16 August 2021

Caernarfon walk with an archaeologist

Some time ago, a friend alerted me to an archaeological walk in one of the areas I had appreciated so much on the Slate Trail. I had been in that area before for runs (like here and here). This walk would also be in Welsh. I figured I should go! So I expressed my interest. And then I suddenly realised on a Thursday that that same archaeologist, Rhys Mwyn, was doing an evening walk that next day, in Caernarfon. It would focus on the Roman heritage of the place. I had barely visited Caernarfon! Many years ago I had visited the castle, and I had gone to the pub with some old Dutch friends not too long ago, and I had celebrated Jaco's 50th birthday there, I had been to the city archives, and I had run a race there, but that was about it. I have never actually bothered to stick my nose in what was left of its Roman past. And what better way of doing that them under the guidance of the Welsh speaking archaeologist! So I registered.

The original walk I had seen was just the private initiative of the archaeologist. This walk in Caernarfon was within the framework of Menter Iaith, an organisation that promotes the Welsh language. And my friend who had alerted me to the first walk, Dani, works for that organisation, so she was going to be there too. And she offered me a lift! That was bonus.

We were one of the first to show up. Dani greeted the archaeologist. I had googled him before I had registered on either walk. It is nice to know what to expect. But to my surprise, googling him didn't yield much detail on what sort of an archaeologist he was. There was a lot more about the fact that he had been one of the bellwethers of the Welsh punk scene back in the days! And that he had suffered some strange form of amnesia a few years ago. Oh well, I was going to find out about his archaeological preferences on the hoof.

Dani introduced us, and we had a nice chat. Soon I was talking about the historical/archaeological walks I had already done, with the Carneddau landscape partnership (the Bronze Age one and the WWII one). He knew the archaeologists involved, of course. In the meantime, more and more people gathered. I ended up talking to a few more of the participants. And I recognised a few faces from Welsh class! There was one former classmates there, and one former tutor. Always nice to bump into people like that again. And then we started!

Rhys first spoke a bit about context. He said that what made Caernarfon what it was, was some elevated land between two rivers flowing into the Menai Strait: the Seiont and the Cadnant. (The Cadnant is quite emphatically the junior of the two, by the way, and vanishes underground in town.) The Seiont is both a nice hiding place from the dominating Western winds, and it is very muddy and therefore difficult to cross. The former is nice for logistic reasons, and the latter for reasons of defence. And that was probably the reason why the Romans chose the place. They seemed to have had about 500 men there, and archaeological evidence suggested that quite soon, the locals were trading with them. I suppose the locals recognised an army they couldn't beat when they saw it, and then decided that if you can't beat them, trade with them. 

Another interesting thing he said was that there wasn't much Welsh about Caernarfon. It was obviously founded by the Romans. At the time, the main population centres of the natives were a bunch of hillforts in the area: Dinas Dinlle being the primary one. I am sure that the rest of the country was dotted with little farms. Hundreds of years after the Romans had skedaddled again, the Normans came in and built a castle not far from where the Roman fort had been. Not long after that, Edward I came in, and built an enormous castle on the ruins of the Roman Castle. So pretty much, everyone who settles in Caernarfon is an invader. At least, that was the way for hundreds of years in a row!

While we were walking in the direction of the actual Roman camp, Rhys told us that the area we were walking through pretty much yielded more archaeological remains associated with the Roman camp than the Roman camp itself. And the bits of the camp that he showed us were first the baths, and then a fortified entrance. He pointed out that the initial camp seem to have been built with timber, but that later they had replaced that with rock, and mainly New Red Sandstone from the Chester area. No idea why they preferred that! Maybe they had just established a quarry there and had started as they had intended to go on. But there was a lot of other stone in there too. They weren't picky.

Rhys Mwyn holding forth

 remains of the Roman baths

The entrance seemed to have been used as a shell midden in the Middle Ages. It took Rhys seconds to find a few shells still!

We then walked back via a different route, which brought us to a much higher segment of Roman wall, with its characteristic herringbone structure. He didn't know what the advantage of that was, but the Romans seem to build like that all the time. He also didn't do why there was so much more left of this wall than there was of the walls of the fortress we had seen before. People who need rock for their own structures have been inclined to nick them from abandoned structures through time! So it is a miracle how this wall survived so long.

We also walked past a cute old school, with a bit of a terrace next to it, where some community initiative to grow the kind of herbs the Romans would have grown seemed to have perished when the school was bought. And then we walked back via a beautiful path to where we had started. Rhys pointed out one more interesting plaque on the town square, while being extensively heckled by the famously uninhibited locals, and then the walk was over. While Dani talked to a few people I popped to the ATM as I knew I needed to have cash on me the next day. And then we went home! I had learned lots, and it had been very nice. It was a success, and I was already looking forward to the sequel the next day!

walking back to the castle

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