Digging Up The Welsh

Got the word to go from Ian Thomas, My Man with all the gen on local happenings, and a few days later he dropped me off, up a hillside, wearing the wrong trousers. Would this archaeology thing involve strenuous treks uphill in the hot? It had last time, so I left my motorbiking trousers at home and went in jeans.

misty moor 1 smaller
Despite wet legs, I was soon wielding the geo-phyz machine like an expert. The Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust Ltd had kindly invited local bods to participate in an exploration of traces of buildings in the mountains of the Rhondda, to see if they might be bronze age, or Roman, or medieval, or what. They had been dug by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1921, and before him in 1902.

me doing geophys smaller
The geo-phyz thing has three prongs, and you drop it into the ground from a height of a few inches, hopefully missing rocks and your toes, and it beeps thrice to show it’s measured the resistivity between each pair of prongs. Then you lift it, swing it forward, and plonk it down again half a metre ahead, and repeat until you reach the end of the field.

I know what you’re thinking; but you’re wrong! 🙂 It doesn’t just send a signal down prong A and pick it up at B, then down B and pick it up at C etc; there’s also two other divining rods involved, stuck in the ground at the other end of the field.

divining rods smaller
Those rods are connected by cables to the geo-phyzzer. I did ask why but I didn’t understand the first time, and didn’t ask again.

Here is the scan of the geo-phyz data we collected:

scan a smaller
Our bits were the bottom square and most of the next one up, as far as where it suddenly gets much lighter. Our section was darker because our day was wetter.

Also, there was Drawing The Rocks. Sophie did most of the explaining so I think she was in charge. As I’ve asked her to say that Stangetruther is a pleasant and sensible fellow, I’m happy to report that under her command everyone was busy, efficient and happy, and nothing went wrong 🙂 . She told me that sometimes, when you’re digging down into something soft, you draw a diagram, called a Section, of the wall of the pit you’ve dug. But when you’re only able to indicate the shape of the surface, as with this rock construction that might be the remains of an ancient cupboard, settee, chicken coop or who knows what,

Complex stone block feature with Sophie's nose alongside for scaling

Complex stone block feature with Sophie’s nose alongside for scaling

you suspend a horizontal line acros the top of it, and measure how far down it is to the surface, every ten centimetres. This is called a Profile.

Doing a profile.  The tape measure and the string alongside it are, contrary to appearances, horizontal, as controlled by the mini-spirit level almost half-way along the string.

Doing a profile. The tape measure and the string alongside it are, contrary to appearances, horizontal, as controlled by the mini-spirit level almost half-way along the string.

Here’s the one I drew:

my profile smaller
We had to use special plasticky graph paper that worked in the wet, and also pencils that worked in the wet. But it seems that so long as the paper works in the wet, ordinary pencils do too so we used them.

I didn’t do all the geo-phyzzing myself by any means. There were 3 or 4 of us doing it. However, even just taking my turn at it, converted me from “I’d like to know all about this site” to “If I had to do all the work, I’d be more than happy to put up with a lot of doubt.” I could easily get over it by writing a little poem to celebrate the glorious uncertainty of historical science:

“Back in the day,
Who passed this way?
Oh who can say!
Back to the cafe 🙂 .”

…and leave it at that!

The final thing we did on the hillside was to hold a “stick” vertically upright next to a stone, and register its position. We had the help of a bubble for uprightness, as seen in the top left quadrant of this picture:

bubble point plotter smaller
At the top of the “stick”, which was extremely expensive and not just because the shaft was of carbon fibre, was a very sensitive GPS detector. Despite being a consultant in multiple areas, Tim Young was happy to pose for me with the stick, which he’d trained me on.

Tim Young plus tool smaller
We had the benefit of a plan of the site:

dig map 2 smaller
You might ask, “Why are you doing a survey if you’ve already got a plan of the site?” to which I think I would say: ” ‘Aha’, said Piglet.”

The end of the day.  Sophie with some of the team of experts/locals.

The end of the day. Sophie with some of the team of experts/locals.

Some days later we met in a more natural environment for me – the local library. We were searching for records of the earlier digs of 1902 and 1921, and maybe others. We all found old books fascinating. I found the rules of a list of a local history society of about 1909, where rule 2 said women were to be allowed. We also found this rather tart 1968 exchange of letters between the Forestry Commission and the National Museum of Wales:

photo 2mwr

It says: Subject: Observers: Department of Palaeontology Your letter of 1st. August is hereby acknowledged and its contents noted. The duty of reporting "finds of major concnetrations of flints on Forestry Commission land" is not mine.  I am a forest clerk; the finds are made by the forest workers in the field.  Direction must come from my superiors, who will no doubt report as they occur. Following receipt of the record sheets and finds to date under separate cover later this week at your Department, please remove my name from your list of observers. I have no interest in discussing any further examinations of known or possible archaeological sites or finds within the Rhondda Forest or any other Forestry Commission areas.  A can add nothing to the reports submitted with finds to date.

It says:
Subject: Observers: Department of Palaeontology
Your letter of 1st. August is hereby acknowledged and its contents noted.
The duty of reporting “finds of major concnetrations of flints on Forestry Commission land” is not mine. I am a forest clerk; the finds are made by the forest workers in the field. Direction must come from my superiors, who will no doubt report as they occur.
Following receipt of the record sheets and finds to date under separate cover later this week at your Department, please remove my name from your list of observers.
I have no interest in discussing any further examinations of known or possible archaeological sites or finds within the Rhondda Forest or any other Forestry Commission areas. A can add nothing to the reports submitted with finds to date.


I began to be drawn in to the questions of The Source Of And Identity Of The Celts, which I’ve been wondering about for some time. I learned a couple of weeks ago that the closest languages to Welsh and the other Gaelic/Celtic languages, are Albanian and Armenian. I’d know for some time that Welsh split from French and German many years before French and German split apart. Someone has told me that personal names in Iraq are suspiciously similar to some in Wales. It is notes that a number of place names across the rest of Britain seem to be Welsh in origin, such as those containing Aber, which means confluence (in e.g. Aberdeen), either of two rivers, or of a river with the sea, and Pen, which means top of a mountain (literally, I think, “head”), hence Pen Y Ghent, one of the three peaks, in England, and, presumably, The Pennines. Talking to an Italian cafe owner in the Rhondda the other day, he himself mentioned how the name of the Apennines in Italy resembled the English Pennines – a similarity I’d noticed and ascribed significance to. In our researching at the library I found someone had said that some of the peoples in South Wales had been described as Brythians or some such, and lived in the valleys, while others who lived on the mountain tops, had been referred to in a term used in modern Welsh to refer to the Irish. Or maybe it was the other way round? Watch This Space 🙂 .

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