Hen Gastell, Llanwnda

Blog by Jane Kenney, Site Director










The Final Conclusion

We have now had all the specialist reports back and a further 10 radiocarbon dates and can make some final conclusions about the site.

The site certainly dates to the 11th or 12th centuries AD with no trace of earlier or later activity in the inner platform. However, we did find the remains of a possible building in the infilled ditch during the trial trenching, so the monument was reused centuries after it had been abandoned.

The pits with slag in the middle of the excavation trench were remains of a blacksmithy and dated from the same time as the building, so the smith must have been working inside the building.

It has still not been possible to decide whether the building we found in the excavation was a timber tower or a rectangular hall with a rounded end. Only further excavation would prove that.

We haven’t quite finished as a bit more work is needed on the metal-working debris and one of the charred plant remains samples. We now need to produce a final report for publication and are getting professional artefact drawings done for that. However none of that will change the conclusions.

The old people who named this site were right, as usual, and this was a type of small medieval castle, perhaps more like a manor house than a real castle. It was occupied in the 11th or 12th centuries AD by someone of significance who could afford to hire a blacksmith to make the knives and nails and other small items that the house needed. He could also afford some fancy bronze or brass decorations on his belt or horse harness and perhaps a touch of gold, even if it was only really gilt. The house was occupied for no more than about four generations, perhaps much less, and then abandoned. Some of the posts of the house were pulled out, possibly to be reused, but others left to rot. The site was then forgotten until, may be in the 16th or 17th century, a small farmhouse was built in the infilled ditch. This was replaced by the current farmhouse.

To find out more download the report on the excavation from the website. This has all the specialist reports and other details. Alternatively download the summary, which is easier to read and available in Welsh.

Decorated strap end and decorative studs


Iron Knife

9 July 2014

Last Thursday and Friday the mini-digger opened our main trench at Hen Gastell, under my careful supervision. The turf and mixed ploughsoil were removed to expose layers with undisturbed archaeology. If we had to do this by hand it would have taken all three weeks of the dig just to open the trench. A large canteen and other facilities were delivered so that we have some comfort on the dig, and the farmer and his wife (Tom and Barbara) were very helpful in getting everything in place and sorted out.

On Monday the first volunteers arrived and the first job was paperwork and a health and safety induction but eventually they got on to site and we could start work. The main trench is in the middle of the monument. This trench needed a basic clean to get rid of the loose soil left by the digger. Everyone worked really hard and got the hang of trowelling quickly despite most never having done any before, so most of the trench had been cleaned by the end of the day. There were some threats of rain and a slight shower the weather was generally very good.

Tuesday some new volunteers and some returning from yesterday. Now we can see things a bit better we can target more detailed cleaning to define features more clearly. Neil and Dan (GAT staff) took some hardy volunteers to open a smaller new trench over and behind the outer bank. This was deturfed by hand, which was hard work. We will get the visiting school children to start trowelling this trench down for us, but we hope to use it to investigate the outer bank that surrounds the northern side of the monument. The sky turned very dark at one point and there was a few spots of rain but again the weather was very pleasant.

Even though we have only just started archaeology is showing through. We have dumps of material that formed the low bank around the interior of the monument and dark splodges across the main trench appear to be cut features (holes dug by people in the past that have been infilled by different coloured soil to the natural gravels). I don't want to speculate just yet what we might have but I'm hoping for the traces of a building. We will see what tomorrow brings.

10 July 2014

Work has been going really well at Hen Gastell. The supervisors really had to keep running around all day as training gets properly underway. Yesterday we finished cleaning the site and I took a photograph of the whole site. You can start to see the differences in colour showing through. The dark patches are possible archaeological features and we started digging them yesterday and some were half excavated by the end of today. Volunteers were learning how to take photographs, to draw plans and to fill in context sheets recording what deposits look like. So much was going on.

