There are very few things in my life that I could have wished for more than to sit in a reconstructed Iron Age Roundhouse on the Llyn peninsula, and listen to a professional storyteller recite the Iliad by the fire as evening grew upon us. But I did, and I could not have been more delighted. I was on the Llyn peninsula in Wales to take part on an Iron Age archaeological dig, run by the University of Bangor, which you can find out more about here: Meillionydd Dig.

The site on which we were working is really quite fascinating. I mean, it’s about 700 years outside my period of history, so I’m not even going to try and pretend to be someone who knows much about it. But I learnt a little whilst I was there, and I’d like to share that here. There are lots and lots of both Bronze and Iron Age sites on the Llyn peninsula, which is way up in the North West of Wales. This particular one was situated beautifully, as Iron Age sites often are. That is for three reasons (we believe), first, of course: it’s good to be somewhere where you can see people coming, in times when institutionalised legal systems and personal security are not yet even a twinkling in the eye. The second reason is that, we think, in the Iron Age it was as important to be seen, as it was to see others. The third is that much like today, people liked a nice view, and the one from Meillionydd is spectacular.

Look to the left, and you can see Pembrokeshire and Cardigan bay. Straight on, and on a clear day, past the end of the peninsula, you can see Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains. Finally, to the right most days you can distinguish both Holy Island and Anglesey. It is certainly a place to see, in both senses of the term. 

The site itself, from the fancy schmancy ground penetrating radar that Heinrich Schliemann could have used in 1871 when he dug through Troy, is pretty huge and largely buried beneath a farmer’s field. Fortunately, in Wales and the 21st century, we’re a little more high tech. So we know that the site is pretty massive: there are more than 30 buildings, and that’s just what we can see, and from radio carbon dating of previous years’ excavations, we’re pretty sure that the site was continuously inhabited between 800 and 300 BC. That’d be from the ends of the Bronze Age and into the middle of the Iron Age.

In the 5 years that various volunteers like me, and the staff at Bangor, including Professor Raimund Karl, Dr Kate Waddington, and Katharina Moeller have been working on the site, we’ve only uncovered about 6% of what’s there to be found. Which is incredible, because it’s not like we’ve been sitting around doing nothing. In fact, the archaeologists think now that in the 500 year period during which the site was continuously occupied, there may have been up to 30,000 people living there at different times. Less off the beaten track, and more like a thoroughfare worn down by ghosts from 2,000 years ago. 

I loved my time in Meillionydd. Personally, I’m a big fan of getting out of the desk chair and into the big wide world sometimes, using my hands to do more than tap at keys on a laptop in some demented variation of a concerto. (Controversial, I know.) But I think the thing I most enjoyed: beyond hacking at banks, scraping at ditches, and emptying wheelbarrows, was the incredible sense of cysylltiadau: connections, to be found in the landscape, at the site, in the history, and with my fellow diggers. 

I decided to do history in year 7, when my history teacher was teaching us about 1066, and he told us all the people in the past weren’t stupid, they just knew about different things. It seems both a simple observation and a silly fallacy: of course people weren’t more stupid than we are today. If nothing else, I believe the British would be repelled by so self-congratulatory a notion. However, it’s a sturdy weed. For example, whilst we were digging, Katharina Moeller found a beautiful blue glass bead in what might be a storage pit, and might be a burial, and quite possibly was both.

I’ve tried hard to rid myself of the habit of assuming the least of people in the past, however I could not help but be surprised. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t imagine that people living in North Wales more than 2000 years ago were able to craft beautiful blue glass beads smaller than the nail on my little finger. I didn’t know, either, that their international contacts reached well beyond the islands of Britain, nor did I realise the technical skill required to build a roundhouse: or for that matter, extract iron ore with the tools of the time, in order to create the weapons after which the age has been named, as is standard practice.

With the Rosetta probe dancing after a comet, and Emma Watson working for the UN, and the shadows of these people, thousands of years ago, still surprising us, it’s soppy but I have to say that human ingenuity is a great source for hope. Our willingness to explore, and to create, and challenge ourselves, that’s something that makes us no different from people who lived two and a half thousand years ago, and that’s remarkable. 

I was lucky enough to interview Dafydd Davies-Hughes, the storyteller who works at Felin Uchaf centre. I’ll be playing the interview on Biscuit, my radio show which will hopefully be recommencing in October. But one of the things that we talked about was this sense of connection: connections between the classical and celtic past, both in popular imagination and the historical reality. The connections between the Austrian, German, Welsh and English participants on my dig, to name but a few. The connections given by language (I was lucky enough to practice my Welsh with a few native speakers), given by common purpose, common sentiment, common sympathy.

