Chester’s ‘Fantastic Four’ of Archaeology uncover Bronze Age finds at Llangollen's Pillar of Eliseg

Posted on 28th September 2011

Archaeologists from the University of Chester have completed the second phase of a dig which sought to unearth the secrets of a 9th-century stone monument on a prehistoric mound in Wales.

Alongside experts from Bangor University, staff and students from the Department of History and Archaeology at Chester excavated a trench at the Pillar of Eliseg near Llangollen, Denbighshire, earlier this month.

Project Eliseg, co-directed by Chester’s Professor Howard Williams, formed part of the work funded and facilitated by Wales’ historical monuments agency Cadw to conserve the mound and better explain its significance to the public.

The Pillar of Eliseg was originally a tall stone cross but only part of a round shaft survives set within its original base.

It once bore a long Latin inscription saying that the cross was raised by Concenn, ruler of the kingdom of Powys, who died in AD 854, in memory of his great-grandfather, Eliseg, who had driven Anglo-Saxon invaders out of the area.

Phase one of the project, last year, focussed on the mound, which was identified as an early Bronze Age cairn. This year, the dig revealed for the first time details of the cairn’s composition and evidence of many stages in its history. Now the University teams are studying the significance of the finds made at the site.

Describing the finds, Professor Williams said: “This year’s excavations explored the composition of the cairn for the first time. At the top, we discovered a layer of post-medieval finds reflecting agricultural activity around the cairn as well as numerous visitors to the monument in recent centuries.

“This is associated with evidence that the cairn had been rebuilt, probably in the late 18th- century when we know from historical records that the Pillar was explored and then re-erected on the mound by a local squire, Trevor Lloyd of Trevor Hall.

“Below this layer, we explored the original prehistoric monument, recovering both charcoal and tiny fragments of human remains, and exposing the remains of at least three cist-graves. We found few prehistoric artefacts and we haven’t answered all our questions about the monument. However, the evidence we have strongly suggests that the cairn was a Bronze Age burial monument, used repeatedly for funerals and other ritual events.”

Professor Williams praised the students’ valuable contribution to the project and explained how important it is for Archaeology students to gain hands-on experience in the field.

He said: “Archaeology is both a practical and academic subject and students need both elements to succeed in the wide range of careers they can take having completed an undergraduate degree in the subject.

“Research-led archaeological fieldwork relies on the hard work of dedicated student volunteers. I was extremely impressed by the tough physical labour and technical skills each student displayed. Equally, I was struck by how well the students from both Bangor and Chester worked together as an exemplary and highly professional team. Project Eliseg revealed some fantastic archaeology, but it also revealed the high calibre of the archaeology students at both institutions.”

Third year student Lewis Ernest, 20, said: “I found a lot of post-medieval pottery and some burnt bone and charcoal which was discovered in a pre-historic layer of the cairn.

“It was brilliant to be involved in this project. I have gained valuable experience in field archaeology and it was great to actually excavate the cairn this year which we weren’t able to do last year.”

Adam Flynn, 20 and also a third year student, said: “The projects I have undertaken this summer have bolstered my experience more than I could have imagined. Working in a realistic setting has furthered my knowledge of field archaeology.

“Before this summer, especially prior to Project Eliseg, I still felt I needed more hands-on experience but now I feel as if I have gained enough to form a solid foundation of practical knowledge that I can take with me into my third and most important year.”

Graduate Jessica Murray, 23, said: “The experience at the Pillar over the past few weeks has helped me to improve the archaeological skills that I’ve gained on previous projects. It also allowed me to see the project through to the next stage which is a unique opportunity.

“I helped to begin excavating through into the cairn, and on my very first day on site whilst cleaning back the cairn I came across a piece of waste flint that would have been used to manufacture tools.

“Throughout the two weeks I not only enhanced my excavation skills, I also did a lot of site photography and these pictures may be used to support the interpretations of the excavated features in the final published report. I also got to try my hand at metal detecting, although I have to say I’ll be leaving that to the ‘professionals’.

Joanne Kirton, doctoral student at Chester, said: “This was my second year with Project Eliseg. This dig has been particularly useful for me as it directly relates to the research I am undertaking on early medieval stone sculpture in the North West of England.”

The 25-year-old added: “This project provided a rare opportunity to explore the local archaeological context of a piece of early medieval stone sculpture, offering insights into the long biographies of these mysterious monuments. It has also provided me with the opportunity to foster links with other universities and academics who share a similar research interest, and has enabled me to exchange information and ideas that again, feed-back directly into my research.”

The Project Eliseg team will now study and interpret the discoveries made during the excavation and will publish their findings. However, before this can happen, the decision needs to be made over whether a further season of excavation is required to fully understand the monument.

To find out more about the excavation, visit www.projecteliseg.org or visit the Project Eliseg Media Facebook page where you can watch footage and view pictures of the dig.