Britain’s Pompeii?

Next Sunday’s Time Team is one of the most remarkable I’ve ever been on – and I’ve done some good ones, like that dreaded island off the Pembrokeshire coast (Gateholm), or the world’s first purpose-built prisoner of war camp (Norman Cross, Peterborough) or even that eerie navvy camp up in the clouds on the Settle-Carlisle railway (Risehill).  But this one was quite extraordinary. In fact I’ve never dug anything else quite like it. The way it was preserved was what made it so unusual.

I first came across the strange half-dead world of shifting, wind-blown sands when I was on a study tour of Denmark, back in the 1980s. I was meant to be researching into Neolithic causewayed enclosures, but on the weekend my kind host Torsten (who looked exactly like his Viking ancestors) took Maisie and me to an area of shifting sands in the north of the country. I remember a church that was slowly vanishing as the sands crept forward. Efforts were being made to stabilize the sands, by planting various tough dune grasses, but these were only partially successful: lasting success would somehow require the relentless winds to be stilled. And that was impossible.

I was of course aware there were shifting sands in the Western Isles, but I had no idea they could also be found in south Wales. Today for various reasons they’ve stabilised and have acquired a thick covering of grasses and in certain places a thin soil has even started to form. But in the 1400s the situation was very different. That was when a small Norman town – in effect an isolated English colony, surrounded by hostile Welsh communities – was buried beneath the creeping sands. I don’t want to spoil the story of what we revealed, but the encroaching sands took a century to complete their job and they’ve bequeathed us as extraordinary legacy: an intact buried medieval small town. All that remains on the surface today are some hints of the great ditch and bank that defended the town’s perimeter and the ruins of the Norman castle that began it all.

Time Team, Kenfig (buried medieval town), Bridgend, Glamorgan, South Wales

The buried medieval town’s perimeter ditch and bank run to the left of the small bushy in the foreground. Note the sand dunes all around. I took this photo from the top of a very high one. In the 1300s the land here would have been low-lying and flat. The sand dunes blew in during the fifteenth century.

To be honest I felt very daunted when I was asked whether I’d like to be the archaeological director of the project. For most Time Teams, I normally just say yes, but in this case I took a few days to make up my mind. It wasn’t the period that worried me, as I’ve dug on numerous medieval sites; no, it was that sand – that, and the constant image in my mind of Pompeii, which I can remember being told as a student was an example of how not to dig an ancient  site. There is of course a big difference: Pompeii was buried in minutes, whereas our southern Welsh medieval town took about a century to be engulfed.  But the fact remains that both were preserved under hundreds of thousands of tons of over-burden – of sand or lava.

Complete burial does, however, present some huge archaeological problems, and of course opportunities. I was discussing the problem with my wife one evening and she was listening patiently as I droned on and on about it. Eventually, after a couple of hours of my rabbiting on, poor woman, she’d had enough:

‘For Heaven’s sake, why are you so het-up? You must be one of the best qualified people in Britain to dig such a site.’

I was gob-smacked. Me? I’ve spent my life digging wet sites in peat and silt. Not dry sites in sand.

‘Why?’

‘Surely it’s obvious…

Was it?

‘Because all your sites have been buried. Can’t you remember doing a bore-hole survey to find the edges of Flag Fen? If that site wasn’t buried, then I don’t know what was…’

She was right, of course. Nearly all my lower-lying sites have been buried under thick layers of river-borne flood clays, marine silts or deep peats, as at Flag Fen. So if I followed the basic rules of Fenland archaeology I couldn’t go far wrong. And the most important rule of all was very simple: first dig a deep hole (we used to call them Control Sections, as that sounded more scientific than Deep Holes) to establish the level of the old land surface, or OLS. One you’ve established the OLS everything else is straightforward.

I spent a full day doing a site recce and decided that the best place for our Control Section would be across part of the surviving perimeter defences. I reckoned that if we extended the trench far enough back from the inner bank we’d be bound to find the OLS – which I’m glad to say we did. But that section through the town defences was an extraordinary achievement in just three days, and it was largely down to Phil and his team. As some readers might know, there’s been a certain amount of flack in the tabloid press about Time Team and its future, but if you want to see a shining example of how to excavate and record a large and highly complex trench in just three short days, then that was the one. Phil was delighted, and I don’t blame him. I can think of some top flight professional Units who’d have had difficulties matching what we achieved there.

I’ve always had a big problem with medieval roads. I can remember being taught at school that they were poorly maintained, and in winter were rutted and boggy. Yet these were the routes that supplied Britain’s prosperous cities. If medieval towns hadn’t been so successful, the industrial era could never have come into existence. The best ones, we were taught, had good solid Roman foundations – and that implied that the others were rubbish. But the trouble was that most excavated medieval roads were in historic towns where the foundations of later (mostly Georgian and modern) roads had damaged the earlier levels. So for these and other reasons, I was very keen to discover a street or road in our Welsh buried town, because I knew it couldn’t be Roman and wouldn’t be damaged by any later repairs or rebuilding. Well, we found one and it was superb: not a pit or a rut in sight. The surface was of rammed gravel and it had a smooth, gently cambered profile. I didn’t feel we could hack through the surface (it was so hard that it would have needed a machine to penetrate it) to establish the depth of the foundations, but given the quality of the road’s general build, I feel sure it had been properly constructed, or engineered. It was clear to everyone that this was no casual track and we know for a fact that it came into existence in the twelfth century and had been abandoned by 1500, at the latest. So much, then, for grotty medieval roads. Time Team sends yet another myth to the Recycling Bin.

Time Team, Kenfig (buried medieval town), Bridgend, Glamorgan, South Wales

The great defensive bank to the perimeter ditch after three days of intensive excavation. Note the thick accumulations of sand above the old land surface (the dark layer).

Time Team, Kenfig (buried medieval town), Bridgend, Glamorgan, South Wales

Buildings survived very well. Here you can see part of a wall with a well-built exterior surface of dressed masonry. The mortar used was clay. This building probably had something to do with the administration or running of the town. It was more grand than the houses of the ordinary townspeople, which we were also able to excavate.

Time Team, Kenfig (buried medieval town), Bridgend, Glamorgan, South Wales

A close-up of the wall, showing the exterior finish and the interior rubble fill.

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