2.7 Some highlights since Walesland

To some, it may seem odd to talk of excavations carried out as recently as the mid-1960s in terms of 'historical' character, but Coygan Camp, like many another of that time and some since, does have an antiquated 'feel', just as the wholesale stripping of the interior of Walesland Rath still lends it a progressive air, fully 50 years on, standing in the vanguard of a succeeding generation of area-excavation of settlement sites. If additional vindication is required for nominating the years around 1970 as an old:new threshold, a turning-point in the study of hillforts and related settlements, it may be repeated that the first big excavations of ramparts also came then, while it should be recalled too that several kinds of scientific investigation — chiefly geophysical survey, radiocarbon-dating and environmental sampling — were all then immature but can now be applied liberally and expertly, further altering the potential compass of fieldwork involving excavation (especially where well financed), though we should not forget that none of those methods can be equally efficacious on every site.

Happily, more recent decades have seen a number of large-scale area-excavations involving hillforts and lesser enclosures in Wales (as in other parts of Britain), increasingly taking advantage of improved routines like those just mentioned. It is well known that these advances have come about largely, but not exclusively, through opportunities provided by funding from either government or developers in mitigation of destructive works, and it is not least due to the ready availability, at relatively little cost, of earth-moving machinery that this expansion has been viable, though it must be said that such time- and energy-saving procedures are not universally applicable (notably on unploughed sites — see below). It lies beyond the remit of this discourse — because expressly concerned with aspects of historical fieldwork — to devote much space to post-1970 projects, but it is appropriate to touch briefly upon a few of the more impressive, because most extensive (and therefore providing settlement plans that are well worthy of more detailed assessment), thus giving context to parts of the preceding text and, hopefully, pointing readers towards other articles in this issue. The following selection of sites is among those that should figure large in demonstrating both the diversity of evidence that has begun to accumulate in recent years and its influence upon our subject in general, even if it might be questioned whether some ought really to be accommodated in an article seeking primarily to address hillforts.

Although the Walesland Rath excavation has been expounded above as if it were one of a kind at that time, this is not strictly true because, almost simultaneously, an Iron-Age/Romano-British enclosed settlement at Whitton in south-east Wales was afforded similar treatment, and this arguably merits similar credit. Following small-scale sampling, the 0.3ha interior of the Whitton enclosure was stripped in blocks in 1968-70, compiling a complete plan of all that had survived heavy damage from ploughing, including ground-plans of numerous roundhouses at an early stage in its development (Jarrett and Wrathmell 1981; and see Evans in this issue — as much as anything, it is perhaps the ten-year difference in publication-dates that allows Walesland to take primacy in the foregoing debate).

Since then, several excavations in south-west Wales have lived up to that precedent, notably in the full exposure of the internal area of three 'small defended enclosures' in the Llawhaden group (Woodside Camp, Dan y Coed and Drim Camp), each completed during the 1980s. None of them exceeded 0.1ha, each was found to contain a complex sequence of use and reuse, and each was packed with multi-phased structures, despite each having suffered plough-truncation beforehand (Williams and Mytum 1998; and see summary in Murphy in this issue). Latterly, Castell Henllys has taken centre-stage in that region, having been excavated progressively and comprehensively in a research-led operation lasting for the best part of three decades (1981-2008), an enormous undertaking for a hillfort encompassing approximately 1ha in all, with both the inner enclosure and its annexe having been uncovered, providing rich fare for future dissection and deliberation (Mytum 2013).

In mid-Wales, full stripping of the plough-flattened, 0.4ha, inner enclosure of a multi-period, multiple-enclosure, hillslope fort at Collfryn came in 1980-2 (Britnell 1989),26 a well-judged aftermath of excavations at The Breiddin hillfort, itself remarked above for extensive unravelling of its successive ramparts, and, inter alia, important for putting radiocarbon-dating to good use in confirmation of its Late Bronze Age origin (Musson et al. 1991). Situated only 7km apart in locations of great topographical disparity, the wide-ranging results recovered from these two very different forms of enclosure display affinities and distinctions, which will doubtless continue to attract debate (see Britnell's Where is everybody? in this issue). Although the areas excavated inside The Breiddin in the 1970s were sizeable, they were necessarily selective because of the nature of the terrain, for this isolated craggy summit offered broken ground to those taking occupation, and this is certain to have influenced the distribution of structures and activities across the vastness of the c.28ha enclosed, just as it did that of excavations in its threatened south-western part. The plans of numerous roundhouses and four-post structures were uncovered, in addition to thorough investigation of a pond yielding valuable environmental evidence from the time of the hillfort. As at Walesland Rath, one strength of the extent and range of the record from within The Breiddin is attested by the manner in which it soon fostered profound reconsideration, with questions raised over the function of some four-posters and even over the purpose of the hillfort (Buckland et al. 2001).

In north-west Wales, the plough-damaged site of Bryn Eryr, Anglesey's equivalent of Whitton, was stripped in the mid-1980s (Longley 1998). The same decade saw research come to the fore with full excavation of one of Wales's smallest hillforts, Bryn y Castell, where the well-preserved internal area of less than 0.1ha provided rare and plentiful evidence of iron-working in the late Iron Age (as outlined by the excavator, Crew, in Smith this issue).

