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CPAT - Windows on the Past

Late Medieval to early Modern - AD 1500 - 1900

Despite an increasing volume of surviving documentary evidence from the 16th century onwards archaeology still has significant contributions to make to our understanding of the late medieval to early Modern periods, particularly about the kind of common and everyday activities which remained unrecorded.

Increasing numbers of standing buildings and other structures survive either in an altered form or as ruins from the late medieval period onwards and provide an obvious focus of interest. It is only from the early 16th century onwards that we are commonly able to study houses still standing where they were built — allowing archaeological techniques of recording and interpretation to be brought to bear above ground level. Detailed recording of standing buildings, particularly by bodies such as the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales (RCAHMW), has for many years provided an invaluable means of studying the development of building styles and techniques and the identification of regional styles of architecture.

Small-scale excavations at Althrey Hall clearly show the potential for learning more about the early history and development of houses. Early in the period, it is generally only the grander houses that have survived as standing buildings. Excavation has a particularly important role to play in identifying the forms of peasant dwellings.

One of the other challenges for the future will be to study the social and economic context of buildings of all types and their relationship with the landscapes in which they are found: houses in towns and villages of the kind recently excavated by CPAT in Machynlleth; isolated farmhouses such as Althrey and Penley which lie in the midst of landscape dominated by moated sites and ancient field-systems; peasant dwellings in the uplands, as at Nant y griafolen, Brenig, and more recently studied by CPAT in relation to complex field systems at Ffridd Camen, on the western edge of the Berwyn.

Later in the period there is the challenge to record not only the workers’ houses and settlements which developed during the Industrial Revolution, but also the history and development of the industrial sites themselves — the abandoned mines, ore processing sites, mills and factories particularly of the 17th to 19th centuries — of which often little is known and which are fast disappearing.

Nant y griafolen

Upland house reconstruction

Left: Reconstruction of one of the late 15th to late 16th-century upland houses at Nant y griafolen, Brenig, excavated in 1973–74. © CPAT

Excavations were undertaken between 1971–74 on a variety of upland sites in advance of the construction of the Brenig reservoir, in western Clwyd. Apart from the Bronze Age funerary and ritual structures which formed a focus of the project, excavations were also carried out on a series of late medieval seasonal ‘homesteads’ (known as hafotai in north Wales and hafodydd in mid and south Wales) of a type which are characteristic of the Welsh uplands.

Excavations at Nant y griafolen were funded by the Welsh Office and were carried out by the Rescue Archaeology Group, a freelance team which subsequently formed the nucleus of the staff of CPAT. The sites were restored as part of the archaeological trail opened by Welsh Water in 1977.

Althrey Hall & Penley Old Hall

Recording work undertaken at these two neighbouring late medieval houses in Wrexham Maelor provide good case studies of how the full significance of buildings often only becomes apparent during renovation.

Althrey Hall

Right: Althrey Hall, Clwyd, during the course of renovation work in 1991. The present house, with major alterations during the 17th century, is developed from a 15th-century hall of classic H-shaped plan, with a central hall and a two storeyed cross-wing at each end. © CPAT

Until the 1970s much of the exterior of Althrey Hall was rendered over. Its full importance only became obvious as a result of recording work by the RCAHMW once the outer cladding had been removed. In the interior too, features such as the unique mid-16th century portait of Elis ap Richard and his wife, painted on the plastered walls of their first-floor chamber, were only revealed once later wall-coverings were removed.

Small-scale excavations below ground by CPAT in 1991 revealed the site of the open hearth at the centre of the original central hall, together with evidence that the 15th-century hall had superseded an earlier aisled building, founded on earth-fast posts set in postholes.

