Amgueddfa Blog

What does ‘Wales and the Sea’ mean to me?

Well, quite simply, it’s a huge part of who I am!

Through my late father, I am the nephew, grandson, great nephew, great-grandson and great-great grandson of seafarers from the Ceredigion coastal village of Aber-porth.

They were all part of the massive, disproportionate even, contribution that Welsh seafarers made to the British merchant fleet during the two centuries 1750-1950.

Almost all reached the rank of master mariner, and over the centuries they commanded vessels that ranged in size from little coastal smacks that brought culm and limestone to Aber-porth in the 19th century, to the largest bulk carrier under the Red Ensign in the late 1960s.

One of them lies deep in the cold waters off Newfoundland where he drowned after his ship struck an iceberg. Another lies buried in the British cemetery at Chacarita in Buenos Aires, where he died whilst the Cardiff tramp he commanded was discharging Welsh coal to power Argentina’s railways and meat packing plants. Another had to deal with a murder on his ship after a dispute between two crew members over a gambling debt got way out of hand.

But mine is just not a story about seafaring men.

Communities like Aber-porth, where, at any one time in the early 20th century, up to half the village’s male population might be away at sea, were matriarchal communities, where strong women brought up families single-handed and endured the absence of their loved ones over extended periods. It is difficult to fathom the anguish and worry that they must have experienced on countless stormy nights, with thousands of miles of forbidding seas between them and their loved ones.

Nevertheless, there were advantages to being a captain’s wife! If their husband’s ship was in an UK or near-continental port, they would often travel to meet them for a brief interlude of conjugal company, taking advantage of their visits to sample the best shops with the latest fashions in Cardiff, Newcastle or Glasgow - even Antwerp or Hamburg!

And the wives of master mariners were always accorded the respect ashore that their husbands had at sea – my great-grandmother would always have been addressed as Mrs. Captain Jenkins!

With such an ancestry as this, it is ironic that accidents of employment meant that I was brought up miles from the sea in the heart of Montgomeryshire; visits to relatives in Aber-porth, when we fished for mackerel and set lobster pots, were confined to school holidays!

Montgomeryshire is my mother’s ancestral home; members of her family have been farming in the north of the former county since Elizabethan times at least, and one might think that the sea had little impact on their daily lives.

Nevertheless, in the mid-1880s, they had to leave their home, Ty Ucha' in the village of Llanwddyn, because the River Efyrnwy was being dammed to provide water for Liverpool, then at the height of its commercial success as one of Britain's foremost ports.

The impact of the sea extends far beyond our coasts, so this year’s event should be an event for all of Wales, not just our coastal communities.

Dr David Jenkins, Honorary Research Fellow.

To celebrate St. Valentine’s day, and the recent St. Dwynwen's day, here are images of items from the collections at St Fagans National Museum of History, given as tokens of love.

 

The Lovespoon

The earliest dated lovespoon in the SFNMH collection is from 1667 but it is probable that the tradition of carving lovespoons pre-dates this.  The tradition of spoon carving for domestic purposes was a common pastime during the long winter months, especially in farming communities. The early lovespoons were given as love tokens but also used by the receiver as a spoon for eating. As the craft developed they became more decorative and less utilitarian. Shapes and decorations were added and below is a list of these with descriptions of the meanings.

Hearts

The heart is the universal symbol of love and is frequently seen on Welsh lovespoons. It is a sign of passion and strong emotion which surely signifies the carver’s depth of feeling for his beloved. A lovespoon showing twin hearts might well indicate a mutual love between sender and recipient.

Double bowls

Occasionally, lovespoons are carved with two or more bowls; two possibly signalling the union of the souls when joined together and three perhaps indicating the wish for a child.

Comma or paisley shape

Often visible on historic Welsh lovespoons, this shape is said to represent the soul and deep affection.

Balls in cage

Balls carved within cages are commonly thought to represent the number of children desired by the carver, but could equally be a sign of a man held captive by his love.

Chain links

Generally considered to indicate loyalty and faithfulness, chain links might also symbolise a couple bound together in their love and loyalty.

Diamonds

Diamonds are believed to represent a wish for prosperity and good fortune and a promise to provide well for a loved one.

Keys and keyholes

In addition to the house images that sometimes appear on Welsh lovespoons appearing to represent domestic contentment, key and keyhole carvings are also used frequently, perhaps symbolizing security or, more romantically, the key to one’s heart.

