I am currently studying for a MA in Regional history at the University of Wales Newport, Caerleon campus. My dissertation will focus on the Cistercian water management linked to Llantarnam Abbey that is situated in south east Cwmbran. My Day of Archaeology will focus on one aspect of that.

Llantarnam Abbey (one for the students)

D’ya know, I should never be surprised anymore?

This is the third year of The Day of Archaeology and each year I actually blog on what I do for the day – on that particular day. I don’t explain my work in a museum, explain my past or most recent archaeological research, nor do I blog my perception on what this day is actually about. All I know is  The Day of Archaeology is about our heritage, it is a shared thing world wide, and one that we can all grasp in one way or another. And it is important for various reasons that not need to be explained here.

For the last four years I have undertaken a landscape study of a Cistercian Abbey in south east Wales. The abbey has an interesting ‘historical identity’ that is latched onto by some in academia and the public alike. It was small, skint and had no  real impact on its surrounding landscape. It can be waved away with a flutter  of the archaeological hand coupled with a muttering of  ‘So what? It is Llantarnam’. It does not help that the grounds of the abbey happened to end up within the boundary of  a post WWII New-town where every thing had to be ‘new’. No watching briefs, no excavations and the general dearth of historical research was sadly wanton. The lack of serious investigation into its archaeological value should be a wake up to us all.

Instead of embroiling myself into the political crapness that is archaeology in the Eastern Valley in Torfaen (Gwent or Monmouthshire in old speak), let us have a look at what that particular order is renowned for within their immediate land holdings. It is water management.

Now that is boring to a lot of people but there is no need for such disdain. If you follow the systems, you find archaeological remains. It is a simple concept. And I don’t mean walking on banks next to, or along,  leats, streams or rivers either. The world, and his archaeological brother and sister, has done that already. If you want to investigate water systems, the best way to do that is actually get in the systems and walk down (or up) them. It is then, and only then, that you can visibly investigate and find some serious archaeological remains.

Last summer was earmarked for the recording of such findings. It didn’t happen due to a few broken and dislocated bones. This year it has happened, and I am quite happy to admit my pleasant surprise at what has been uncovered. What you are about to see is why I have no more surprise while doing this stuff. It is all rather big.

You can go from this:-

To this:-

 

A cleaned feature

And that is quite exciting when you consider nothing has been recorded in this particular landscape.

For The Day of Archaeology  2013 I looked at this feature which I thought was small (again), much to my incompetent (still) thought. It is a sluice gate within the grounds of Llantarnam Abbey.

Again, you can go from this:-

To this:-

I consider this sort of investigation to be of a semi-invasive nature. Without doubt the remains that are visible are multi-period and only a serious, long term, archaeological investigation will let us all understand the exact nature of the remains. Cistercian water management appears to get a bad press from many areas. There is no need for that whatsoever. When you understand these old systems, it can lead to solving many flooding problems that cause so much heartbreak today. As they are no longer managed, they flood in a considerable manner. This is a school route next to a mismanaged historical water system.

 

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For my last note, I have to point out to everybody the health and safety aspect of this sort of study, it is very dangerous. Many historical water systems are still in use today. Storm water, street drainage and road run off are directed into current systems that had a successful, but managed use, many years ago.

You really do not want to get caught up in this sort of stuff. Be careful people, be careful…

 

David Standing.

University of South Wales – Caerleon Campus.

Experiencing Volunteering on Community Archaeology Projects

In 2011 I gave up nearly two months of my life on three large community excavations. For free. Zilch. Nowt. Nothing. In fact it has actually cost me a lot of money to be involved. I often get asked why. Before I get the chance to answer, the interrogator normally smiles while pipeing up their own pre-conceived thought on the matter. It goes along the lines of, “Ah, you love doing that stuff don’t you?”

They are right of course, I do enjoy it, I would not do it otherwise. But there is another reason behind my apparent madness. I am a student at the University of Wales Newport Caerleon campus. I am studying for a MA in Regional History and a lot of the course is based on historical landscape interpretation. Quite simply, it is landscape archaeology in another guise. And I enjoy it, immensely. The reasons behind this are multiple. For starters the study is non-invasive, as such no archaeology is destroyed; it is cheap –  it costs me nothing to walk for hours using my eyes while taking notes and photographs; it is important to me that every available means of non invasive information is gleaned from my site of study prior to any possible excavation; lastly, and not by any means should this be last on my list, I have been blessed with tutors who have an active interest in my chosen area of study. That is probably the most important cog behind this. The advice and guidance is, quite simply, second to none.

