The Early Medieval ‘British Isles’

Archaeodeath

2000px-British_Isles_Euler_diagram_15.svg ‘The British Isles’ euler diagram from wikipedia

I’ve just received critical comments back on my co-edited book project: Early Medieval Stone Monuments by the publisher’s anonymous reviewer. The review is very positive and Boydell and Brewer are publishing this book later this year.

One point intrigued me. The referee questioned our use of a geographical term in our draft book manuscript, bearing in mind our book deals with early medieval stone monuments with chapters from authors dealing with monuments in Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland. Her objection was to our use of the term ‘British Isles’. We should use ‘Britain and Ireland’ instead, she said. Well, I guess ‘British Isles’ is a modern term, not an early medieval one, but this is very interesting. How much do we need to purge our academic texts of terms that ‘might offend’ someone, somewhere? How much does it matter that we are understood and are…

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Arenig Home of the Tylwyth Teg

Arenig fawr from llyn tegid

In the wild and lonely hills of Arenig Fawr it difficult to imagine how many people lived up there once upon a time .

The Arenig Fawr uplands archaeological survey was undertaken in 2010 by the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments in Wales .

The survey covered approximately 32 square kilometres of the mountainous region to the west of Bala and Brynn Celyn, including a detached area of common land on the north side of  the town of Bala
The landscape is characterised by steep craggy slopes and open moorland and
lies almost entirely between the 230m and 850m contours. The survey was conducted
by walking regular 30m transepts and aimed to identify archaeological sites of all
periods.

A total of 935 sites were recorded. A few are classified as prehistoric and more of that period  may yet be discovered . The formation of peat in the later prehistoric period may account for the  lower numbers of recognisable sites prior to the early medieval period

We do know from the archaeological remains that  there is a ‘cairnfield’  near Amnodd Wen

Amnodd wen 1 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The burial cairn Moel yr Eglwys  – the bare summit of the church must once have been very impressive before it was robbed of it’s stones for a modern shelter . The believe was – and still is in many areas that these mounds are the home of the old people and the fairies and should never be disturbed.

Moel yr Eglwys cairn.topThe Royal Commission on Historic Monuments for Wales has this to say

There were very few prehistoric sites. A large cairn on the summit of Arenig Fawr has
been considerably mutilated, and the cairn material has spread beyond its original
circumference (nprn 43852) (fig 3). It was built on the highest point of the ridge of hills,
and has a near panoramic view of surrounding lowlands, blocked only on the southwest
side. Summit cairns are common in Merionethshire and it has been suggested that
they were reserved for high-status burials, on sites chosen because they are
conspicuous from a distance (Smith 2003, 115-16). The cairn has a drystone shelter
built on to its summit, as well as a memorial to an air crew that crashed on the
mountain in 1944, and a modern concrete triangulation pillar. Its names, Eglwys
Glominog and Moel yr Eglwys, are not readily explicable. A tradition that a hermit’s cell
was built on the summit of Arenig Fawr was current in the early modern period, and
was well known enough for an engraving of it to appear in a posthumous edition of
William Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum (1776), although it is almost certain that
Stukeley never visited the site (RCAHMW 1921, 147). Such stories may have derived
from the presence of stone shelters on the summit, one of which may have been
misinterpreted as the ruins of a chapel. The ‘chapel’ has remained part of the local
folklore

 There is a report of their findings at this link http://www.rcahmw.gov.uk/media/312.pdf

There is a cairn at Cefn Coch (nprn 303153), a summit cairn on a low ridge below

The wild isolation of the place has given rise to much folklore  and it’s easy to see how the imagination can run wild up here in the land of the Tylwyth Teg anything can happen …The following  story by J. H. Roberts written  in Welsh in Edwards’ Cymru for 1897, p. 190:  tells us that the belief in the fair folk who lived on the hills was still strong in the Nineteenth century

