Three thousand years of Archaeology

by The Curious Scribbler

I had an enjoyable day at the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth on Saturday, at the Archaeology Day organized by the Dyfed Archaeological Trust.  The remit of archaeologists today stretches from the very ancient to the extremely recent,  and this was reflected in the range of talks.  The morning started with the archaeology of yesterday while by the afternoon we were taken back three thousand years to the beginning of the first millienium BC.

Alice Pyper had been having fun exploring the archaeology of Llyn y Fan Fach, the glacial lake which now supplies Llanelli with a clean water supply.  It was not always thus: the water system was built by conscientious objectors during the first world war.   Some thirty of them were compelled to live in two drafty huts  at 1200 feet above sea level to work on the project.  Field archaeology involved excavating and recording the footings of these huts. Documentary sources including newspapers and humorous sketches by the objectors fleshed out the story.  This workforce was of Englishmen who had already served time in prison for refusing to fight.  Michael Freeman pointed out that in Wales objectors were less harshly treated, and that most of the thirty conscientious objectors in Ceredigion were not imprisoned and were allowed to keep their jobs.

Also representing the very recent past is the built heritage of the 20th century.  Susan Fielding of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales treated us to photographs of a splendid succession of architectural gems or carbuncles, some listed, others already demolished.  The architects of the Percy Thomas Partnership ( familiar to us here for much of the Penglais Campus) kept cropping up, with Harlech College, Trinity Chapel at Sketty, and the soon-to-be-demolished Broadcasting House at Llandaff, all redolent of the 1960s.   The Prestatyn Holiday Camp ( 1935) and the Rhyl Sun Centre (1980) have both gone, both extravagant expressions of their times, and dear to many people’s holiday reminiscences.


Rhyl Sun Centre by Gillinson Barnett & Partners
Source:Architectural Press/Archive RIBA Collections

The Shire Hall in Mold, dubbed Britain’s leading ugliest building, and the Wrexham Police station are brutalist buildings which will perhaps not be mourned too much.  Still standing, and crying out for a role in a brooding  TV Drama is Ysgol Syr Thomas Jones at Amlwch – one of the very first 1950s comprehensive schools.

Less is sometimes more, and it was strangely gratifying to learn from Clwyd-Powys Archaeologist Paul Belford that we really don’t know whether Offa’s Dyke has a great deal to do with King Offa, when it was built, or quite what it was for!  Opportunities to excavate this world heritage site are few and far between, but one did arise from the actions of a Chirk man who bulldozed 50 yards of it in order to build a stable. ( His ignorance of its historic significance saved him from prosecution in 2014).  Perhaps this vibe for vandalism is in the air around Chirk.  Paul showed us a lidar image of the grounds of Chirk castle.  In the 17th century Landscape Architect William Emes flattened much more than 50 yards of it to create smooth parkland, and submerged a further length of it in an ornamental lake!

Low water levels in 2018 revealed Offa’s Dyke in the lake at Chirk Castle. Picture: The Shropshire Star

Two afternoon sessions concerned the days of the iron age hillfort, a period lasting from at least 1000 years BC.  Hillforts are scattered like measles across the whole of the map of Wales, and with techniques of  aerial photography and lidar more are still being discovered.  Either they are on hilltops with ridge fortifications all the way round, or they are promontory hill forts, situated on the edge of a cliff or at the confluence between two valleys such that fortifications are not needed at the steeper sides.  The archaeologists have been seeking evidence both within the enclosures, where  groups of round houses were situated, and outside them where burials, and farming actvities took place.  Ken Murphy rounded off the day with an account of the iron age chariot burial discovered last autumn in a field not far from a hillfort at an undisclosed location in west Pembrokeshire.  Being buried along with your two wheeled chariot and your horse requires a pretty extensive hole and this type of burial is well known from East Yorkshire. The chariot burial discovered at the evocatively named village of Wetwang, revealed the human skeleton curled  up between the wheels of his chariot, and the horse laid transversely at his head.  The limey soil chemistry in east Yorkshire does not dissolve the bones.