Wheel

Wheel symbols often feature in Welsh lovespoons and are said to represent a vow by the carver to work hard and to guide a loved one through life.

 

Valentine Cards

The first written valentine message in England dates from 1684 and in Wales the poet Edward Morris, Perthi-llwydion mentions a valentine message in his works during a similar period. It is not until the 19th century however that the custom of valentine cards became popular, the earliest examples in Wales are from the early part of that century. In Glamorgan, also during this time, true lover's knots were distributed as favours on Valentine’s Day. Known as  common symbols of affection and devotion, they were later incorporated onto valentine cards. It is also well known that the path of true love never runs smoothly and there are also examples in the SFNMH collection of valentine spite cards, sent to those who had rebuked the sender’s affection or broken off a romance. This first image shows an example of such a card.

During the half term holidays at SFNHM there will be love themed art activities for children based on lovespoons and valentine cards.

 

 

We're getting ready for another lambing season here at St Fagans and we know that lots of you will be looking forward to #lambcam. So we've put together the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions that have come up over the last three years.  Here's the stuff you need to know when things start to hot up in the lambing shed:

Is anybody there looking after the sheep?

Lambcam is brought to you by a small but dedicated team. Once things get going there are experienced staff on hand during the day and through the night.  

Are the sheep in pain? 

Yes - they're giving birth, and labour can be a long and painful process! 

I've been watching a sheep struggling to give birth - why doesn't someone go in and help her?

Sheep are nervous animals - they don't find the presence of humans relaxing.  Their natural instinct is to run away (as you'll see every time the team go in). Sprinting round the shed stresses them out and slows down the lambing. The shepherds observe quietly from a distance and intervene as little as possible. A calm, quiet shed means shorter labours for everyone.

But she's been struggling for ages and no-one's been to see her!

As well as the area you can see on camera, we have separate nursery sheds for the ewes and their lambs. The team will always assess the needs of the whole flock and prioritise the most vulnerable. A very sick newborn lamb that needs tube feeding may be taking precedence over a ewe in labour. Remember that there may be a staff member just out of shot watching on.

Why are you letting it go on so long?

The ewe needs to labour until her cervix is dilated enough for the lambs to pass through. This can take anything from 30 minutes to several hours. The ones that are making the most fuss are often our yearlings giving birth for the first time. Ironically these are the girls that need to do the most work to open their cervixes. Caesarean births for sheep would only ever be an absolute last resort and have very poor outcomes for the ewe. A long labour is always a much better option - sorry ladies!

There's a sheep in the shed screaming in pain…

Sheep are mostly completely silent when giving birth (but you should hear the racket at feeding time!) In the wild, being quiet while in labour reduces the chances of being attacked by a predator at such a vulnerable moment. When you see a ewe with her eyes wide, head thrown back and top lip curled, it's evidence of the strength of her contractions. That's a good thing - it means she's getting down to business and there'll be a birth happening soon.

I've just seen the shepherd give the sheep an injection - what was that?

A shot of calcium can help get things moving if a ewe has been in active labour for a long time but is not making much progress with dilating her cervix.

Why do they swing the lambs by their legs sometimes?

It's vital that lambs start to breathe on their own as soon as they are born. They sometimes have noses and throats full of fluid. You may see the shepherds sticking a bit of straw up the lamb's nostril to get it to cough or sneeze. If this doesn't work they will sometimes swing the lamb by its back legs. It looks dramatic - but is the most effective way to clear the airway. Centrifugal force helps the lamb to cough out any obstructions.

What are they doing when they put their hands inside the sheep?

Check out this blog post from 2016 for a full guide to lamb presentation aka 'What's going on there?'

....... quite literally in some cases!

Last week saw us head up to Berwick-upon-Tweed to sample for species of marine bristle worms, the shovelhead worms (Annelida: Magelonidae). The aim was to collect enough of these burrowing animals from under the muddy sand at low tide that we could contribute to our collections and additionally place some in our laboratory tank for live observations.

After closely examining one species of shovelhead worm at the museum (Magelona alleni) for the majority of the first seven months of my professional training year (PTY) from Cardiff University, and successfully finding out some exciting new behavioural traits (in press), I find myself wanting to expand not only my own knowledge, but becoming eager to contribute more to our overall understanding of these fascinating and somewhat enigmatic creatures. The more science we uncover, the more well known these species, who perhaps do not receive the same attention as some of the bigger vertebrates, become. I see this as a crucial factor to raise awareness for a preservation of the natural world in our future.

