Friday, 30 September 2011

Bronze Age finds at Pillar of Eliseg

Remains dating back to the Bronze Age have been uncovered by archaeologists excavating the site of a 9th Century monument.

The Pillar of Eliseg, also known as Elise's Pillar (Croes Elisedd in Welsh), stands 2 miles along the A542 from Llangollen, in north-east Wales. It was erected by Cyngen ap Cadell, king of Powys in honour of his great-grandfather Elisedd ap Gwylog.  It is located 400m north-west of the ruins of the Cistercian monastery of Valle Crucis, founded in 1201. The Pillar is a striking landmark sited in the narrow valley of the Nant Eglwyseg, a tributary of the river Dee, to which it gives its name: the ‘Valley of the Cross’.

The Pillar is thought to be the remains of a 20 foot-high Celtic cross-shaft set within its original base, with the cross-head clearly now missing. Almost invisible to today’s visitor, the Pillar once bore a long Latin inscription saying that the cross was raised by Concenn, the last native ruler of the kingdom of Powys, who died in 854 AD, in memory of his great-grandfather, Eliseg, recording the ancestry of the house of Powys, though in a form that continues to be a subject to ongoing debate; the early history of how this kingdom, adjoining the borderland with England, came into being is obscure.

The Latin inscription not only mentions several individuals described in the Historia Britonum, but also the genealogy of Concenn and Eliseg, recording the exploits of Eliseg and the enlargement of his kingdom, the achievements of Concenn himself, and finally the dynasty is glorified by reference of their ancestors, the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus and Vortigern. It is one of the longest surviving inscriptions from early medieval Wales being of immense importance to Dark Age history.

After much genealogical description, the inscription states that both Concenn and Eliseg were descended from Vortigern, the much maligned 5th Century British overlord who invited the Saxons into the country, 'like wolves into the sheepfold', as Gildas put it. Vortigern is also famous in early British legendary history for his meeting with the child Merlin at Dinas Emrys, a hill fort in the mountains of Snowdonia.

By the late  17th century the Pillar was no longer standing, but fortunately the damaged inscription was recorded by the famous Welsh antiquary Edward Lhuyd in 1696, listing the names of key 5th century figures from early English and Welsh history. The original inscription is now illegible.

Lhuyd made the earliest mention of Croes Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere's Cross) in the 1690's, the remains of a stone cross standing aside the Llangollen Canal. Indeed, the Llangollen area is host to many sites with Arthurian associations: the grail castle at Dinas Bran; Ffynnon Arthur (Arthur's Well); Craig Arthur and it's strange rock formation known as Cadair Arthur (Arthur's Chair); and Valle Crucis Abbey, seen by some as the 'real Glastonbury'.

The mound of the Pillar was dug into in 1773 by the local land-owner Thomas Lloyd and is reported to have contained a stone cist with a skeleton along with pieces of silver. He re-erected the Pillar which had been pulled down by the Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War when a grave under it opened. The lower half of the Pillar disappeared but the upper half was re-erected in 1779.

The mound is of unknown date and function but thought to have a prehistoric provenance although the site has never previously been subject to modern archaeological investigation. Significantly, the site lies in an area rich in Bronze Age burials and finds, and graves of the 6th and 7th centuries AD, cut into earlier Bronze Age burials sites, are testified elsewhere in Wales. CADW has given consent for the excavations to be carried out on a Scheduled Ancient Monument

Project Eliseg
Co-directed by Professor Nancy Edwards and Dr Gary Robinson of Bangor University together with Professor Dai Morgan Evans and Professor Howard Williams of the University of Chester, Project Eliseg, is a collaborative archaeological research project investigating the Pillar, one of Britain’s most enigmatic early medieval monuments. Using modern archaeological methods to investigate the mound and it's setting, the Project aims to obtain a better understanding of this enigmatic monument and to discover more about the emergence of the early medieval kingdoms on the borderlands of England and Wales after the fall of Roman Britain.

The archaeologists have been trying to establish if there any truth in Trevor Lloyd's story or if it is pure legend. Professor Edwards from Bangor University said the Project was trying to establish if there was any truth in the story. The excavations set out to reveal what are thought to be Bronze Age remains underneath an early medieval long cist grave, clearing away debris left by Lloyd more than 200 years ago.

Last year's excavations focused on the mound, which was identified as an early Bronze Age cairn but archaeologists from Bangor and Chester University admitted the latest finds, cremated remains and bone fragments, had complicated the picture regarding the site's historical significance and make it worthy of further investigation.

An update on the latest finds is expected to be published in the near future.


Bronze Age finds at Llangollen's Pillar of Eliseg - BBC News North East Wales 25 September 2011 

The Project Eliseg website provides information about earlier research and the latest discoveries, including information about the historical context of the early medieval kingdom of Powys, early medieval stone sculpture and information about the archaeology of early medieval Britain (c. AD 400-1100).

Updates, photographs and films on Llangollen Museum's Facebook page

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