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A Historical Background to Pen y Corddyn Mawr

While the fort at Caerhun will always be the focus of this website, the topic is not really endless, and I feel at this point it would be desirable to include sections on other relevant local archaeological sites, especially ones connected directly by occupation comparable to Kanovium.

The fort is located on a massive limestone plateau, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs, on the east side of the Dulas valley, about a mile south of the village of Llanddulas, and just under half a mile north of the Roman road to Caerhun, the road would have been a notable feature when viewed from the fort and it is tempting to speculate if the road was indeed constructed in the locality to take the earlier high status site into account.  Roman material has always been found here and again we can speculate that either the occupants were pro Roman or indeed even the Roman army, as the bulk of finds here have been military, though if home to a local warrior aristocracy then military finds would be expected too.  Indeed Roman period material was all that was found by Gardner, which comprised of two pieces of Roman pottery, one sherd of Samian being found in a rubbish pit at the north east gate and dated to the time of Hadrian, and a small piece of undiagnostic Roman buff coloured pot.  While at Caerhun fort, coins end at Trajan, while here they begin at Hadrian, so possibly we may have a slight switching of Roman interest in the area.  Possibly the site for the fort at Caerhun was not a good one, perhaps the Romans underestimated the amount of folk movements on the North Wales Coast, possibly the Romans became slightly out of touch up the Conwy Valley, certainly they had ceased Iron Age communications from Clwyd to Gwynedd, but maybe then the coast was used more, we have finds of Roman coins far out into the sea at Colwyn Bay, proving that the sea had receded the coast in the intervening years, possibly Caerhun fort was badly sited and it was necessary to move more coastward, St Asaph (the possible Varis, was also in the background if the coast became the new focal) and we do have instances of the Roman army building forts inside already existing Iron Age forts, Hod Hill in Dorset is a famous example, though not generally at the time of Hadrian.  Eitherway a chance find of an iron pilum head close to the north gate shows the army was indeed here, and it would be nice to think it represented a Roman assault on the fort (it was still stuck into the ground and was only revealed by the burning of gorse) but a contact of mine informed me it was more likely to represent a Roman training exercise, in that once Wales had been finally subdued by Rome, the greatest value it had to them was being used as a 1st century Salisbury Plain.  The legionary weapon I feel is an interesting conversation point, what do we have here? legionaries training from Deva? auxiliaries from Caerhun training with legionary weapons, like all questions asked there is never going to be an answer, this makes Roman army studies a rather frustrating topic, it is always ‘what if’ or ‘if only’.  Either way, around 120 AD we have some Roman military presence here, a slight decline at the auxiliary fort is explained by the building of Hadrian’s Wall, Caerhun rather than been demilitarized, receives a stone rebuild 30 years later, but coin evidence drops right off, reports of a sestertius of Hadrian also is evidence of occupation at Pen y Corddyn Mawr during this time.

Moving on later, we have  Roman military evidence in the form of a Germanic type buckle please see garrison page dating to the late 4th early 5th century, it is enigmatic and rare for North Wales, similar material not even being this late from the unequivocal 4th century fort of Segontium, and certainly not at the now evacuated legion base at Deva/Chester.  Deva, a Roman base from at least the time of Suetonius Paulinus, A.D 60 (auxiliary fort) on to the final recorded date of military activity under Carausius, around A.D. 280.  Therefore it is suprising the Llanddulas area should provide us with very late material, more akin to kit being used by Roman troops of a more Germanic nature on the Saxon Shore of southern and eastern England. Beneath the east cliffs of the fort is a water supply, reached by a postern and a steep path, during the late 1970’s a metal detector user found a hoard of over 500 late Roman coins at the spring, Llys Awel, but more significant was several statuettes of dogs, comparable to examples found at the late Roman shrine at Lydney park on the Severn estuary.  Hillforts have been shown to have a religious, as well as military and agricultural function so it is possible Pen-y-Corddyn Mawr featured some sort of temple or shrine, if it is the Romans or local folk we are unsure, but a find of an early medieval pennanular brooch point to even at this date the site still had some significance.  K.R. Dark in Discovery by Design : the identification of secular elite settlements in Western britain, A.D 400-700, Brit Archaeol Rep, Brit ser 237, Oxford, 1994, suggests despite the finding of the brooch ‘from the foot of the hill’ the activity at this point should still be regarded as late Romano British. Possibly by this date the ramparts have been slighted, this again probably points to Roman training exercises, why continuing military input has been noted into the 5th century is unknown.

