Born a Yorkshire lass, at the age of four Erin’s family upped sticks and moved to a tiny Welsh valley overlooked by an ancient castle on the remains of Offa’s Dyke- and she’s pretty sure that is when it all began… Erin and her family, with her older brother and sister, had a childhood quite like a Famous Five novel- going on adventures on steam trains, making dams in the river and staying out all day until returning home stinking of wild garlic, telling tales of caves, creatures and the countryside. Now a qualified archaeologist, with a PhD on the way and having worked in the heritage sector for ten years with the National Trust, the award-winning Heather and Hillforts Project, Bangor University's School of History, Welsh History & Archaeology and now with Cadw, the Welsh Government's Historic Environment Service, Erin describes herself as ‘Indiana Lloyd Jones’- getting people excited about archaeology. But it’s not just the old things that she takes a fancy to. Heritage sites are still full of life today- whether that’s her colleagues who look after them, the people who visit them, or the animals and wildlife which now call them home. Uncovering the hidden secrets of these sites is exactly what makes her tick- and sharing this with others makes her tock. For such a tiny collection of islands located in our big wild world, good old Blighty has a lot of exciting things to shout about and Erin’s aim is to discover all of the reasons that make Britain Great.

PokemonGo For It!

This morning I was out for a walk after an early morning Bootcamp session, to ease my jelly legs, when I stumbled across a jellyfish-type Pokemon. And it got me thinking.

A seaside Pokemon on the beach

A seaside Pokemon on the beach

I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago about where you can find Pokestops and Pokemon in local heritage attractions which have free entry and it went down well, on the whole. But some people are still cynical.

So, as my Day Of Archaeology started with some exercise and a Pokemon, here are my Top Five PokemonGo thumbs ups, and why it is brilliant for heritage and for health too.

1.  You don’t have to stare at the screen to use it

Most of us will have seen a video clip of someone walking along, staring at their screen, with no clue as to where they’re walking. This has been happening for much longer than PokemonGo has been around, sadly! The PokemonGo App will actually continue working and still vibrate/give a notification if you pass a Pokestop or a Pokemon etc if you turn it upside down (into sleep mode) and pop it in your pocket, or carry your phone by your side. So it’s unlikely you will walk into a wall/lake/child before noticing them. Unless it’s intentional.

2. You have to physically walk to use it

In the App you can see yourself and your surrounding area. There is a little bit of zoom in and out, but you can’t pan the map. i.e. if you want to see if there is a ‘Gym’ or a Pokestop over about half a mile away, you have to get up off your butt and go for a walk. Cunning plan, and I like it.

3. You have to walk a certain distance to hatch Pokemon Eggs

At a Pokestop you can collect Pokeballs, which you catch Pokemon in, and other items, such a eggs. If you get an egg, you can incubate it and the incubation process will only complete if you walk 2k, 5k, or 10k (with better Pokemon the further you have to walk). How’s that for an incentive to go for a stroll!

4. Many of the Pokestops are at historical landmarks

You don’t necessarily know where a Pokemon might actually appear. That’s part of the fun. But you can visit Pokestops to collect items such as those mentioned above, or medicine for Pokemon, and Lure potions which attract Pokemon to a location. You can see these Pokestops scattered about, marked on your map as you move around. Most of the Pokestops are at historical places and local landmarks, which gives us in the heritage sector a great opportunity. PokemonGo users are likely to visit a place if they know it has a Pokestop or a Gym (where you can battle Pokemon against each other). Once they have collected the items, or played a battle, and possibly caught a Pokemon- which all in all may take about 10 minutes, tops – they’re looking for something else to do. So if you have a museum, heritage site, country park, visitor attraction, PokemonGo is your very own Lure potion. They will come, so welcome them in and you may just have found yourself a market you would normally struggle to reach.

So if you have a museum, heritage site, country park, visitor attraction, PokemonGo is your very own Lure potion.

5. Pokestops are usually accompanied by a short fact about the place it’s in

The developers of PokemonGo have actually utilised the framework and data from another successful App which already exists, and just ‘Pokemonned’ it. So, in effect, the Pokestops and Gyms already existed from the game ‘Ingress’ long before PokemonGo was thought up. (Incidentally, if any of the points/stops are in a place you think is unsuitable, insensitive or dangerous can be reported easily and taken down. Hopefully most of this should already have been sorted through the older App anyway). With the adoption of the Ingress App data came a little information with each stop. So when you reach a location, many tell you a fun fact about the place you’re in. I’ve popped some examples below in the pictures. I learned something new (about a local who was a pioneer of wireless telegraphy and was one of the first people to experiment successfully with the sending of the spoken word through space! A Caernarfon boi!) when I was on the PokemonGo App in Caernarfon, the day after it launched. I’m in Caernarfon a lot, and was confident I knew the history well. So if I can learn something so easily and so soon after starting play, I wonder what else I will find out as I go. My search for Pokemon has resulted in a search for knowledge too.

Some people have told me that the ‘silly fad’ is dangerous. Unfortunately the handful of incidents out of the tens of millions of users (yup, during its first week of availability it had more downloads than any App in history!) have been lapped up by the press, only highlighting some irresponsible users ignoring the HUGE warning every time you open the App to stay fully aware of your surroundings.

