School of History, Welsh History and Archaeology

Early Celtic Societies in North Wales project

Excavations at Meillionydd 2010

This excavation explored a ‘double ringwork’ hilltop enclosure at Meillionydd, Rhiw. Despite producing the most well preserved, abundant and comprehensively surveyed settlements in Wales (Smith 2001), the archaeology of North-West Wales remains under-researched and poorly understood. Limited modern excavations have been carried out; chronologies are not well defined; sites are unproductive in terms of dateable finds; and environmental assemblages are rare. The emergence and development of monumental foci, such as the hillforts, ringworks and hilltop enclosures, remain particularly enigmatic (although see Crew 1985 for the results of extensive excavations carried out at the hillfort site of Bryn y Castell, Gwynedd).

The development of settlement monumentality in the first half of the first millennium BC represents a fundamental re-orientation of some community’s identities, beliefs and values. The monuments are frequently interpreted as representing economic intensification, when the power bases, previously centred on the manipulation of bronze exchange networks, were re-orientated towards the control of agricultural production and the land. While important, this view has oversimplified social practice and has effectively led to a homogenised perspective of ways of life, innovation and change during this crucial period of transition.

Unusual characteristics of the north Welsh evidence are the occurrence of early phases of hillfort construction in the latter part of the Late Bronze Age (c. ninth – eighth century BC), such as The Breiddin in Powys (Musson 1991), Moel y Gaer in Clwyd (Guilbert 1975) and Castell Odo in Gwynedd (Alcock 1960). The dark earth deposits discovered underneath the bank at Castell Odo, which were productive in pottery and other finds, may possess some parallels with contemporary dark earth occupation deposits or ephemeral midden accumulations, concentrated underneath or against the banks of hilltop enclosures in southern Britain (Waddington 2009). The double ringwork sites of North-West Wales, of which Castell Odo is but one, offer a unique and as yet largely untapped resource for creating refined chronologies and for studying the origins and development of settlement monumentality in the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age transition.

The double ring-work site of Meillionydd was recently the focus of investigation through geophysical survey by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (Smith and Hopewell 2007). The work has further enhanced the significance of these site types, which appear to be focussed largely on the Llŷn Peninsula and Anglesey and represent a fairly distinct regional tradition. The necessary interpretation and dating of these sites must now be provided by excavation.

Meillionydd has been targeted due to the excellent results of the geophysical survey (Smith and Hopewell 2007). As well as confirming the presence of a circular concentric bivallate hilltop enclosure, about 105m by 85m, the survey was notable for the strength of anomalies encountered. The inner rampart is about 4m wide and is partly defined by a band of intense activity within the enclosure that includes at least three roundhouses. The magnetic readings encountered appear to be associated with occupation deposits and burning activities. This is supported by a series of test soil pits which demonstrated the presence of dark earth silts with burnt stones in the areas of the magnetic enhancement. Concentrations of burnt stone in rampart contexts and rampart collapse have also already been observed in other sites in Wales, e.g. in Bangor University’s excavations in Moel y Gaer Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd (Karl & Butler 2009).

Meillionydd geophysics.jpg
Geophysical survey of Meillionydd, Rhiw, showing location of the soil test pits investigated (shown in numbers), and the position of the trial trenches (adapted from Smith and Hopewell 2007, Figure 10).
The excavation aimed to test whether Meillionydd has Late Bronze Age origins and is associated with occupation deposits, similar to those recovered from Castell Odo, as well as to:

  1. gather data on the construction and phasing of the banks and ditches;
  2. assess the stratigraphic relationship between the earthworks and internal deposits and structural features;
  3. produce dateable materials and provide a chronological sequence for the site;
  4. characterise the nature of the dark earth deposits;
  5. assess the site’s potential for a further programme of fieldwork.

The aims of the trial excavations were to examine three trenches in order to characterise different zones in the site.

  1. Trench 1 (13m by 2m) examined a narrow slot through the inner bank and ditch in the south-eastern part of the enclosure in order to examine the boundaries and their relationship with an area of magnetically enhanced soils, which coincide with a possible roundhouse.
  2. Trench 2 (7.5m by 4m) investigated a slot through the terminal of one of the outer two ditches along the south-eastern part of the site. This trench assessed whether an entrance to the site existed here, if the ditch is contemporary with the internal ditch and bank in Trench 1, and whether structured entrance-marking deposits, typical of boundary terminals, are present.
  3. Trench 3 (10m by 10m) explored an area of magnetic enhancement within the eastern part of the interior, identified as a multi-phased roundhouse.

MD10 section of ditches in trench 1.jpg

Excavations in Meillionydd 2010: section through a narrow earlier v-shaped ditch, later recut by wide flat-bottomed ditch in trench 1.

The three-week excavations took place between Sunday 27 June and Saturday 17 July 2010 and the team consisted of four archaeology students from Bangor University, four archaeology students from Cardiff University, and nine archaeology and Celtic Studies students from the University of Vienna, who were all trained in excavation, survey and recording skills.


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