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									The Archaeology of

The North East Slope Of

Caergwrle Castle Hill




                        Felicity Davies
                                  2006



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   THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE NORTH EAST SLOPE OF CAERGWRLE
                                      CASTLE HILL


Background
The town of Caergwrle in North Wales lies approximately 12 miles from the city of Chester on
the banks of the River Alyn. The earthworks of Watts Dyke run parallel to the town. Although
not described as such in guide book literature, it is apparent that the Castle Hill bears the remains
of a hillfort; the embankments can be readily discerned from various vantage points on the
hillside. The castle itself on the top of the hill is slightly offset, and was constructed in 1278 by
Dafydd ap Gruffudd on land granted him by Edward I as a reward for fighting against his brother
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. However, in 1282 Dafydd changed sides and launched an attack against
the English at Hawarden, going on to attack further castles at Fflint and Rhuddlan. Dafydd
slighted his own castle before departing, and it was rebuilt by Edward’s forces between 1282 and
1283.


Subsequent owners of the castle included the Earl of Derby, who gave it to the then Hope Parish
Council in 1961. The practice of grazing sheep on the hillside was abandoned, and some silver
birch trees were planted to beautify the hill. The result of this was a dense growth of trees.


An archaeological excavation of the castle itself was undertaken 1988 – 1990 by Dr. John
Manley. During the excavation a section was taken through the earthen embankment
surrounding the castle. A piece of charcoal was recovered which returned C14 dates of 250 –
400 AD, (uncalibrated).


Mr. Charles Harston, a local historian and resident approached the local parish council with his
concerns regarding features on the north east slope of the hillside, (grid reference SJ308574).
The growth of the trees was, in his opinion, threatening the integrity of the features. Mr. Harston
also contacted the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments in Wales. Following this, a visit
was made by the Royal Commission to the site, and it was agreed that the site did have
archaeology. Accordingly, the Parish Council contacted me, (Felicity Davies) with a view to
excavate, and thereby record the site.



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A survey was conducted of the site and surrounding area, and with permission from the Parish
Council work commenced on the site in the autumn of 2003.


The Excavation
It soon became very clear that there were going to be numerous difficulties to overcome. As the
site is on public land, semi permanent structures were not viable; therefore, all equipment had to
be transported there with each visit. Hygiene arrangements were best described as rustic. To
facilitate excavation, the local Ranger service kindly arranged to have several silver birch trees
on the site removed.


The whole of the hillside has suffered a great deal of attrition due to quarrying activity. Stone to
construct the castle was quarried from the hillside itself. In later times, as well as robbing stone
out of the castle, stone was also quarried to build houses for coal miners in the town. Due to the
 quantity of broken stone on the site, it is very possible that the spoil from the medieval quarry
 was dumped on the site. Consequently, the first phase of the excavation was the removal as far
   as possible, of broken stone. Because of the tree growth, there was a great depth of humus.




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                                       (figure 1)
Following the results of the survey, it was assumed that the main feature was circular, with 3 or 4
circular satellite features. Having removed a quantity of broken stone and humus, it became
apparent that the main feature was not circular, but did in fact, resemble a passageway. (Feature
A). Investigation of the “entranceway” revealed the existence of a well laid floor. The
orientation of the “entrance” is due east. The passageway curves to the north, and ends in a well.
Due to the curve of the passageway, it is not possible to see the well from the entrance. The well
itself was buried at a depth of 3.5 metres under stone debris. It is surrounded by a low wall, and
then by very carefully laid stones. Even though the water table has dropped considerably over
the past 2 or 3 hundred years, there was still a small amount of water present.




                                        (figure 2)




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Feature B is situated on the top of the embankment overlooking the passageway. Along the axis
facing the passage is a line of large stones set into a groove cut in the bedrock. Behind the stone
uprights is a well laid floor of clay and stones. The floor was formed of a layer of clay
approximately 7 – 10 mm thickness with flat stones placed on top.




                                         (figure 3)


Feature C is a circular pit cut into the bedrock. It was at first assumed to be a small quarry pit,
but investigation would seem to deny this assumption. The sides are very steep, and there is no
obvious way to remove stone from it. Working within such a confined space would be difficult
to say the least.


Feature D is similar to feature B in that there are stone uprights which appear to continue along
the top of the feature. However, the feature has been badly damaged, and is therefore difficult to
assess.




