Day School – Excavations at Parc Cybi, Holyhead

2020-02-08 09.26.46-1024

We arrived at the Ucheldre centre and filed through the new exhibition, with a quick glance at the displays. We would have plenty of time during the day to explore them in more detail. After signing in we entered the violet and sky-blue illuminated main hall, the former chapel of what was once the convent of the sisters of the Bon Sauveur. Now an active community centre, the Ucheldre was an ideal place for today’s event, a day school about the archaeological excavations at Parc Cybi, Holyhead, organized by the Anglesey Antiquarian Society and Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT).

A major Welsh Government development site, now home of a hotel and truck stop, Parc Cybi has proved a major boon in our understanding of life on Anglesey through the millennia. Today’s series of lectures would give us a broad overview of what was found at the site, how they fit in the broader setting of prehistoric and ancient knowledge of Anglesey, Wales and beyond, and explore some aspects in greater detail.

A summary report about the finds of the excavation can be downloaded from http://www.heneb.co.uk/parccybi/reports/parccybisummary.pdf.

Introduction

The day kicked off with an introduction by Jane Kenney, the project manager for the project from GAT. Excavations took place at Parc Cybi between November 2006 and July 2008, and again between September 2009 and February 2010. Unlike many archaeological digs, where just a few trenches are excavated over areas of potential interest, the fact that this whole site was being redeveloped allowed the archaeologists to strip off the soil over a very large area (over 20 hectares), laying bare the landscape for mapping and further investigation. Jane took us chronologically through what had been uncovered.

One of the oldest was also the most spectacular. A series of holes in a rectangular layout, dug for wooden posts, define the outline of a large early Neolithic timber-framed hall. Similar halls of this age have been found around Britain and Ireland, but are very rare. Measuring 15m long and 6m wide, and with a double row of timber posts inside along its length forming an aisle, this would have been an impressive structure. Radiocarbon dating shows that it was occupied between around 3700 and 3600 BC. It appears to have been divided into three separate areas or rooms, with several hearths. Inside the house were found pieces of pottery, flint flakes, burnt bones and saddle querns used to grind grain. Smaller temporary structures dating from around the same time were found nearby.

Evidence of occupation of the area in the later Neolithic comes from pits and hearths, indicating the locations of small huts, plus lots of pottery, more decorative than that found earlier. Also found during this period are burnt mounds, areas where water was heated in pits by throwing in rocks that had been heated in a nearby fire, then discarded in a mound next to the pit.

Settlement in the area in the end of the Neolithic and into the Bronze Age is demonstrated by the presence of Beaker-style pots, used widely from 2500 to 2000 BC, and cist grave burials. These are graves constructed of vertical slabs of stone forming a box in a pit, within which the body would be placed in a crouched position and covered with another slab. Several are found in Parc Cybi, some with Beaker pottery. Postholes defining the outline of a Bronze Age timber roundhouse, plus some small rectangular structures that may be granaries, have also been found.

The Iron Age, beginning around 1000 BC, saw an increase in settlements across Anglesey, and this is seen at Parc Cybi. The stone foundations of several round huts were found, along with walls partially enclosing them, and paths running up to the entranceways. A talk later in the day by Jane would describe these in more detail.

The end of the Iron age saw the coming of the Romans to Anglesey in AD 61. This is reflected in Parc Cybi by a trackway running across part of the site and various small buildings in which had been found Roman-era pottery. Also found was a blue glass counter, probably used in a board game. During this time burial practices change and people were buried in stone-lined cist graves, much longer than the earlier ones found here, allowing the bodies to be buried full length. A graveyard with 23 of these graves, neatly arranged in rows, was found in Parc Cybi.

Evidence of people in the area during the early Medieval age is given by the presence of numerous grain driers. These are elongated pits where a fire would be built at one end, then the grain suspended over the other on branches and straw to be dried. Carbon dating of some of the burnt grain found in these show they were used in the 5th and 6th century AD. These would probably have been built close to the actual fields where the grain was grown.

No actual remains of houses were found for the Medieval period, but this could be because the style of building left little trace. In the 11th-12th century evidence of a smith working in a farmyard was found. The same area was still in use as a farmyard in the 18th century. From that time onwards estate maps (and later Ordnance Survey maps) show the development of the field systems and farmsteads as they have been in more recent times. Some had been abandoned in the 19th century, but the floor and chimney base of one of these houses was uncovered during excavations. The most recent find during the digs was a stone-lined well with steps leading down to it, which may have been in use up to the 1950s.

Late Neolithic Pottery

Pottery of different designs and from different eras was found at Parc Cybi. Alison Sheridan from the National Museums of Scotland stepped up to the podium next to place these pots in a wider context of pottery around Wales and much further afield.

