Wales

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.

Archaeology and Family Life – The Joy of the Summer Holidays!

As you may have guessed from the fact that my Day of Archaeology post is a day late, my Day of Archaeology was pretty chaotic and to be honest I had completely forgotten it was the day for the blogs!

I work in the commercial archaeology sector in the UK, and things are far less glamourous than the view which many have of us sweeping away with a delicate brush in a far flung exotic location! This week, and for the next few months at least, it is very unlikely that I will be doing anything at all which is site based. I am working my way through a pile of illustrations and the desk based elements of a number of projects – whilst trying to balance being self-employed with family life. Family life at this time of year (those lovely, long summer holidays) is predominantly concerned with childcare – or perhaps more to the point arranging childcare!

To this end my day starts just after 9, having just dropped off the wee one in a sports club for the day. I make a cup of tea – because caffeine is pretty much what I run on, and check through my emails. I sort out a few queries and tenders before tackling the next childcare issue. My partner and I run an archaeological company together and share both work and childcare, and with the help of grandparents on both sides and some school/sports clubs we just about get by. Sometimes things don’t come together as hoped, and yesterday morning was on of those mornings! Checking through the jobs for upcoming week, I realised we had a day where both of us were at all day meetings on the same day in different places – so frantic checking with grandparents ensued! Luckily the wonderful Mamgu (granny for those not from South Wales) has come to the rescue and will be child-wrangling all next week so we can both work full time. So 2 weeks down and only 4 to go!!!

After the minor crisis has been solved it’s a day at the computer, digitising some building elevations for a Level 3 Building Recording which we have recently undertaken, followed by making a start on the phasing, analysis and building description. Lunch is eaten at my desk (which looks like a bomb has exploded near) as I have to knock off by 3 to pick up the little one from her club, and spending a few hours hanging out with her.

It feels a little odd thinking about the impact of the school holidays as our daughter turned 4 last week, and has only been at school for the mornings (9 – 12.30) since last September. I had not really though about how much we had both come to rely on that block of time to cram in as much work as possible before one or other (or a grandparent) would pick her up, (work would them more often than not resume for a few hours in the evening after she has gone to bed). Before this we used to split childcare between us with one or other out on site or working on desk based elements – and again this would result in a lot of work being done in the evenings after the little one is in bed. Hopefully this will get easier again when she goes full time in September, with the option of breakfast and after school clubs.

This post has veered somewhat off topic towards parenting as an archaeologist, but I am just going to run with it as it is something that we have only recently started to talk more seriously about in British archaeology. It has long been known that despite slightly more women entering archaeology in their early 20’s there is a large drop once women hit their 30’s and, although the reasons discussed are complex and there are a number of factors in play, parenthood is seen as the key reason behind this. For a large number of women working in archaeology is fundamentally incompatible with raising a family – particularly the field work element.

There has been a raise lately in the number of articles about women still digging whilst pregnant, including some which have been picked up by national papers like the Guardian which can only be positive, but for some reason most of these focus on pregnant academics who do one field season a few weeks long whilst visibly pregnant (usually somewhere hot and photogenic). The accompanying narrative is “women having it all” and “look I can still do things even though I’m pregnant” but they fail to look at how this differs from the experiences of those who work in the field day in day out through their entire pregnancy because it is their job. Things like how do you deal with morning sickness when people don’t know you’re pregnant and think you are hungover, avoiding areas where there are sheep, the fact that you have to go a bit easy on the lifting/barrows, sites with contaminants or the risk from needles, over zealous risk assessors who don’t bother to discuss things with you first or the opposite – people who refuse to make any concessions whatsoever because it is your choice to be at work and you’re being paid aren’t you (not all my experiences but drawn together from the experiences of female archaeologists). Then throw in short term contracts and the fear of being laid off/contract not renewed so to avoid maternity pay, the assumption that you will not be returning to work after having a baby or the fear of even telling your employer you are pregnant and things look much less rosy.

