I had a great Sunday out in the Welsh landscape with a visiting archaeologist and physical anthropologist Katy Meyers of the Dept. of Anthropology, Michigan State University, USA. Katy is visiting the UK as part of her ongoing doctoral research.
Many of you will know Katy as a veteran archaeological blogger; her Bones Don’t Lie blog is a superb way to keep up-to-date with the latest in mortuary discoveries and analyses from across the globe. I am not worthy to be in the presence of their deity of the world of archaeological blogging, but I tried my best to show her around some of the great heritage sites of NE Wales. We couldn’t find her any bones – honest or lying – but we found plenty of prehistoric, medieval and modern mortuary monuments and memorials.
Katy and her mum were lovely people, and I was bought me lunch and ice cream!
Our itinerary was as follows:
Wat’s Dyke, Ruabon
Not a good start, I had to explain that the heritage signboard is invisible but that we shouldn’t worry. No-one visits here anyway, and even if they could read the heritage signboard, it is completely wrong in any case!
Things then got worse when I realised that the public footpath was covered in nettles and we were all wearing sandals and shorts! Still, some horrible stings and grim determination led us to the monument itself.
Wat’s Dyke has long been assumed to be sub-Roman, but is now conclusively dated to the early 9th century; it is later than Offa’s Dyke, less monumental, shorter but more intelligent in its design and facing a powerful enemy for Mercia; the kingdom of Gwynedd.
I am a great fan of Wat’s Dyke and will sing its praises to all who are interested. I live in ‘Wat’s Dyke Country’ (or so I would name it were I in charge of the heritage tourism industry in the region) and pass it every day at least once or twice on my way to and from work. So I was delighted, despite the crap heritage signboard and the nettles, to show it off to my visiting American friends.
Sadly, because of our speedy itinerary, my guests only got to see Offa’s Dyke in a denuded state in the grounds of Chirk Castle and once again and only briefly from the A5 as we sped past it en route to Llangollen.
Chirk Canal, Aqueduct and Tunnel
I next imposed upon my American guests some industrial archaeology. Just before a quick drive through the grounds of Chirk Castle, I took them to the Llangollen Canal where it passes out of a tunnel and over the aqueduct designed by Thomas Telford. We marvelled at the design, the stonework and the views. I was delighted that there was also a memorial bench: death by water.
We then went on to stop at the canal at Froncysyllte and then to the Trevor basin side of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct but lack of parking prevented us seeing it. Despite this disappointment, we got to see the historic industrial settlements of Cefn Mawr and Acrefair before driving to Llangollen via the north side of the valley. Looming over us was the Iron Age hillfort and medieval castle of Dinas Bran. At Llangollen I pointed out the medieval bridge and the steam railway.
Britannia Inn for Food and Drink
It was lunchtime already, so we left to explore the food and drink of the Britannia Inn near Valle Crucis Abbey. I had scampi and chips and my guests enjoyed their food too. I was relieved that I managed to take them somewhere that didn’t involve an awkward British food and drink lunchtime fiasco that I have experienced myself on too many occasions. Well done Britannia Inn! You did us proud.
Our next stop was of course the beautiful ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis. We parked (badly, all my fault) and went around the grounds. On duty was Roger with his Bassett hound.
We explored the ruins of the west and south ranges, into the chapter house and up into the abbot’s rooms where one can see a fine collection of medieval grave-slabs including many of the wealthy secular patrons of the monastic house.
Then we explored the summer house where there is an artist in residence. I explained that the summer house was built by the same local squire who re-erected the Pillar of Eliseg which is visible on the horizon.
We also discussed the heritage display of graves within the site: both the grave-slabs in the abbot’s house and the grave-slabs in the monks’ cemetery, as well as the sarcophagus in the north transept. There was a further mortuary element that we hadn’t expected, memorials by the fishponds, one to the ‘abbey dog’. I also explained that nearby, Velvet Hill, seems to have been a popular place for the disposing of loved one’s ashes.
The Pillar of Eliseg
Next we headed for the Pillar of Eliseg where I told my visitors all about the early ninth-century cross-shaft, its ‘biography’ from the ninth century to the present, including the text’s analysis by antiquarian Edward Lhuwyd. The excavation revealing a skeleton in a stone box in the 1770s, apparently later re-buried with its skull gilded.
We discussed the latest evidence about the site following three years of excavation by Bangor and Chester universities. We now think that the mound was an Early Bronze Age and multi-phased monument. We found three cists, one packed full of cremated human remains of c. 7-8 people. The latest post-excavation results and insights we have gained following three seasons of excavations 2010-2012 can be read about via the Project Eliesg website: Project Eliseg.
Even though we found no evidence of early medieval mortuary activity, there is no doubt that it was perceived as a funerary monument in the ninth century when the decision was made to erect a cross on this spot. Did they think it was the grave of Eliseg, or of Germanus, or Maximus of Britain?
Back to Wrexham
We headed back to Wrexham via the Horseshoe pass where we got to see a biker’s memorial. We also drove by the wonderful Ponderosa cafe and their distinctive memorial island for the family that run this popular bikers’ cafe. From there we went via the backroad towards Wrexham, heading to World’s End over Ruabon Mountain and to Minera. This route took us through slate quarries and lead mining landscapes.
All told, a fabulous jaunt around the heritage sites and countryside of north-east Wales with an archaeological bone-blog legend.