The earliest type of pottery found at Parc Cybi, dated to around 3700-3600 BC, is the ‘Irish Sea Ware’ or ‘Modified Carinated’ bowls. These are simple round pots that flare out slightly at the top. They are found widely in Ireland, and are also found in Calais and further afield in France from sites dated 200-300 years earlier, suggesting that this style originated on the continent and were later brought to Britain and Ireland.

By 3350 BC another type of pottery appeared, Mortlake style. These were more highly decorated, with various types of stippling made in the wet clay before firing. Analysis of chemicals found within these pots show that they were probably used for cooking stews, as traces of cattle and sheep meat were found.

The next type of pottery found is Grooved Ware. This is first found in Orkney around 3100-2900 BC. The decorations on these echo those seen in rock carvings at passage tombs such as Bryn Celli Ddu and Barclodiad y Gawres on Anglesey, as well as Newgrange in Ireland, which are from the same period. This type of pottery spread southwards from Orkney, arriving in Parc Cybi around 2900 BC. Interestingly, chemical analysis of these pots shows that the meat they cooked was pig, not cattle and sheep.

Cist Barrows

After the tea break Frances Lynch took to the stage to tell us more about the early Bronze age cist burials found at Parc Cybi. Very close to the excavation site is the Trefignath Neolithic burial chamber. It was closely associated with the settlements at Parc Cybi and probably held some of their occupants. But, in burial chambers like this, mixed burials was the norm. The bones of several people would have been mixed together.

By the Bronze age burials were mainly done in cists. These were formed of four slabs of stone, placed vertically in a pit, to form the walls of a chamber. The body was then put inside and a cap stone placed on top. The chambers were fairly short, so the body would have to be placed in a crouched position. Parc Cybi has a group of eight cists, close together and oriented in random directions; they were probably once covered with a mound once all the burials had taken place.

The cists were normally very well made, with the stones chosen and shaped so they fit together will little space in between. Other large stones and rubble were filled in around the outside to keep the vertical slabs upright. Even after millennia these cists were empty; no soil had managed to infill them. No bones were found, as the acidic conditions of the Anglesey soil meant that water leeching through would have dissolved them long ago. However, two of the cists did contain pots, one a beaker for holding liquids and one a food vessel.

Early Smithing

The next talk veered away from pots and stones to talk about metals, chemistry, and physics, complete with a phase diagram. Tim Young of GeoArch gave us an overview about what the archaeological record can tell us about metal working in the past. Parc Cybi has evidence of the working of iron from the Iron Age through the post-medieval period.

Early iron working was done with a hearth on the floor, often made of clay. The fuel to make the very hot fire required for softening iron was charcoal, and the raw materials were sourced locally. Later on raised hearths were constructed and coal or coke was used for hotter fires. The iron ore was more likely to have come from further afield and brought to the site.

When iron is smelted slag is formed, which is the waste material left over after the metal is melted out. Tim showed how looking at cross-sections of the slag found nearby can reveal clues as to how the metal was smelted and what fuel was used. Also, when hot metal is hammered to shape it very small and hot particles are thrown off. These fall into the soil below the hearth and can later be examined under a microscope to provide more evidence of the methods of ironworking. Other methods, such as mass spectrometry, were used to determine the chemical composition of the waste, to provide clues as to the origin of the iron ore.

The Romans

David Hopewell of GAT began his lecture by saying that, when he told someone that he was going to talk about the Romans on Anglesey he was told it would be ‘a very short lecture’. Until recently there has been little evidence of the Romans on the island, other than the Caer Gybi fort in Holyhead and the nearby watchtower on Holyhead Mountain. There is also the Roman historian Tacitus’s account of the invasion of Anglesey, which Dave quoted from extensively.

I say “until recently”, as there have in just the past few years been some tantalising finds that suggest there may have been more Roman activity on the island than we thought. Along the northwestern coast of Anglesey, earthworks at Pen Bryn Yr Eglwys were recently investigated as a possible Roman watchtower, within sight of the fort at Caer Gybi and the Holyhead Mountain watchtower. Some Roman pottery was found. Not far away, rectangular cropmarks noticed in a field at Cemlyn were explored using geophysical methods to reveal structures under the surface. These showed a double walled enclosure with several rectangular buildings, similar to Roman fortlets.