Our differences are, to me, perhaps the most endlessly interesting facet of life, but it is only by forging connections that we can delve deeper into one another’s individualities. And though history, or archaeology might seem a quite clinical way of doing that, I’ve come to find in my brief time of study that it is in fact one of the most personal. And because I’ve really gone too far down this path not to, I’ll leave you on a quote from the History Boys, since Alan Bennett can of course say it better than I ever could:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

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Stuck In The Ether

Perhaps the most exciting thing I did on my return to Hong Kong was watch How To Train Your Dragon 2. Please don’t get me wrong: I appreciate how lucky I am to live a bizarrely migratory lifestyle, and Hong Kong is an incredibly glamorous place. However, my father has been living and working there for the past five years, and I have been visiting three times a year, each year, during that time. I suppose the new penny shine has worn off, just a little.

This, and I was only there for about 10 days, which is roughly enough time to get over your jet lag, brush yourself off, get ready to do things and, well, leave again.

How To Train Your Dragon 2, by the way, is a fantastic film. Spoiler alert (don’t worry, it’s not a biggie) the film follows our intrepid Hiccup as he conquers adolescence, rediscovers a lost figure from his past, and continues to venture into the ever greater unknown on the back of his adorable, feline Night Fury, Toothless. Something that I particularly enjoyed about the film was the creators’ acknowledgement that with greater mobility comes greater opportunities for discovery, ones which the curious, amongst whose ranks Hiccup must surely find himself (and I hope I do, too), cannot help but seize.

This, as a matter of fact, leads back to what I find perhaps the most interesting thing about Hong Kong. There are many ways in which one could describe it. Adjectives that spring to mind include huge, busy, multicultural, hot, shiny, industrial. It’s a very beautiful place. I think sometimes with all the hype about its crowds and its pollution, people forget that Hong Kong is one, mountainous island among dozens which stud the harbour like rolling, be-shrubbed jewels in the ever murkier South China Sea. I certainly did, and do, and am often surprised by the sheer, rugged beauty of the greater city’s peaks, jungles and sandy beaches.

So there is more to Hong Kong than meets the eye of the long distance observer, and what meets the eye is already too much to take in. It’s difficult to appreciate the sheer mass of the place, in its buildings, its people and the ever bubbling confluence of cultures which crash into one another throughout the city. There is a great deal of friction between most communities in the city, and this creates, daily, uncountable situations of injustice.

The problem is that all of this is very very difficult to get hold of, and accordingly, attempt to deal with. And that is because Hong Kong’s is, above all things, a transmigratory community. People are eternally, incessantly, coming and going. Traders in the city centre flit back and forth between Hong Kong and China like smartly suited hummingbirds, the ever revolving millstone of Westerners, cycle in and out of the city on jet engines and banking trips and TEFL qualifications. There are, in addition, substantial groups from Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and more that I’m sure I’m missing.

Hong Kong is not a place of identity: people come and go so fast, they don’t have long enough to put down roots. Even if they did, the city itself seems shy of claiming any sort of individual culture. The British only returned Hong Kong to its own, multiple hands on the 1st July 1997. That’s only seventeen years ago, indeed, it means that Hong Kong’s independence is younger than I am. Furthermore, the city remains, as far as I can discern, a Special Administrative Region. What this effectively means, is that both the general feeling, and in theory the political situation, keeps Hong Kong marginally separate from the full authority of the mainland Chinese government. Despite efforts from the China to strengthen political and economic links,  Hong Kong itself remains in a sort of trade post purgatory.

The Hong Kong Chinese are certainly not British. Nor are they, as a matter of fact, Chinese. They are Hong Kong Chinese. The further from the centre of the city you go, the more people you find speaking Cantonese, rather than the Chinese government’s mandated Mandarin (an effort to increase understanding between an exponentially growing number of communities and their dialects.). There are very few old buildings in Hong Kong, and fewer ways to discover it’s history – which stretches back at least as far as 2000 years. The fact that many of its archaeological treasures, excavated largely in the ’90s when there was a huge burst of construction across the city (apparently and justifiably in reaction to the British occupancy) can be found in its airport says a great, and rather poignant amount about where the city’s priorities lie.

It is understandable that anyone living in Hong Kong might shy away from a national identity: both in reaction to the British and the Chinese, as well to the ever-simmering friction between the place’s many ethnic communities. To forgo and forget one’s native identity can look like both the most politic and sensible option. However, this of course is not without its drawbacks. I have a lot of dear friends in Hong Kong, who were born and who grew up Hong Kong Chinese and who do not feel that they have a national identity. They have trouble empathising with the concept. And hey, we all know nationalism should be taken in moderation at best. (Well, I hope we know.) But it seems sad.