And what have we got? There are definitely at least 5 postholes, which is really exciting, because postholes mean there was a building (or at least one). We know these are postholes not just pits dug for other reasons because some have stones round the edge to pack the post in place and some even have the traces of the post itself. If a post rots away in its hole that space that was taken up by the timber will gradually fill with soft soil, which looks and feels very different to the compacted soil and stone that was packed around the post. This “cast” of post is known by archaeologists as a “post-pipe” and most of our postholes so far have them. Some of these post pipes are square showing that neatly squared off posts were used. We haven't explored enough features yet to know what shape any possible building might have been but this suggests that it is just a matter of time and more hard work and many of our questions will be answered.

11 July 2014

We are at the end of our first week and progress has been very good. The weather has also been kind, with today being if anything too hot. As well as the archaeology in the work in the main trench Anita, the GAT Outreach Officer, has been taking children from local schools round the site and the children have been helping us clean up the new trench behind the outer bank. They have been doing some trowelling and have been finding some objects dating from the past couple of centuries. The children have enjoyed seeing archaeologists at work and doing their bit to help.

15 July 2014

Yesterday there was drizzly rain but today it has been hot and sunny again. Work is carrying on recording the postholes and finding more. Volunteers have been planning the surface of the inner bank where we have put an extension of the trench across it. A stone-by-stone plan takes time but it was finished today and we could get started taking layers of bank material away. We started with a deposit of burnt stone and nothing much was found apart from a bit of charcoal until I looked into the finds tray and saw a small green object. One of the volunteers had thought it was plastic and hadn't bothered to mention it, but it isn't plastic it is an alloy of copper (either bronze or brass). The object is a tiny stud with four petals or leaves and a thick shank. It is probably a decorative stud and a quick look at the Portable Antiquities Scheme website suggests that it may be a harness mount, used to decorate a horse harness. It is probably medieval in date, but we will have to send it to the specialist to be sure of its date and function. However this is definitely our best find so far and supports a medieval date for the site.

16th July 2014

We've just found another “copper alloy” stud almost exactly the same as the previous one. This proves that the other has not just got incorporated from later activity and shows that at least some of the deposits built up against the inner bank are medieval in date. If these are harness mounts we are almost certainly looking at high status horse-gear appropriate for a local lord.

18th July 2014

The last day of the community dig was very hot but very productive. Lots of recording was done and some discussion and thinking to try and workout what it all means. Three tough lads mattocked off the plough soil over the trench behind the outer bank that had been used by the school children. Next week we are having fewer but more experienced volunteers to try and get everything finished off and fully recorded so we will investigate the bank in that trench.

At the end of the second week we still have more questions than answers. Lots of postholes but no clear building plan. We are finding out the sequence of deposits that have formed the inner bank, but we are not sure how this relates to all the features inside. There may be more than one phase of activity.

Tomorrow is the Open Day and we have plenty of people booked on tours. I just hope the rain keeps away.

19th July - Open Day

Despite the rain the Open Day on Saturday was a great success. Lots of people came to see the site despite having to stand in the rain and get wet. Tours of the site ran in Welsh and English throughout the day. There were displays to see in the dry in the marquee and in the canteen where tea and coffee were also served. There were children's activities including colouring in historical pictures and a collection of reproduction medieval artefacts on loan from Cadw that intrigued children and adults alike.

Plaid Cymru Councillor John Wynn Jones visited the site and was given a tour by Anita Diamond, the Trust's Outreach Officer. Emily La Trobe-Bateman, Head of Heritage Management at GAT, discussed the work of the Trust with him, especially the value of projects like Hen Gastell where volunteers can get involved in archaeological excavations.

Thanks to everyone involved and to all the visitors who braved the rain to find out what we were doing.

