Amgueddfa Cymru

Diwrnod ym mywyd Curadur Archaeolegol

Cyhoeddwyd y blog hwn ar ran Adam Gwilt, Prif Guradur Archaeoleg Cynhanes, Amgueddfa Cymru.

Cyfarchion ar Ddiwrnod Archaeoleg!

Fy enw i yw Adam Gwilt ac rwy’n archaeolegydd a churadur. Mae fy swyddfa yn Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd, ac rwy’n gweithio ar draws ein safleoedd eraill hefyd. Fi sy’n gyfrifol am ofalu a datblygu ein casgliadau Neolithig, Oes Efydd ac Oes Haearn yn Amgueddfa Cymru, ar ran pobl Cymru a thu hwnt. Astudiais Archaeoleg ym Mhrifysgol Durham, gan ennill profiad gwaith maes a diddordeb mewn ymchwilio i ddiwylliant materol, cyn cael y swydd hon.

Fi yn gweithio ar gelc Oes Efydd

Mae diwrnod arferol yn y gwaith yn amrywio’n fawr, gyda phob math o ddyletswyddau yn ogystal â gwneud yn siŵr bod eraill o fy nghwmpas yn gallu gwneud eu gwaith. Ymysg fy swyddogaethau mae tasgau ac ymchwil yn ymwneud â’r casgliadau; delio ag ymholiadau ymchwil a’r cyhoedd; datblygu projectau partneriaeth; delio â’r cyfryngau ar bynciau archaeolegol; ymgysylltu â grwpiau cymunedol; cefnogi projectau addysg a’r Cynllun Henebion Cludadwy yng Nghymru.

Rhaid cofnodi’r gwrthrychau yn fanwl

Un o’r pethau gorau am fy swydd yw cael gweithio ar ddarganfyddiadau trysor newydd yng Nghymru. Byddaf yn ysgrifennu adroddiadau i’r crwner ar ddarganfyddiadau trysor cynhanesyddol, gan gydweithio i sicrhau bod y broses adrodd yn rhedeg yn rhwydd yng Nghymru. Ar hyn o bryd, rwy’n creu adroddiad ar gelc o arfau o ddiwedd yr Oes Efydd, a ddarganfuwyd yn ddiweddar yn Sir Fynwy. Yn ffodus, roedd modd i ni wneud ychydig o waith cloddio archaeolegol ar y safle, i greu darlun llawnach a chael gwell syniad pam fod y celc wedi’i gladdu bron i 3,000 o flynyddoedd yn ôl.

Ymysg fy nyletswyddau eraill, rwy’n gyd-reolwr ar broject Hel Trysor; Hel Straeon, sy’n cael ei ariannu gan raglen Collecting Cultures Cronfa Dreftadaeth y Loteri; yn gydawdur ar gyhoeddiad ynglŷn â’n gwaith cloddio cymunedol ar safle Oes Haearn Llan-faes, Bro Morgannwg; ac rwy’n cyfrannu arbenigedd ar ddau broject ailddatblygu mawr yn Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru ac Amgueddfa Lleng Rufeinig Cymru, Caerllion.

Rare Books from the National Museum Wales Library

This post has been published on behalf of Kristine Chapman, Principal Librarian at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. 

Although I am not an archaeologist, I often work closely with staff in the Archaeology Department here at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, as I am the Museum Librarian.

The Main Library at Amgueddfa Cymru

The Museum Library was created right after the founding of the Museum in 1907. There was a Librarian in place before there was a Museum building, that’s how important it was to the first curators!

Much of my work consists of making sure staff have access to the resources they need. Most of the books that make up the Archaeology Library reside in the Archaeology Department, which means they are closer to people who need them. The walls of the curator’s offices are lined with books, and they consult them on a daily basis.

Amgueddfa Cymru’s collections of British Archaeological Reports (BARs)

However, we also have a number of rare books that are kept in the Main Library, a room originally built in the 1920s. Whenever we have Open Days, we get out a few examples to show visitors. A recent favourite was Nenia Britannica: or, a sepulchral history of Great Britain; from the earliest period to its general conversion to Christianity (1793) by Rev. James Douglas (1753-1819). Its popularity is due to the stunning aquatint illustrations that depict discoveries at barrow excavations.

Title page from Nenia Britannica (left) and Plate from Nenia Britannica showing a human skeleton in a grave (right)

When it was first published, Nenia Britannica was not that well received, it was considered too scientific. Later it was recognised as significant, because of the way Douglas systematically illustrated and recorded the artefacts.