Roman material has been found north of the fort on it’s outlying promontory, Cefn y Ogof, surely representing Roman signaling or seaward reconnaissance, it must also be linked to the area of Llysfaen, local myth claims the 1820’s semaphore station (Mersey Docks and Harbour Corporation) was built on the site of a Roman beacon stance (linking Caer Gybi at Holyhead to the fortress at Deva), certainly we do have several instances of late Roman coin hoards in the Llysfaen area, at Trawscoed road, and Pentre Gwyddel Farm, and four 4th century hoards from the Colwyn/Rhos areas.  During this time Roman activity is seen to increase (at least on coin finds evidence) the strategically important site of Pen y Corddyn Mawr would naturally have been useful, view it and it’s outlier from the modern railway and it is easy to see why why it had command over the immediate area.  Cefn-y-Ogof, the north outlier has several Roman connections, there are a large area of lead mines which are believed to have been opened by the Romans, these bell pits, today are fairly extensive, but have been worked much since Roman days, not least in the 1820’s when they provided the lead for the windows of the sham castle at Gwrych.  The Hesketh Bamford Heskeths who constructed the castle owned the hills of Cefn-y-Ogof, and Pen-y-Corddyn-Mawr, the former actually being part of the estates ornamental parkland, and no doubt the old fort also provided some romantic attraction to the castle owners.  Found near the mines have been Roman coins, and also a silver seal ring, which significantly had a temple design on the bezel.  The ring is a common 3rd-4th century type and may have even been of eastern manufacture.  It would seem to be a votive deposit, and the temple design, could point to Pen-y-Corddyn Mawr, it could even have belonged to an official of the temple, and deposited above the large cave overlooking the coastal plain.
 A Brief History of Pen y Corddyn Mawr.

The air shot in Houlder’s book, taken by J.K.S. St Joseph and shows the hillfort as it was in the 1960’s, the old mine or sink hole which can be seen beneath the rampart has now been totally filled with farm rubbish(!) while the fields above the fort which only have three houses is now a housing estate.  The sharp nature of the main rampart is now sadly reduced by off road motor bikes.  This hole was believed to be a site of  a magic gold hoard, the finder being struck dead, Gardner hired several local miners to dig it out, who though finding nothing, lived to tell the tale.

Excavated in 1906 by local archaeologist Willoughby Gardner (who did much work to aid P.K. Baillie Reynolds at Caerhun), and his findings are to be read in the site report,  a small blue book of the same name, it is well illustrated and I have attempted to take the images from similar viewpoints.  The fort was not an easy one to work out, the phases of construction, three, are not correctly understood either then or now.  I have four sources of information for the fort, all which contradict each other, but they are as follows-

1.  Gardner, excavation report, the fort and northern annex are of one construction period, fort wall with possible similarities to Roman work, but of a more primitive nature.

2.  A.H.A. Hogg, Prehistoric And Early Wales (I.L.I Foster and Glyn Daniel, Routledge and Kegan 1965) considered the 35 acre fort to have been constructed originally, but at a subsequent date it was reduced to 25 acres, and the fort now became the area inclosed by the double wall, while at an even later date the northern annex was constructed.  In all three phases, no dates for anything.

3.  Wales:  An Archaeological Guide, Christopher Houlder, Faber 1974, considers the fort to occupy 10ha defended by two stone revetted ramparts 12m apart, with no ditch, while the annex enclosure added another 5ha.

4.  The Penguin Guide to Prehistoric England And Wales, James Dyer 1981, contradicts Houlder in saying that the fort occupies 12ha, while the annex defines another 6ha, and agrees with Hogg that at the start it occupied 17ha but was later reduced to 12ha.

