History and Archaeology research case studies

How does evidence from archaeological excavations shed light not only on past cultures in Wales, but also on the changing nature of society today?

For over seventy-five years Archaeology & Numismatics has collected evidence of life and death in Wales, including items ranging from mammoth's teeth and shipwrecks to Celtic coins and cannon balls. Together they tell us about the archaeology and history of Wales from the first use of caves 250,000 years ago to the start of the industrial revolution. As well as studying these remains to further our understanding of the origins of Wales, Archaeology curators work towards presenting these findings to audiences ranging from school parties, museum visitors and web browsers to national societies and academics.

Research in archaeology is essential for accurate identification and recording of treasure in compliance with our duties under the Treasure Act (1996).  The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) encourages the voluntary reporting of archaeological items found by metal detectorists and other members of the public in England and Wales which are not covered by the Treasure Act.

Highlighted projects:

10,000 year-old settlement on Burry Holmes, Gower, Swansea

Excavations on Burry Holms, a small island off the Gower coast, have found startling new information about a stone tools collection donated to the Museum in the 1920s.

• New dating of seeds, charcoal and sand grains suggests two Mesolithic settlements from 8244–7938 cal. BC to 3953–3773 cal. BC.

• Analysis shows that the people had a seasonal campsite here, making tools for hunting, fishing, woodworking and preparing skins as well as plant processing.

• The charcoal and plant macrofossils reveal a wooded landscape on an inland hill, where celandine tubers could have formed part of the diet.

The surprise discovery of an Iron Age roundhouse and associated artefacts, including glass beads suggests Burry Holms had a long history of use at many times during prehistory.

There are images from Burry Holmes at: https://museum.wales/articles/2007-05-11/Hunting-for-food-in-the-Stone-Age-1/

Publications

Walker, E.A., F. Wenban-Smith and F. Healy. (2004) Lithics in action Oxbow books (2004).

Walker, E. A. (2000) 'Burry Holms (SS40019247)' Archaeology in Wales, vol. 40, p88-89 (2000).

Walker, E. A. (2001) 'Burry Holms (SS40019247)' Archaeology in Wales, vol. 41, p126 (2001).

Viking remains at Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey

The ongoing study of the Viking-age settlement at Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey is transforming our understanding of the Viking era in Wales. The human remains from this excavation have been aged and sexed, and studied for trauma and pathology by Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at University of Birmingham (here preparing one for photography) and by Sheffield University’s Dr. Katie Hemer for an isotopic perspective on diet and childhood place of residence in early medieval populations.

History & Archaeology has also supported significant doctoral and postdoctoral scientific studies on human remains, a part of the collection that forms the largest resource on the early populations in Wales. Subjects range from research on trauma, muscle stress markers and health to demographies, disease and diet, and what they reveal about mobility and diet in this period.

Reconstructing the Bryn Eryr Iron Age farmstead

In the 1980s, archaeologists excavated the remains of three roundhouses built at Bryn Eryr on Anglesey in the centuries leading up to, and overlapping with, the Roman conquest. Two of these roundhouses were built of clay.

Our work at St Fagans, based on this archaeological evidence from Bryn Eryr, is the first of its kind to attempt the rebuilding of an Iron Age clay-walled roundhouse. Two full-size reconstructions were built using a construction style not seen in Wales since the Iron Age. The research provided insights into:

  • The technical challenges of building in clay.
  • The rationale for the extremely thick clay walls at Bryn Eryr, and the drainage features found at the original site.
  • The nature of the environment within a roundhouse of this type.

In addition, the project formed part of an EU-funded project exploring the challenges of combining the needs of a visitor attraction and the desire for authenticity in archaeological reconstruction.

Methods:

  • Desk-based research. The primary excavation archive was analysed to ensure the reconstruction matched the evidence from the original site. A literature search was also carried out to ensure that comparable evidence from other sites was also incorporated into the project.
  • Artefact analysis. The tools used to create furniture in the houses and the artefacts upon which reconstructions were based were all produced by a mixed team of archaeologists, conservators and craftspeople, beginning with the primary artefact record.
  • Experimental archaeology. The reconstruction of the buildings involved the creation of hypotheses regarding the form of the original structures, and the testing of those models through the building process.
  • Visitor studies. The project drew on European funds to enable consultation with open-air museums across Europe in order to better understand how to manage visitor flow and building maintenance. 

The result of St Fagans’ Bryn Eryr project is a major new attraction, visited by thousands of school children and tens of thousands of general visitors every year.

