Amgueddfa Blog: Llanmaes Dig, 2008

Over the last few months you may have seen the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories team on social media using the hashtag ‘Finds Friday’, where we’ve been showcasing some of our wonderful treasure and non-treasure items recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme Cymru.

This month we’d like to focus on two special finds from Wales: The Abergavenny Coin Hoard and a prehistoric feasting site in Llanmaes.

Why these two finds?

Both have been nominated in a nationwide competition, held by the British Museum and The Daily Telegraph, to search for the nation’s favourite treasure item from the ‘Top 20’ list.

2017 marks the 20th anniversary since the passing of the 1996 Treasure Act and items on the ‘Top 20’ list highlight some of the most important treasure discoveries since the Treasure Act.

We might be a tad biased towards which ones we’ll be voting for, but we want to share the history behind these finds as they really do have a story to tell, or in the case of Llanmaes, an enigmatic mystery as to what was actually happening at the site. You can read about the 20 items by clicking this link, and don't forget to vote!

Llanmaes

Our first nomination on the ‘Top 20’ treasure list is a site, rather than a single group of objects. The discovery is a prehistoric feasting place and settlement, uncovered in Llanmaes, in the Vale of Glamorgan.

This important site was discovered following the reporting of a potential treasure find by two metal detectorists in 2003, and excavation continued for the next seven years by archaeologists from the National Museum of Wales, assisted by students from Cardiff University and local volunteers.

The story behind Llanmaes

The earliest remains on the site, dating to about 2150-1950 BC, are the cremated remains of an adult male, which were buried in an urn. It seems that this burial provided the focus for later settlement, which yielded treasure objects such as a gold bead. One mystery object in the shape of a great white shark’s tooth has left archaeologists puzzled. We’re not too sure where it came from or why it was left there!

By the beginning of the Iron Age (about 675 BC) this settlement had been abandoned, but the site continued to be the focus of human activity in the form of feasting, which left behind an extensive midden deposit. This is the first known example from Wales, of a class of middens representing remarkable accumulations of cultural material gathered by communities at the beginning of the Iron Age. This has revealed an extraordinary prehistoric feasting mound, containing thousands of pig bones, further feasting vessels, bronze cauldrons, pottery and axes.

Unexpectedly, nearly three-quarters of the animal bones were from pigs – a far higher proportion than is usual for such deposits, and, even more remarkable is the discovery that the majority of the pigs’ bones were from the right fore-quarter of the animal. Similarly, some of the axe-heads are of a type associated with parts of northern France, so it seems as though people were converging on Llanmaes during the Early Iron Age from a wide area to engage in cultural activities which had clear rules and accepted practices.

Feasting seems to have come to an end at the site during the Roman period, when changing cultural practices made the earlier rituals less appropriate, but evidence of continued Roman occupation suggests that it still held meaning for local people into the 4th century AD.

The community at Llanmaes were closely involved with the excavations over the years, and the National Museum’s Archaeology department brought in a number of school groups to work with artists on creative responses, such as performances, inspired by the site.

Abergavenny hoard

In April 2002 three metal-detectorists had the find of their lives in a field near Abergavenny, Monmouthshire where they found a scattered hoard of 199 silver pennies.

The Abergavenny hoard is the earliest Norman hoard from Wales and provides a vivid picture of monetary circulation in the Welsh March in the 1080s CE. It includes 130 coins of the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor (1042-66) and 69 coins of the Norman king William the Conqueror (1066-87).

Where did they come from?

Norman incursions into Gwent (present-day Monmouthshire) had followed hard on the heels of the conquest of England by Duke William in 1066 and they brought with them the habit of using coins.

The 199 silver pennies provide a rich mixture of issues of Edward the Confessor (1042-66) and William the Conqueror (1066-87); there are coins of 104 moneyers from 36 mints, with Hereford prominent.