Another favourite is Itinerarium Curiousum, or, an account of the antiquitys and remarkable curiositys in nature or art: observ’d in travels thro’ Great Brittan (1724), by William Stukeley (1687 – 1765). Stukeley recorded and collected objects, during journeys around England. Those observations formed the basis of this book.

Title page and frontispiece from Itinerarium Curiousum

Although not as well-known as his later publication on Stonehenge, it is important to us because it was donated by George Boon, who was a member of our Archaeology Department from 1957-87, first as Assistant Keeper, and then as Keeper.

Recently we have been taking a closer look at Mona Antiqua Restaurata: an archaeological discourse on the antiquities, natural and historical, of the Isle of Anglesey, the antient seat of the British Druids (1723) by Henry Rowlands (1655–1723) because the Eisteddfod will be in Anglesey this summer.

Title page from Mona Antiqua Restaurata

The author lived on Anglesey, and spent much of his time investigating nearby stone circles, and Prehistoric remains. His investigations led him to conclude that Anglesey (Mona) was the ancient centre of Druidic worship, and did much to popularise interest in Druid culture.

Image of a Druid from Mona Antiqua Restaurata

Over time some of his conclusions were shown to be inaccurate, but his descriptions and drawings of the sites of ancient monuments still hold merit, and we are looking forward to showcasing his image of a Druid at the Eisteddfod.

You can learn more about the work we do in the Library on the Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales blog, or you can follow us (@Amgueddfa_Lib) on Twitter.

Somewhere Between Social Media Officer and Archaeologist

Over a decade ago, I sat down to choose my A Levels. At the time, Hereford Sixth Form College was one of nine colleges in the country that offered Archaeology. Having always been interested in history and Time Team, this seemed like an interesting option. So I took it.

Little did I know that I was embarking on my future career that would take me all over the world, challenge the way I thought about people in the past (and people in the present!), set me on the path to becoming a Doctor, and lead me to…

A desk in Cardiff.

From PhD Student to Intern

Okay, so that might seem anticlimactic, but I am currently on an internship with the History and Archaeology department at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales, which is incredibly exciting. My role in the museum varies on an almost hourly basis, but my typical day can be broken down into a series of coffee breaks, intermitted with serious contemplations that I should tidy my desk.

My desk on a good day

Interestingly enough almost my entire day has been taken over by Day of Archaeology and/or Festival of British Archaeology. I foolishly suggested a couple of weeks ago that as a department, we should contribute something to Day of Archaeology to compliment the various activities we’ve had going on all week. This somewhat spiralled out of control as members of other departments, including botany, photography and natural sciences, all expressed interest in contributing a piece and soon I found myself coordinating about nine/ten different blog posts, including manipulating images and Welsh translations, while juggling three Twitter accounts simultaneously.

Perhaps at this point some might consider me more of a Social Media Officer than an Archaeologist! But communication of research and ongoing projects is increasingly becoming an essential part of what archaeology has to entail.

10.45am is coffee time as an essential standard, where people from different departments and specialisms come together to share their projects, expertise and general gossip. As it’s Festival of British Archaeology, mine was cut short to help with a Behind-the-Scenes talk by Dr. Elizabeth Walker and photograph activities in the main hall. I’ve been helping with various talks, walks and exhibits throughout this week, ranging from identifying Celtic coins to building skeletons in under three minutes; today it was extinct cave animals and Medieval tiles!

A Medieval Tile collage created by kids today

Engaging members of the public with extinct Palaeolithic cave animals (one Bronze Age auroch!)

In amongst the various blogging and tweeting, I spent my in-between time uploading Treasure Reports onto the PAS website and researching Early Bronze Age axeheads in preparation for a meeting I have at the start of next week. There’s nothing too exciting so far about this latter project, but my research will lead to an in-depth handling and analysis of the objects in question in order to understand more about what we can understand about Bronze Age society from these objects. This is essentially what archaeology is all about.

Studying Bronze Age flat axes

As I write this, my day is still not over. I currently sit crammed onto a Cross Country train on my journey home to Cornwall procrastinating from the PhD work I know I still have to do. So I will turn my attention from broken links to broken objects, from the Modern Age to the Bronze Age, and from objects databases to… well, different object databases.

Fortunately for me, every day is a Day of Archaeology – and I wouldn’t change that.

