Amgueddfa Blog: Archaeology

Shwmae! My name is Adelle, and I’m a PhD student at Cardiff University studying Iron Age mortuary practice in southwest Britain. I’m going to tell you about my amazing experience and some things I learned volunteering as part of the excavation team of the now-famous Iron Age chariot burial in Pembrokeshire. I’ll start from the beginning…

I thought I’d gotten a nice tan during the initial excavation in 2018, but it was only dirt. *Sigh*

The Story

I received an email in the spring of 2018 inviting me to help with an excavation of what was thought to be an Iron Age hoard discovered in a farmer’s field somewhere in Pembrokeshire. I had dreamt of the day I’d get to excavate anything Iron Age, as my passion for Welsh prehistory inspired me to move from my home in rural Kentucky (USA) to study at Cardiff. I had no idea that this opportunity would lead to the most rewarding, enriching, and educational experiences of my life.

The dig site was in a beautiful field near the entrance to a spectacular Iron Age promontory fort that was previously unknown. The thought that there is still so much left to discover about the prehistory of Wales left me buzzing with inspiration and wonder. I had never been to this farm in Pembrokeshire but it somehow felt warm and familiar, like an old friend; it felt like coming home after a very long journey.

Left to right: Chariot burial volunteers Tiffany Treadway, Felicity Sage (Dyfed Archaeological Trust), Owen Lazzari, Adelle Bricking (me!), and Michael Legge enjoying the beautiful scenery and each other’s’ company after a long day of work.

 

 

The initial excavation was…hot, to put it mildly! The clay we were digging baked in the sun as temperatures climbed to 32 degrees. The archaeology didn’t quite make sense as we searched for the rest of the “hoard”. And then, Mark Lewis, the curator at the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon (and whom I am pretty sure is actually a Time Lord from Gallifrey), uncovered the top of a massive iron tyre. This was no hoard—it was a chariot burial. The first one found outside of Yorkshire and Edinburgh; here in Wales. The whole team stopped and gathered around the tyre. We stood there in silence in a mutual understanding that everything we thought we knew about the Iron Age in Wales was about to change. Some of us grabbed onto each other in fear of falling off the face of the earth as our worlds turned upside down! 

The excavation team gathered around the tyre in silent agreement that this is the coolest thing that any of us have ever experienced.

A chariot burial was beyond our timescale, and we needed the help of skilled conservators to ensure the survival of the 2,000 year-old metalwork. It was a long year until we were able to go back to uncover the chariot. With a bigger team, more time, more rainfall and more volunteers, we successfully uncovered the first chariot burial in Wales this spring. I sometimes go down to the Archaeology Conservation Laboratory at the National Museum Cardiff to say hello to the chariot pieces and wish them luck as they embark on their new journey towards restoration! Louise Mumford, our archaeological conservator, is like a wizard bringing ancient and long-forgotten objects back to their former glory.

What I Learned

I learned more about archaeology during that excavation than I ever could have imagined. The combined knowledge of these archaeologists that I have long admired was mind-boggling, and I tried my best to soak in every delicious morsel of free expertise. I had read some of their books; these men and women had been teaching me since before I left Kentucky. As we discussed practice during work and theory over dinner, I felt myself becoming much more confident as an archaeologist.

Some of the dig team from Dyfed Archaeological Trust and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and I carefully excavating the chariot under the shelter during the second excavation season.

Aside from growing as a researcher, I gained a much greater understanding for the public’s perception of archaeology. The archaeology of Wales is not a niche interest for academics—as heritage, it belongs to everyone, and people are very often as enthusiastic about it as I am. For example, one of my favourite aspects of the excavation was spending time with the farmer who owns the land and his family. It was heart-warming to see their interest in not just the things we were digging up, but how we were doing it. To have our field of work understood and appreciated for the (sometimes painfully slow) process that it is, was rewarding.