That is why I volunteer on excavation projects! If my non invasive study is successful, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be, then the next logical step is to put together an achievable excavation strategy. And it excites me.

The first community project I was involved with in 2011 was the Caerleon ‘Lost City Excavations’ which strangely enough, were in Caerleon. The excavations came about through a geophysical survey undertaken as part of their studies. Led by Dr Pete Guest of the Cardiff School of History Archaeology and Religion, based within Cardiff University. I probably gained more experience from that excavation than any other. It was invaluable.

The recently discovered port wall on the banks of the river Usk, Caerleon.

Next up was a CADW organised excavation at Tinkinswood in Glamorgan. This lasted for two weeks. Yet again, I was fortunate to glean a lot of information on how a community excavation should be run. The site held this amazing atmospheric feel that made you tingle at times. It is hard to put a reason behind this, but it did. It is an Early Neolithic structure and it is pleasing to announce that all of the questions behind the reasons for excavation were more or less answered. Seeing as the first excavations were carried out there in the early 20C, the incredible amount of finds indicates that there should be no reason to excavate further for some considerable time to come. One of the best things things about this excavation came about through the late winter sunsets that we had chance to witness.

A setting sun at Tinkinswood. It really was a magical setting.

The last community excavation I was involved in was St Lythans. Quite lterally, just down the road from Tinkinswood. Another Neolithic structure, this site had not been excavated before. Once again, I was fortunate to learn from the role of a volunteer looking in towards how the site was run. Towards the end of the excavation I was negated to open a trench away from the main investigation. It was wet, cold and uncomfortable, but Tom and I just got on with it, while listening to the squeals of delight while the other volunteers excavated finds near to the structure.

I am on the left of the picture as you look at it. Sometimes it is just better to get on with what you are asked to do…

So, what has this got to do with the Day of Archaeology 2012? Quite simply I always keep a photographic diary of my exploits, as such I was able to deliver a talk this afternoon on volunteering in the archaeological sector at Pontypool Museum. I did not beat around the bush and it went down well.

 

Good luck everybody, I hope you enjoyed my blog.

 

David Standing.

Medieval water management, some experimental archaeology Part II – What happened?

Well, what a day!

I am aching, my hands are full of cuts & splinters and my body has practically seized up. Wading through 100’s of metres of water that is over two feet deep does that to you at my age. I enjoyed it though. The experimental side of things was just that, experimental. Not all is lost though, the lessons learned are that I either get the fire brigade or Territorial Army in to supply me with a serious body of water, or, I wait until the rainy season in Wales (this could be at anytime of the year) and use the drain tracing dye then.

When the soil has been battered by relentless rain I have witnessed the water systems working in full flow. The water erodes any soil build over the dams drain outlet and literally pours straight down it. As you can see from the film, we had to spray the water directly onto the soil hoping that the tracing dye would not be filtered out. As it was the ground was that dry, and the system that long, that nothing came through. Of course, my theory of the dam and drain being of one system could be incorrect but future experiments will prove that either way.  Many thanks go to Neil of  WelshDrainage who not only provided the water for the experiment but also provided the drain dye free of charge. More people running business’ like that are worth their weight in gold to people like us. You can see a very short video of what we did here. That has been edited right down but we will produce a more polished effort when the time is right and we have more time to organise things.

WelshDrainage. What a service in the name of experimental archaeology!

WelshDrainage. What a service in the name of experimental archaeology!

The cleaning of the possible wharf  went well and it sprang up a few surprises. I had only seen it once or twice before and that was at a distance, but as I approached it I realised that it was a larger than I had previously thought.

As you can see, there was a lot of vegetation to clear

The Sisters at the Abbey had kindly invited me for lunch but after lunch at the abbey the only thing you really want to do is sleep. I had around one and half hours to get as much cleared as possible.

The size of the remaining structure really started to show just before lunch

After fish for lunch (well it was a Friday) I started clearing the remaining vegetation which thankfully was mainly ivy rather than brambles, thorns and stinging nettles.  After I had cleared it all away it was possible to start getting some dimensions. Its length was just over fifteen metres with a height of one point eight metres. Interestingly the walls were constructed so they curved back into the banks at either end, probably to enable  the bank to take weight and also to stop the structure being washed away. They also curved towards the bank away from the perpendicular. This feature may have been incorporated to  make berthing easier. It is the direct opposite shape of a curved  hull.

