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CPAT - Windows on the Past

The Iron Age, 600 BC - AD 50

From some time in the later Bronze Age enclosed settlement becomes the norm and eastern Wales contains some of the most famous examples of large and imposing hillforts — The Breiddin, Moel y Gaer, Moel Hiraddug, and Dinorben — where the excavations by CPAT and its predecessors have revealed many fascinating details of the life which was lived behind their increasingly elaborate defences.

These hillforts were major centres of population, their building representing the labour of many men and their dominating position a symbol of the political power of their leaders. But alongside these major forts were smaller establishments such as Collfryn which were clearly farms, albeit rich and impressively defended in some instances.

84-C-179

Left: Cropmark ditched enclosure at Varchoel Lane, Guilsfield, Montgomeryshire, typical of many similar sites identified by aerial photography in the upper Severn valley. © CPAT 84-C-179

Particularly in the Severn valley, these smaller farmsteads appear to be invariably enclosed by banks and ditches, some of which still survive as earthworks. Under the right conditions even the more heavily ploughed sites can be identified by aerial photography. Several hundred such sites are already known in the Severn valley, some of which continued in use or were constructed anew following the Roman conquest in the mid to late 1st century AD. The density of sites in some parts of the valley approaches that of modern farms and implies a large and prosperous population. The on-going survey of sites in Montgomeryshire is designed to elucidate the relationship between these enclosure sites and the great hillforts rising above them. In this way we may be able to identify the different levels in what was becoming an increasingly complex social structure, and through well-dated sequences at sites such as Breiddin and Collfryn, begin to understand the impact that the Roman armies had upon them.

Even in the Severn Valley, however, it is uncertain whether we are missing other elements of society which lived outside the enclosures and hillforts. Most of the excavated buildings are of timber, apart from the unusual stone roundhouses within the hillfort at Craig Rhiwarth for example, and would be as difficult to detect if they occurred in isolation on unenclosed and undefended sites.

The smaller enclosure sites of the Severn Valley are far less common elsewhere in Clwyd and Powys, even in areas where hillforts are known. The chance discovery of unenclosed Iron Age timber houses below a late Medieval hafod at Nant y griafolen, Brenig, and below the Roman settlement at Prestatyn suggests that we are missing the settlements contemporary with the hillforts in some areas.

Dinorben

Round house reconstruction

Right: Reconstruction at the Butser Iron Age farm, Hampshire, of one of the Iron Age timber roundhouses excavated at Moel y Gaer, Rhosesmor between 1972–73. Excavations, funded by the Welsh Office, were undertaken in advance of the construction of a reservoir. © CPAT

Excavations were undertaken on the last vestiges of the Iron Age hillfort at Dinorben near Abergele in 1977–78 before it was finally quarried away. Earlier excavations had already shown that this important site had a long sequence of occupation from the Late Bronze Age through to the late Roman period. Excavations in 1977–78 focused on clarifying the dating of the defensive sequence and on recovering evidence of settlement in part of the interior. Radiocarbon dates indicate that the earliest rampart defending the settlement was built between the 7th–5th centuries BC. Excavations were funded by the Welsh Office and Tilcon Quarries.

Collfryn

Large-scale excavations were undertaken between 1980–82 at this hillslope enclosure near Llansantffraid Deuddwr because of damage being caused by ploughing. It is one of almost 300 ditched enclosures in the upper Severn valley, largely of Iron Age and Romano-British date, which are being studied as part of the Montgomeryshire Small Enclosures Project.

Collfryn aerial view

Right: Aerial view of part of the interior of the Collfryn hillslope enclosure, Llansantffraid Deuddwr during excavation in 1982, showing circular drainage ditches around the Iron Age roundhouse sites. Some of the pits which are also visible represent the postholes of rectangular four or six-post structures which were probably raised storage buildings or granaries. © CPAT

The excavations showed that the Collfryn enclosure was a defended farmstead, first constructed in the 4th–3rd century BC. The defences consisted of three widely-spaced concentric ditches enclosing a central settlement area which contained a number of timber roundhouses, and four and six-post timber structures which probably represent raised storage buildings. The scale of the defences suggest a fairly high-status settlement, possibly belonging to a local chieftain. A mixed farming economy is suggested by cattle, sheep and pig bones and by evidence of processing of cereal grain including wheat, barley and oats. Small-scale iron and bronze-working was also carried out inside the settlement.

Round house excavation

Left: One of a number of Iron Age timber roundhouse sites excavated in the interior of the Collfryn hillslope enclosure, Llansantffraid Deuddwr, Montgomeryshire. The circular ditch would have caught rainwater running off the thatched roof. Postholes representing the door-posts are visible in the foreground. Stakeholes and a reddened area towards the middle mark the position of the hearth. The excavations suggested that up to about three roundhouses may have been standing at any one time, some representing dwellings and others possibly ancillary buildings or workshops. Similar timber roundhouses and storage buildings are known from the interiors of excavated hillfort sites. © CPAT

Similar timber buildings are known from the interiors of a number of local hillforts such as the Breiddin. The range of sites which were occupied at this period suggests the kind of hierarchical society which is known to have existed in the European Celtic world — the larger hillforts being important tribal centres and the smaller enclosures being simple farmsteads supporting no more than a single family group.

Outer gate

Right: Stone-packed slot for timbers marking the outer gate of the enclosure at Collfryn. Some of the lowland enclosure sites, like the hillforts, evidently had formidable defences. © CPAT

The area enclosed by the settlement at Collfryn was reduced in size by about the 1st century BC, but occupation appears to have continued into the Romano-British period, until at least the 4th century AD.

Excavations were funded by Cadw and the Manpower Services Commission and were carried out with the permission of the landowners, Mr E.H. Edwards and Mr D.V. Wigley.

Llwyn Bryn-dinas

Llwyn Bryn-dinas hillfort

Right: Llwyn Bryn-dinas hillfort in the Tanat Valley, Llangedwyn. © CPAT

Excavations were undertaken across the defences of the Llwyn Bryn-dinas hillfort, Llangedwyn in 1983, before the construction of an access road. Like the Breiddin, the hill-top was first defended in the later Bronze Age, in about the 10th–9th century BC. The defences were subsequently enlarged in the Iron Age, between the 4th–3rd centuries BC, possibly after a period of abandonment.

bronze-casting crucible

Left: One of a number of Iron Age bronze-casting crucibles found in a bronze and iron-working smithy built into the rear of the Iron Age rampart at the Llwyn Bryn-dinas hillfort. © CPAT

A general-purpose Iron Age smithy used for bronze-casting and iron-working was set up in a structure built into the rear of the rampart. Metallurgical debris suggests that this was small in scale and simply met the needs of the settlement. Analysis of fragments of bronze recovered during excavation suggests that copper ore was obtained from Llanymynech hill in eastern Montgomeryshire. Similar evidence of bronze-working has been found at other neighbouring sites including the Collfryn hillslope enclosure, the Breiddin, and Llanymynech hillfort.

Excavations were funded by Cadw and the Manpower Services Commission and were carried out with the permission of Mr Henry Davies and Sir Watkin Williams Wynne.

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Roman period


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