In the western end of the Arennig Fawr there is a cave: in fact there are several caves there, and some of them are very large too; but there is one to which the finger of tradition points as an ancient abode of theTylwyth Teg. About two generations ago, the shepherds of that country used to be enchanted by one of them called Mary, who was remarkable for her beauty. Many an effort was made to catch her or to meet her face to face, but without success, as she was too quick on her feet. She used to show herself day after day, and she might be seen, with her little harp, climbing the bare slopes of the mountain. In misty weather when the days were longest in summer, the music she made used to be wafted by the breeze to the ears of the love-sick shepherds. Many a time had the boys of the Filltir Gerrig heard sweet singing when passing the cave in the full light of day, but they were subject to some spell, so that they never ventured to enter. But the shepherd of Boch y Rhaiadr had a better view of the fairies one Allhallows night (ryw noson Galangaeaf) when returning home from a merry-making at Amnodd. On the sward in front of the cave what should he see but scores of the Tylwyth Teg singing and dancing! He never saw another assembly in his life so fair, and great was the trouble he had to resist being drawn into their circles.’

Another story which may echo the memory of  hoards which were a feature of the Bronze and Iron ages was mentioned in the  ‘The Welsh Fairy Book’ by W. Jenkyn Thomas (1908) which can be read at Sacred Texts http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/wfb/index.htm

There is no end of treasure hidden in the mountains of Wales, but if you are not the person for whom it is intended, you will probably not find it. Even if you do find it, you will not be able to secure it, unless it is destined for you.

There is a store of gold in a hillock near Arenig Lake, and Silvanus Lewis one day took his pickaxe and shovel to find it. No sooner had he commenced to dig in earnest than he heard a terrible, unearthly noise under his feet. The hillock began to rock like a cradle, and the sun clouded over until it became pitch dark. Lightning flashes began to shoot their forked streaks around him and pealing thunders to roar over his head. He dropped his pickaxe and hurried helter-skelter homewards to Cnythog. Before he reached there everything was beautifully calm and serene. But he was so frightened that he never returned to fetch his tools. Many another man has been prevented in the same way from continuing his search.

Similar stories are found over Wales . It’s said that a woman guards the gold treasure which stil lies hidden on Moel Arthur in the Clwydian Range . Woe betide any antiquarian who she catches trying to dig her treasure up ..and quite right too .

Tylwyth teg. 1

The theme of the burial mound as the dwelling of the Old People is something we will be looking at in much greater depth as we travel around the Dee Valley and North Wales collecting our images and stories

Tripping in the Neolithic – a few thoughts on projects in the Dee Valley

Branas Uchaf trees c-rgb_cecc_springfiled_neolithic_cursus_gardiner_watercolour

Did you know ? During what we call the Neolithic in Wales the bones from cremations may have been distributed and interred around many locations on the landscape as a claim to the land in a world of interconnected relations between groups, ancestral places that we don’t understand ..
Power, knowledge, control , social relationships we can guess at . Who their gods were , what their rituals really meant we haven’t really a clue . Archaeologists can only interpret what excavation reports tell us . We can connect with monuments and landscapes and form our own conclusions but the truth is we really don’t know very much about the social, political and personal lives of people who who have left their mark upon the land we now call Wales .

What I do believe is that they were highly intelligent gifted people much like us and that they constructed monuments which have endured for around 6000 years . I can’t imagine many of our modern structures lasting for as long. The ‘houses for the dead’ as they are called dominate the landscape in some areas whilst the houses of the living are long since disappeared

Barclodiad Y Gawres Neolithic Chambered Tomb, Anglesey 

Barcloddiad y Gawres Anglesey before reconstruction

Barcloddiad y Gawres Anglesey before reconstruction

 

We need to research the area of the Dee Valley , to record the monuments and sites we can see on the ground but to also undertake a thorough literature review on all available sources for sites which have disappeared .

Unlike areas like Anglesey which I have highlighted here in the illustrations unfortunately we haven’t received the same acknowledgement and research attention , due I think to the area falling outside the interests of academic institutions and departments .

My own feeling is that we have a ‘ritual’ landscape equal to anywhere in Britain . There’s mention of a lost cursus monument near Corwen which indicates some important ritual activity going on – my own guess is that the River was closely connected to the  underlying thought processes that promoted the construction of many of the monuments here through out the Neolithic and Bronze Age . If we try to look at the possible relationships between what  we do have some evidence for – such as neolithic chambered tombs  ie Tan y Coed, Brans Uchaf and Gwerglas in relationship to the wider landscape I think we have a challenging  but fascinating project for the future .