To be able to, for example as I can, sink one’s roots into the rich soil given you by your mother tongue, and your mother land, is immensely important. It influences you in every area of life: it is a source of security and curiosity, inspiration and guidance. It’s a last thing to fall back on when all else is lost. It’s a tradition in which you can better understand yourself and those around you.

I don’t think Hong Kong doesn’t have that. I think it does, and I think that the ephemeral nature of its community prevents it from embracing the legacy that’s already there. Which is a shame: because I’d love to go back to Hong Kong and say that I saw more than polished shopping centres, and digitised restaurants, and good public transport. I’d love to say that there was more to the very particular flavour of the city than its shambling markets, and the little train that takes you up the tallest hill of the island on which most of the city sprawls. I’d like to say I saw more than How To Train Your Dragon 2.

And I hope I will, one day.

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Auspicious Beginnings

You know, if I’m one hundred percent honest, I have to say I think most people would not keep grinning on becoming an impromptu avian latrine, especially after spending five hours on the train. I mean, it’s not like I much enjoyed it. It was a pretty empty road, and a high lamp post, and frankly Jonathan L. Seagull ought to have known better. But I was excited. I was in a new city, and though Bangor, it must be said, does not quite have the glamour of Hong Kong, it’s Welsh – and anyone who knows me will also know that this is a prerequisite for delighted, and largely inaudible squeakings of enthusiasm.

I don’t have a particularly strong connection to Wales. I think it’s possible that my great grandmother on my mother’s side was Welsh, but then it’s possible that she was a great many things, and infamously in the family mythology, it’s possible she saw her drowned son on the staircase at midnight the day he died. My family can be relied upon for all manner of delights, and fantastical stories are one of them. Unembellished truth telling tends, however, to lose out to progressively patchier memories, and thus my Celtic links fall into the ever dissolving regions of the distant generational past.

Still, I am undoubtedly a Celticist. It may help, at this point, to explain that I am taking a Bachelor of Arts in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Studies (worry ye not, we’ll meander back to Bangor presently.) The University of Cambridge is the only one in the world that offers this degree, which prides itself both upon its interdisciplinary nature, and the unofficial rule of thumb, that most of its advocates are stark raving mad. Our alumni include the potato alien, Strax in Doctor Who, and (by a distant, yet viciously defended piece of creative genealogy) J.R.R Tolkien. We study manuscripts, Medieval Welsh, Old Norse, Gaelic History, and other such necessary and relevant pursuits. We tend to, laughingly, divide ourselves either between ‘Historians’ and ‘Linguists’ , or ‘Celticists’ and ‘Germanicists’ (imagine the Harry Potter houses, backed up by liberal amounts of academic hogwash.)

I’m a Celticist. More specifically, I’m a great of fan of the VOV’s, which is to say, Victims of the Vikings. (This was because I did not think I could live without Old English poetry). Because I am a Celticist, I wanted to learn Modern Welsh. And because I wanted to learn Modern Welsh, I went to Bangor, and became, en route, the unsuspecting rest-stop of an overweight seagull.

This was some weeks ago now, at one of Bangor’s several summer schools for those aspiring to learn one of the few languages in the world which uses single letters as definite articles, prepositions, and conjunctions all at once, isn’t a great fan of verbs, and occasionally just includes consonants because they join stuff up. I’d be hard pressed to choose a single favourite thing about the Welsh language, several, naturally, spring to mind: its musicality, its richness, its depth, but I suppose one part that never fails to make me smile is how playfully absurd it can be.

I mean, lets be honest: this is the language that calls chips ‘Sglodion’ (said as it’s spelt, preferably when riddled with alcohol, and a little bedraggled by the inevitable Welsh rain). This is the language that invented the name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in the 1850s to attract tourists. This is the tradition in which Lleu, adopted son of Gwydion, is made nigh on invincible, indeed he can only be killed by a spear that’s been a year in the making, with one foot on a trough next to a river and the other on the back of a billy goat. This is the same tradition, in which that same Lleu, not only tells but shows his adulterous wife and her lover how to do it, and is very nearly killed, had he not had the assistance of a magical stepfather. (Who spent three years procreating with his brother, but that’s a different part of the story.)