Publications

Burrow, S. 2015. “From Celtic Village to Iron Age Farmstead: Lessons Learnt from Twenty Years of Building, Maintaining and Presenting Iron Age Roundhouses at St Fagans National History Museum.” EXARC Journal 2015 (4). https://exarc.net/issue-2015-4/aoam/celtic-village-iron-age-farmstead-lessons-learnt-twenty-years-building-maintaining-and-presenting

Other projects on archaeological excavations:

• Palaeolithic Settlement of Wales Research Programme, illuminating the nature of human settlement on the very margins of Eurasia by early Neanderthals  

• excavation of the Bronze and Early Age settlement and midden at Llanmaes, Vale of Glamorgan, enriching understanding of feasting practice and cultural connections in western Britain at the beginning of the Iron Age 

What was Wales’ role in the industrial revolution and how did this influence the way its society developed and impacted the rest of the world?

Wales has a long and proud tradition as an industrial nation. The 1851 census records that it was the first nation in the world to have a higher proportion of its workforce employed in industry rather than in agriculture. Wales can therefore claim to be 'the world's first industrial nation'. AC-NMW holds a vast collection of artefacts and illustrations reflecting those changes, enabling research to illuminate new facets of Wales’ industrial heritage and the role it played in the industrial revolution.

Highlighted projects

Metal mining. A survey of metal mines in Wales, in collaboration with National Botanic Garden and Dyfed Archaeological Trust, analysing rates and causes of loss and decay to a major class of Welsh historic industrial sites

Social history of coalmining At Big Pit National Coal Museum, research has resulted in significant publications on the social history of coal-mining, based on field work in former mining communities in north and south Wales, including Eastern European workers in the coalfield, WW2 Bevin Boys and the 1984/85 Miners’ strike (other publications include Colliery Horses, Children and Young People in Mines and the role of the Pithead baths). Current research with British Medical Assoc. (Wales) and the Merlin Lodge of the Freemasons in Pontypridd is examining the career of Dr Henry Naunton Davies, a mid-twentieth century colliery doctor.

How can we use our Welsh history & archaeology collections and archives to enrich and diversify understanding of, and public engagement with, Welsh identities past and present?

Highlighted projects:

Roman Western Frontier of Britannia

The Roman occupation of Wales is a story of global significance, to be illuminated by new research focusing on the role Wales played in the wider Roman Empire. A collaborative AHRC studentship with Bristol and Southampton Universities will investigate how screen media, performance and object studies can articulate internationally-resonant messages for new audiences <link to Joe Lewis’ doctoral project>.  Future research on the social and cultural history of Empire will focus on themes such as food, schooling, rebellion, East v West, exploring the international dimensions of migration, heritage, memory, history and Empire.  A funding bid for AHRC Network on the Western Frontier of Britannia is under development with the University of Chester to take this work forward. <Dr Mark Lewis link>

History and industry

The social history and industry collections are primarily based at National Museum of History: St.Fagans, and National Collections Centre: Nantgarw. Other Museum sites centrally involved in history and industry include National Coal Museum: Big Pit, National Slate Museum, National Woollen Museum and National Waterfront Museum. In fact, no fewer than six of Amgueddfa-Cymru eight museums major on social and industrial history.

Research is carried out using the history collections to create new exhibitions, e.g. 

  • new social history galleries at St Fagans, using pioneering new co-production and co-curation methods to include non-Museum views and voices in what to put on display 
  • new refreshed coal gallery at National Waterfront Museum which now contains 137 coal related items out of the 980 items on display in the museum 
How can we extend cultural democracy by addressing cultural rights in our historical collections, collecting practices and displays, and by giving voice to the silence of past cultures in Wales through archaeology?

Highlighted projects:

Co-produced research at Oakdale Workmen’s Institute

A century since it was built by the coal community of Oakdale, the re-interpretation of the Institute has returned it to its original purpose – a place for learning, community, culture and well-being. Together with a Cardiff University researcher, Dr Rachel Hurdley, and Solace, a carers support service, a group of people with early-onset dementia developed a piece of user-led research with the Museum. This explored how the authenticity of the building could be balanced with the needs of people living with dementia.

The findings bring out the sensory and material qualities of the physical environment; the need for caring human behaviour; and questioned the idea of a museum – what is it for?  ‘What’s dementia-friendly is human-friendly’ was a principal finding.  Further, the project provoked deeper questions about how dementia, in its many forms and progressions, unearths deep social assumptions about personhood.

Achieving Meaningful Community Engagement in the Museum: What Works?

A Collaborative Doctoral Award, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is currently exploring the ways in which people with disabilities can access museums, and the ways in which disabled people are represented in our displays.