Chambered cairns Tan y Coed Gwerclas cairn  kerb at entrance CADVAS

Living in the Past – Where do we go from here ? A Random Ramble

Moel ty Uchaf1

This isn’t really about the past it’s about me and the blog ! Just recently I’ve been wondering , in archaeological and research terms where to go from here – the Dee Valley that is .

Some of the most unresearched sites and monuments are to be found in the Dee Valley . Excavations and university department interests have been lamentably scarce in this part of the world .

Bryn Celli Ddu Offerings

Unlike the better known monuments such as Bryn Celli Ddu (above) on Anglesey the Dee Valley is relatively little understood throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Age and only begins to emerge in the archaeological record around the Iron Age . By around 600BC we begin to see the development of what we call hillforts , the large impressive hilltop settlements which crown the hills around the Vale of Clwyd and in lesser numbers  the Dee Valley . Suddenly we become more aware through the physical presence of the defended settlements , of what is around us in historic terms .

Caer drewen Corwen 1.

Take for example the defended hilltop settlement of Caer Drewyn which  around 2500 years since the great walls were constructed, still  keeps a watchful eye over Corwen and the surrounding area. From the top of the hill it’s possible to see for miles….and miles . When I stand up on the hill and look towards the numerous hillforts of the Clwydian range I try very hard to imagine what was going on in the domestic, social, and political world of the people who lived within these walls a couple of thousand years ago .   What did they think of their neighbours  a few miles away ? Were they related? Did young people walk miles to meet lovers they had met at communal gatherings and the Iron Age equivalent of  fairs? What did they eat? What did they wear and where where they buried ?

Corwen Caer Drewyn 1 Caer drewyn reconstructed

I’ve decided one of my quests is to find out how these people lived and that means a trip back to my favourite place the neolithic …… so gather round the fire for the next story ….coming soon

Talk Round House Fire

So

The Founding of Llangar Church..the alternative version

Llangar Church is situated in a lovely spot near to the  confluence of the River Dee and its tributary the Alwen .

Llangar meeting at rivers

In folklore and myth the place where rivers meet is said to have special symbolism . These are ‘thin’ places where the veil is especially thin and unexplained occurrences are likely to take place .These ‘in-between’ places were often associated with a river deity who would have been honoured there . This practice has not died out and will be discussed in future articles

This is especially true when it comes to explaining how and why the church was built

Interestingly archaeological excavations have found nothing of the early, pre- fifteenth century church and this story may go some way to explain why!

As you approach the church along a path lined with gravestones listen carefully as you approach for it has been reported that singing and chanting have been heard from the empty church .

Lychgate 1731

Lychgate 1731

The present custodian of the church tells the story of what happened to him one morning as he was walking along the path to open up the church. Not a man who would take such things lightly he thought that he left a CD playing when he had locked the church the day before. He tells of hearing singing as he neared the church. It suddenly occurred to him that the music he played on his CD was accompanied by music and what he could hear was unaccompanied voices singing . He opened the door quietly and slowly and as he did so the music stopped. The church was empty.

Somethings can’t be explained, it seems this area has a few stories to tell regarding unseen forces at work the door has three Daisy Wheels carved into it

One of three daisy Wheels Carved into the Church door

One of three daisy Wheels Carved into the Church door

Daisy Wheels are symbols used to protect from evil, witches and to bring good luck. They date from around the fifteenth century and were often incorporated into the structure of the building by craftsmen. The reasons behind the three Daisy Wheels on the door are lost now but what ever prompted three – a symbolic number itself was something very significant to the local people who must have had very good reason to fear some force unseen around the church.

Llangar door from porchLlangar sharpening

Portals /Doorways have always had a special significance . Here at Llangar the doorway has evidence for  the sharpening axes and swords and possibly  sickles and arrowheads. Churches weren’t solely for the worship of God they were meeting places for social gatherings, sometimes places of refuge and the focus of the local communities to gather and exchange gossip and strike deals .