In the Welsh burial bronze fragments of the bit, bridle and horse ornaments testifies to the horse, and an iron sword to the warrior, but their bones are long dissolved.  The iron rims of the wheels and the imprint of the wooden chariot were found.  These items are undergoing conservation at the National Museum of Wales and will then be put on display.

Photo credit: Archaeologists exposing the wheels of the Pembrokeshire chariot.
 Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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Halkyn Marble

by the Curious Scribbler

In November, when writing about Snowdrop marble, I planned to return to another beautiful and distinctive Welsh stone – Halkyn marble from the Carboniferous limestone of North Wales.  I am grateful to Andrew Haycock of the Welsh Stone Forum for introducing me to this pretty stone.

Halkyn marble font in St Mary the Virgin Church ,  Halkyn.

This stone was recognised for its ornamental potential in the early nineteenth century, when the Marble quarry  first appears in the will of John Salisbury in 1837.  It qualities are amply displayed at Halkyn church, a spectacularly lavish Victorian church built by the First Duke of Westminster in 1877.  At that time the Duke was employing Chester architect John Douglas to extend Halkyn Castle in the Elizabethan style and, finding the existing parish church to be somewhat shabby and, worse still, interfering with the view from the castle, he demolished it entirely and built a new one, also by John Douglas, on a nearby site.  As is often the case with such vanity projects, the unattractive old memorials of the former church were not transferred, except for a Latin-inscribed slab to a former rector, Peter Roberts and  an unexplained but damaged alabaster effigy which hints at an important memorial now lost.

Peter Roberts, Rector, died 1819 must have been fun at dinner ! “In conversation suavis, facetus, hilaris”  – suave, facetious and hilarious  – or at the very least,    ‘Sweet, witty and cheerful’

The master mason who built the new church out of local Gwespyr sandstone was also the owner of the marble quarry at Pant-y-Pwll Dwr, five miles away.  He lost no opportunity to showcase its qualities in the church interior. Four handsome pillars of Halkyn marble separate the nave from the north aisle, the pulpit stands upon a plinth of the stone, and the barrier between nave and chancel is topped with this polished stone.  Typically available in slabs up to 18 inches thick, the massive font is carved from three layers of this particularly impressive rock, with a stem of black marble, probably also of local origin.

Interior of St Mary the Virgin, Halkyn

Interior stonework in Halkyn Marble

The appeal of this stone comes from the fossils within the grey matrix.  These are the stems of sea lilies – crinoids – which were an abundant form of sessile echinoderm, relatives of sea urchin and starfish.  Cut across they look like beads, cut obliquely whole stems are visible.  At a lesser frequency are large bivalved seashells, – productids – which generally look like curved C-shapes in section.

Pillar formed of blocks of Halkyn marble

Large slabs of Halkyn marble  also went to the Duke of Westminster’s Victorian Eaton Hall which was a gothic turretted monstrosity built to a design by Alfred Waterhouse in the 1880s and demolished  eighty years later.

Eaton Hall in 1907 a photograph by John Steggall                                                                                Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1339190

Halkyn marble may well have found its way to other properties of the Grosvenor estate.

The original quarry is long gone, subsumed into a huge Cemex quarry just south of the A55 North Wales Expressway, where these abundant  fossils are ground up to make  road-stone. Adjoining the modern quarry one can still find smaller outcrops in which the crinoid stems are eroded by the weather to stand proud of the surface.

Halkyn marble weathers out to expose the crinoid stems

the disused quarry at Bryn Blewog, just across the road from Pant-y-Pwll Dwr the giant Cemtex quarry.

When dry and unpolished the stone just looks grey, raindrops expose some hint of its potential beauty. It is heartening to know that Gwyn Davies stonemason of nearby Rhes-y-cae was able to obtain 100 tons of quality beds of Halkyn marble from the Cemex quarry, so it is still possible to commission a fireplace or stone slabs to ornament a modern project, or to restore a historic one.  A new piece was used in 2011 to mark the end at Chepstow, of the Wales Coast path.

Image result for chepstow wales coastal path

Slab of unpolished Halkyn marble (left) and of Pennant Sandstone (right) mark the end of the Wales Coastal path at Chepstow. copyright BBC News in Pictures

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