Following on from my little piece in the main magazine about the world’s best archaeological discoveries of all time, I thought I’d share with you a quick list of what I consider to be the very best of what Wales has to offer. We have some cool stuff, some of which has proved to be of great importance.
In the usual way I shall leave the best for last – but without that silly drawn out pause so beloved of cheap television programs in a vain attempt to build up some drama. I would dearly love to shake some sense into the people who do that.
5. At number five is a collection of Bronze Age axes. What’s the big deal? Bronze axes are ten a penny, surely? Well, not quite that common but certainly very unusual when found in a group of nine, all lined up nicely, having been carefully buried. They are of slightly different sizes and styles, which suggests to me that they weren’t all made by the same person. A very expensive set of axes in their day, to be sure.
They were found on farmland in Colwinston, Vale of Glamorgan in 2012 by a metal detectorist. Fortunately they were reported and the Museum of Wales declared them to be from about 1000 BC. They were later declared to be treasure at an inquest in Cardiff. As they were buried in a very orderly manner, it’s thought by archaeologists that they may have been a gift to the gods.
That’s what annoys me about archaeologists, anything hard to explain always gets put down to religion. Could it not simply be that the guy who made them, or bought them, hid them? Crime isn’t a modern invention and there wasn’t exactly a police force at the time, so a bunch of axes would have been of great value, both as weapons and tools. They represent a leap in technology from stone tools to the modern equivalent of going from a hacksaw to a computer guided laser cutter. So not something you’d leave lying around for a thief to take a fancy to.
Source: BBC News South East Wales.
4. The Seven Sisters Hoard. Discovered in 1875 by a farmer near the village of Seven Sisters in South Wales. An odd mix of bronze items such as horse harness pieces and tankard handles. They were found alongside some early Roman cavalry items which were used to date the finds to the Roman period. Nice and simple. Even an office archaeologist could date them.
That they were buried together has caused some head-scratching but it at least suggests that the local Celts didn’t take the Roman invasion lying down. I’m betting that they were taken as spoils after a bit of a battle. It’s not widely known that the Romans had a fort in the area, and built roads like Sarn Helen in an attempt to control the region. On the whole, they failed, the weather and resistance up there isn’t what the Romans were used to and they eventually went away – probably with heavy colds.
The items are now on display at the National Museum of Wales as ‘The Seven Sisters Hoard’. Isn’t it lucky the finder didn’t simply sell them off or put them into a private collection? Actually they sort of were, the finder gave them to his kids as toys and it wasn’t until much later that the local doctor recognised their significance and they were then handed in and declared a find of great importance. I’d like to think the kids got a train set by way of compensation but they hadn’t been invented.
Source: Dulais Valley Heritage Trail.
3. Roman Coin Hoard in Powys. This was found by another metal detectorist, Andrew Simmons. The exact location is, of course, still secret while the archaeologists go in and excavate the area. All we know for now is that it was in a field in Montgomery, not far from the Roman fort near Forden.
Something like 4,000 copper coins were discovered. They guy’s detector must have gone mental when it picked up that lot. Now there’ll be an inquest and a coroner will decide if it’s actually treasure trove, in which case it will belong to the Crown. If not it belongs to the land owner. Lucky guy if so.
It may be worth noting here that if you intend to detect on private land it’s as well to come to some sort or arrangement beforehand as to what sort of division of the spoils is called for. I’d get it in writing too, because you never know what’s down there and it’s too late to haggle when they’re on eBay.
I think it’s about time I got me one of them detector things. Anyone got a good second hand one for sale? Anyone local need a real ex-digger for company? I could sure use the exercise.
Getting back to why this find makes it into my little list, Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT) said “the discovery had the potential to reveal more about Roman life in Mid Wales in the late 3rd century”.
The coins were found inside a pot. So far nobody’s suggested it was a religious thing so I’m going to dive in with my own theory, namely that some wealthy but careful person buried them to keep them safe. What happened after that to prevent him or her from retrieving them is a mystery. Death is probable though, they were tough times.
If you fancy a sad story about the coins, picture this: a humble servant girl carefully stashes away a little of her pay every week in a little pot in the ground, only to die young, as most did back then, without disclosing their location.
Incidentally, if the coins are declared treasure trove, the finder does get paid a fee. So finders may not always be keepers, but they won’t be out of pocket by reporting the find.
Source: Wales Online.
2. More Roman Coins. This time though they were silver, therefore more treasure-like. 599 silver denarii were found, again inside a little pot, made locally, in Llanvaches, Newport in 2006. One of the finest hoards of silver coins from the 2nd Century AD.
They show various Roman Emperors, Nero, Hadrian etc. Not surprisingly, Llanvaches is situated between two important Roman sites, namely Caerleon, site of the second Augustan’s fortress, and the old tribal capital, Venta Silurium, near Caerwent, also a big name in archaeological terms.
Anyone wanting to see this excellent hoard, as well as a whole lot of other amazing Roman stuff, can find them on display at the National Roman Legion Museum in Caerleon. Kids love the place.
As a side note, the denarius is the D in the old UK Imperial currency system £.S.D. The D being a penny. Given the relative value of the penny, that hoard represents over two years’ pay for someone back then so it’s unlikely to have been simply mislaid.
Source: National Museum Wales.
1. The number one Welsh discovery. So good it makes it onto both lists. The Red Lady Of Paviland. Actually a misnomer as the remains are of a young man, but that doesn’t prevent the discovery, in my opinion, being the most important find in Wales, and unless Atlantis is found here it’s probably always going to be so. It’s a fairly complete Upper Paleolithic-era human male skeleton dyed in red ochre.
He was discovered in 1823 by Rev. William Buckland in a cave on the Gower Peninsular in South Wales. It was later radio carbon dated and found to be 33,000 years old. It is therefore the oldest ceremonial burial of a human anywhere in Western Europe. Awesome!
Along with the bones were also discovered a mammoth’s skull and several ornamental items. The mammoth’s skull was later lost. Just how do you lose a mammoth’s skull? It’s not like it could drop behind the sofa cushions, it’s the size of a small car.
As some idea of how long ago this young man lived, while the cave he was found in is now on the coast, at the time it was some 70 miles inland and overlooked a plain.
Source: British Archaeology (CBA) Stephen Aldhouse-Green.
Finally, as a former field archaeologist, I feel that I should point out that anyone finding historical items in the ground ought to check out the guidelines on a Council For British Archaeology website at http://new.archaeologyuk.org/best-practice for what best to do.
Digging up finds and selling them or putting in your private collection should be illegal but strangely isn’t. The loss to our national knowledge is huge. Metal detectors are excellent when used correctly and these days most site directors work with detectorists. That way the finds can be properly recorded, then everyone’s happy.