Even after listing these things when pregnant, it feels somewhat depressing to say that it is actually after you give birth that things get really difficult for women working in archaeology. For me I had an emergency cesarean so even had I wanted to go straight back into the field it would have been physically impossible – then there is breast feeding and simply not wanting to be separated from my child, childcare cost and, well you can see where this is going……

For me I was lucky in a way because although being self employed meant I wasn’t entitled to any maternity pay, it also meant I could work from home and set my hours around when the baby was asleep. As mentioned in a few other blogs, I used a sling to keep the baby close and she would happily sleep snuggled up to me whilst I was typing reports/drawing/washing finds. Her Dad did similar and apart from breast feeding (which he wasn’t much cop at) we could both share all baby related responsibilities, and we were both able to work full time for the first few months with relatively little adjustment. I know this is not the case for everyone – we were just very lucky that once we were out of hospital she was just a very healthy, very chilled baby.

Things got much more difficult as she got older and by the time she was a few months old the only time to both work was when she was asleep – which was getting less and less, but was still allowing us to do a reasonable amount of work. As she grew up things got harder to manage work wise as we had pretty had to resign ourselves to only one or other working at a time – partly because sharing childcare worked for us as a family but also because we simply could not afford to pay for childcare. Being self employed meant a massively fluctuating income so having large regular outgoings – especially as we would have to pay for childcare to keep the place whether we needed it or not, was simply not an option. Childcare costs are a massive issue for many families and although as a graduate profession archaeology is considered to be poorly paid there are many families worse off – but what these costs do mean is that as there are fewer (read very, very few) part time jobs in archaeology it is often not worth the family member earning the least to go to work. In my experience that family member is the archaeologist so we see an exodus from the profession.

Now I am going to digress further again here and talk about the difficulties faced by parents of young children when they are employed primarily or exclusively in fieldwork because again when archaeologist blog about having children in the field with them when they are digging these people are working on university or occasionally community excavations. There is no way whatsoever you could take a child to work on a commercial site – it is simply too dangerous so the pictures you see of children on sites are on open days not work days.

The way that commercial archaeology works in Britain (I am unsure about Northern Ireland as I have never worked there) is that although companies are based somewhere, most cover a massive geographical area and you can be called upon to work anywhere in the country with little or no notice. Away work is not great when you have a family as it is hard on everyone not to be there at night during the week, but even if there is work in the local area site hours which generally start at 8 am make getting childcare almost impossible, and if you can get it it is even more expensive. So basically it is virtually impossible to stay primarily in the field unless you have a partner who is able to take over all early morning childcare and drop off, and that your family is able to deal with the absence of a parent during the week – or sometimes for weeks on end if the site is a great distance from home and you simply cannot get back on weekends.

This is the reality faced by families of archaeologists and by parents who are archaeologists – some are able to make changes and stay in the profession but a lot are not. With the massive upcoming infrastructure projects like HS2 there is a shortage of archaeologists, and more worrying a major shortage of experienced archaeologists. We have a lot to do as we change and grow and it is worth reflecting that PPG 16 only came into being in 1990 and in effect the sector has largely grown from this. It is now time to reflect on how we got here, is it a good place and how do we move forward in a more inclusive way? Staff are going to get older and their family situations will change – can we really afford to shed staff in large numbers after they have worked for ten years or do we need to think how to retain them, and how to allow then to return to the profession after taking time out to have children? Do we want a profession where women are underrepresented at senior level? Can relatively small changes such as enabling parents with young children to work from home (obviously only applicable for non site based work!) and more part time options allow more parents, especially mothers, to keep their hand in and stay connected with their company? Change is needed and now would seem to be the time for it.

Finally I am also going to add in a cheeky plug for a Facebook page that I mange with two other archaeologists with kids (the lovely Vickki Hudson and Shelly Bull – one of whom took around a decade out of the field to raise and family and one who has been forced to leave the profession) called “Diggers with Kids”. It is a group founded because of the need to talk to other parents in similar situations and to support each other as much as we can. Archaeologists with children can feel very isolated because so many of our contemporaries have left the profession or conversely the archaeologist may have left and is feeling left behind and frustrated. Since it was launched a few months ago it has grown to 240 members so if you have recognised your situation in any of the post above or if you are interested in the issues raised then please join us. P.S although we originally started off as “Diggers with Kids” we have recently added the tagline “for parents working in archaeology and heritage” as it is not a group exclusive to digging staff!

