In the shadow of famous Rhuddlan Castle , just a few short kilometers from the northern Welsh coast, archaeologists have unearthed a Mesolithic camp site that predates King Edward I’s 13 th century turreted stone fortress by 8,000 years. Literally just down the hill from the castle, no more than a long stone’s throw away, archaeologists Richard Cooke and Josh Dean from the consulting firm Aeon Archaeology uncovered the 9,000-year-old camp site that apparently functioned as a temporary camp for groups of hunter-gatherers passing through the area.
Cooke and Dean found and excavated the new site in October 2020, while working at the behest of authorities in the village of Rhuddlan in Denbighshire County. The local council had issued an “archaeological watching brief” to ensure that a new housing project wouldn’t bury or destroy any valuable artifacts that might be hidden beneath the unexplored landscape.
An Aeon Archaeology archaeologist working at the Mesolithic camp site found just below Rhuddlan Castle in Wales. (Jez Hemming / Denbighshire Free Press )
The Wales Mesolithic Camp Site: One Of The Oldest Ever
Such archaeological explorations are standard with construction projects in the United Kingdom, although most of the artifact-hunting surveys performed at such locations are strictly perfunctory. On this occasion, however, archaeologists had extraordinarily good fortune.
“We found a lot of worked flint from the Mesolithic period,” Richard Cooke explained. “There were three post holes, material from which was carbon dated at between 9220 and 9280 years old.”
In total, the archaeologists recovered 314 stone objects buried at the site. In addition to flints they also found many chipped pieces of chert, a hard sedimentary rock made from quartz crystals that is suitable for making tools. A few intact, rudimentary stone tools made from these materials were found at the new site, including scrapers that were likely hand-manufactured to cut meat and/or scrape hides, and small sharp blades called microliths that could function as versatile knives. They also discovered a tool they referred to as a “ notch,” which they believe was used to shape pieces of wood into useful objects.
Archaeologists found rudimentary stone tools, including scrapers that were likely hand-manufactured to cut meat and/or scrape hides, and small sharp blades called microliths that could function as versatile knives, at the Wales Mesolithic camp site. ( Aeon Archaeology )
Previously, the most well-known Mesolithic find in the Rhuddlan area occurred in 1972, when archaeological excavations produced six decorated pebbles , which were engraved with deep incised lines that formed both abstract and distinct shapes. One of the pebbles was decorated with what appeared to be a fishing basket, revealing one reason why Mesolithic peoples so often came to the location where Edward chose to build his medieval seacoast fortification in 1277.
This new site discovered at the foot of Castle Hill in Rhuddlan is most notable for its antiquity.
“Not many of these Mesolithic sites have had samples carbon dated,” Cooke said. “So this is on a par with the oldest proven Mesolithic site in Wales.”
Up to now, the Nab Head site in Pembrokeshire was the most ancient Mesolithic encampment discovered in Wales. The area was excavated in the late 1970s and approximately 12,000 pieces of flint that had been used as tools or for toolmaking some 9,200 years ago were found there.
A reconstructed 7000-BC Mesolithic hunter gatherer’s camp featured in the Irish National Heritage Park Exhibit. Mesolithic hunters and gatherers were nomadic and built temporary houses. Their tools were made from wood, bone and flint. (David Hawgood / Hunter gatherer’s camp at Irish National Heritage Park )
Itinerant Mesolithic Lifestyles: When Land and Sea Provided
During the Mesolithic period, inhabitants of Wales and the United Kingdom largely adopted an itinerant hunter-gatherer lifestyle . This was common in the period following the termination of the last Ice Age, which was marked by the retreat of the last glaciers in approximately 8,000 BC.
The melting of the glaciers resulted in a rise in sea levels and sometimes massive flooding along coasts, which undoubtedly wiped out many settlements and displaced large groups of people. It also altered the balance between interior land spaces and coastal areas, with the former shrinking and the latter growing. Rising temperatures and easier access to coastlines likely made the hunter-gatherer lifestyle more viable, as the land and sea could more readily feed and clothe roving groups of humans living cooperatively and in harmony with nature and the changing of the seasons.
Many Mesolithic sites have been found in Wales, but all seem to be of the same nature as the 9,000-year-old encampment in Rhuddlan. These were temporary resting spots, meant for periods of brief occupation only.
It was necessary for Mesolithic hunter-gatherers to keep moving, and ironically it was their incessant wandering in search of sustenance that gave their societies their sense of stability and permanence. As long as they kept moving, they were confident the land and sea would provide.
Denbighshire county councilor Ann Davies pressured the county government to issue an archaeological watching brief and bring in Aeon Archaeology to perform a comprehensive survey of the unexplored section of land destined to be developed for housing adjacent to Rhuddlan Castle. (Jez Hemming / Denbighshire Free Press )
Advocating For The Past: For Future Enlightenment
Human history from the late 19 th century to the present could be described as a continuously expanding construction project.
In the name of “progress,” previously unoccupied or lightly occupied land and shared common spaces have been turned over to real estate developers of various types. In search of profit, they’ve converted vast sections of the world into archaeological burial grounds, where hidden artifacts that could enlighten us and deepen our understanding of the past are permanently entombed beneath tons of asphalt, concrete, wood, glass, and steel.
To resist these trends, archaeology must rely on preservation-minded and historically-conscious advocates within city, county, state, and national governments. The efforts of these individuals is essential, to make sure the voices of archaeologists and historians can be heard and that extensive surveys can be carried out before new business parks, multistory parking lots, and sprawling housing complexes are erected.
In Rhuddlan, the role of archaeological savior was filled by Denbighshire county councilor Ann Davies. It was she who pressured the county government to issue the archaeological watching brief and bring in Aeon Archaeology to perform a comprehensive survey of an unexplored section of land destined to be developed for housing.
“We have a wealth of history in Rhuddlan and I have always been passionate about protecting our local heritage for future generations,” Davies told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
Overall, Rhuddlan has the highest concentration of confirmed Mesolithic sites in Wales. Given this fact, and given the presence of King Edward’s spectacular castle sitting high on a hill overlooking the village, it would seem wise for Rhuddlan to embrace its historical past as essential to its identity. Such an attitude is perhaps the best that archaeologists can hope for, in Rhuddlan and elsewhere, as they search for allies in their tireless effort to protect and preserve historical memory and culture.
Top image: The Mesolithic camp site that was recently discovered in Wales was found just below Rhuddlan Castle. Source: Julie Anne Workman / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Nathan Falde