In north-east Wales, the 1970s brought excavation of a consolidated block of ground inside Moel y Gaer, Rhosesmor, surpassing one-sixth of the 2.47ha enclosed by its perimeter earthworks (themselves already mentioned for the scale of excavation; see Moel y Gaer) — a substantial sample, and the closest we have so far come to the ambition of uncovering and disentangling an appropriate proportion of any of the many well-preserved, large and medium-sized hillforts distributed unevenly through Wales and the Marches. Circumstances dictated that this excavation at Moel y Gaer was positioned, to archaeological intents, randomly within the hillfort, allowing it to be approached with an open mind as to what might emerge (coincidentally, enacting views urged not long before — Musson 1971). Here was serendipity in action, and the very antithesis of the explicitly question-and-answer philosophy underpinning much that had gone before in excavating hillforts across Wales. Given complete freedom of choice, who would have elected to invest so much effort in excavating extensively within the windswept south-western quarter of this hillfort, avoiding its rather more sheltered parts?

Various facets of Moel y Gaer command attention in pondering the quality of structural information gathered through historical excavations, and some more recent, inside other hillforts. For instance, its good preservation, essentially because unploughed, is highly significant, and this is a factor too often given too little weight, actually seldom more than lip-service, in writing generally about other settlement-plans. In truth, this issue should probably have been raised sooner here, since the interiors of Ffridd Faldwyn and Henllan, maybe also Walesland Rath, besides several of those stripped subsequently, had each been afflicted by the plough, with inevitable repercussions for the calibre of their excavated evidence. It is important to confirm which sites have been fortunate enough to escape such damage, because this will confer an enhanced archaeological potential, while also implying an unusually vulnerable ground-surface, which could well be unsuited to the use of earth-moving machines — and so it was at Moel y Gaer, where more than 0.6ha had to be manually stripped of its blanket of turf and humus before the serious business of excavation could begin. This painstaking and time-consuming treatment was amply rewarded with a profusion of structural detail, showing the excavated portion of the interior to have been a crowded place, and repeatedly so, during two phases of ramparted hillfort as well as their palisaded precursor. To pick out one point of wider significance that could not have been established convincingly from either smaller or scattered sampling of the interior of Moel y Gaer, the gentle relief of the hilltop (in sharp contrast to that of the rugged Breiddin) gave those who devised the Phase 2 hillfort free rein in the layout of buildings, which they chose to group by structural type, seemingly indicative of functional zoning (Guilbert 1975b, 203-6, fig. 1; 1981a, 106-12, fig. 18; see Moel y Gaer, especially Figure E; and above in relation to the Ffridd Faldwyn analogue). There were apparently open spaces among the zones, admittedly of unknown use but nevertheless bringing to mind Musson's dictum that 'the spaces between the buildings can be at least as informative as the buildings themselves' (1971, 85) — a sentiment that rings true only where there can be tolerable assurance that the outlines of all the buildings once standing in a given area at a given time are represented archaeologically, which, of course, makes a lack of plough-erosion all the more auspicious. Like some roundhouses recorded within other unploughed hillforts (including The Breiddin and Bryn y Castell), a dozen of the structures belonging to this clearly planned phase of settlement at Moel y Gaer were built with the wall founded upon slender stakes, leaving no other mark in the ground bar postholes at the doorway. This evidence has previously been deployed in demonstrating a danger of resorting to plough-eroded sites when studying the internal arrangements of hillforts and other settlements (Guilbert 1975b, 215-17) — indeed, it is quite clear that remains of all structural episodes inside Moel y Gaer could have been ruined by a single ploughing. It deserves notice too that the stake-wall roundhouse poses a perennial and poignant reminder of hazardous bias inherent in geophysical survey or, to be more pointed, in any temptation to trust such relatively inexpensive methods as a source for data suited to the analysis of settlement plans. Although no such survey has been attempted within Moel y Gaer, the preponderance of stakeholes and small postholes among features revealed there, many of them shallow, suggests that much of the recorded pattern of successive settlements would have lain beyond the ambit of commonly used forms of remote sensing, which would thus have yielded a very different, and manifestly inferior, picture from that actually gained through sensitive excavation. In short, geophysical surveying can be no substitute for thoroughgoing area-excavation on any site of that sort, and to suppose it to be otherwise is to risk fabricating yet more factoids, as most students of hillforts will surely realise.

None of this is meant to imply that small-scale, selective excavation inside hillforts and enclosed settlements has not continued alongside the more ambitious, and more fitting, area-excavations (again not exclusively in Wales), sometimes of necessity and sometimes by preference. Granted there can be circumstances in which it would still generally be thought acceptable to undertake something akin to the old style of restricted sampling of a hillfort, most obviously where some closely circumscribed threat determines the extent of a 'rescue' excavation, so making it legitimate because unavoidably so constrained (and seeming better excavated than destroyed without record, even where it can be recognised in advance that potential is severely limited). There will also be situations where some relatively slight, specific, question-and-answer excavation can be justified in supplementing a larger, but partial, area-excavation of a given hillfort, striving to make sense of a particular aspect of results (as in charting the course of the Phase 1 palisade at Moel y Gaer, Figure B); but this requires care not to create unwelcome complications for later excavators through impairing the integrity of some critical part of the site. Needless to say, exceptions like these do not necessarily make it admissible nowadays to conduct purely small-scale and/or scattered excavations within any large-scale settlement site such as a hillfort, whether done in the name of research or ostensibly for purposes of conservation. To do so would arguably be to fly in the face both of archaeological progress and of an appropriately responsible attitude to the preservation of such a precious resource (ignoring persistent entreaties from Barker (1977, chapter 4; 1993, chapter 5), which find echoes at various points in the present article). Perpetuation by some of old-fashioned strategies more in tune with the mid-20th century can but undermine the c.1970 'turning-point', so too the substantial gains made subsequently through various expansive excavations in Wales and, even more so, beyond its border.


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