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A partial section was taken of the embankment wall of the passage. A comparison was made to
the embankment at the top of the hill sectioned during the Manley excavations. It appears that
the construction is the same, and consists of earth and stone. In some cases large river cobbles
have been used, presumably from the River Alyn which flows at the foot of the castle hill.




                                      (figure 4)


Stratigraphy on the site was extremely problematic owing to the surprising depth of humus and
the broken stones. Immediately below the humus was a layer of sand varying in depth from
3mm to 0.5 of a meter. Below this was bedrock. Evidence of ancient vegetation cover was
present in 3 areas, immediately behind the well, immediately in front of the low wall, and close
to feature B. Because of the ubiquitous nature of the humus, such evidence was very difficult to
confirm.




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The Finds


The highly acidic nature of the humus has meant that very little metallic or organic
artefacts/ecofacts have survived, with the notable exception of hand made nails recovered from
the sandy layer above the floor in feature B.




                                            Centimetre scale
                                                (figure 5)


A quantity of late 19 – early 20th century ceramics and glass was recovered from everywhere on
the site, in the lower level of the humus. The practice may well have been to bury broken
ceramic and glass. An analysis of the bottle glass revealed that visitors were coming from as far
away as Preston, with a substantial number being local. The advent of the railways made North
Wales accessible for many people. Caergwrle was noted for its mineral springs, and a
substantial local industry developed around the spa waters. Indeed, a hotel was built to cater for
the number of visitors the spa attracted.


17th Century yellow and black slipware fragments were recovered from below the level of the
humus adjacent to the entrance to the passageway. In the same context were thick pieces of
glass. These glass pieces were submitted to Jan Heywood of the Glass Museum in St. Helens for




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her expert opinion. She was able to advise us that the glass was also 17th century, and indicated
the likely shape of the complete artefact.


Surprisingly perhaps, only one small fragment of medieval ceramic has been recovered.
Surprisingly because according to the Welsh medieval records, over a 1000 people were engaged
during the rebuilding of the castle.


Ms Heywood was also able to advise us that some small fragments of glass were possibly of
Saxon or early medieval origin.


Recovered from the central part of the passageway were fragments of Roman cement and brick.
From the same context were also recovered fragments of ceramic that have been tentatively
identified as amphorae fragments and a rim piece of dusted mica ware from Lyons. See figure 6
below.




                                  (figure 6)




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From various parts of the site have been recovered pieces of lead, possibly used to make shot,
and small pieces of flint. As flint is not native to this region, it is possible that these pieces are
either from tinderboxes or musket. It is known that there was a great deal of Parliamentary
activity in the area prior to and following the Battle of Chester.


One definite and one possible hammer stones have also been recovered. Also a finely worked
red flint thumb scraper.


2 fragments of bone were recovered from feature B. Analysis by the coroner gave a 75%
possibility that the bones were pig, and 25% that they were human, but too ancient for his
interest. However, as the context was not secure, it was decided that no further investigation
should take place.


Interpretation


Because of the heavy attrition of the site due to quarrying and tree damage, interpretation has
been very difficult. Furthermore, because of the near impossibility of recovering anything
without contamination by the humus, there was no dateable evidence.


However, although the artefactual evidence is very sparse, it has indicated a continuous use of
the site from the present day to at least the 1st century AD.


It would seem very possible that the site has been re used many times from its original inception.
Feature B in particular would seem to most clearly demonstrate this.


It is highly probable that the embankment walls of the passageway are overlying an earlier
structure. This is indicated by the line of upright stones that form the walls of Feature B.


This discussion can most clearly be seen by studying the plans




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                                  (figure 7)


The alignment, size and orientation of the upright stones are highly suggestive of late Neolithic
and early Bronze Age sites, particularly of the Penwith Peninsular and Anglesey.




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                                     (figure 8)




It seems probable that the original entrance to the hillfort, and possibly, the medieval castle,
skirted the edge of the site. This is borne out by the fact that there is still a pathway running
across the entrance, and then up the side of the site leading to the top of the hill. The path passes
through a notch in the top embankment. Logistically, this would be the easiest way to take
heavy goods to the top. The present path diverges approximately half way, and is very steep.


Without further evidence, it is not possible to make a fully informed interpretation.


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Acknowledgements:
With many thanks to the members of Wirral and North Wales Field Archaeology Group who
provided much of the workforce. Special thanks to Emma Jones for the drawing of artefacts and
Peter Taylor for the site plans. 2006-09-18




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