The coins had been lost or hidden in a cloth bag, after about 1080 CE and for most people living in that time they would have represented several months’ pay. However, the lack of positive archaeological context makes it impossible to judge whether the coins had been concealed deliberately or were simply lost. We shall probably never know quite why these coins ended up in the corner of a field in Monmouthshire but, as well as expanding our knowledge of the coinage itself, they will cast new light on monetary conditions in the area after the Norman Conquest.

And there we have it, our two treasure finds on the ‘Top 20’ treasures list.

The online voting continues until May 15th, and you can vote for LLanmaes or the Abergavenny Hoard by following this link:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/mood-and-mind/treasure-20-vote-favourite/.

Albany Primary school visited Llanmaes in July and brought with them an uplifting and colourful response to the findings at the archaeological dig. The children explored the possibility of the spiritual significance of what may have been taking place thousands of years ago at this sacred site. Our archaeologists found evidence of what seems to be ceremonial activity at the site in Llanmaes. There also seems to be evidence of artefacts left by visitors from far away lands. Could Llanmaes have been a spiritual centre thousands of years ago? The children of Albany Primary school certainly thought so.

Thanks to the kindness of the local church the pupils of Albany Primary school were able to design and then take part in a non-denominational spiritual ceremony at the local church in Llanmaes.

They wrote affirmations of thanks and praise in recognition of the wonder of life. The children felt that this may have been the type of things that were being celebrated thousands of years ago in Llanmaes. Prayers and affirmations of thanks and praise were left at the altar as can be seen in the film. 

Affirmations of thanks and praise
Affirmations of thanks and praise
Affirmations of thanks and praise
Affirmations of thanks and praise
Affirmations of thanks and praise
Affirmations of thanks and praise
Affirmations of thanks and praise
Affirmations of thanks and praise

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Ysgol Pwll Coch visited the National Museum in Cathays last spring. The pupils looked at the new Origins gallery and in particular the Bronze Age and Iron Age displays. The cauldron was the centre piece and they created music and poetry in response to ideas about cauldron festivals.

This was followed up by a visit to Llanmaes and the archaeological dig where cauldron festivals may have taken place thousands of years ago. The same pupils used drama, dance and music to create their very own cauldron ceremony. The teachers and pupils were thrilled with the exciting learning opportunities this project presented to them. They also had lots and lots of fun doing it as you can tell from their two films and the Spooky Cauldron music they composed!

The first film shows their spooky cauldron dancing to their spooky cauldron music. In the second film they composed a march of the mochyn (pig). This was in response to the fact that the archaeologists had found lots of pig bones on the site at Llanmaes. Who knows perhaps the march of the mochyn was also being performed thousands of years ago! 

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Machen Primary school also visited the National museum in spring last year and followed up this visit with a trip to the archaeological dig at Llanmaes. The children focussed on the importance of cauldrons in the Bronze and Iron Ages. They learnt about the possible ceremony that may have taken place at Llanmaes involving the ceremonial tearing of cauldrons. This inspired them to re-create their own cauldron tearing ceremony. Poetry, music and the actions/movements of the ceremony itself were designed by the children. Then a sacred cauldron tearing ceremony took place on the very same spot where it may have taken place thousands of years ago.  One word kept being spoken by the children to describe their experiences: "Awesome!".

The archaeological dig at Llanmaes was visited by two local schools from Llantwit Major. Pupils from both schools went in search of evidence of perhaps their ancestors from the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Llanilltud Fawr primary school composed music inspired by the idea that feasting festivals may have once taken place on the site. The unusually large size of the midden found on site seems to indicate that feasting and partying may have take place in Llanmaes during the Bronze Age and Iron Age. The children used this idea to inspire them to compose their own special feasting music. The pupils decided that the feats may have been full of ceremony and magic and so their magical music reflects these ideas.

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Sant Illtud Primary school composed their music inspired by the idea that acts of worship and celebration may have taken place in Llanmaes during the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Objects found in the midden may hint at some kind of ritualistic placing of them perhaps part of some sacred ceremony. The children certainly thought that this may have been why such a large midden had been unearthed containing so man valuable objects. Therefore their music is celebratory, spiritual, uplifting, and full of awe and wonder!

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