This summer, an assemblage of Iron Age metalwork went on display at Oriel Ynys Môn, the Isle of Anglesey’s principal museum and gallery, for the first time since its discovery 70 years ago. Shortly to return to its home at the National Museum, Cardiff, the find consists of a mix of animal bones and the remains of some 180 separate items of metalwork, including bronze swords, spears and shield boss, bronze horns, cauldrons, slave-gang chains, iron ‘currency bars’, and chariot parts. Because it was found over a period of weeks during 1942 and 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, the find made little impact at the time, but over the intervening period it has come to be recognised as a discovery of immense importance for understanding Iron Age Wales and its people.
Ironically, the best record we have of the events that led to the finding of the Llyn Cerrig Bach assemblage comes in the form of an aerial photo- graph taken at the time by the Luftwaffe. Germany’s air force began covert aerial reconnaissance over Britain’s coast in 1935, compiling photographs that were intended to help bombers identify targets, but have since served archaeologists and historians very well. In this case, a photograph taken in 1940 shows a new RAF base under construction on the west coast of Anglesey. Briefly called RAF Rhosneigr, the airfield that is now known as RAF Valley shows up on the aerial photograph as an extensive tract of bare sand amid the grass- and gorse-covered dunes of Tywyn Trewan.
This bleak and windswept site played a key role in the Battle of the Atlantic, when German U-boats and the Luftwaffe tried to prevent supplies from North America reaching Liverpool. Convoys of merchant ships that had made it across the Atlantic, protected by the British and Canadian navies and air forces, faced a final onslaught as they headed into the port, as German bombers from bases in Occupied France flew over the Irish Sea looking for targets. When they did so, they were met by some 500 British, Czech, Polish, Australian, and Belgian airmen based at RAF Valley, who played a vital role in patrolling the Irish Sea and attacking enemy aircraft. Once the United States joined the war, RAF Valley also served as the terminal for receiving large American bombers, such as the Boeing B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’, which would go on from here to other bases around the UK.
To accommodate the Flying Fortress, the runways at RAF Valley had to be extended, and it was at this point that an already serious problem became much worse. The construction of the airfield had levelled the dunes and stripped the vegetation that had held the sand in place. Windblown sand was getting everywhere, penetrating the aircraft engines, with potentially lethal consequences. William Owen Roberts, keeper of the greens at the nearby golf club, was asked to advise and attempts were made to stabilise the sand by sowing grass. When this failed, Roberts decided that covering the sand with peat, dredged from the wetlands inland from the airfield, would solve the problem.
This proved to be a major operation as, from October 1942, drag lines and steel scoops were used to excavate the black peat and stack it in piles to drain, before taking it by lorry to the runway construction sites for spreading by tractor and harrow. One day, one of the harrow teeth caught on an iron chain. The tractor driver removed the chain and put it on one side. Not long after, a lorry became stuck in the mud and the tow rope broke when a tractor tried to pull it out. Looking for an alternative, the tractor driver commandeered the chain as a makeshift tow rope. The linkage was strong and performed very well in this role, standing up to the considerable stresses and strains of the task that it was asked to perform. At the end of the day, Mr Roberts took a closer look at the chain and thought that its construction was rather unusual. He draped it over his bicycle handlebars and took it to show his colleague, the resident engineer, Mr J A Jones.
The two men decided to send a sketch of their find to the National Museum Wales in Cardiff, where it was recognised as a Late Iron Age gang chain for slaves, with five hinged neck rings joined by a series of chains made up of figure-of-eight shaped links. About 3 metres in length, the chain would have held captives about 60cm apart, a powerful symbol of defeat and subjugation used alike by Iron Age and Roman societies. The museum’s Director, Sir Cyril Fox, sent a letter thanking the two men for reporting the find and asking them to keep an eye out for further artefacts. Several other bits and pieces of metalwork that had been discarded as modern scrap were recovered, and soon the team working on the airfield construction had built up a collection significant enough for Sir Cyril Fox to visit in person.
The site had changed so much by August 1943, when Fox made the first of his four visits, that there was nothing left of the original peat. By talking to the workforce and engineers, Fox established that the artefacts all seemed to have come from a strip of bog on the south-western shore of the silted-up Llyn Cerrig Bach, by then excavated to a depth of some 10 feet, and now a lake again as a result of peat extraction. Fox searched for evidence of a settlement in the area and failed to find one, despite local stories to the effect that farmers had been carting off ancient stone from the lake shore since time immemorial for use in their own walls and buildings. He did, though, identify an outcrop of rock overlooking the lake as being the original point from which the objects might have been thrown into the lake as votive offerings.