With this mantra circling around my head, my enthusiasm was bursting as we drove to the beach on our first day of sampling. Low tide was just before 8am, meaning leaving our cottage, full gear in tow, at around 6.30am. No problems, I thought. I’m ready for that chilly Northern January air. Bring. It. on. Assembled with so many layers that we lost count, we clambered out of the car ready to get onto the beach, undeterred by the eerie super moon and snow battering our windscreen as we drove to our destination that morning. We were looking for two species of Magelona in particular, Magelona johnstoni and Magelona mirabilis, known to occur in abundance in this location, where George Johnston first describer of the the latter species lived and collected worms (you can learn more about the fascinating life of George Johnston and what he accomplished at these sites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Johnston_(naturalist), http://www.raysociety.org.uk/userfiles/File/Johnston%20essay.pdf).

Our first dig looked promising, revealing many of the now familiar milky white, almost stringy, teeny tiny strands of magelonids. As we gently prised them out of the sand and put them into test tubes, by using seawater to gently wash the surrounding sand away in our hands, it occurred to me my hands were starting to go a little bit numb in the icy water. I thought I obviously wasn’t quite as seasoned at this as Kate, my museum mentor. Luckily we had hand warmers at the ready to dive our hands into after each dig. However, as we dug more and more both of us felt our hands turn to popsicles, and let me tell you, anyone who has ever tried to get a worm that is only a few millimeters in length into a test tube does not want popsicle hands. Over the next few hours our feet slowly turned into matching ice cubes, until we had to call it a day. Luckily for us, we had the same scenario to play out all over again the next morning.

 What I haven’t mentioned yet is that despite the somewhat crisp weather, we saw some of the most breathtaking sunrises, with only the odd oystercatcher and redshank to accompany us. Along with this, we were further rewarded by the pure amount of magelonids present in such small spaces, meaning our collection was plentiful and we could take the animals back to our make-shift laboratory at our accommodation for identification, which is when you really start to see what the fuss is about with these worms. The stringy white appearance you see from afar turns into an elegant, ethereal-like animal under the microscope, with complex morphological features. Perhaps, most notably, long, flowing palps that arise near to the animal’s mouth. The number we collected means observations in the laboratory can now be started for new research. George Johnston’s description of the abundance of the animals here sure hasn’t changed much in well over 100 years. Ultimately, the moral of the story is that sometimes, the more changeling the environment, the more recompense. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll be worm hunting in the Artic!

Catch up with some other tails of a PTY student

Swansea has a whole host of treasures just lying within its midst, from the Red Lady of Paviland to the 4200 year old flint dagger that formed the basis for Saving Treasures; Telling Stories first Community Archaeology project, ‘The Lost Treasures of Swansea Bay’. With the rip roaring tides, miles of beaches and hidden caves waiting to be discovered, you’d expect the sea (for which the city is named) to occasionally stir up something significant; but what about an unassuming Welsh livestock farm? Doesn’t sound like the setting for a major archaeological discovery, does it? Suprisingly, that’s exactly where local man, Geoff Archer, picked up one half of a Middle Bronze Age copper-alloy palstave axe mould dating somewhere between 1400-1200 BC.

It was over two decades ago when Geoff first picked up a metal detector, having first taken it up as a hobby after he got married. But it wasn’t until he retired last year that he was able to really get out into the field, and armed with a pair of wellies and a brand spanking new detector, he decided to venture to one of his old jaunts – a farm not far from his home.

“Over the last few nights I’d been thinking about going to the farm and something was telling me to go to the right hand side of it, just to walk the fields,” he explains, “so that’s what I did.” After traipsing around in the mud for a few hours, Geoff stumbled upon a patch of uneven terrace he couldn’t help but investigate.

Unearthing History

“I got to the lumpy, bumpy parts, had a couple of signals – nothing much.” But then Geoff had another signal, “a cracking signal” and realised it was time to dig around in the dirt to find out what it was. Figuring it would just be another case of random odds and sods, or a coke bottle lid (they find an abundance of litter!) he was surprised to hear a clunk.

