On Thursday of this week, we followed the North Wales coast using the A55 to Ynys Mon. Passing over the Britannia Bridge, we turned left to explore a range of archaeological and historic sites through the morning and early afternoon in the south-east of the island.
I was last on Anglesey on 23rd March of this year, attending the fieldtrip connected to the ‘Converting Landscapes – A Converting the Isles Colloquium’, an event organised by Professor Nancy Edwards of Bangor University providing a platform for discussing the latest research on the conversion of early medieval societies to Christianity. At the event I served as moderator for papers by Dr Adrian Maldonaldo and Dr Betty O’Brien on Scotland and Ireland respectively. The superb but freezing cold fieldtrip was led by Nancy and took us to four sites of early medieval inscribed and sculpted stones, giving us a tour through the changing landscape of memorialisation connected to Christian conversion and shifts in secular power from the fifth to the eleventh centuries AD.
This time, I decided to visit some of Angelsey’s prehistoric sites. First up was Plas Newydd, Llanfairpwll, a National Trust property in the grounds of which is situated a possible Neolithic (4th millennium/early 3rd millennium BC) monument described by Frances Lynch as ‘impressive but difficult to classify’. Apparently unexcavated, it might still be an eighteenth-century folly, or at least heavily manipulated during the eighteenth century. Unfortunately the NT property itself was closed on Thursday, so I couldn’t examine it up close and I couldn’t visit Bryn yr Hen Bobl – another tomb in the parkland excavated in 1927. A disappointing start, so instead we explored the one bit of the NT site that was open – the Adventure Playground, which took up most of the morning. Still, we got to see a clear example of how a megalithic monument – Neolithic and in situ, Neolithic and transported, or newly constructed to look prehistoricy – could become a prominent feature of an eighteenth century designed landscape.
Bryn Celli Ddu
Next, we went to Bryn Celli Ddu, a henge monument converted into a passage grave of the late 3rd millennium BC. Distinctive features include the fact that within the chamber was a rounded pillar and there was a rock-art decorated stone. The site revealed no human burials during excavation between 1927-31 but this is not surprising given the fact the site had been explored since the end of the seventeenth century.
Modern use of the site was noted. My children found it most useful as a superbly steep slope to run down. The kerb stones we great to sit on and watch other visitors. They also had fun pretending to be prehistoric burials…. (I don’t know whether they get it from!). Other (more normal) people found it useful as a picnic site. Traces within the interior reveal the widespread use of passage graves for modern votive deposits of various kinds, some of which my children helpfully moved around. I found myself chastising them for interfering with potentially religious acts, until I realised that it serves them right for depositing stuff in places open to access and reinterpretation by everyone of any age, gender or faith. Still, we spotted quartz pebbles, feathers, buttercups, money, jewellery and items wrapped in grass placed upon the upright stones or secreted within the drystone walling of the chambers and passage. Meanwhile, we noticed that the smooth surfaces of the concrete beams that keep the chamber in place have been widely used to daub pseudo-Neolithic designs in paint.
I am a great fan also of Ministry of Works signboards, so I must share with you the Bryn Celli Ddu one beside the road.
I remember visiting Bodowyr over a decade ago with Vicki Cummings. A beautifully well-proportioned dolmen, which I can say with assurance of correctness since Frances Lynch describes it as ‘very attractive’ in her Gwynedd guide. It is on a prominent location with views east to Snowdonia. However, it is another example of a Neolithic tomb on farmland where the protecting fence attracts livestock to rub up against it and crap all around it. Not only bad for the visitor experience, but erroding what might have otherwise been left of the associated cairn around the dolmen.
The cows around Bodowyr were inquisitive and slightly intimidating, leading my eldest daughter to shout at them: ‘don’t eat us, we’re not grass!’ Never a truer statement was said.
Again, I am a great fan of the Ministry of Works signboards, and so I attach a picture of the Welsh side of the one for Bodowyr.
Now for my favourite site of my Anglesey tour. Caer Leb is a site I had heard about but I had never visited before, mainly because I am either attracted or directed to Neolithic or early medieval sites on Anglesey during previous visits. This site is dated to around the second century BC or thereabouts. Yet the artefacts produced during evaluative excavations in the nineteenth century included Romano-British finds (2nd to 4th century AD).
The site is a defended settlement enclosure comprising of two rectangular sets of banks and ditches with an eastern entrance through both. Situated on boggy ground, the ditches still fill with water, creating a striking impression for the visitor of how the site was arranged. To my experience, defensive sites like this need water to help emphasise their original function and significance to protect and exhibit the status/identities of the occupants.
Thus ended my brief tour of sites upon Anglesey. In the afternoon we went on to Llanberis to see Dolbadarn Castle, ride on the Llanberis Lake railway and drive back through fabulous scenery over Llanberis Pass and back to Wrexham via Betws y Coed and Llandegla.