A budding artist does some colouring in

Angharad explains Archwilio and the HER

Anita gives a tour in the rain

Emily discusses the site with John Wynn Jones

Inside the marquee

A view of the site under excavation taken by Alan Keith Hole, who has kindly allowed GAT to use the image

A typical view of archaeologists at work from the talented pen of Margaret Shakespeare, who has volunteered on the site

The excavation at Hen Gastell has finally finished. We made a big effort to finish on Friday with the help of the team of experienced volunteers but didn't quite manage it so myself, Neil the supervisor, and Beaver and Jeff, our volunteers came back on Monday to get it finished off. A lot of work was done last week to excavate and record features. More postholes were dug, the inner bank was investigated in two places and a group of small pits possibly related to metal-working were found, but the site as a whole still wasn't really making sense. Over the weekend it rained and the site was nice and damp on Monday morning. Neil noticed that one of the postholes previously dug still had soil in the posthole, which was clear now that the site was damp. Jeff investigated and showed that only the cast of the post had been dug out before and all the packing material around it was still there. Once Jeff had dug this out it proved to be a particularly large posthole. Having seen this I thought I better check on another posthole that never seemed quite satisfactory. This too proved to have lots of unexcavated packing fill and the fully excavated posthole was even larger, nearly 1m in diameter. Two other large postholes had been dug earlier in the week, on either side of the site. These two new large postholes filled the gap between them and together they formed an arc across the site.

If this is an arc of a circle may have been part of a very large timber roundhouse and at least one phase of activity may have been Iron Age, causing a sudden switch in my interpretation of the site in the last hour of the excavation (this nearly always happens in archaeology). However I don't want to be too certain in my interpretations just yet. I need to piece together all our plans and have a careful look for patterns. At least two of the large postholes contained good charcoal so the chance of getting radiocarbon dates is good. A set of dates from different features and layers across the site could lead to another complete rethink. The arc of the large postholes suggests a very large circle, possibly too big for a roundhouse. Is it some other sort of structure that wasn't roofed? Should we be considering the remains of a timber circle inside a Neolithic henge??

Despite the excavation having been completed and lots of information collected we still don't have final answers. This is where the “post-excavation” phase of the project is so important. We have lots of samples to process, charred plant remains to identify and date, and even some artefacts to be studied and analysed, as well as carefully considering our plans, records and photographs. More study, more thought and comparisons to other sites may bring the answers we want. Radiocarbon dates are going to be critical. We will have to wait until next year for more funding from Cadw for the dates and analysis but a preliminary report will be available from this website before the end of March 2015.

Keep watching this space!

And finally a big thank you to all the volunteers who have helped to make this such a successful excavation. Thanks especially to Tom and Barbara Ellis, who own Hen Gastell and who have been so accommodating and helpful throughout the dig, even when their land was invaded for the Open Day. The supply of ice lollies during the hot weather last week was particularly welcome.


The scale in the large posthole is 0.5m long

The arrows on the “roundhouse perhaps” photo indicate the position of the large postholes


Carbon Dating

Four samples were sent for radiocarbon dating from the evaluation trench excavated last year. Two samples were from the buried soil under the inner bank and two were from the burnt stone deposit, which we now know was built up against the inner bank round much of the monument. All four dates are overlap significantly meaning that they are of about the same date, which is basically 11th and 12th centuries AD. More dates and statistical analysis will be needed to clarify this date further but these results are extremely important. They suggest that, contrary to speculation on site, there is very little time between the construction of the inner bank and the deposition of the burnt stone deposit (which contained the medieval copper alloy studs), so activity on site is likely to be of a single phase. They suggest the studs date to 11th and 12th centuries AD and that most of the activity on site is likely to fall within this time period. If this is confirmed by dating material recovered in this year's excavations it will show that the site, rather than being an Iron Age settlement, is indeed medieval and that it was constructed before the Edwardian conquest. This is a brilliant result as so few sites of this period have been excavated that are not royal llys sites. It supports the suggestion of a large defensive timber structure. My colleague, Spencer Smith, suggests that the site may be connected to the activities of Gruffudd ap Cynan, and now we have a general date I can start researching the possible context of the site.

Jane Kenney


Dating certificate in PDF format


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