His official report, published in 1946, said that the assemblage dated from the period between the 2nd century BC and the Roman Conquest (which famously took place in AD 60, as part of a deliberate Roman campaign to subjugate an island that had become the focus of rebellion against Roman rule). Fox summed up the finds as being ‘predominantly masculine, a bracelet being probably the only thing which might have belonged to a woman; it is, moreover, overwhelmingly military in character. More than half the finds are metal fittings from chariot or pony-harness; and numerous swords and spears – which are the two weapons shown by continental burials to be carried by the warrior in his chariot – are consistent with the probability that the deposit, in its military aspect, is solely concerned with this form of warfare’.
Some of Fox’s initial conclusions have stood the test of time, while others have been revised as a result of further study and advances in the range of scientific tests available to help archaeologists with dating and metal provenance. It is still generally accepted, for example, that most of the artefacts found at Llyn Cerrig Bach were placed in the lake or bog as ritual offerings. Alternative theories have been proposed: one points to the fact that the assemblage includes five so-called ‘currency bars’ and two sets of tongs. Could this suggest that at least part of the find may consist of a blacksmith’s hoard?
One of the bars is similar in size and weight to those found in large hoards near Malvern, while the other four are of a type without parallel that may well have been made on Anglesey. One of the bars is a fragment, from which the ends have been cut off – exactly the type of part-used stock that can be found in any blacksmith’s forge. Some of the other finds, such as the fragmentary and worn chariot tyres, also suggest the type of material you would find in a blacksmith’s stock, awaiting recycling, and are not, perhaps, the sort of gift that one would make to honour a deity.
On the other hand, recent studies of the material have extended considerably the chronology of the find. Carbon-dates were obtained from spear-shaft fragments made of ash wood, from animal bones, and from the oak of the chariot pole, and these show that the site was in use as early as the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. The currency bars are probably 2nd century, while the bridle bits, bronze horn, sickle and tongs, terret rings, and most of the swords straddle the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. There are also 1st century BC dagger fragments and a shield boss mounting; early 1st century AD swords, cauldron fragments, and slave chains; and 2nd century AD casket ornaments and coils.
Such an extended chronological sequence, covering at least 500 years, strongly suggests a series of separate depositions rather than a single episode, and explains why archaeologists refer to this as an assemblage, rather than a one-off hoard. The bones of oxen, horses, and sheep or goats are the oldest dated objects in the assemblage, suggesting that animal offerings predated the metalwork; as the bones show no sign of having been butchered for meat, they are interpreted as representing sacrificial remains. The coiled mounts and casket ornaments were made from a Romano-British type of copper alloy that dates from the middle of the 1st century AD through to the end of the 2nd century AD, showing that deposition continued at the site for some time after the Roman conquest, which did not therefore entirely suppress whatever rituals were associated with the site.
This latter fact contradicts a more sensational theory that was first proposed by the late Dr Anne Ross, who (in The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, 1989) drew a connection between the Llyn Cerrig Bach assemblage and the death of Lindow Man, whose well-preserved remains were found in Lindow Moss bog in Cheshire in 1984. From the injuries that his body had sustained, it looks as if he was slaughtered as a human sacrifice during part of an elaborate sequence of ritualistic events; Ross suggested that British warriors fleeing westwards as the Roman legions advanced, made increasingly desperate offerings to the gods in the hope of securing their help in staving off defeat, of which Lindow Man and the Llyn Cerrig Bach assemblage are two examples.
This proposition is based on the fact, noted by Sir Cyril Fox, that the assemblage is culturally diverse. Could this be evidence of a gathering of resistance fighters from several parts of Britain, as well as from Ireland and Continental Europe? Fox believed that mountainous west Wales was remote from the centres of manufacture in Iron Age Europe and that all the material in the assemblage had been brought from elsewhere. Discoveries made in more recent years suggest that Anglesey was, on the contrary, not a peripheral island at all, but part of a chain of sea ports along which raw materials, trade goods, and cultural ideas were spread that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean up the Atlantic coast to Scotland and Ireland. Known for its metal ores, Anglesey is now seen as a major producer of iron and decorated metalwork in its own right.
Some evidence for this can be seen in the two pieces of decorated metalwork from the assemblage – the crescent-shaped plaque of bronze and the shield boss, also of bronze. In both cases, the decoration consists of a lively swirling pattern based on the triple-lobed motif known as a triskele (trisgel in Welsh, triskelion in ancient Greek, meaning ‘three-legged’). There are many variations on this ancient design, which is found in Neolithic rock art (for example, carved into the tomb at Newgrange, in Ireland, built around 3200 BC), but the particular pattern on the crescentic plaque and boss from Llyn Cerrig Bach may well be local, similar examples having been found at other sites in north Wales.
