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.”