Most revealing is the excavation at Tai Cochion, overlooking the Menai Strait and Caernarfon near Brynsiencyn. This was found to be a small settlement, with a road running up from the strait and through the village of several rectangular buildings (rather than roundhouses more commonly built by the native occupants of Anglesey). Excavations of one of these buildings showed it was built around 140 AD, was burnt down and rebuilt in 275 AD, and probably abandoned around 350 AD (the last dateable evidence is a coin from the reign of Roman emperor Constantius II. Intriguingly, the road through the village continues on roughly in the direction of the fort in Holyhead. The village had no signs of defences so was probably a civilian settlement, possibly a trading port.

Iron Age

After lunch Jane Kenney returned to the stage to focus on the Iron age finds at Parc Cybi. A small settlement of four roundhouses was found, centred around what is now a small roundabout just past the truck stop. This site is very close to a nearby marshy area, and the houses were built on platforms of stone and soil to raise them up a bit.

The houses were clustered close together, and all had their entrances facing towards Holyhead Mountain, where there was a hillfort, despite the prevailing wind coming from that direction. A path lead up to the entrance of the largest round house, and some of them showed evidence of the walls being thickened around the entrances later on, perhaps to make them more impressive looking. Postholes in a rectangular layout show where granaries were built to store grain; these flanked the path to the houses and may have been deliberately placed there to show off their wealth to visitors.

It was from here that some of the serious ‘bling’ was found; a small gold ring, probably used as a hair decoration, and a fragment of an amber bead. Other finds include stones of various sizes with holes in the middle, probably used as weights to hold down the thatched roofs or fishing nets, and a quern for grinding grain. Little pottery was found, but this is common in the Iron Age; they may have used wood and basketry to make their household goods.

More Iron Age

Kate Waddington from Bangor University followed on to set the Parc Cybi finds in the wider context of the Iron Age throughout northwest Wales and elsewhere in Britain. There are three categories of settlements at this time: enclosed, unenclosed, and hillforts. The first millennium BC is when we first find evidence of settlements being used over a long period of time, by multiple generations. Also settlements seemed to have become more specialized. One may, for example, show lots of evidence of metal working, which is absent from nearby settlements.

Kate took us on a tour of several Iron Age settlements. Erw Wen, near Harlech, which dates from 980-590 BC, is notable because it was originally built with timber walls, which were later reconstructed in stone. A similar settlement at Pimperne Down, Dorset was recently reconstructed by experimental archaeologists, who found it took over 200 mature trees and straw from more than 30 fields to build. Bryn Eryr, near Llansadwrn on Anglesey, was an enclosed settlement of three roundhouses, with a cobbled yard, that was developed over 700 years. Two of the houses have been reconstructed at St Fagans National Museum of History (which is described in my previous blog). Later unenclosed settlements have been excavated at Ty Mawr near Holyhead and Parc Bryn Cegin by Bangor. These have the remains of numerous houses, but it appears only a few were occupied at any one time, with older ones abandoned as new houses were built. Numerous hill forts in the area, such as Tre’r Ceiri and Meillionydd on the Llŷn peninsula, were also described.

Continuity and Collapse

Nancy Edwards from Bangor University was next up, to talk about societal change from the Roman period into the early medieval. When the Romans, who had governed Wales for a few centuries, withdrew the land they left behind went through economic collapse and political fragmentation. However, there was also a continuity. Several inscribed stones dating from this period have been found on Anglesey, many preserved in churches such as the stone dedicated to King Cadfan in Llangadwaladr, or that for Saint Saturninus in Llansadwrn church. The earlier of these had Latin scripts, and were projecting the identity of the post-Roman local elite. Later Irish influence is noted by the Ogham script that accompanied the Latin inscription on a stone dedicated to Mailisi near Llanfaelog. By the sixth century Welsh names become prominent.

Around 580 AD climate change came in the guise of a Little Ice Age of cooling conditions, possibly caused by a Icelandic volcano eruption. Pollen evidence shows an increase in wetlands and woodlands and a decrease in arable crops. Risk management is evident in the appearance of corn driers (mentioned above) which allowed more of the crop to be preserved.

Despite all the changes, some settlements persisted. The Tŷ Mawr hut circles, begun in the early Iron Age, were in use well into the early medieval period, and Cefn Cumwd, uncovered by the construction of the A55 across Anglesey, was occupied from the early Bronze Age to the post Roman period.

Summing Up

Finally, Gary Robinson (Bangor University) took to the stage for a summing up. He sang the praises of the work that has been done at Parc Cybi over 14 years. The ability to excavate a large area has given us a picture of how the human use of the landscape has changed over time. A question from an audience member earlier in the day asked if a random spot on Anglesey were stripped bare, as had been done at Parc Cybi, would the resulting archaeology have been as rich. The answer was an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ History is under our feet where ever we walk.

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