The structure curving away from the perpendicular

That was not all. Spending the amount of time that I had in this area gave me the opportunity to take a good look at the surrounding landscape. As you may have noticed in the above picture the bottom of the Dowlais Brook also contained surviving masonry. Not only that I had noticed that there were walls buried on  the opposite bank. So I cleared all of the vegetation away to get a better view.

Directly opposite the large visible structure, more clues started to appear

I think I shall leave it at that for now. Obviously I have a lot more investigation to carry out and that is on this one structure alone. The day was a success in that I now have more information to work with. What I have suggested may change in time as more and more evidence comes to light although at least I have enabled myself to tighten my research for a  comparable Cistercian structure.

Introduction: Medieval water management, some experimental archaeology

It is only the 20th of July as I write this introduction. I have recently signed up for the Council for British Archaeology ‘Day of Archaeology’ and I have not got long to organise things. The big question I had was ‘what to do’? As there are umpteen things on my list of things to do,  I could have chosen any one of them to promote on the day itself. Did I want to excavate? No, not really. The time and effort, not least the organising, involved in that would have been to much at such short notice. But, I do not like to have things to easy, achievable yes, easy no. So this is what I have started to organise for the day itself.

The Welsh Cistercian abbey of Llantarnam was  founded in or around 1179 and it lasted until the dissolution. It is thought that none of the original building survives and like so many other abbeys that share that distinction, it has not really been investigated with a keen eye, until now. Within its outer precinct (although that is a subject of debate) it possesses  the remains of some remarkable water management systems that the Cistercian monks are renowned for. The hydraulic systems extended far and wide beyond the outer precinct but, as they enter the grounds of the abbey, the management of water becomes almost microscopic. It is two of these features that I would like to investigate for The Day of Archaeology.

There are, of course, many leats feeding the whole system: Existing features include two dams with a drainage system attached to one of them, weirs that contain evidence for sluice gates, the remains of a medieval bridge that not only has evidence for sluice gates, one of them is till intact and working. There is a fishpond weir,  possible wharf, a culvert built over one of the mill tail races and a sluice gate built into the same. It is, quite literally, jam packed with archaeological features although it has to be noted that the largest construction project appears to be the canalisation of the Dowlais Brook.

Long, straight sections of rivers and brooks can indicate archaeological interference

The Dowlais Brook: Long, straight sections of rivers and brooks can indicate archaeological interference.

It is the possible wharf and drainage system attached to the dam that I am going to concentrate on though. And it has taken some arranging. Amazingly,the weather hasn’t seen the need to rain heavily for some time now in South East Wales and this presents me with a problem. If I want to trace a drainage system from a medieval dam to its outlet how do I attempt that without any water? I had two options, I could either ask the fire brigade to flood the system with water, or ask somebody who specialises in drains (that they would use to flush out blocked drains during their course of work)
and carries a supply of water with them to do the same. I asked both and recieved a positive reply from the latter.

The next problem I thought of, as I was probably going to be on my own for the day, was how to record the drain trace? As I study at the University of Wales Newport, Caerleon Campus I thought I would ask for a favour to be returned from some of their film students. Hopefully they will be there to record the experiment, if not I will have to record it with photographs. Either way it should not be a problem.

The dam nestles quite nicely next to the Magna Porta - The Great Gate

There are two leat systems feeding it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The outlet is interesting. After heavy rain it appears to be  in good working order – or is it?

Showing the construction of the drain outlet

Showing the construction of the drain outlet

Buried deep in woodland, this drain outlet still carries water during heavy periods of rain

Buried deep in woodland, this drain outlet still carries water during heavy periods of rain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It should be interesting to see how all of this turns out. The drain outlet shown above is quite a way from the dam outlet and it feeds the Dowlais Brook.

The other feature I am hoping to investigate is a possible wharf. The canalisation the Dowlais makes navigation easier and if that is so whoever utilised it would have needed an area to berth their cargo.

A possible medieval wharf

It does not look much now but lets see if I can clean it up for some photographic recording

So people, here goes. Lets see if all of this turns out ok.

 

Good luck to all of you with whatever you do for The Day of Archaeology.

DS.