Halghton Lodge

Left: Moated site and field system at Halghton Lodge, equidistant from Althrey and Penley, is typical of the extensive medieval and late medieval landscapes surviving in Maelor Saesneg. The territory appears to have been comparatively thinly populated prior to the pacification of the region in the late 13th century. © CPAT 85-C-210

Likewise, until the early 1990s Penley Old Hall was considered no more than a well-matured late 17th- century brick-built farmhouse, typical of the region. Removal of wall and ceiling plaster and internal partitions allowed features previously hidden and unsuspected to be recorded in detail. Concealed within the building was an elaborately painted 16th-century truss which had evidently formed one end of a two-bay timber hall, open to the roof, with ground and first-floor chambers beyond. Extensive remodelling during the late 16th and 17th centuries, including the insertion of ceilings and a chimney, had masked the late medieval origins of the building almost entirely.

Excavation and recording work at Althrey Hall were undertaken with the help of the owners, Mr & Mrs T. Smith. Recording work at Penley Old Hall was undertaken with the permission of the owners, Mr & Mrs Wilson, and with the help of staff of RCAHMW.

Historic Settlement Surveys

Surveys have been undertaken of many hundreds of historic towns and villages on a district by district basis throughout Clwyd and Powys between 1991–94 with the aim of identifying areas of archaeological importance which might be affected by future development.


Right: The stone keep and walled bailey at Tretower, Brecknock, were added to the late 11th-century motte and bailey castle in the early 13th century. Tretower Court (left foreground), a fortified manor house, dates from the 14th century. The late 19th-century church probably lies on the site of a medieval chapel. © CPAT 87-C-83

Many of our towns and villages appear to have been established following the Anglo-Norman conquests, and continued to develop during the late medieval period. Often we know very little about the early history of these settlements — the types of houses that were built in them before about the beginning of the 18th century, and the way of life of the inhabitants. One of the main sources of evidence which will help us to answer these questions is still buried in the ground, below later buildings and in empty plots which may have been occupied by buildings in the past.


Right: Aerial view of Denbigh from the south, with the castle in the foreground. The modern street pattern still reflects the outline of the planned town established at the same time as the castle by the Earl of Lincoln, during the reign of Edward I. The medieval tower of St Hilary’s chapel, the remainder of which was demolished in 1904, is visible just beyond the green outside the castle. © CPAT 85-C-308

More detailed ground surveys have been carried out as a follow-up in some cases, in order to record house platforms and other earthworks representing areas of deserted or shrunken settlement. Most notable among these are surveys undertaken at Llanddew, and at Gwenddwr and Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn in Brecknock, where there are fields containing numerous building platforms and holloways or green lanes marking earlier roads. Detailed ground surveys provide a basis for preserving and managing potentially important areas of early settlement which have remained unaffected by later building.

CPAT is grateful for the funding and help in kind that has been made available for this project by Alyn and Deeside District Council, Brecknock Borough Council, Brecon Beacons National Park, Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments, Colwyn Borough Council, Delyn Borough Council, Glyndwr District Council, Montgomeryshire District Council, Radnorshire District Council, Rhuddlan Borough Council, and Wrexham Maelor Borough Council.

Mine surveys

Penyclun Mine

Left: Cornish engine house and chimney at Penyclun Mine, near Llanidloes, during the course of survey work in 1994. The engine house ran pumps to drain the main shaft of the lead mines. It was built in the 1860s for William Lefaux, the prospector who discovered the lucrative Van lode near Llanidloes. © CPAT

Rapid surveys of nearly 500 abandoned non-ferrous metal mines were undertaken between 1992–93 with the primary aim of promoting the continued preservation of the surviving remains. Many of the sites, which represent important vestiges of our industrial heritage, are inevitably deteriorating over the years, and some continue to be under threat from landscaping schemes designed to tidy up areas of derelict land. Early mining dating from the Bronze Age and Roman periods can be identified in some instances.


Right: Discarded winding gear for the head-gear which lifted cages up and down the main shaft of the Nantiago Lead Mine, Pumlumon. Mining started in 1846 and was abandoned in the 1920s. © CPAT CS921205

A start was made in 1994 to carry out more detailed ground surveys of a number of the better-preserved mine and ore-processing sites which have been recommended for preservation.

Survey work by CPAT on metal mine sites in Clwyd and Powys has been funded by Cadw, Powys County Council, and the Royal Commission (RCAHMW).

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