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Essay / Material Culture

Extraordinary Lessons From a Community-Led Excavation

An archaeologist examines how community members in Cardiff, Wales, collaborated with a research team to make important insights into the Bronze Age.
Several adults and children dig in a cleared area of brown soil with rectangular holes. Some dig with shovels and trowels, while others look on. Several buckets lie about.

Approximately 400 local children participated in an archaeological excavation in Cardiff, Wales.

Vivian Paul Thomas, Author provided

This article was originally published at The Conversation and has been republished under Creative Commons.

THE KNOWLEDGE AND CONTROL of bronze gave some people who lived between 2200 B.C. and 700 B.C. enormous wealth and power. Their lives and deeds were immortalized by their burial mounds, known as barrows and cairns, which still litter our landscape today. Incredibly though, finding the places where Bronze Age people lived has proven to be very difficult.

In south Wales, for example, only a handful of settlements are known about. Typically, all that remain are the ruins of a flimsy roundhouse or two. We have little else to tell us about the lives of the inhabitants. Maybe that’s because Bronze Age people had mobile lifestyles, moving around the landscape with their herds from season to season but never staying in the same place too long. That’s one argument, anyway.

However, in the summer of 2022, a collaborative, community-led archaeological excavation on the outskirts of Cardiff began to challenge those assumptions.

It’s hard to imagine how our ancient ancestors would have reacted when they first began to make and use metal. They took rocks that sparkled with green and silver, crushed and heated them until they became liquid. They then poured this elixir into molds before cooling and breaking them open to reveal the dark golden-colored metallic objects inside. It must have appeared like magic.

Since 2011, our CAER Heritage Project has mobilized people in the Cardiff suburbs of Caerau and Ely to imagine and explore such history and archaeology. Both areas face challenges such as high unemployment and poor educational attainment. But they are also home to a host of extremely friendly and talented people, not to mention some outstanding heritage too.

Until recently, much of our archaeological investigation had focused on Caerau Hillfort. This is the largest and most impressive Iron Age (circa 700 B.C.) hillfort in the region and is almost entirely surrounded by houses.

We discovered that the hilltop was used as a gathering place during the Stone Age (circa 3600 B.C.), before the hillfort was built around 600 B.C.

Over the last couple of years, we have taken archaeology into the housing estates themselves. During the COVID-19 lockdowns between 2020 and 2021, local residents did “mini-digs” in their gardens. Many discovered prehistoric items such as flints and pottery sherds.

An aerial photograph shows three large areas of brown soil containing rectangular holes within a larger field of green grass.

The archaeological dig in Trelai Park took place on what is today a football pitch.

Children gather around a person wearing a white T-shirt and jeans and pointing to the right.

Several children gather near Caerau Hillfort to get involved in the dig.

Vivian Paul Thomas, Author provided

The best chance of finding the places where ancient people lived was in a large area of open ground known as Trelai Park, which is around 1,500 meters east of Caerau Hillfort. The park is today used for sport, but in its center are the remains of a Roman villa, which was excavated in 1922 by the renowned archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

A century later, in April 2022, we completed a geophysical survey of the park with local school children and adults. Geophysics is a process using a machine called a magnetometer, which allows archaeologists to “see” under the ground without removing the soil and helps us work out where to dig.

We had expected to find more Roman remains, but around 200 meters south of the villa, we discovered an intriguing square enclosure.

Digging beneath one of the football pitches last summer, we revealed the remains of a substantial roundhouse. It was made from timber and thatch, which had long since rotted away, but the big postholes that held up its circular wall still survived.

A radiocarbon date from a piece of burnt wood indicated it was built around 1500 B.C., which is the middle of the Bronze Age. That makes it the oldest-known house in the Welsh capital.

Even more amazingly, the floor surface that its occupants had walked, worked, and slept on was still there. Trampled into this floor were finds of flint and stone tools, pottery and burnt bones, which gave us a glimpse into Bronze Age daily life.

Surrounding the roundhouse was a large ditch and bank, which was the square enclosure we had discovered through geophysics. Placed into the ditch was an extraordinary complete pot, beautifully decorated in Bronze Age “Trevisker” style. This type of decoration is common in Devon and Cornwall, but this pot was made from local Welsh clay. Perhaps it was a copy made by Bronze Age travelers 3,500 years ago.

A close-up image features two gloved hands holding a large gray stone covered with soil.

This unearthed clay pot may have been made by Bronze Age travelers.

Vivian Paul Thomas, Author provided

A person wearing a baseball cap leans over a dirt plot and uses a tool in their right hand to dig out a partly buried rock.

A volunteer works to uncover a previously buried object.

Vivian Paul Thomas, Author provided

No other Bronze Age settlement like this has been discovered in south Wales, and we have plenty of questions as a result, which, so far, remain unanswered.

One thing we do know is that none of these discoveries could have been made without the passion and participation of local people. Almost 400 children were involved in the dig as well as hundreds of volunteers, who gave more than 3,000 hours of their time to help out.

What sets CAER apart from many other community archaeology projects is that the people have remained involved in the work way beyond just the excavation process. Children and adults have sieved, cleaned, and analyzed our finds and continue to research the Bronze Age in their spare time.

Buoyed by such enthusiasm, we will be back digging in Trelai Park this summer, where once again we will be working alongside our passionate citizen archaeologist colleagues. We’re excited at the prospect of what we may uncover.

A person with short black hair wearing black glasses, a green t-shirt, and black jacket smiles in front of a black background.

Oliver Davis is a senior lecturer in archaeology at Cardiff University, Wales, who specializes in the later prehistory of Britain. His research is principally based around exploring concepts of community and considering the processes and actions that bind groups together. He is the co-director, with Dave Waytt, of the Caerau and Ely Rediscovering (CAER) Heritage Project in Cardiff. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the CAER Heritage Project is a collaboration between Cardiff University, the Ely and Caerau communities, and local schools and residents. It focuses on Caerau Hillfort, one of Wales’ most important but little-known archaeological sites, to engage local citizens in their shared history in an effort to break down social and economic barriers in the area.


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