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CPAT - Windows on the Past

The Early Medieval period - AD 400 - 1100

Following the end of Roman Imperial control early in the 5th century study of the past becomes extremely difficult because of the lack of tangible evidence. The archaeology of the early medieval period has been found as much by accident as design, but the work of CPAT has begun to fill out the picture.

While settlement sites continue to elude us, plentiful evidence has been found of a variety of different means of disposing of the dead. Small cemeteries have been found next to earlier prehistoric burial mounds at Four Crosses and Trelystan, for example, and at Tandderwen a more extensive cemetery has been identified, the graves arranged in rows and often enclosed by square ditches.

It is unclear whether these people were Christian, but excavations at a number of medieval ecclesiastical sites have shown that these have their origins in similar pre-Norman cemeteries. One of the most extensive church and graveyard excavations in Wales at Capel Maelog near Llandrindod Wells revealed an earlier cemetery pre-dating the church, subdivided by ditches.

The Welsh borderland was very turbulent at this time, the boundaries between the early kingdoms of Wales and the emerging kingdoms of England being in a constant state of flux due to political struggles.

Unrest during this period is emphasised by the excavations undertaken by Clwyd Archaeology Service at the 8th century Mercian fort of Cledemutha below modern Rhuddlan, the late 9th to early 10th-century crannog or artificial island built in the middle of Llangorse Lake, investigated by staff of the National Museum of Wales, and by the excavations carried out by CPAT at the unusual fort at Cwrt Llechrhyd, Radnorshire.

The construction of Offa’s and Wat’s Dykes — the largest archaeological monument in Britain — may have been an attempt in the 8th century to establish a political boundary between tribal Wales and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Recent research by a number of bodies, particularly by the Offa’s Dyke Project, University of Manchester, has helped to clarify the extent and course of this boundary. CPAT has undertaken small-scale rescue excavations at a number of points along the boundary, notably on Offa’s Dyke near Knighton and on Wat’s Dyke near Hope.

Tandderwen

Excavations undertaken on cropmark sites revealed by aerial photography in the Vale of Clwyd to the east of Denbigh, revealed an early and possibly Christian cemetery dating to the period between about AD 600–900. Almost 40 graves were found, laid out in rows, many of which were enclosed by rectangular ditches. A high proportion of the graves held wooden coffins, and it is possible that soil from the ditches was used to build low mounds above some of the burials.

Medieval cemetery

Right: Enclosed and unenclosed graves forming part of the early medieval cemetery at Tandderwen, in the Vale of Clwyd near Denbigh. The ring-ditch to the left and a number of the pits towards the centre form part of an earlier Bronze Age cemetery which appears to have influenced the siting of the early medieval cemetery over 2000 years later. © CPAT

Similar though smaller isolated cemeteries of early medieval date have been excavated by CPAT at Parc Brynhyfryd near Ruthin, and at Four Crosses and Trelystan in eastern Montgomeryshire. As at Four Crosses and Trelystan, the Tandderwen cemetery was established next to a number of early Bronze Age burial mounds — a pattern known from elsewhere in England and Wales in the period before Christian churches with associated cemeteries had become fully developed.

Excavations at Tandderwen were undertaken with funding provided by Cadw and the Manpower Services Commission, with the permission of the Glazebrook family. The excavations were carried out because of the damage being caused to the buried archaeology by continued intensive ploughing and subsoiling in this area of rich farmland.

Offa’s and Wat’s Dykes

Stretches of the two dykes, probably built in the 8th century to mark a discontinuous frontier between Wales and the emerging English kingdoms, are regrettably being continually eroded by ploughing and destroyed by development. A recent survey has shown that 300 metres of the dykes are damaged each year, and that at the current rate of attrition they will disappear within the next century. It is hoped that as much as possible of the surviving stretches of the dykes can be protected from development, as in the case of a stretch at Hope.

CPAT has excavated a number of short stretches in response to housing developments, pipe-lines, and road improvement schemes — as for example on Offa’s Dyke near Knighton in 1976 and near Wrexham in 1990 and on Wat's Dyke near Wrexham in 1990. These have confirmed the formidable size of the earthwork and the considerable manpower that was needed to build it.

Cwrt Llechrhyd

Small-scale excavations at this unusual, defended enclosure near Llanelwedd, Radnorshire, strengthen suggestions that it was built in the early medieval period, probably between the 9th to 10th centuries AD.

Cwrt Llechrhyd

Left: Cwrt Llechrhyd, near Llanelwedd, Radnorshire. The outer bank of the rectangular fort, probably built in the early medieval period, can be seen surrounding Court Farm. © CPAT 86-C-36

The fort lies in Elfael, the southernmost cantref of the kingdom of Powys, in the district known as ‘Rhwng Gwy a Hafren’ (the land between the Wye and Severn). Cwrt Llechrhyd is one of the possible sites of the commotal llys of the pre-Conquest period. A large workforce, under the authority of a chieftain, would have been required to build the 660-metre perimeter bank.

Excavations, funded by Cadw, were undertaken across the outer defences of the site in 1983 in response to the construction of an access road to the concrete works which now occupies the abandoned railway line cutting across its western side.

Capel Maelog

Capel Maelog

Excavations between 1984–87 in advance of housing development in Llandrindod Wells, Radnorshire, revealed the foundations of a medieval church and cemetery (right) abandoned in the 16th century. The church, probably built in the late 12th century, had curving apses at both the eastern and western ends. Of equal interest is the evidence of an earlier cemetery, preceding the church, dating to about the 10th–11th century AD, with a prominent focal grave which became incorporated within the chancel of the church. Excavations were funded by Cadw and the Manpower Services Commission and were undertaken with the permission of the developer, Mr Michael Rowlands.

Forden Gaer timber hall

Forden Gaer

Trial excavations in 1987, to the north of the Roman fort at Forden, Montgomeryshire, revealed the postholes of a large timber hall. One of these is shown to the right being planned during the course of excavation. The building, about 40 metres in length, had a central aisle and outer walls of timber studs set in a continuous trench. Parallels suggest that it was an important Royal residence of the post-Roman period. Excavations were funded by Cadw and the Manpower Services Commission, and were carried out with the permission of the Gethin family of Gaer Farm.

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Medieval period


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