A small archaeological partnership based in southwest Wales

Sunny Shropshire

After a busy week, the Day of Archaeology 2017 is a quiet day, staying out of the rain and catching up on post and emails. The past four days have seen us in Shropshire undertaking an evaluation excavation on a farm. A proposed new poultry unit would occupy land where a cropmark viewed on aerial photographs suggests there might be a prehistoric or later enclosure. The geophysics also looked promising.

Three-and-a-bit days of scrabbling in glacial gravels and sands followed. A few hours of heavy rain on the third morning mercifully turned the light brown dust that formed the surface of all our evaluation trenches into a limited range of brown shades. This was enough to identify the line of an enclosing ditch, which had already shown up on the geophysical survey and as a cropmark, but was proving elusive in our evaluation trenches. Hand-digging this feature produced a sheep’s tooth and a much corroded piece of metal which looked like it might be a very old nail… enough to prove the existence of the ditch. As for the other features, they all tallied with modern groundworks and geological features. It looks like Shropshire just lost an Iron Age enclosure and gained an “Unknown” heritage asset.

Although the archaeology proved to be a bit of a let down, the highs of the week included working in a field set in a particularly beautiful part of England. The Wrekin hill rose nearby and we even managed a quick visit to Wroxeter to look at the Roman remains. The lovely mansion near our little site was rescued by its present owners in the 1960s from an American owner who, having finished using the place, was laying plans to dynamite the entire building to infill a nearby lake! Shropshire, we discover on every visit, is packed with varied and fascinating archaeological remains and historical surprises.

So Day of Archaeology 2017 finds us back in our offices, reflecting on the week that has past and the real meaning of the evidence we have collected. Having been out all week, there are emails to catch up with, other projects to think about. There is also the need to unpack field kit, wash our dusty work clothes and dub our dusty boots, ready for next time. And all the while, the July rain beats on our windows and we thank our lucky stars that we had a few dry days to do what we had to do this week. Archaeology is much better when savoured in dry weather, with the occasional shower to help out!

(Photograph below: Happiness is a set of straight evaluation trenches).

Rainy day

Day of Archaeology 2015 begins slowly. Yesterday we spent all day in the sunshine, completing the site plan of a curious series of irregular pits, packed with burnt grain, charcoal and heat-shattered stones. These are evidently medieval, on the grounds that a single medieval pottery sherd was found in the mix! Explaining why the pits are where they are and what exactly was going on may prove more difficult. We have bulk samples for study and charcoal to radiocarbon date. This will take time to unpick.

No outdoor activity today whatsoever. Its raining steadily. So a day in front of computers it will be. We have several assessments to undertake for single, on-farm, wind turbines. We also have a trip to plan for next week, up to Shropshire, to dig some evaluation trenches on anomalies picked up by a geophysical survey on the proposed site of a small solar farm.

2015, like 2014, is largely about renewable energy projects. Now the British government seems determined to roll back the progress made by the renewable sector. This bizarre development may well impact upon the archaeology sector, as many firms undertake work associated with renewable energy developments. This comes on top of the threat to take brownfield sites out of the planning system in England. Even here in West Wales we sense that the cold winds of austerity are starting to blow through the world of the archaeologist. So Day of Archaeology 2015 comes at a time when the future for our sector is somewhat clouded by uncertainty. But we plod on…

Hasta Mañana

This year’s Day of Archaeology was the end of a busy week for Trysor. We are a partnership of two archaeologists based in southwest-Wales and are used to having to cover all bases between ourselves.  The day began with an early trip to western Pembrokeshire to attend a planning enquiry relating to a wind turbine appeal, convening at 9.15am.  We were there to give specialist evidence on behalf of the appellant.  The historic environment seems likely to be a key issue in determining the appeal, so it became apparent that it was to be discussed next week. This would give Cadw time to respond to our report on the issue of impact on Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

By 10.30am we were told that we would not be needed until a site visit being organised next week, when we would hopefully be able to have a constructive debate with a representative from Cadw.

This was an unexpected development, but it gave us a wonderful opportunity to do some much-needed CPD.  Having sat in the enquiry all day the previous day, listening to planning and landscape experts talk about the visual impact of the turbines on various landscapes, we seized this chance to go out and see for ourselves what their comments meant on the ground.  This meant a trip out to Strumble Head and Mathry village, on the west coast.  We rushed to visit key viewpoints along a section of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, near Pwllderi.  Here we also saw the clifftop memorial to the poet Dewi Emrys, which includes a few lines of his poem “Pwllderi” (in the Pembrokeshire dialect of Welsh);

A thina’r meddilie sy’n dwad ichi

Pan foch chi’n ishte uwchben Pwllderi”

These are the thoughts that come to you

When you sit above Pwllderi”

This was preferable to sitting in an enquiry, truth be told, as it was a hot, sunny, summer’s day.  We were aware that we needed that strenuous walk in the sun, as we are soon to return to Snowdonia to continue an extensive upland survey project we are carrying out as part of the RCAHMWs Uplands Initiative project. The exercise would certainly do us some good.

Having gained a useful insight into the minds of landscape specialists, and fitted in an extra visit to the Scheduled Ancient Monuments which are at the heart of the debate at the enquiry (no slacking there!), we had to travel eastwards again.  We had made daily visits during the week to a solar farm under construction in eastern Carmarthenshire, where we were undertaking a watching brief.  This site was staffed by a veritable League of Nations; Chinese, German, Spanish, Italian and Welsh teams tackling separate parts of the project, co-ordinated by a cheerful group of Irishmen, who kept everything proceeding in an orderly fashion, despite the lack of a common language for most of the workers.

Our job was a simple one – to carry out a watching brief along several hundred metres of the main cable trench.  It turned out to be archaeologically sterile ground, and our most difficult task was trying to work out when the friendly Spanish contractors would cut the next section of trench.  “Mañana” was the usual answer – the one word we actually did understand, although a mutually developed sign-language proved exceptionally useful too.  The Spaniards were wonderfully efficient workers, carrying out a technically difficult job, but opening the main trench was low on their list of daily priorities.  Five visits during the week saw the job completed and we could sign off our contribution to the project as the multi-national taskforce departed the site, as evening fell, with shouts of “whisky” and “cervezas” ringing in our ears.

The week was certainly winding down, but ended on an unexpected high note.  A potential client got back to us to confirm that our services would be required to undertake an archaeological assessment for a proposed wind turbine site in Lancashire.  This brought us some satisfaction.  Trysor was 10 years old in April, 2014 and this will be our first contract outside Wales.  All in all, our Day of Archaeology was a very pleasant one.