On the other hand, the seven iron spears from the site are of a style often associated with southern Britain, while the assemblage also includes a dagger fragment similar to examples found in Somerset and, as we have already seen, currency bars like those from the Malverns. Then there is the very intriguing find from Llyn Cerrig Bach of the mouthpiece and 357mm length of a large curved horn. All the other examples of this type of horn, known as a ‘trumpa’, have been found in Ireland, suggesting that this example might have come across the Irish Sea to Anglesey.
Amazingly, two of the Irish examples are complete and one is even playable. Simon O’Dwyer, an expert in prehistoric musical instruments, makes a distinction between these instruments, which allow for very accurate scales and arpeggios to be performed, and the better-known carnyx war horns, which produce a much more limited repertoire of notes, making a noise described by Diodorus Siculus (c.60-30 BC), the Greek historian, as producing ‘a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war’. By contrast, the sound produced by the Irish trumpa is described in the Old Irish Táin bó Fraich saga (AD 600 to 90, but including elements derived from Iron Age oral poetry) as producing music of great beauty, with healing powers, suitable for a betrothal or a marriage ceremony, rather than a battle.
Parts from at least 23 iron chariot tyres have been identified in the Llyn Cerrig Bach assemblage, along with eight hoops (known as naves) for binding the wheel hub, up to 16 bridle bits, three terret rings (for holding the reins), two lynch pins, and a short length of a chariot’s draft pole. It is very difficult to tell from this mix of material whether entire chariots were thrown in the lake, or parts that represented the whole – most especially detached wheels. And were these the chariots of the dead, of living and victorious warriors, or of the defeated enemy?
Some questions archaeology simply can’t answer and one can only hazard a guess. The same is true of the slave-gang chain that sparked off the interest of Sir Cyril Fox – a second incomplete chain was subsequently found at the site. The Greek author Strabo (c.64-24 BC) lists slaves – along with metal, cattle, hides, grain, and hunting dogs – as Britain’s best-known exports but, except for these two finds, gang chains have never been found anywhere else in Britain outside the south-east. How then did they get to Llyn Cerrig Bach and under what circumstances were they offered to the deities of the lake? Throwing them into the water can be imagined as a generalised act of defiance, a symbolic throwing off of the yoke of Roman rule (or indeed of enslavement to a rival British tribe); or as the act of a specific individual or group, liberated from subjugation; or as an act of a community eschewing slavery and dedicating themselves to freedom at all costs – ‘death rather than slavery’.
This is one of the many mysteries of the lake that will probably never be resolved, along with the question of which god or gods were being honoured at the site, and whether or not the Llyn Cerrig Bach artefacts were bought by pilgrims who sought out this sacred ritual site over a period of many centuries, or refugees from distant battles seeking shelter and an escape from bitter conflicts. One suspects something of the latter from the mainly martial content of the assemblage, though over such an extended period the motives for coming here are likely to have been different at different times, just as the purpose of RAF Valley has changed.
Today, RAF Valley is one of the UK’s busiest ‘diversion’ airfields, a refuge for all types of aircraft forced to change their course due to bad weather or other emergencies; it is also the home of the Search and Rescue Training Squadron, running courses for mountain- and sea-rescue teams and frequently called out to assist climbers who get into difficulties in Snowdonia or on sea cliffs. RAF Valley’s motto, In Adversis Perfugium –
‘A Refuge in Adversity’ – may well be an apt summary of what Anglesey and Llyn Cerrig Bach meant to the Iron Age people of Britain and beyond.
Llyn Cerrig Bach: treasure from the Iron Age, published by Llyfrau Magma for Oriel Ynys Môn, ISBN 978-1902565149
Copies are available from the museum shop (Oriel Ynys Môn, Llangefni, Isle of Anglesey L77 7TQ) or from the website of Llyfrau Magma (www.llyfrau-magma.co.uk) for £11.95 + £2 postage.
Oriel Ynys Môn, Anglesey’s county museum, has permanent displays about the island on the themes of history, natural history, and culture. Its programme includes temporary exhibitions and talks, including the current ‘Celebrating Anglesey Archaeology’ season. ‘Llyn Cerrig Bach: treasure from the Iron Age’ is an exhibition partnership with Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, running until 11 November 2012. Admission is free. For more information, phone 01248 724444.
The Llyn Cerrig Bach treasure is held by Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, and a selection can be seen in the ‘Origins: in search of early Wales’ archaeology gallery at the National Museum, Cardiff. In future years, this collection will be moved and redisplayed as part of the ‘Making History’ redevelopment project at St Fagans museum, supported by an £11.5 million Historic Lottery Fund grant.