Diwrnod ym mywyd Archaeolegydd preswyl

Rydw i wedi bod ar leoliad gwaith gydag Amgueddfa Cymru yng Nghaerdydd am y ddau fis diwethaf. Roedd hyn yn rhannol fel profiad gwaith, ond hefyd yn saib o brysurdeb y cwrs PHD yn astudio metelwaith yr Oes Efydd.

Dechrau delfrydol i ddiwrnod cyffredin yn yr Amgueddfa – paned!

Does na ddim diwrnod cyffredin – un o’r pethau gwych am weithio fel archaeolegydd ac mewn amgueddfa yw gorfod ymateb i bethau wrth iddyn nhw ddigwydd! Yr wythnos diwethaf, roeddwn i’n ysgrifennu adroddiad ar gelc o’r Oes Efydd; ddoe roeddwn i’n pori drwy archif cloddfa anheddiad Canoloesol; heddiw rydw i’n gwneud gwaith ymgysylltu cyhoeddus a cyfryngau cymdeithasol ar gyfer yr adran Archaeoleg. Pwy a ŵyr beth fydda i’n ei wneud wythnos nesaf?!

Yr amrywiaeth yma oedd un o’r pethau a ddenodd fi at archaeoleg. Dim ond un elfen yw’r gwaith cloddio a darganfod pethau newydd. Mae gwaith ymchwil, dadansoddi, curadu, cadwraeth, darlunio, ymgysylltu a llawer mwy i’w wneud hefyd.

Fy nesg, a’r rhestr o brojectau i’w cyflawni

Mae fy nghyfnod yn yr Amgueddfa yn fy helpu i ddeall yr holl agweddau yma, ac rwy’n lwcus i weithio gyda phobl mor groesawgar gydag amrywiaeth o arbenigedd. Mae pob sgwrs yn gyfle i ddysgu, ac mae archaeoleg yn fy herio yn barhaus. O gywain basau data ar aur hynafol, i ludo crochenwaith at ei gilydd – mae fy niwrnod cyffredin wastad yn ddiddorol.

Rhai o’r deunyddiau yr ydw i wedi bod yn gweithio gyda nhw

Ac ar y nodyn hwnnw, mae’n rhaid i fi fynd i helpu gyda thaith tu ôl i’r llenni ar anifeiliaid darfodedig Cymru!

 

A Day in the Life of an Archaeology Intern

This post is also available in Welsh here.

For the last two months I’ve been on a placement with Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales in Cardiff. This has served partly as work experience, and partly as a break from my PhD avidly studying Bronze Age metalwork.

A typical day at the museum begins as any good day should: with a cup of tea!

There’s no one thing I do on a standard day – part of the beauty of working in archaeology and in a museum is that you have to respond to whatever is going on at that time! Last week I was writing up a report for a Bronze Age hoard, yesterday I sifted through an excavation archive for a Medieval settlement, today I’m focusing on public outreach and social media for the History and Archaeology department, and next week… who knows!

This eclectic mix is part of what drew me to archaeology. Digging and discovering new things is only one element of the story. Beyond that there’s research, analysis, curation, conservation, illustration, outreach, and so much more.

My list of ongoing projects sits proudly on my desk

My time at the museum is helping me understand all these different facets and I’m lucky to be working with such a great bunch of people with a range of specialisms. Every conversation is a learning opportunity, and archaeology constantly challenges me. So whether it’s compiling databases of ancient gold, or sticking pots back together, my average day is never dull.

Some of the material I’ve been working on

And on that note, I now have to go help out with a behind-the-scenes talk on extinct animals in Wales!

 

Contemplating and Communicating the Palaeolithic landscapes of Wales

This post has been published on behalf of Elizabeth Walker at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

I’m Elizabeth Walker, currently the Interim Head of Collections Management for Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. I’m an archaeologist by background specialising in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology of Wales. After a busy week attending meetings for the delivery of new displays at St Fagans National Museum of History, discussing the arrangements for bringing items in on loan and dealing with questions of collections management from all areas of the Museum I decided to have my own rare day of archaeology today.

So what have I been doing? The day began by planning a public behind the scenes store visit to see some of the remains from mammal species now extinct in Wales. As my bus brought me into Cardiff this morning I looked across at the city stretched ahead and I began to think how different the landscape of Wales was throughout the Palaeolithic. There were no roads or permanent settlements. People were mobile hunter-gatherers walking through their landscape, dependent upon the climate, the passing of animals and the fruits of the season for obtaining their food.