After the chariot was excavated and all the parts safely lifted. A circular ring ditch with an entrance surrounded the chariot burial.

This satisfying combination of archaeological practice and public engagement has inspired me to continue volunteering at the museum for the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Wales (PAS Cymru). Without PAS, this excavation wouldn’t have happened, and this significant part Wales’ story would have remained untold. PAS is giving an invaluable gift to the people of Wales by documenting their material heritage and making it easily accessible to everyone. I am honoured to be a part of it, and I feel better equipped to use my own research to give back to the public.

Get involved!

I encourage everyone to volunteer for archaeological excavations. It’s one thing to see beautiful ancient objects behind glass cases, or 2D images in a book, but to be there as the earth gives way and the object is reborn from it, is nothing short of magical. It’s dirty, often laborious, but the friendships made, the knowledge gained, and the magical sense of discovery is worth every drop of sweat as we rediscover lost memories from our ancient past.

Me (right) recording Mark Lewis (left) as he prepares to help lift the tyres during the second excavation season. If digging isn’t your thing, there’s lots of other jobs to do at an excavation, including photography and recording video footage.

I hope to see some new faces at future excavations. Iechyd da!

 

A penny and a brooch

Two rare objects have recently been kindly donated to Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales by metal detectorist, Pete Anning. One is a silver penny of King Aethelraed II (978-1013, also known as ‘The Unready’), probably minted in Gloucester during the 990s. The other is a fragment of a 7th or 8th century decorated copper alloy penannular brooch. Both objects were found in the same area in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The objects are unfortunately broken, but that does not lessen their archaeological importance, and the coin has been designated a find of national Welsh importance by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

Dr Mark Redknap, Head of Collections and Research in the museum’s History and Archaeology Department, said of the brooch fragment:

“Any discovery of Early Medieval metalwork has special significance as we know so little - compared with the later Medieval period – about fashions and styles circulating around Wales. The surviving terminal is decorated with a recessed panel, ridges imitating filigree, and a central setting for a glass or amber stud. It belongs to a style of brooch characteristic of Western Britain.”

As neither of the objects are classed as treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act, they are legally the property of the finder and landowner, but luckily for AC-NMW, Pete generously decided to donate them to the museum’s collection.

Deciding to donate

Pete has been detecting for two years, and this is not the first time he has given away his finds:

“I think the most exciting thing I ever found was a Bronze Age axe head that I found after my friend (who is also a farmer) gave me call to say they had been clearing out some ditches and I might want to have a go in the spoil. After recording the find with Mark Lodwick (PAS Co-ordinator for Wales) I gave it to the farm and it now has pride of place on their mantelpiece. The axe had been there for over 3000 years and it didn’t seem right to take it away.”

When Pete found out that his penny and brooch fragments, as Welsh examples of Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval objects, were important and rare, he decided that, “it was only right that the finds should be donated to the museum. Whether it’s 3000 years old or 30 years old, it all once had a purpose or meaning. Everything has a story.”

Once an object enters a museum collection, those stories can be told by archaeologists and other researchers, and the object will be conserved and looked after for future generations.

The value of donations

Donations are valued by museums as they do not always have a fund to purchase objects for their collections and have to rely on Friends groups or applications to funding bodies such as the Art Fund. In Wales, the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories project has been using its National Lottery funding to acquire treasure and some PAS-recorded objects for national and local collections since 2015, but this source will soon be coming to an end.

So, in the words of Dr Redknap, “We’re extremely grateful to Pete for his generous donation to the national collection.”

But whether finders donate, sell or keep their objects, Pete encourages everybody to get their finds recorded with PAS: “I had no idea what the early medieval brooch fragment was until Mark Lodwick saw it. I knew it was old…but that was it. If you’re not sure check – otherwise you could be throwing away some invaluable ancient history!”

The National Museum Cardiff was happy to host a behind the scenes tour to Brecon Detectorists, a group of keen treasure hunters who jumped at the opportunity to delve into the Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales archives.