This is a magical place with a sad foundation legend concerning a white deer . The name is said to have originated from the events surrounding the hunting of the deer in order to find a suitable location for a new church, hence  Llann-Garw-Gwyn the church of the white deer. Part of the story is told in the wall paintings along the church walls

The Llangar Deer

The Llangar Deer

According to Elias Owen in his Welsh Folklore a Collection of the Folk-Tales and legends of North Wales 1887  ‘the tradition is that Llangar Church was to have been built near the spot where the Cynwyd Bridge crosses the Dee. Indeed we are told that the masons set to work but all the stones they laid in the day were gone during the night none knew wither. The builders were warned , supernaturally , that they must seek a spot where on hunting a ‘Carw Gwyn /White Stag would  be started . They did so and Llangar is the result . from this circumstance the church was called llan-Garw-gwyn and from this name the transition to Llangar is easy ( taken from the gossiping Guide to Wales p128)

I find in a document written by the rural Dean for the guidance of the Bishop of St.Asaph in 1729, that the stag was startled in a thicket where the church of Llangar now stands . And the (as the tradition is) the boundaries of the parish were settled for ’em by this poor deer where he was forc’d to run for his life , there lye their bounds . He at last fell and the place where he was killed is to this day called Moel y Lladdfa or the Hill of Slaughter ‘

LLangar widow

Whether this story has any basis in reality we can never know and on this occasion  I hope not !

No visit to All Saints Llangar is complete with just standing and soaking up the atmosphere around and within this beautiful church . The location is lovely and the interior of the church a wonder with it’s wall paintings, graffiti ,  and windows

Llangar door and entrance Llangar Wall painting

.Why not sit a while in the upper gallery and give some thought to the white deer , the singing voices and the Daisy Wheel and who knows what you might see and hear …

Lepars window

Lepars window

Llangar corwen+Lepers window LLangar widow

The foundation of Llangar Church Part One

Llangar Church path

Llangar Old Church dates from at least the thirteenth century when it is mentioned in documents . The use of the site may be much earlier .

The following extract from CPAT provides a background to the history of the church. Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust Historic Settlement Survey – Denbighshire – 2014

Set in a remote spot where the confluence of the River Dee and its tributary the Alwen creates
unusually extensive low-lying levels, Llangar church is set into a steep west-facing hillside
just above the main river with the Berwyn massif providing a back drop. The B4401, a former
turnpike road linking Bala and Llangollen, runs along the valley edge above the site, while a
now dismantled railway between the same two centres has left its terraced course immediately
below the churchyard. Corwen is less than 2km to the north-east. Llangar was in Merionnydd
until 1974 when it was transferred to Clwyd and in turn to Denbighshire in 1996.
This brief report examines the emergence and development of Llangar up to the year 1750.
For the more recent history of the settlement, it might be necessary to look at other sources of
information and in particular at the origins and nature of the buildings within it.

The continuous line defining the historic core offers a visual interpretation of the area within
which the settlement developed, based on our interpretation of the evidence currently to hand.
It is not an immutable boundary line, and will require modification as new discoveries are
made.

Llangar skeleton

History of development
The earliest reference in the Norwich Taxation of 1254 is to Langar with a similar spelling in
the later taxation of 1291, and Llangar in a document of 1292/3, revealing little change to the
place-name over eight centuries. There were, however, minor variations over the centuries, as
in 1370 when we read of Thlangair in Edeyrnyon. Archdeacon Thomas claimed that there was
another old name for the parish, Llan-garw-gwyn, but Melville Richards’ place-name archive
indicates that this term was current only in the 18th century.
According to Samuel Lewis in the earlier part of the 19th century, the name was derived from
‘an ancient fortification which formerly occupied the summit of a hill called Caer Wern, in the
immediate vicinity of the church, and of which there are still some vestiges…’. This
interpretation has found little favour in more recent times and the late Derek Pratt argued for a
personal name ‘Car’, related to modern Welsh ‘car’ meaning kinsman or friend.
There is no record of a settlement here, excepting the nearby farm of Stamp and the loosely
nucleated settlement of Bryn Saint, 300m higher up the slope. The latter was certainly in
existence in the mid-19th century, but how much earlier is impossible to ascertain. Edward
Lhuyd’s correspondent at the very end of the 17th century made a point of noting the absence
of any house by the church.