“I hit this bloomin’ great big stone, so I dug around it, lifted up a clod of earth” and underneath yet another stone he noticed something interesting inside the muddy cave, something not made of rock. “What the heck’s that?” he thought, picking up the oddity with care. 

“I pulled it out and on the back end of the mould there’s, like, ribs.” This prompted Geoff to recall a discovery he made about 15 years ago, when he wasn’t so rehearsed in Bronze Age metalwork.

“Going back, must be about 15 years ago, I found an item - I didn’t know what it was. I wasn’t experienced enough then. So this item, I took it home and I put it in the garage, as most detectorists do!” He had a feeling it was important but wasn’t sure why.

After a few years of picking the item up off his work bench and trying to decipher its meaning, Geoff decided to take it up to the kitchen and do some research. “So I started buying books to research Roman, believe it or not, alright? So, I bought this book and I was looking through it. I got to the part for the Stone Age, read that. Then I got to the Bronze Age, and I turned a couple of pages and there was the item I’d found! Bronze Age Axe Head. My jaw just dropped, right? And the Bronze Age Axe Head had ribs on the outside.”

Devastatingly, Geoff has misplaced the axe head, which he is now, more than ever, desperate to locate – and even more upsetting still, it’s the same type of axe as the mould he discovered 15 years later would have been built to make. “It’s what they call a loop, I think it’s got two loops on this one, each side, where they used to put, if you can imagine, the Bronze Age axe head. It’s flat, but this part at the back, its round and they put it over the wood and then they loop it, they tie it onto the wood to secure it.”

Monumental findings

When Geoff uncovered the mould, he immediately realised its importance thanks to his previous finding – but he still wasn’t entirely certain of what it was he’d discovered. “On the inside of the mould, there’s like a round piece, like in the middle part. I honestly thought at that time that it was a bit off a tractor, because it was so… the engineering of it, the precision engineering of it! But in the back of my mind I was thinking it can’t be off a tractor because it’s got these ribs at the back from this Bronze Age axe that I found.”

After digging out some modelling clay and experimenting, he came to the realisation that what he’d found was an axe head mould. Geoff phoned up one of his buddies at Swansea Metal Detectorist Club for a second opinion and after a positive diagnosis by them both, he took it along to a club meeting.

“As it so happened, it was our ‘Find of the Month’ meeting!” Geoff explains. “So I won find of the month for the artefact and Steve, our Finds Liaison Officer, said ‘you’d better show this to someone in Cardiff because they are going to be interested.’ So, photographs were sent to Cardiff [National Museum of Wales] and they wanted to see it. I went with Steve to Cardiff and the mould’s been there ever since!”

Mark Lodwick, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) Cymru Co-Ordinator at The National Museum of Wales in Cardiff confirmed Geoff’s identification and has recorded the item so it can be used in further research and study.

Under the Treasure Act, the mould isn’t classed as ‘treasure’, so why is it so special? “It’s the only one that’s been found in South West Wales,” Geoff enthuses, “and it’s the second one that’s been found in Wales. The other one was found in a hoard of axes in Bangor in the 1950’s, so this is the first one that’s been found since then!”

Preserving the past

Geoff is in utter disbelief that he was the one to stumble across the important artefact, which has been conserved at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, but, eventually he’d like it to end up back home at Swansea Museum.

Having reported the axe mould to the museum, Geoff sees this as an important part of his role as a treasure hunter. Letting other people view the item, he says, “gives other people a chance to understand about their locality, of what’s been going on.”

“I think it opens up a new chapter in [Swansea’s history]. There’s a bit of history regarding the Bronze Age but to find something like an axe making product in Swansea, which has never been found before - it opens up a new chapter of where these people were living and how far were they living on the fields of that farm,” explains Geoff. “That’s my quest now I suppose, is to try and find out – keep walking the fields and I might find the other half, I don’t know.”

With hopes of the axe mould ending up in Swansea Museum, Geoff is keen that people will be interested in viewing his remarkable find. “The more publicity it gets the better!” he says. “The more people who know about this the better as far as I am concerned, because it’s the first one to be found in South West Wales and the second one to ever be found in Wales – so don’t tell me that’s not important.”

To discover more about Swansea’s Bronze Age history and see some fascinating Neolithic archaeological artefacts visit Swansea Museum, entry is free!

Words: Alice Pattillo