Reconstruction painting showing Cardiff as it might have looked 230,000 years ago

The Welsh caves have provided a wealth of evidence for Palaeolithic peoples’ lives and the Museum has been conducting excavations in caves to uncover and interpret them. Excavations have taken place at Pontnewydd Cave, Denbighshire where evolutionary early Neanderthal remains have been found associated with the bones and teeth of the animals that would have been around 230,000 years ago. These mammals include the cave bear, leopard, cave lion, narrow-nosed and Merck’s rhinoceros along with species still familiar to us today; horse, wolf, red deer, bison, voles and lemmings. On Gower, Bacon Hole has revealed evidence for straight-tusked elephants and hippopotamus during the last interglacial. A time when there were no people, as they didn’t get across the English Channel before Britain became an island.

A straight-tusked elephant tooth from Bacon Hole (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

As the last ice advance began to take hold the land-bridge reformed and people entered Wales. At caves including Paviland Cave and Cathole Cave, Gower, mammoth and woolly rhinoceros remains have been recovered from excavations, along with hyaena, reindeer, bison and other large mammals. As the last ice advance retreated people followed the herds of horse and deer back into Wales and Museum excavations at Hoyle’s Mouth and Little Hoyle, Tenby, have generated ample evidence of people’s cultural debris; stone tools, debitage from making stone tools, butchered and cut-marked animal bones discarded after their meals and after removal of the skins and other resources necessary to sustain human life. These help provide an insight into the lives of the people who once lived in Wales 10,000 and more years ago.

Adult and juvenile cave bear teeth from Pontnewydd and Paviland Caves (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

My behind the scenes tour this morning saw Museum visitors being excited at seeing a selection of these bones and teeth from the Museum collection close up. These mammal remains are kept in the Museum where anyone can arrange a visit to see them.

Photos from the Behind-the-Scenes tour

So after my day of archaeology what shall I do now? Despite the rain, rather than taking the bus I think I’ll spend the next few hours walking through Cardiff, across the Cardiff Bay Barrage and along the Wales coast path through Penarth on towards Barry. I’ll pass the findspot of the Lavernock Palaeolithic handaxe and I’ll think about the landscape and the mammals that once roamed South Wales and plan out my weekend gathering, picking some cultivated fruits. So in my own modern way I will continue some of the activities of the Palaeolithic people – but I’ll be wearing my technical waterproof clothing, rather than damp animal skins!

Lavernock Handaxe (c) Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

 

Harold Augustus Hyde’s Contribution to Welsh Archaeology

This post has been published on behalf of Heather Pardoe,  palynologist in the Botany Section, Department of Natural Sciences at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales.

Harold Augustus Hyde had a long and distinguished career at the National Museum of Wales. He was appointed Keeper of Botany in 1922 and he remained in this post until his retirement in 1962. He published more than 100 papers. Hyde collaborated with many of the leading archaeologists of the day working in Wales including Sir Cyril Fox, Aileen Fox, Grimes, Hemp and Williams. His research made a significant contribution to their discoveries.

National Museum of Wales Staff Outing 1925. The arrows indicate Sir Cyril Fox (back centre and Harold Hyde (front, right, reclining) (With thanks to Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales Library).

In the 1930’s and 1940’s Hyde worked with the Museum’s Director, Sir Cyril Fox and his second wife Aileen Fox. Hyde identified small fragments of charcoal found on archaeological excavations and this provided insights into the composition of the local vegetation at the time. In some cases his results provided vital clues for the rituals and other activities taking place at the site. For example, Savory (1950-1952) described a house foundation of Neolithic or Early Bronze Age from Mount Pleasant Farm, Pyle (only the second found in Wales) overlain by a Middle Bronze Age Cairn. Hyde examined charcoal from the site and found that the fragments from the Late Bronze Age central ritual deposit were all slow-grown ash. Hyde suggested that the ash may have been deliberately chosen and felled expressly for the pyre since ash burns so well. Hyde was clearly interested in the evidence that this site provided of locally growing ash in the Neolithic or early Bronze Age.

Hyde’s notes on charcoal from Mount Pleasant Farm

Hyde was one of Britain’s leading palynologists. He used pollen evidence to improve our understanding of the post-glacial vegetation history of Wales and to support the research of the archaeologists with whom he worked. For example, in the late 1930’s a cauldron and a sword were donated to the National Museum of Wales. They were recovered from a peaty mountain tarn at Llyn Fawr, Rhigos when the lake was drained to create a reservoir (Fox and Hyde, 1939). Hyde extracted pollen from a film of silty peat coating the objects. These peat brushings contained birch, oak alder, hazel heather and grass pollen. Hyde observed that “the pollen evidence …suggests that the articles composing the hoard were cast either into the lake or into this wet swampy bog.” The date of this event is uncertain.

