water systems

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.



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.

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.