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Excavation in Betws yn Rhos, Abergele


Excavations have recently been completed in advance of a small housing development in the village of Betws-yn-Rhos, which lies approximately 5km to the south-west of Abergele. The site was originally investigated by CPAT in 2004 when trial excavations revealed the remains of a medieval timber-framed building along the street frontage and evidence of prehistoric activity elsewhere on the site.

work in progress

Right: Work in progress removing the riverine and hillwash deposits sealing the prehistoric archaeology.

During the initial site clearance it became clear that the western end of the area contained a significant depth of redeposited material. Much of this is likely to have been relatively recent, perhaps dating from the 19th and 20th centuries, having been dumped downslope from the neighbouring plots. Beneath this, however, the excavations revealed a sequence of riverine deposits and hill-wash which appeared to represent several major periods of deposition. Some of the deposits sealed archaeological horizons, most notably a group of Neolithic features which were sealed beneath a single riverine deposit that itself contained fragments of Early Bronze Age Beaker ware. Although it was not possible to determine the exact sequence and nature of these deposits within the excavated area, they clearly indicate major changes in the course and level of the stream which now forms the southern limit of the development plot.

Prehistoric activity

prehistoric activity

Right: Overall view of the area of prehistoric activity.

At the lowest levels of the excavation a series of features were identified at the western end of the site. In broad terms the features represent three main phases of occupation from the early Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The earliest feature was an irregular gully which produced five sherds and several scraps of Middle Neolithic Peterborough Ware. The gully was truncated by two later features, a small pit and a second gully. A fine rim sherd with twisted cord decoration of Middle Neolithic Peterborough (Mortlake) Ware, together with seven similar, but undecorated sherds and two fragments of pottery were recovered from the base of the gully.

Beaker

Left: Decorated Beaker Ware.

A number of other small pits and possible post-holes were identified, some of which contained sherds of possible Early Neolithic pottery, together with a flint blade and several flakes.

Medieval activity

The 2004 evaluation revealed a number of features and deposits close to the street frontage which indicated the presence of medieval occupation, generally sealed beneath a layer containing 16th-century pottery.

At the northern end of the trench the natural subsoil was sealed by a series of thin deposits which gave the impression of possible occupation layers interspersed with a silty hill-wash. Two linear slots were identified running parallel to each other, and aligned east to west, both extending beyond the limits of the excavation on the eastern side. A line of rounded sandstone blocks extended from the southern end of slots forming a single-course sleeper wall, 2.5m in length.

The features appear to represent the remains of a timber building along the street frontage, with sill beams laid in a slot at the northern end and resting on a sleeper wall to the south, levelling the sloping ground. The second slot may have been a drainage gully associated with the building, or possibly part of an earlier sill-beam structure.

Post-medieval activity

The excavations revealed the base of a sub-circular, stone-built lime kiln, constructed of large, roughly hewn limestone and sandstone blocks, set within a clay-lined construction trench. The walls of the kiln tapered towards the base, and survived to one or two courses above the surface of the subsoil, giving internal dimensions at the top of 2.7m from north to south and 2.4m from east to west, and narrowing by around 0.5m at the base. There was clear evidence for burning on the inner face of the walls and the surrounding subsoil had been considerably fire-reddened. The nature of the fire-reddening and differential decomposition of the limestone suggested that the kiln had not had a long period of use. he kiln had a single draw hole on the south-western side, part of which was stone-lined

lime kiln

Right: Excavated lime kiln from the south-west, with the draw hole in the foreground.

Beyond the excavation and to the north of the kiln, were the standing remains of a stone-built structure, surviving to a height of around 3m, which are likely to be associated with a cottage depicted in approximately this position on the Tithe Survey. Apart from the standing northern wall, the remaining walls and interior floor surfaces had been removed, leaving only robbing trenches, indicating a building around 13.6m in length and 7.5m wide, the southern extent of which had truncated the upper levels of the kiln.

Conclusions

The excavations have revealed significant evidence of several phases of activity on the site from the Early Neolithic period until the present day. Although the initial archaeological interest in the development plot focused on the potential for medieval activity along the street frontage, the excavations have uncovered important, if rather enigmatic, evidence for prehistoric activity, comprising a series of pits and gullies with associated artefacts dating from the Early and Middle Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age. Although the nature of the activity is uncertain, and there are no features which directly indicate habitation or permanent occupation of the site, it is interesting that a small area should have been the focus of activity over such a long period.

No prehistoric finds have been recorded previously from Betws-yn-Rhos, but a famous hoard of experimental bronze palstaves was found on the slopes of Moelfre Uchaf, some 2km south-west of the village centre, suggesting that bronze smiths at the forefront of technological change were living in the vicinity some 1400 years later (Lynch et al 2000, 103). Although the evidence is tenuous, these new finds of Early and Middle Neolithic pottery suggest that occupation may have begun around 3500 cal BC and continued through to the Early Bronze Age, here represented by the finely decorated Beaker ware.

The 2004 evaluation revealed evidence for medieval occupation along the street frontage, comprising the remains of a timber building, with sill beams laid in a slot at the northern end and resting on a sleeper wall to the south, levelling the sloping ground. A second slot may have been a drainage gully associated with the building, or possibly part of an earlier sill-beam structure. These features were sealed beneath a layer containing 16th-century pottery.

Another unexpected discovery was the base of a limekiln which, although undated at present, is thought likely to date from the post-medieval period. The surviving structure of the limekiln suggests that it was a fairly basic type known as a 'flare kiln', which was commonly used for small-scale agricultural lime burning, as well as small construction projects from the Roman period until the 19th century. The kiln would have been loaded with limestone from the top, the roughly hewn blocks being placed to form an arch over the base of the kiln, leaving a void into which wood was placed to fuel the kiln. The burnt lime is likely to have been unloaded from the top to prevent the lime becoming contaminated with ash. Although there was no artefactual evidence to date the kiln it is intended to submit a sample of charcoal for radiocarbon dating.

More recent occupation included a stone-built cottage which had partly truncated the limekiln, the surviving remains of which were limited to a standing section of one gable wall and robber trenches indicating the position of the remaining walls.


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