The heritage to 1750
The church of All Saints (100815), from 1967 a guardianship site in the care of Cadw, is at
least as old as the 13th century, but it is probable that there has been a church or chapel on the
site since before the Conquest. Much of the structure is post-medieval, and date stones in the
walls indicate rebuilding between 1615 and 1620 and the erection of the porch in 1617. The
west wall was rebuilt sometime after 1656 and again in the early 17th century. Excavations in
the 1970s found nothing pre-dating the 14th century. The church however escaped
Victorianisation, largely because it was superseded, in 1856, by a new church in Cynwyd.
The windows are largely of 17th- and 18th-century date. A simple exterior is matched
internally by stone-flagged floors, box pews, a three-deck pulpit and a west gallery. From the
medieval era there are roof trusses and fragmentary wall paintings (with others of the 18th
century), and a font that is 12th or 13th-century.
The churchyard (19761) is of irregular shape, as a result of extensions, and set on a relatively
steep slope. An original curvilinear form is suggested on the south side and on both the west
and east there are traces of an earlier boundary within the present enclosure, the former
merging with the platform supporting the church itself. The lychgate on the south side carries
a date of 1731.

Llangar Graves

Earthworks (100829) have been recorded in the past in the bracken-covered field to the north
of the church and in pasture just to the east of the main road. The former may be no more than
a medieval or later lynchet and perhaps a quarry, while the significance of the others is
uncertain. The track leading to the church from the south is certainly of some antiquity and is edged by flattish ground suitable for occupation.
Hafod-yr-afr (104521), some 300m to the east of the church is recorded as a cusped cruckframed
house of post-medieval date. Its inclusion here underlines the dispersed nature of local
settlement and the absence of any nucleated community.

The heritage to 1750

The church of All Saints (100815), from 1967 a guardianship site in the care of Cadw, is at least as old as the 13th century, but it is probable that there has been a church or chapel on the site since before the Conquest. Much of the structure is post-medieval, and date stones in the walls indicate rebuilding between 1615 and 1620 and the erection of the porch in 1617. The west wall was rebuilt sometime after 1656 and again in the early 17th century. Excavations in the 1970s found nothing pre-dating the 14th century. The church however escaped Victorianisation, largely because it was superseded, in 1856, by a new church in Cynwyd.

The windows are largely of 17th- and 18th-century date. A simple exterior is matched
internally by stone-flagged floors, box pews, a three-deck pulpit and a west gallery. From the
medieval era there are roof trusses and fragmentary wall paintings (with others of the 18th
century), and a font that is 12th or 13th-century.

Llangar beams. from gallery
The churchyard (19761) is of irregular shape, as a result of extensions, and set on a relatively
steep slope. An original curvilinear form is suggested on the south side and on both the west
and east there are traces of an earlier boundary within the present enclosure, the former
merging with the platform supporting the church itself. The lychgate on the south side carries
a date of 1731.
Earthworks (100829) have been recorded in the past in the bracken-covered field to the north
of the church and in pasture just to the east of the main road. The former may be no more than
a medieval or later lynchet and perhaps a quarry, while the significance of the others is
uncertain. The track leading to the church from the south is certainly of some antiquity and is
edged by flattish ground suitable for occupation.
Hafod-yr-afr (104521), some 300m to the east of the church is recorded as a cusped cruckframed
house of post-medieval date. Its inclusion here underlines the dispersed nature of local
settlement and the absence of any nucleated community.

However there are other forces at play when it comes to finding the right spot to found a church in medieval Wales ..if you stand in the upper gallery and look around the story of the church is painted on the walls . The church has a few secrets including the Daisy wheels carved into the door and the story of ghostly singing when the church is empty. These will be discussed in part 2

Llangar Gallery

Llangar Gallery

Llangar down aisle to gallery