Title page of Fox and Hyde (1939)

 

Cauldron from Llyn Fawr

 

Heather Pardoe is a palynologist in the Botany Section, Department of Natural Sciences at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. She is interested in the pollen-vegetation relationship, vegetation change during the Holocene and various aspects of the history of Botany. A detailed biography of Hyde is currently being prepared (Pardoe and Edwards, in prep.).

 

References

Fox, C and Hyde, H.A. (1939) A second cauldron and an iron sword from the Llyn Fawr Hoard, Rhigos, Glamorganshire. The Antiquaries Journal, 19 (4). 369- 404

Pardoe, H.S. and Edwards, K. (in prep) Harold Augustus Hyde: pioneering palynologist (provisional title)

Savory, H.N. 1950-1952. The excavation of a Neolithic Dwelling and a Bronze Age cairn at Mount Pleasant Farm, Nottage (Glam.) 75-91. Cardiff Naturalists’’ Society’s Reports and transactions 81, 75-92. Hyde, H.A. Appendix Report on charcoal from the excavations at Mount Pleasant Farm, Pyle, Glamorgan p91-2.

Photographing Archaeology

Here in the photography department at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales we look after images for all of the seven museum sites including the Archaeology department. That means taking new photographs of archaeological objects, and scanning historical photographs (e.g. prints and slides).

Here’s an example of how both are used.

Segontium Roman Fort, Caernarfon

These photos from the 1920s show the excavations at Segontium led by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the then Keeper of Archaeology and later Director of National Museum Wales. They were scanned from glass plates. Here’s a few of the 102 images from this collection:

Cellar in the Headquarters building (praetorium)

Headquarters building (praetorium) during excavations in the 1920s

Sir Mortimer Wheeler (left) showing visiting dignitaries around the site including Lady Lloyd George (front right)

The photographs may be of use to modern archaeologists interpreting the site, but personally I like spotting the shadow of the photographer and his tripod (we’ve all managed to do that haven’t we!) and checking out those fabulous 1920s hats!

Here’s where modern photography comes in. The following images were taken recently of objects from the 1920s excavations.

Flagon found at Segontium, but produced in Oxfordshire will be on display in the new galleries at St Fagans National Museum of History

The Goddess of war must have protected someone in their time of need, in return he vowed to dedicate to her an altar which was found in the strong room of the Headquarters building. It reads: To the goddess Minerva Aurelius Sabinianus, actarius, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.

The images are digitally archived so that they’re accessible for use in exhibitions, publications, presentations and online.

Some of the finds from Segontium will be on display in the new galleries at St Fagans National Museum of History opening in 2018.

You can see more historic photographs here.

You can find out more about Segontium Roman Fort by clicking here or by visiting the site.

We’re working hard getting our collections online so you can search our object database and see information and images of our collections for yourself.

 

The Saving Treasures; Telling Stories Project

Shwmae! I’m Rhianydd Biebrach, the Project Officer for the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories Project, which is an HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund) funded 5-year project based at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, in partnership with the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales (PAS Cymru) and the Welsh Federation of Museums and Art Galleries.

The Saving Treasures; Telling Stories Project Officer in her lavishly-appointed office.

The project is based around treasure and non-treasure objects found by members of the public, most of whom are metal detectorists. Our overarching aims are to enable Welsh museums to acquire metal-detected objects for their collections, and work with detector groups and local communities to engage with and enjoy the material heritage on their doorstep. It’s all about connecting people, objects and places.

The number of treasure finds reported in Wales is increasing year on year, with forty cases in 2016. While we don’t like to think of heritage in terms of its financial value, the stark fact remains that cash-strapped local museums, most of which have faced savage cuts to their budgets in the last few years, are relying on Saving Treasures funding to acquire these objects for the nation.

An early Tudor heart-shaped pendant, discovered in Fishguard and now in the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales.

We are also supporting local museums with training and advice on their archaeology collections, enabling them to get the most out of the objects in their care, whether they be Bronze Age axes, Roman coins, or medieval jewellery.

A large chunk of our funding is dedicated to the support of six Community Archaeology Projects, each of which will focus on a selection of objects acquired with Saving Treasures funds, drawing in the local community to take part in activities and generating a range of creative responses to the new collection.

A pair of Late Bronze Age Lock Rings from Rossett, now in the collections of Wrexham Museum.

