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Discovering the Archaeology of Gower

In the summer of 2018 Black Mountains Archaeology and ArchaeoDomus completed several very successful community archaeology projects at Rhossili, Gower, under the Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) Gower Landscape Partnership Project. Working with the National Trust, Swansea Council, Swansea University and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Waleswe provided training and support in archaeological/historical research, historic building recording and archaeological excavation. The volunteers were also taught hand auguring of the Vile medieval fieldsystem. We delivered a very successful ‘TimeTeam’ style archaeological excavation on the Warren Deserted Medieval Settlement with volunteers. One of the most exciting activities was the experimental archaeology project. A medieval corn drying kiln (oven) was built and fired by the volunteers using only traditional techniques to the medieval period.

Saving Gower for all its worth!

What we did…

We kicked off the project with a launch event at the Worm’s Head Hotel, Rhossili. We had some great speakers and the day was well attended. Richard Lewis (Black Mountains Archaeology) introduced the project, the background to previous investigations and discoveries at Rhossili, and the research aims and community benefits of the project. Ross Cook (ArchaeoDomus) took us up to morning coffee with his fantastic and well researched talk on the Histories in Homes: the development and dating of the house. This provided a detailed but jargon free introduction to historic buildings for the later historic building workshops.

After a refreshments break, Richard Suggett from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical of Monuments Wales (RCAHMW) gave a thoroughly informative talk on the lost Churches of Wales and how the RCAHMW is identifying and mapping these rapidly disappearing ecclesiastical sites. Richard Lewis then provided a guided walk down to the deserted medieval settlement on the Warren, where he identified the besanded medieval village and the areas investigated in the 1970s by GGAT. Richard then discussed with participants the devastating effects of erosion to the medieval village and where trenches should be placed to identify surviving elements of the village outside of the Scheduled Ancient Monument Area.

After a fine lunch at the Worm’s Head Hotel, Jon Dollery (RCAHMW) gave a very interesting talk on GIS: Mapping the Landscape. Jon discussed the work the RCAHMW was doing georeferencing historic mapping on to modern and terrain maps, creating 3D terrain models of the past and the use of open source software, such as Quantum GIS, as a vehicle for the mapping.

Research Workshops

We wanted to dispel the myth that archaeological research was the purview of the archaeologist. So, by providing the introductory talks and workshops we introduced the participants to archaeological and historical investigative techniques. These sessions were followed up with practical workshops teaching the participants a range of archaeological and historical investigative skills. The training workshops were divided up into ‘How to be an Armchair Archaeologist’, ‘Introduction to the West Glamorgan Archives’, ‘Introduction to Buildings Archaeology and Measured Survey Techniques’ and ‘Written Records: How to write up a building’.

The workshops provided transferable (into the workplace) baseline skill sets for the practitioner to empower them to carry on this type of research on their own. The workshops also provided the foundation, in terms of historical and archaeological knowledge, for the archaeological investigations on the Vile Medieval Fieldsystem, the Deserted Medieval Village on the Warren and building survey of the The Sanctuary, Penrice.

Building Gower

The first practical sessions started with the Building Gower programme, which was planned to bring to light an area of archaeology that is not often presented to the public – the recording and interpretation of historic buildings. Ross Cook (ArchaeoDomus) taught the practical recording sessions, which took place at the 17th century Sanctuary, Penrice, where we were hosted by the owners, Mr and Mrs Harvey, and supported by Jon Dollery from the RCAHMW. The participants were taught building recording techniques and a broad understanding of architectural features and the evolution of the property. The participants were then taught how to produce measured surveys from their survey data.

Buildings make up an integral part of the historic environment, both standing, ruinous, and unseen. Standing buildings in particular provide a physical and very tangible link to our past, and can tell us how we once lived, worked, played, and died. Our programme brought into focus how buildings can be seen and understood as an archaeological resource, and how they form an integral part of the built and cultural heritage of the Gower. The key to this part of the community project is to encourage volunteers to identify buildings that they find interesting, communicate with the owners, and help facilitate access to allow for the buildings record to be undertaken by themselves. By taking this approach, we ensured the volunteers played an active role and took ownership of the project.

The Warren Deserted Medieval Village

There is thought to have been a monastic estate at Rhossili since Early-medieval times and a besanded medieval village is known to be eroding from the sand dune cliffs on the Warren. Here we delivered a very successful ‘TimeTeam’ style archaeological excavation on the Warren Deserted Medieval Settlement with volunteers.

