Portable Antiquities : Field Walking In Wales

By Richard Moss | 22 November 2004
shows a close up of a polished stone axehead - it is held by a man wearing a plaid jacket

A Neolithic polished stone axehead as shown to Finds Liaison Officers at last year's finds ID day in Wales. © NMGW

This is the fifth of seven introductory features about the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) Roadshows, happening nationally on November 27, 2004.

When it comes to archaeological finds reported through the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), Wales has proved to be something of a goldmine.

A series of high profile finds in the north of the country include gold hoards that are allowing archaeologists to pinpoint some interesting new patterns about the late Bronze Age period.

In common with many areas administered by the PAS, the majority of these finds come through a good relationship and frequent contact with the metal detecting community, but in Wales there are also some other major sources.

“What’s interesting with regard to the PAS in Wales is the large number of dedicated field walkers,” says Finds Co-ordinator Mark Lodwick. “They are reporting large collections from all over the country. I think we are similar to most places in that we probably have more metal detectorists but the amount of dedication of the field walkers is amazing.”

However you approach it, looking for archaeological finds takes determination and patience but field walking involves a peculiar, almost forensic, dedication. After arranging permission from the farmer, usually after ploughing, field walkers slowly move back and forth scouring the earth for foreign objects.

shows a bowl with a leopard shaped handle

A Roman 'Leopard' cup found near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire. © NMGW

“It’s literally walking up and down a field looking closely at the ground,” explains Mark, “sometimes on your hands and knees. But the rewards are immense - after a period of rain, if you know what you’re looking for you can find megalithic tools and flints.”

One field walker is particularly skilled in this art. “He has brought in some amazing finds,” explains Mark. “One piece was burnt suggesting a burial ground or a ploughed up barrow that we didn’t previously know about so I’ve lent him a GPS (Global Positioning Tool) so he can plot his area.”

Mark has a couple of these hand-held satellite-plotting tools. One he uses for his own site visits, the other he lends out “very selectively.” They enable archaeologists to record a find location to within a square metre. It’s a sophisticated and expensive piece of kit, so the loan is a measure of the competence of this particular field walker and the importance of the finds he is uncovering.

Thanks to the efforts of field walkers Mark and his colleagues have logged and recorded a considerable amount of archaeological information about earlier prehistoric periods. And only recently a forestry worker reported some amazing flints from the Megalithic and Neolithic periods.

"In the Pembrokeshire and Glamorgan area there is now huge evidence of Stone Age occupation,” adds Mark. “We have also had huge collections of Bronze Age metal works coming through and we hope to publish a book about these in conjunction with the National Museum of Wales.”

shows a close-up of leopard-shaped handle

Archaeological finds from the Roman period are throwing some light on the extent of Roman colonization in Wales. © NMGW

But the pre-historic period is just one part of a vast and varied archaeological picture of Wales, and the PAS has proved especially useful in throwing some light on the extent of the Roman colonization – particularly the settlements in the south east and north east of the country.

“As you travel further west the finds become rarer but we still get a few,” says Mark. “All of these contribute to our knowledge and it raises interesting questions about the nature of the Roman occupation and influence in Wales. Was this the Roman Army or are we finding objects as a result of trade between Romans and the local population?”

Once again finds reported through the PAS are beginning to change the way archaeologists think about the historical landscape and one of the most significant hoards of last year came through the PAS in Wales.

The Burton Hoard was uncovered by a group of metal detectorists near Wrexham and is spectacular in its range of middle Bronze Age artefacts – all of which are made of gold.

“The Burton Hoard contains a couple of pieces that are unparalleled anywhere else in the UK,” says Mark. “There is a bracelet with strands of twisted gold and a pendant consisting of a gold bi-conical bead. The quality and type of the jewellery is amazing and suggests a connection with the continent.”

shows a photograph of a grop of gold objects including rigs, bracelets and belts.

Burton Hoard, found near Wrexham. © NMGW

“It was very responsibly reported by a group of three metal detectorists from Merseyside who actually rang me to report it. I thought: ‘ok, I’ll ask for an image and have a look at it’, and it was exactly as they had described it”.

After the initial excitement, Mark’s first concern was security and retrieval; the objects were at that point being kept in the finder’s houses, so he quickly arranged for the items to be transferred to a museum.

“We then went up and the finders were really helpful, we pinpointed the spot and we did an excavation, but we found nothing.” All the finds had been scattered and recovered from the plough soil – leading to the usual archaeological conundrum of: why was it put there and how did it get there?

The fieldwork was, however, invaluable in finding the precise find location and, for Mark, the find is a good illustration of how to work closely with metal detectorists.

“We’re slowly breaking down the barriers and building up an element of trust and I feel it’s working very well down here,” he says.

shows a series metal tips such as axe heads and spear tips photographed against a black background.

Late Bronze Age metalworking hoard from Monmouthshire, one of many recorded recently in Wales. © NMGW

Mark and his colleagues are currently involved in a project with the National Museum of Wales investigating Bronze Age sites in the Vale of Glamorgan - and metal detectorists are an integral part of the team.

“Metal detectorists are very useful,” he explains, “they can mark sites and check for metal objects in a dug trench, which is an incredibly useful tool. I don’t think archaeologists should undertake digs without them.”

For the November 27 Finds Roadshow, Mark will be based at the Wrexham County Borough Museum, not far from the find location of the Burton Hoard.

“It’s good that we’re in Wrexham,” he says, “because it’s where a lot of these great treasure hoards have been found. I’ve contacted the metal detecting clubs in the area and they will be there displaying some of their finds, which is also good because it gives them a sense of ownership.”

The Finds Roadshow takes place between 11am and 3pm and includes hands-on archaeological activities for younger children including a mini dig. Free copies of the Portable Antiquities Scheme annual report will be available together with the first of a series of newsletters compiled by Mark containing more information on PAS reported finds in Wales.

In the coming week more FLOs will be telling us about their experiences of administering the PAS and revealing some of the amazing finds they have encountered - giving an insight into the archaeological landscape that surrounds us.

The series started in Essex where we talked to Finds Liaison Officer Caroline McDonald.

In Devon Nicky Powell revealed some of the things that land on the desk of an FLO.

Shropshire and Herefordshire FLO Peter Reavill explained the historical topography of the Welsh Marches.

Simon Holmes North and East Yorkshire expounded the virtues of 'community archaeology'.

In Oxfordshire and Berkshire Kate Sutton told us about the vast range of finds coming through the scheme.

For more about the Portable Antiquities Scheme read our Roadshows feature where we talk to Michael Lewis, Deputy Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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