Welsh, to me, is a language for language’s sake. It’s silly, and it’s true that these days it’s a little wounded. It’s almost heartbreaking how often you find English loan words patching up Welsh linguistic lacunae, and I can only hope that the various merit-worthy programmes in action throughout Welsh education and media will help to fix that. But in the mean time it’s far from fading. The Eisteddfods remain a national phenomenon, and it’s still possible, technically, to be recognised as a druid. Cariad@Iaith, S4C’s programme following a group of Welsh language learners for a week in Nant Gwrtheyrn on the Llyn Peninsula has fast become my favourite Saturday night viewing, and I’m far from the misapprehension that I’m alone in that. When it comes to Welsh TV, Y Gwyll, or ‘Hinterland’, the Welsh crime drama has recently gained great acclaim, with many comparing it to the immensely popular Danish Forbrydelsen, known better by its American title, ‘The Killing’.

A lot of people joke about the various more difficult sounds to be found in spoken Welsh. ‘Ch’, a back of the throat rasp, much like that to be found in Germanic languages. ‘Ll’, best attempted with your tongue where it would be if you were making a ‘t’ sound, followed by a quick, sharp, blow. Spit is a hazard, and the liberal use of the letter ‘y’ can be confusing. But when it’s spoken by a native speaker…there’s a reason that the Welsh can still proudly claim to be born with poetry in their blood. And I can’t recreate it if you haven’t heard it, but I can say that in today’s world of high-speed internet, it’s well worth a listen.

In the mean time, I’ll leave you on this. Often included with the collection of tales referred to as the Mabinogi, or Mabinogion (which in truth is a mistranslation by one of the collections’ first interpreters, Lady Charlotte Guest) there is to be found a short, whimsical story, called Culhwch ac Olwen. For a very long time, it was dismissed as a farcically bad, poorly conceived piece of nonsense. It is only more recently that it has been recognised for what it more probably is: a farcical parody of both Arthurian literature, and the long-faced bards of the time. (This was, in part, prompted by the fact that Culhwch’s one true love, and giant’s fosterling, Olwen, is described in one of the most complex and beautiful pieces of rhetoric to be found in the extant corpus of Middle Welsh literature.)

During the story, in order to complete the tasks assigned him by Olwen’s literal monster of a stepfather, Ysbadadden, Culhwch enlists the help of King Arthur’s court. (Yes, that Arthur).One member of the court (of which the list is long and apparently monotonous, despite such whimsical inclusions as ‘Neb’ – anybody, and ‘Clust fab Clustfeinad’ – Ear son of hearing) is named, simply, Teyrnon. The word means prince, and links have been drawn between this Teyrnon and that to be found in the First of the Four Branches, Pwyll, where Teyrnon Trwf Lliant is the god-like Pyrderi’s adopted father.

But the fun bit is this. First, Teyrnon Trwf Llian, as we understand it, may well have historically been a sort of administrative role in the area surrounding that in which you can find the Severn Bore. Literally translated, this title means ‘Prince of the Roaring Tide’. The second part? When Culhwch goes to Arthur’s court, not much fuss is made. Within the remit of Arthurian literature, the eponymous King’s Court functions something like Mission HQ, or Camelot’s Next Top Hero. But here’s the thing. In the aforementioned, four and a half page long list of Arthur’s court, which reads much like the unholy offspring of a role call and a written genealogy, a handful of people are described by their achievement, or lack thereof, in the Battle of Camlan.

Even the most novice of Arthurian explorers will know that Camlan is generally agreed to have been Arthur’s last battle, the one in which he was struck a fatal blow, by his son and nephew, Mordred, (no, Game of Thrones did not get there first) and many of his court were killed. Which leaves us to wonder where exactly Culhwch’s gone, in order to become worthy of his bride. Because in principle, by now, almost all of these people are dead. On the whole, the tale is one of madness: chasing a monstrous boar across Britain for a pair of scissors with which to cut a giant’s hair, performing several previously impossible tasks and sacrificing more lives, only to give up less than 10% of the way through, and wonder why they hadn’t just killed the giant in the first place. Which they then do, Culhwch gets married, and all is once again right with the world. (Ish).

It’s silly, it’s supposed to be. And yet when he travels to that court, if you’re paying attention: if you dig past that sea of X son of Y, then an entirely different picture emerges. One of a pale, lovestruck teenage boy, stumbling into Annwyfn – the Otherworld, and demanding both family and assistance from the undead, still legendary King of the Britons.

It’s hard not to love a language that hides that sort of thing in plain sight. A language in a land riddled, even today, by castles, poetry, and the rich, rolling, hissing of words that in another time could well have called up images of magic and impossible things.

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