Marvellous medieval tiles-public engagement at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales

There really is no such thing as a typical day in my role as curator of Medieval and Later Archaeology. Recent days have involved dealing with treasure items, answering public enquiries about our medieval collections and sorting out a massive post-medieval pottery assemblage from the Herefordshire/Monmouthshire border, a project I’ve recently worked on with a brilliant bunch of Cardiff University archaeology undergraduates.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the Day of Archaeology falls during the Festival of Archaeology, and if you work in museums then the FoA is always an important date in the calendar! This year we have held a variety of events, celebrating archaeology at AC-NMW, such as behind the scenes tours exploring the hidden depths of the museum, talks on the Saving Treasures project (https://museum.wales/portable-antiquities-scheme-in-wales-saving-treasures-telling-stories/) as well as a (plastic) skeleton-sorting exercise! Fortuitously, my event happened to fall on the Day of Archaeology.

I like a challenge, and being a fan of all things medieval I wanted to design an activity that would make medieval floor tiles as exciting to everyone else as they are to me.  But could it be done??

So, this is what I did. I took the design from a set of fourteenth-century tiles from Neath Abbey (the tiles depict a hunting scene-see below), asked our illustrator Tony Daly to trace the outline design and blow up the image to make a giant tile puzzle. These ’tiles’ were printed onto paper, cut up into small squares where participants were asked to colour them  however they liked.

Ably assisted by Joel Curzon, a Cardiff University undergraduate we drew in a crowd of budding medieval artists to help complete our puzzle. Whilst we didn’t quite manage to complete the entire set by the end of the event, we certainly had quality over quantity in terms of colour and patterns used. Here is the final result.

The colouring element was really great fun but the best thing for me was the wide-ranging interest shown in these small but beautiful objects, in particular the meanings behind the motifs used on different medieval tiles. One of my most enthusiastic participants, a six year old girl who completed a couple of the tile pieces, quizzed me on the hunting scene and  was amazed by how dogs were used in the past. She didn’t reckon her pet dog would have much luck against a deer. Perhaps I achieved my objective after all.

 

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!

 

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.

 

From Housing to History & Archaeology

Posted on behalf of Jonathan Howells, Department Administrator for Department of History & Archaeology, Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales

I am no archaeologist. Before working for the museum my idea of an archaeologist was vague and mostly gathered from watching Lucas’ Indiana Jones films.

Therefore, this blog can only highlight my experience since joining the History and Archaeology department at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales as their administrator; covering Cardiff Museum and St Fagans National Museum of History.

How did I come to be at the museum? Well, I was sadly made redundant from my previous position working for the national representative voice for tenants in Wales. Finding a suitable position or any work for that matter was difficult (especially in the Valleys). Thankfully after signing up to an agency, they managed to find me the right kind of work and more importantly with the best kind of people – and the rest is history!

Like going into any new working environment, it was a bit daunting at first, but the people were very welcoming and wouldn’t mind sharing their knowledge and past stories over a cup of filtered coffee.

Apart from administration I’ve been involved in a few archaeology-related activities, for example; I assisted with the cross-departmental Discovery Day that was based on the theme Colour, which was filled full of family-friendly activities, visitors were able to learn about the objects that were exhibited (including the impressive Treasure 20 display) and to take tours of the Collections with the curators.

One of the hidden gems that I’ve found at National Museum Cardiff is Clwb Pontio, an hourly break-time session that encourages staff, those who are Welsh learners and fluent speakers, to come together and converse in Welsh. It mostly starts and ends up with a game of Welsh scrabble (just to let you know, I’m bad at scrabble in any language!). I mainly go to enjoy the company of colleagues and it gives me a chance to find out who they are and what it is they do.

I’ve treasured my experience at the museum. It has facilitated in the development of my work skills and rekindled my interest regarding the history of the land of my fathers and even kept me from “abandoning” my mother-tongue – Nefoedd Wen!

Not only is the museum “Making History” but it has added a vital layer to the forging of my future, creating a solid cast for my career by providing me with further prospects.

I can honestly say Diolch o’r gallon.

An Archaeological Curator’s Day

This post has been published on behalf of Adam Gwilt, Principal Curator of Prehistory at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales.

Hello, on this Day of Archaeology!