David Hingley set up Brecon Metal Detecting club in 2011 and is enthusiastic about promoting responsible metal detecting to its members. “Everyone who comes through that door has a condition of membership – everything over a certain age has got to be registered for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, I insist upon it,” David explains. “We’re a small club, we’ve basically capped ourselves at 10. At the moment we’re 9, we’ve had a new guy just started, the big fella, Tom.”

And newcomer, Tom Haines, is no stranger to historical finds. Even before joining the club, he shared David’s passion for responsible detecting. While out walking his dog one day last year, Tom discovered a Bronze Age knife; which he reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme so it could be properly excavated.

“By reporting it, archaeologists might want to dig it, and that ended up being the case,” he recalls. “I could have taken it home, plonked it in my own collection and no one would have learnt anything from it and it would have just crumbled away. It’s being properly preserved and looked after and archaeologists can learn a lot from it.”

The knife was just the tip of the iceberg, however, and his discovery led archaeologists to unearth a Bronze Age burial site, complete with cremated human remains. “They found a bronze age pin in there so it was a good thing that I didn’t disturb that!” The knife and pin, as well as the urn in which they (and charred bone) were discovered is currently pending through the treasure process. The hoard will likely be acquired by Brecon Museum thanks to the Saving Treasures* project.

It’s this interest in preserving archaeological artefacts that brought the club to the museum – to discover just how important their finds can be to museum researchers, conservationists and of course, archaeologists and historians.

The club’s tour kick started in the stores with Portable Antiquities Scheme Wales Liaison Officer, Mark Lodwick, where they were able to view and handle some fascinating Bronze Age axe heads. Among them was a ribbed socketed axe head found in Llancarfan, Vale of Glamorgan back in 2013 that was curiously stuffed with another, bent axe head and (seemingly) ritualistically buried.

From the stores, the group moved onto the conservation labs. Conservationists Louise Mumford and Owen Lazzari were on hand to answer any queries they may have when it comes to storing their non-treasure finds and show the club some exciting pieces they are currently working on. One of the most impressive pieces was a Viking period sword from Hawarden, which had been wrapped in textile and showed traces of a horn grip – all of which had been preserved by the rust formed on the sword! When x-rayed, the amount of original metal sword that had been left was minimal, so if the rust had been removed, Louise would not have been able to find the horn and textile traces and the sword would have been indistinguishable. Luckily, with careful excavation the sword could be professionally conserved and the horn and textile discovered – these elements could easily have had all traces of removed if proper procedure was not followed.

Another fascinating find in the conservation labs was a late Iron Age or Romano-British tankard, found as part of a hoard at Langstone that was still mostly in-tact, the wood having been preserved – a very delicate piece indeed!

The club were then able to see artefacts come to life in the art department, with resident artist Tony Daley.

David Hingley believes the visit to the museum was very helpful for both himself and his members: “I can understand the need for detectorists to be instructed in how to handle and store artefacts, and that more literature should be made available.” He explained that he learnt a lot and this new information can be put into immediate practise within in the club. David already keeps his own extensive coin collection (all of which have been processed and recorded by Mark Lodwick at AC-NMW) in acid free paper envelopes – essential for preventing further metal corrosion!

 “All the clubs try to instigate in all their members that you’ve got to detect responsibly. You’ve got to have permission and you’ve got to have the right gear. If you dig a hole in someone’s field – you’ve got to look at it from your own perspective - What would you say to someone if they came into your back garden and dug a hole in your lawn and then left it without filling it? You’d go mad, wouldn’t you?”  But this isn’t the only aspect of responsible detecting and David is keen to promote the other obligations detecting requires, such as the preservation of the objects themselves, “I am continually preaching to our members!”

David feels that more metal detectorists could benefit from taking the time to learn about the role of museums and conservation in particular. “In the field you watch detectorists kick open clods to see what’s in it - they do not seem to understand that it could contain a very fragile artefact a couple of hundred years old; and they break it or they find equally fragile artefacts and put them in pockets and not containers.”