Now this is all confusing and garbled, we are not left with much idea, either when the fort was established, or in what form, or when additions, or reductions had been implemented.  A date could be postulated on similar forts to be 800 B.C, during the late Bronze Age.  For one all sources barring Gardner claim the ramparts to be stone revetments, they most certainly are not, but fairly well constructed dry stone walls, which can be seen admirably well on image 2 in the following small gallery.  Gardner noted this dry stone wall, and described it as well built, but primitive, and I in my opinion see parallels to the wall of Tre y Ceiri hillfort near Nefyn, and also Bryn Euryn at Colwyn Bay, while the former is Romano British period, the later is post Roman early Medieval, all of these periods are probably present at Pen-y-Corddyn-Mawr.  While the annex rampart appears much larger than the main enclosure, and more like the typical Iron Age hillfort.

The fort had four gates into the main enclosure, and one into the annex, all stand at the heads of natural gullies.  These are as follows, a south gate which breaches the very slight southern rampart, mostly cliffs the immediate area is scree slope, today it is scaleable with difficulty, and surely must have been a weak point? the east rampart has a narrow postern gate with access to the spring below, the main gate is the north eastern and is entered by a narrow passage and was defended by inturned ramparts and twin guard chambers, and a  north western entrance, which appears to have no guard towers, but a hollow way still emerges from the gate and runs out toward the annex.  Gardner considered the hollow way to be terminated by the now disused Rhyd y Foel quarry, which this author does not agree with.

Several round hut sites are easily viewable in the north eastern area of the fort and it is this area the author believes to be the area of Roman period occupation, one earthwork displaying an untypical square wall for an Iron Age fort, it would be difficult to see any other places suitable for occupation inside the ramparts or indeed the annex enclosure which is even more broken ground.  The area to the south is uneven and broken.  This area of the fort is the high point from which image 1 was taken from, split by several natural gullies, hut sites could be a possibility, but very few at a time.  The area to the far south would be more suitable for occupation, though nothing is visible today.  Gardner excavated several small mounds in this area, known locally as ‘soldier’s graves’ they proved to be evidence of metal smelting, obviously the wind blowing in from the south aided such industry.

This South facing view is taken from the ramparts of Pen y Corddyn Mawr hillfort and illustrates the type of terrain the Roman road is traversing.  It crosses the low lying land of the Dulas basin, the Dulas is a small river, which has not only given its name to the Dulas valley, but also to the coastal village of Llanddulas.  The background of this image is the mountain Moelfre Uchaf, which at 1298 feet is the highest point around.

The road ran centre of this image and goes East-West running between the ploughed fields.  The above images were taken to the left of this one and are just off shot.  After crossing the fields at Pen y Bryn Farm the road descends into the Dulas basin, while very damp even now despite the drainage work engaged in by the farmers, crossed by several small brooks, the area must have not been an ideal one to construct a road, and could possibly go to illustrate why the route seems to have lost significance by the dawn of modern times, when the Roman road over the Bwlch y Dduefaen continued to still be used into the early 20th century.  The road must have required to be built on a log base for the whole of this area.  The Georgian coaching route ran about half a mile to the south of the older road, preferring the higher and drier ground to the South, at the base of the foothills of Moelfre Uchaf.  The Dulas basin would have been a good area for agriculture during Roman times, but is strangely devoid of any ancient history now (possibly due to agriculture) though Edmund Waddelove spotted a cropmark that looks suspiciously the shape of a small Roman fort on the small high point left of the ploughed fields.  The author considers that this would be an ideal location for a road fort, the Dulas valley would have been a route for travellers during the pre and Roman periods (the mountain Moelfre Isaf was the find spot of a hoard of Bronze age ‘proto palstaves’ or copper alloy axeheads).

To the right of this image the road forded the River Dulas, to take some still unsuitable broken ground to the north of Dolwen, south of Llanelian, to climb the hill of Bryn yr Odyn, to drop down into the Conwy Valley


All images copyright of Kanovium Project