Some have commented that children should be playing outdoors anyway, not needing a screen or a game. “They should be catching fish, not pokemon!”. Well, sometimes it just ain’t that easy, buster! Slow clap for you! We are in a digital age, and if this App encourages those who would usually sit in a darkened room playing computer games, only otherwise lured out by the smell of bacon being deliberately wafted up the stairs, to see some sunlight and get some exercise, then how on earth is this a bad thing?!

I’ve been confronted by someone saying that there is no way that anyone playing ‘that game’ will appreciate the place they’re in, so the heritage site will actually be ignored and, in essence, taken completely for granted. I say- if that happens, it happens. They may not read the ‘fun fact’ which accompanies the Pokestop, but if they do, at least they’re going away with something. But it is our job in the heritage sector to open our arms up to this potential new market of people we may otherwise never see and make their transition from catching a Pokemon to catching some culture as easy as possible.

PokemonGo’s tag line is:

Get up and Go!

And I add to that, if you’re a parent, a visitor attraction, and especially if you’re a cynic: “PokemonGo for it!“.

Have fun, get fit, see nice places and, you never know, you might learn something 😉

Hillfort Heaven

My absolute archaeological passion is hillforts. One of the reasons for this is because they are still a huge mystery in the history of Britain- what are they? What were they used for? Why were they built? So many questions and much of the evidence to answer these questions being lost since they were first built, around 2,500 years ago.

Another reason I love them so much is because there are just so flippin’ many of them in my part of the world! So that’s what I research- a group of around 100 hillforts in north Wales and the borderland and how they may be connected.

But it’s not as simple as just looking up excavation records and comparing them, mostly because many of them haven’t been excavated (which is ok! They are well protected!) but also because those which have been excavated, on a relatively small scale, have yet to reveal many of their secrets.

The people in Iron Age north Wales didn’t have a written language, don’t appear to have had coins in circulation, nor do they seem to have really used pottery- usually a failsafe way to date a site. They did, however, use a material called “VCP”, a very technical archaeological term (it stands for Very Course Pottery…), which made up containers to transport salt from the Chester salt marshes, such as Nantwich. In addition, the soil in this area is very acidic, so bones and metals corrode in the soil, so artefacts are generally scarce.

So what can we use as evidence to piece together the story of this group of sites? My research looks at the architecture of the sites (how they were built), any dates which have been extracted through radiocarbon dating, if charcoal has been found, and how the sites sit in the landscape, using visibility analysis.

First though- back to basics.

What are hillforts? Generally, these are huge monuments, made of large banks and ditches enclosing an area around a hilltop. Some of these banks and ditches (ramparts), from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the bank can reach up to 30 feet- and that’s after a couple of thousand years of erosion! Many enclose a huge area too- one of my favourite hillforts, Penycloddiau on a range of hills between Denbigh and Mold in north east Wales, is around a mile in circumference- it’s half a mile to walk from the entrance to the other side!

This particular hillfort is being excavated as I type by Liverpool University and two open days will be held for visitors to tour and explore the site and the dig this Saturday 25th July and on Saturday August 8th. This additional archaeological research into the site, which sits prominently on the Clwydian Range of hills, is already adding a number of stories (and revealing yet more questions) about the elusive ancient monument. Visitors are invited to meet at Coed Llangwyfan car park at 10am for a guided walk up to the excavations as part of the Clwydian Range & Dee Valley AONB’s (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) 30th anniversary. You can also follow them on Twitter by using hashtag #PyC15 and @UoLAFS

On a neighbouring hillfort (you can wave at each other from each site), Oxford University return to excavate Moel y Gaer Bodfari, a smaller but intriguing privately owned hillfort, just to the north. Sadly, I haven’t been able to join them to dig this year due to work commitments, but last year we excavated a section of rampart which revealed a number of phases of the site previously lying unknown under the soil. Additionally, a magnificent roundhouse overlooking the entranceway was explored and a gorgeous spindle-whorl found. Oxford have also done some really spectacular research using archaeological survey and geophysics, such as Lidar, Magnetronomy and ground penetrating radar. If you want to find out more about Moel y Gaer, Bodfari, Oxford University are holding an open day on Sunday 26th July, providing exclusive access to the privately owned site. Visitors are invited to drop in between 11am and 3pm and can also follow activity digitally on twitter by using hashtag #BOD15

And as for me? Right now I am pulling in information from these two sites and tens of others to try to piece together some of the elusive hillfort jigsaw. A jigsaw where many of the pieces are missing and lost for eternity. You can follow my plight and other archaeological antics (twinned with crazy cat lady photos a-plenty) on twitter @ErinHillforts and on my website IDigArchaeology.co.uk. I hope that by strategic research and emerging archaeological techniques, alongside a thirst for knowledge, a passion for the sites and a stubbornness to match, I will be able to tell you a lot more this time next year, at Day of Archaeology 2016. Watch this space.

And visit a hillfort.

Unfinished Business…

Fridays are usually my favourite day of the week, apart from the weekend of course, because on a Friday I get to spend the whole day reading and writing about hillforts and playing with maps. Today, however, this has to be put on hold for a couple of hours as I have unfinished business… (more…)