I attended and presented at this year’s EMWARG (Early Medieval Wales Archaeology Research Group) conference. Traditionally, EMWARG has been an annual day conference, usually held in Cardiff, drawing together papers on the latest research into the archaeology of early medieval Wales and the Marches. This year, held at the Lampeter campus of University of Wales, Trinity St Davids, the event was split over two days – two half-days of papers and a half-day fieldtrip to visit early medieval sites in the vicinity.
It was fun to be back in Lampeter after quite a few years. Great to see the Norman motte within the grounds of the campus. The Shapla Indian restaurant provided us with a fabulous meal one evening and the conference dinner was a great success on the other. So despite the downside of staying in a university room furnished with out-of-date UHT milk and the failure of the guest wi-fi service (which apparently fails everytime they have guests!!), it was a good two days and a superb opportunity to discuss early medieval archaeology with colleagues from across Wales and beyond. I also took the opportunity to view Lampeter’s First World War memorial garden in early morning light, catching sight of a blue tit on the statue.
This year’s conference was organised by Marion Page (Dyfed Archaeological Trust) with the support of Jemma Bezant (University of Wales, Trinity St David) and Nancy Edwards (Bangor University). There were nine papers planned. I was first to present, but I will say more about my talk in another blog entry. Andrew Davidson (Gwynedd Archaeological Trust) couldn’t get to the conference: marooned on Bardsey Island. The final paper, by Iestyn Jones (Archaeology Wales) was a fascinating and detailed presentation focusing on houses in early medieval Ulster. Here I will focus on the remaining six papers that explored dimensions of the archaeology of early medieval Wales.
The Archaeological Journal
Before I review the papers, I should say that I took the opportunity of the conference to promote the Archaeological Journal to my Welsh colleagues in the Trusts and academia in particular. Hopefully we will have more papers in the Journal about dimensions of Wales’s archaeology in the future, continuing the long tradition of the journal publishing on the Principality.
Dinas Powys – Reinterpreting an Iconic Site
Alan Lane (Cardiff University) and Andy Seaman (Canterbury Christ Church University) presented on their excavations and reinterpretations of the early medieval hillfort of Dinas Powys. They noted the conclusive lack of an Iron Age predecessor and (following the work of Ewan Campbell) were able to dismiss Alcock’s dating of the sequence (he had seem most of the fortifications as very late, pertaining to the Anglo-Norman period. All the fortifications are now regarded as fifth to seventh century in date, both the main multivallate hillfort and the odd earthworks to the south known as Tyn y Coed. This was an update on ongoing research, and it is exciting to see fresh perspectives and the promise of more discoveries at this premier site for understanding fortified elite sites in early medieval Wales.
Bala Pollen – The Landscape of Early Medieval Mid-Wales
Tudur Burke-Davies (ArcHeritage) outlined his ongoing doctoral research at the University of Sheffield into the pollen sequences of mid-Wales around Llyn Tegid. Set against a background of relative continuity in landscape management practices since the Bronze Age, he drew out minor variations in the 5th and 6th-century downturn in farming practices revealed in pollen sequences, followed by a resurgence of arable farming in the 7th and 8th centuries and a 10th century upland deforestation. He could also identify in his sample the impact of Edward I’s conquest of Wales, when forests were removed to mitigate against the threat of ambushes. This paper showed the value of localised pollen sequences and provided important new information about an area much neglected in recent research.
Crugiau Cemaes – Early Medieval Burial Reuse
Anyone aware of the archaeology of North Pembrokeshire will be familiar with the superb, prominent Bronze Age burial mounds at Crugiau Cemaes. Affording all-round views towards the sea and toward the Preseli Mountains, it is a superb location that affords the sense of all-round apprehension of the landscape of a defined territory. Marion Page (Dyfed Archaeological Trust) reported the results of DAT’s recent two seasons of geophysical survey and evaluation excavations at Crugiau Cemaes. The geophysical surveys revealed that the mounds sat within a complex of enclosures of likely Iron Age date. Marion focused on the excavations in the second season, 2013, where two west-east grave-like features were revealed and a smaller, third west-east aligned feature, that might very well be a child’s grave. Notably, in a first for the region, one of the two adult-sized grave-like features seems to have been surrounded by a square enclosure – one of the square barrows or enclosures known from North, South and Mid Wales but hitherto not identified for West Wales. Disappointingly the trench was not wide enough to fully reveal the feature nor identify whether it stood in isolation. Still, it is evident that the site persisted in importance as a burial place into the Early Middle Ages, like the nearby cemetery within an Iron Age enclosure at Caer Bayvil (see below).
Bayvil – The Landscape of Assembly
Dovetailing neatly with Marion’s paper, Rhiannon Comeau (UCL) presented a paper on the parish of Bayvil, part of her ongoing doctoral research investigating the landscape archaeology of the cantref of Cemais. Her study is forthcoming in the journal Medieval Archaeology and suggests that Bayvil was a hundredal (cantrefal) assembly place, in which a range of sites, not a single location, were implicated with assembly functions. The mounds and enclosures at Crugiau Cemais were postulated as the original, Iron Age, focus of assembly but the fortified enclosure reused as a cist-grave cemetery at Caer Bayvil, and the church at Nevern, become components of the landscape of assembly. A further interesting aspect of Rhiannon’s work was her use of place-name evidence and later medieval fair sites as indications for the assembly functions she postulated for the early medieval period.
Early Medieval Burial – the Big Picture
Next up, archaeological consultant Neil Ludlow presented a far-ranging exploration of regional patterns in early medieval mortuary practices across Wales, drawing on comparisons from around the British Isles. Conceding that the evidence remains poor, he postulated some regional variations in burial practice and mortuary commemoration as well clear links and similarities across the regions of Wales and on both sides of the Bristol Channel and Irish Sea. What remains difficult to work out is how much weight to put on the subtle variations between regions and how much these should be glossed over to regard them as comparable ‘British’ mortuary practices.
Talacre – Vikings in Flintshire
In a former blog post I mentioned the Viking burial at Talacre, part of a concentration of documentary, place-name, and sculptural evidence for Hiberno-Norse settlement and interaction along the Flintshire coast of the Dee estuary. The impression I gained from the limited published material I had consulted was that the Viking burial – a cist containing a skeleton with a spearhead and possibly a knife – had been found among the dunes at Talacre. Nancy Edwards updated us on her research into this grave, reporting on a radiocarbon date obtained from the bones – rediscovered by Caryl Dane – that suggests an early Viking Age date (once the bias of a possibly high marine diet is taken into consideration). Nancy also updated us with a clear indication of the grave’s location, discovered in 1931 during construction work behind houses adjacent to the A548 a mile to the south of the Point of Ayr and the dunes. The burial may have been close to a former shore-line far inland from the current coastline, fitting a picture of many Viking Age furnished burials situated in coastal environments, as revealed in research by Stephen Harrison.
All together, EMWARG constituted a very good set of papers on early medieval settlement, burial and landscape evidence, drawing together old evidence and reappraising it, as well as presenting the results of new thinking and new fieldwork. Congratulations to the organisers and speakers and thanks to the attentive audience. I look forward to the next conference in 18 months to 2 year’s time. The EMWARG fieldtrip is the subject of a separate blog entry.