My name is Adam Gwilt and I am an archaeologist and curator based at the National Museum Cardiff, also working across our other museum sites. I am the person responsible for looking after and developing the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age collections at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, on behalf of the people of Wales and beyond. I trained in archaeology at the University of Durham, also building up my fieldwork experience and interests in material culture research, before coming to this job.

Me working on a Bronze Age hoard

My normal day at work will be very varied, juggling a range of different commitments and making sure that others around me can also do their jobs. My work can range from collections based tasks and research; to dealing with public and research enquiries; being involved with museum redevelopment projects, exhibitions and loans; developing partnership projects; handling media interest on relevant archaeological topics; engaging with community groups; supporting learning projects and the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales.

Detailed recording of objects is essential

One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is getting to work on new treasure discoveries made in Wales. My role involves writing reports on cases of prehistoric treasure finds for coroners, also working with colleagues to make sure that the reporting process runs smoothly in Wales. At the moment, I am reporting on a Late Bronze Age hoard of weapons and tools, recently discovered in Monmouthshire. Luckily, we were able to undertake a small archaeological excavation at the find-spot, in order to help tell the story of how and why this hoard was buried nearly 3,000 years ago.

Amongst my other roles, I am a Co-Project Manager of the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme; co-author involved in preparing a final publication on our research and community excavation of an Iron Age feasting site at Llanmaes, Vale of Glamorgan and contributing expertise within two of our major museum redevelopment projects at the St Fagans: National Museum of History and the National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon.

 

A Welsh version of this post is in preparation.

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.

Materials as Media @ Bryn Celli Ddu

Today, I’ve been working on a journal article about our public archaeology project which takes place at and around Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey each June. Bryn Celli Ddu is a Neolithic passage tomb, and is a unique site in Wales – as the passage is aligned to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. As the sun rises on this morning, a beam of light is cast down the narrow entrance lighting the chamber within.

Our project has developed around this moment in time, and over time, a collection of archaeologists, photographers, digital artists, storytellers and puppeteers have been brought together over the last two years to excavate and work in the landscape around Bryn Celli Ddu.

What we’ve discovered is that Bryn Celli Ddu does not sit in isolation, but is rather the centre of a complex multi-period landscape. This includes a series of late Neolithic/early Bronze Age rock art panels, eight of which have now been identified and recorded, probably at least two late Neolithic/early Bronze Age cairns in close proximity to the central passage tomb, several standing stones some of which are prehistoric, an early Neolithic causewayed enclosure, and a series of Iron Age hut platforms.

As an important early prehistoric landscape Bryn Celli Ddu attracts significant public interest; over 10,000 people visited the passage tomb in 2015, and the site is the focus of an active and engaged druid community including local Anglesey Druid Order members and people who travel significant distances to be present. At our open days over the last two years we have had 1,316 counted visitors, with additional school and sixth form college visits in both years.

A major element of our work has been to work alongside artists, and to use artistic processes ourselves, and to reflect on the archaeology from various standpoints.

Archaeologists have become geologists, discovering colourful materials such as the golden mica from the excavated test pits between the main passage tomb and the large rock art outcrop. At the time of Bryn Celli Ddu’s use, this stream would have been filled with this shimmering mica, iridescent, and sparkling in the light.

In the case of the rock art panels, executed on mica-rich blue schist, the material properties of the landscape were highlighted in another manner.  Experimental rock art production has demonstrated the difference in colour saturation between the freshly executed motifs and the relatively rapid weathering of these marks.

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We have also been inspired by the use of quartz in the construction of Bryn Celli Ddu, and later of the Bronze Age cairn discovered in this seasons excavation. Quartz and it’s turbolumiecent qualities were experimented with inside the chamber at Bryn Celli Ddu, creating these sparks of red, flashing in the darkness and producing a very memorable smell in the process.

All this information has been taken and linked back to the archaeology, the archaeology we excavate during our seasons of work, but also to those materials already in the stores at the National Museum back in Cardiff, including jasper and quartz pebbles – alongside the more characteristic flint tools.

What’s clear is that the Neolithic was far from dull, and the more we discover around Bryn Celli Ddu, the more we realise that the landscape is and was full of colour. Full of surprising performative, moving materials. Materials as media. Materials as moments.