Our first community project has been run by Swansea Museum. It’s based on a small collection of non-treasure finds, dating from the Bronze Age to the post-medieval period, found by a local detectorist on Swansea Bay. Using the objects as inspiration, Swansea Museum has spent the last year working with a diverse range of community groups, to produce artworks, creative writing and Roman costume, and to recreate a medieval pilgrimage, to name but a few. This output will be displayed alongside the objects themselves in a co-curated permanent exhibition.

Unwrapping a Bronze Age spearhead from Swansea Bay.

 

As I write, another community project is about to get underway at Wrexham Museum and Art Gallery, responding to a hoard of Wars of the Roses era gold and silver coins and a 15th century gold and sapphire ring. Hopefully, in next year’s Day of Archaeology blog I’ll be able to report on its successful activities and outcomes.

Examining the base of a 17th century wine bottle found on a beachcomb of Swansea Bay.

 

It’s great being the Saving Treasures Project Officer. Not having come from an archaeological background I’ve had to do some quick learning over the last year, but I love the direct connection with the past that the objects give me, and playing a tiny part in bringing it to life for new audiences.

Snails at Snail Cave, and elsewhere in Wales

This post has been published on behalf of Dr. Ben Rowson, Senior Curator: Mollusca at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.  

I am not an archaeologist. Instead, I am a specialist in non-marine molluscs (slugs and snails) at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff. Nonetheless I have the occasional privilege of working on molluscs from archaeological sites, and today is one of those “inter-disciplinary” days.

My usual role is to sort and identify any molluscs from the excavations (which can range from easy to very difficult) and to comment upon their possible significance. In this brief blog I can only give a flavour, but a great new book now exists for anyone keen to learn more (http://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/molluscs-in-archaeology.html).

There are three main roles of molluscs in archaeology. Two are as old as humanity itself.

Snail Cave, North Wales (photo by George Smith)

Firstly, food. Barring religious taboos, inexplicable cultural preferences, and indelible experiences of food poisoning, edible shellfish have been important since prehistory, as attested by shell middens at countless occupied sites. When archaeologists first excavated Snail Cave, a prehistoric rock shelter near Llandudno, North Wales, they found it dominated by shells of the edible winkle Littorina littorea and other edible rocky shore molluscs. Many of the shells were intact, suggesting that they were “winkled out” with an implement, something almost impossible without first cooking the snails. Seasonal shellfish harvesting was a likely function of the shelter, perhaps in the autumn. Did some Mesolithic months have an “r” in them too?!

The Mesolithic cowrie bead from Snail Cave

Snail Cave also yielded evidence of a second ancient use of molluscs: the manufacture of artefacts. A single perforated bead made from a shell of a northern cowrie Trivia cf. arctica was present in the deposits. This was only the second such bead yet found in Wales, probably dating to the Later Mesolithic age like others found the Britain and Atlantic Europe. The holes appear to have been pierced deliberately to string the bead. Cowrie beads, of course, can still be seen adorning necks, wrists or ankles in the seaside towns of Britain today. And cowries are catnip to shell collectors of all ages.

A snail community in situ, preserved in marl near Monmouth (photo by Stephen Clarke)

In south Wales, my young daughter and I find that Trivia is just rare enough to be worth hunting for, yet common enough to be confident of finding at least one during a summer’s day down the beach. Their eye-like shape gives them a mystic air; in Welsh they are the Cragen Fair (“Mary Shell”), perhaps denoting a more religious power; and in much of the world cowries were literally what wealth was made of. For me personally, there are few better examples of archaeology’s ability to connect us to the past than to imagine that prehistoric beachcomber, feeling just as I do when a cowrie winks up from the sand.

Another snail community characteristic of its habitat (in this case, sand dunes)

The third role of molluscs in archaeology requires shells not touched by human hand. Terrestrial molluscs – most of which are small – can live and die in tiny patches of the right habitat, yet their shells can persist for millennia. This can make them excellent indicators of past environmental conditions. The reconstructive use of land snails in archaeology was pioneered by John Gwynne “Snails” Evans (1941-2005), whose collection now resides at Amgueddfa Cymru. From time to time I have identified snails in the same vein, most recently from excavations near Monmouth, where a rich mollusc fauna thrived beside what is thought to have been a large post-glacial lake. Currently, I am working on material from far earlier in our prehistory – from hominin sites in Africa –– but that will merit a blog of its own another time.

I would like to thank Elizabeth Walker for introducing me to the work at Snail Cave and in Monmouth and Matt Knight for inviting me to contribute a DoA blog.