*Saving Treasures; Telling Stories is helping museums in Wales to acquire the important finds discovered by metal detectorists like David, Tom and their club members. For more information on the project, click here.

Hello, Michelle and Alisha here – we are third year journalism students from the University of South Wales.

We are at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, on a one-week work placement with Saving Treasures; Telling Stories. We thought it would be interesting to study a topic completely unknown to us for our work experience, to broaden our understanding of history and how it affects us.

To begin our week, we were introduced to several museum professionals in the Archaeology department and had the opportunity to learn about the day to day running of museums and see all the work that goes on behind the scenes!  

Before working at the museum, we thought that treasure was what we’d seen in the movies - glittering chests of gold coins and shiny jewels! But when we were shown the stores in the cellar, we realised that not all artefacts are pretty to look at and many items declared treasure are of higher historical value than financial reward.

We were able to see the Conservation department, where they work to restore and carefully conserve items for the museum collections. This includes archaeological artefacts, but also pieces from the department of natural history.

After our initial exploration of the museum, our task for the week was to produce an article investigating how museums are funded and how beneficial donating archaeological finds can be to museum collections. In order to create the article, we were set a number of tasks, this included carrying out several over the phone interviews with museum curators from various museums across Wales. With plenty of research, we finally got down to business and wrote the feature, which will hopefully be published very soon!

We have really enjoyed our week in the museum, learning new things. We will miss our new friends – Alice and Rhianydd, who have been really kind and attentive during our placement. We look forward to coming back to visit and seeing new items being declared treasure.

For more information about the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories Project, in association with the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Portable Antiquites Scheme in Wales, click here.

As we are sure you are aware, there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes at the National Museum of Wales, including research, conservation and work experience. This week is Student Volunteering Week and in honor of this, we have taken the time to find out a little bit more about one of our interns, Eirini...


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Name: Eirini Anagnostou

Job title/ Role: Intern

Department: History and Archaeology, National Museum Cardiff


Where you are you from?

Greece

What are you studying?

I am a student of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, studying Archaeology and History of Art

Why did you choose to study Archaeology and History of Art?

I've been interested in Art since high school, particularly Contemporary but also Renaissance and Byzantine art and I am also interested in cultural history and civilisations.

What are you doing here?

Erasmus+ placement programme, working as an intern updating the Portable Antiquities Scheme Cymru database – I’ve worked here for 2 months so far!

What are your main duties?

Using the Photoshop programme and processing images of artefacts found by mainly metal detectorists to go on the PAS database.

Next week I will be doing some photography, and working on developing stories on a collection of Ancient Greek coins. I am also hoping to have input into the development of an exhibition concept.

Why did you come to Cardiff?

I visited Cardiff three years ago and I liked the city. I chose the National Museum because it is one of the biggest museums in the UK. I think it’s a good experience for my personal development and future aspirations.

Are you enjoying your time in Cardiff?

Yes, Cardiff is a lovely city with friendly people. There are many things to do and a beautiful castle!

What have you enjoyed the most about working at NMW?

The working environment here is very friendly and helpful. I’ve learnt a lot and I’ve had the opportunity to see the galleries – I was amazed at the extensive collection of Impressionist paintings!

Have you seen anything that’s not currently on display that particularly interested you?

I’ve never seen so many artefacts before – I’ve never seen bones and prehistoric artefacts like those collected in the museum’s stores, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to see them.

What do you hope to learn from this experience?

I hope to learn how a museum works because I’d like to do a Masters in Museum Studies and possibly become a curator. I am still deciding where to study for my Masters degree. I also am enjoying experiencing living abroad and I hope to continue travelling for a couple more years.

To see more content related to the Portable Antiquites Scheme and the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories Project, a project currently working with PAS and local metal detectorists and communities to record all archaeological findings, click here.