There is a possible mention of Rhossili in the book of Llandaff in around AD650, possibly referring to the besanded remains of a church or a grange located on the Warren. Here a deserted medieval village is located beneath the eroding (by sea) windblown sand. The site was partially excavated by the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust in the late 1970s who identified several buildings buried beneath the windblown sand. The principle buildings being a house, barn and church with associated middens. The house (17m by 7m) was dated by the pottery recovered to the 12th-13thcentury. The church consisted of a nave and chancel, the latter with stone benches and windows. Wall paintings were found of red cinquefoils and black tendrils dating to the 13thcentury and an illegible inscription on the rear wall datable to the 12thcentury.We excavated a number of trenches around the medieval village to better understand both the size of the medieval village and the rate at which the village is being lost to erosion. As well as teaching soil morphology, surveying, excavation and recording techniques we also taught palaeoenvironmental soil processing and the identification of plant and animal macro remains. We were fortunate to be joined by Wendy Carruthers, an expert in environmental archaeology, who taught participants how to process soil samples (wash) and sieve (and identify) plant and animal remains. Medieval pottery was recovered along with over 50 medieval charred barley grains from the samples taken from the Warren deserted medieval settlement. This was very exciting process.

The preliminary results from our trenches indicate that the medieval village extends much further than the current area protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Pottery found dates to the 12thcentury, which matches well with the pottery recovered during the late 1970s investigations. The palaeoenvironmental sampling identified medieval free-threshing wheat, barley, oat and rye together with nettles, henbane and hemlock. This may well indicate the types of crops grown in the medieval period around the village and on the Vile field system.

The research carried out on previous investigations, historic mapping and other documentary evidence held at the West Glamorgan Archives indicates that we have lost a considerable amount of land on the Warren to erosion from the sea. Indeed, we were unable to survey in the original western edge of the Scheduled Ancient Monument area as this was ‘floating in open air’, the land having already eroded into the sea. Designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument in June 1980, the significant erosion of the Warren and medieval village over the last 38 years is stark reminder of the impact coastal erosion is having on these archaeological sites.

The Vile Fieldsystem – Palaeoenvironmental Hand Auguring

The Vile, Rhossili, is one of only a few surviving medieval field systems left in Britain. The open-field system was the prevalent agricultural system in Britain for much of the medieval period. The system was based on a manor, estate or village holding several large open fields divided into furlongs, narrows strips of land, each worked by tenanted farmers. Most boundaries are now fossilised with by clawdds but it started as an open system, similar to Laugharne (now enclosed) and the surviving open systems at Laxton in Nottinghamshire and Braunton (Great Field) in Devon. The origins of the Vile field system are unclear, although no one doubts the linear open strip fields are at least medieval in origin if not earlier. The villages of Rhossili and Middleton are located on the eastern edge of the field system and themselves likely to date from the Early-medieval and medieval periods. The original open field system stretched north and east beyond the villages and included the southern slopes of Rhossili Down, Talgarth’s Well, Pitton and Pitton Cross.

We conducted a hand auguring activity on the boundaries of the Vile medieval field system. We hoped to obtain palaeoenvironmental information, such as pollen, seeds, charcoal and insects, to build up an environmental picture of life during the medieval period on the Vile. We also hoped to recover plant remains that may indicate what crops were grown at that time. Participants were taught archaeological recording techniques (records, photography, survey) together with understanding stratigraphy and soil morphology. We then carried out further hand auguring of the Warren deserted medieval settlement during the excavation week. Samples were taken into stratified medieval deposits and the medieval land surface buried beneath metres of sand was identified. The augur soil samples were then sent to QUEST at Reading University for analysis.

Experimental Archaeology – Corn Drying Ovens

One of the most exciting activities was the experimental archaeology project. A medieval corn drying kiln (oven) was built by the volunteers using only traditional techniques to the medieval period. The ovens were first excavated and then a superstructure of hazel and willow constructed and finished in clom (earth) walling. Corn dryers would have been a common site in the medieval period on Gower but few have been found. The medieval corn dryer (oven) reconstruction was carried out with volunteers to better understand how medieval farmers at Rhossili built, fired and stored grain (oats, wheat, barley) after harvest. The oven took three days to build and we fired the kiln during the Warren Excavation week. The mixing of clom (clay, sand, straw, water) proved very hard (and lengthy) work! The experiment was very successful in identifying oven temperatures, moisture loss rates and oven (kiln) construction methods. Charred grains were noted post-firing and these matched well with actual medieval charred grains the volunteers excavated on the Warren deserted medieval settlement. So the volunteers were able to observe the full firing and deposition process of charred medieval grains.


We are now in the post-excavation phase, which is where we process all of the data, artefacts and soil samples to build up a picture of life in the medieval period. A report will then be produce on the investigations detailing all of the exciting discoveries. We would like to say a special thanks to all of our brilliant volunteers, without you there would be no project. You were fantastic. Thanks also to the Heritage Lottery Fund, Gower Landscape Partnership Project (This is Gower), National Trust, Swansea Council and RCAHMW for all of your support. 

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