
Roman ways and means
Moving forward in time, the richness of south Wales’ Roman archaeology has been recognised from the very start of Current Archaeology – literally so, for the Roman legionary fortress of Caerleon featured in issue 1 (March 1967), then again in issues 75 (February 1981) and 226 (January 2009). Fieldwork here by different teams, most recently a joint team from Cardiff University and University College London, has revealed much about the evolution of, and life within, Fortress Isca – one of just three permanent fortresses in Roman Britain. Meanwhile, wider life in Roman south Wales has not been ignored by CA. The Roman legionary base at Usk featured in issues 10 (September 1968) and 62 (June 1978), the first report following not long after its rescue in the face of a new housing development, and the second in happier circumstances, reporting on the long-running fieldwork that resulted as a consequence of that quick remedial activity. Fieldwork across the late 1960s and early 1970s by a team from Cardiff University extended in time to 11 seasons of excavation, during which some 1.8ha of the site was cleared, delineating the full extent of the base. As CA summarised, ‘this gives us a fortress 475m from north to south and approximately 410m from east to west, an area of circa 19.5ha… rather larger than Lincoln or Gloucester, but smaller than Inchtuthil’.
Meanwhile, CA 75 (February 1981) reported on a fascinating and ambiguous site at Cold Knap, right by the waterfront at Glan-y-Mor, a mile west of Barry Island. Here, a large rectangular building with numerous rooms set out around an internal courtyard was excavated by a team from the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust. This location is possibly associated with the operation of the Roman navy in the Bristol Channel and western Atlantic approaches, although no ‘CL BR’ tiles of the Classis Britannica (British fleet) were discovered – such finds mark the presence of the fleet at comparable Roman sites in Kent and Sussex. Nor were any defences identified, another marker of the navy’s presence.
Medieval soldiers and seafarers
Moving even further forward in time, but continuing on the theme of Wales’ maritime heritage, two spectacular medieval seafaring finds take centre stage: the mid-13th-century boat discovered in 1994 at Magor Pill, near the village of the same name just to the south of the M4 motorway, and the mid-15th-century ship discovered in 2002 in dramatic fashion in the centre of Newport during the development of a new arts centre. The former site featured in CA 149 (September 1996) and the latter in CA 184 (February 2003). These are, by any standard, two of the most important medieval ship finds in Britain – and, indeed, in north-west Europe – and work on them involved some of the great names of ship archaeology, not least Nigel Nayling and Sean McGrail.
The Magor Pill find is a shallow-draught, clinker-built vessel some 14m length, lost in a tidal creek while carrying a cargo of iron ore, possibly while it sought shelter from a storm. It is thus profoundly representative of the type of ‘coasting’ vessel that we know from documentary records to have worked in their thousands along the coasts of Europe at this time, but for which we have few archaeological examples.
The Newport ship, by contrast, is a much larger vessel, over 30m in length and a fully sea-going cargo vessel – built to the same essential medieval ‘clinker’ (overlapping timber) shipbuilding principles as the Magor Pill boat, but of a completely different order. The ship’s careful excavation and subsequent analysis demonstrated that this was a vessel, most likely lost while under repair in Newport, that had spent a long life travelling between south-west Britain and the Iberian Peninsula, where it was probably originally built. Dendrochronological analyses demonstrate that its timbers originated c.1449 in the Basque country along the modern-day French/Spanish border.
These two finds, separated by 200 years, speak clearly of south Wales’ maritime connections down the millennia, from prehistory to the present, from local ports and harbours to those overseas, both near – such as the south and east coasts of Ireland – and far, reaching right round into the Mediterranean. As I flagged in my first column on Wales’ archaeology (CA 373), these sites and many more star in CA 358 (January 2020), which featured the new book Wales and the Sea: ten thousand years of Welsh maritime history. This makes clear the extraordinary sites and shipwrecks that lie along the country’s coastline.
So ends my tour of Wales – from prehistoric Anglesey to medieval Newport, a study in contrasts and in riches. In the next issue, I move eastwards – back into England – to revisit a county where I was once county archaeologist and where I have recently begun to work again on behalf of the National Trust: Surrey. I look forward to sharing with you sites familiar and unfamiliar alike.
Discover old issues
Read a selection of articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive375. They will be available for one month, from 6 May. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI375’.