Why studies of Welsh history need to embrace archaeology

The Mold cape from the Bronze age was discovered by accident by workers in Flintshire in 1833. Picture by Mark Ramsay (CC BY 2.0)

Theo Davies-Lewis

Cofiwch Dryweryn, Welsh independence, the anniversaries of both the Prince of Wales’ investiture and devolution: these are moments and events that have captured the imagination and perspective of the public that want to understand how Wales has changed over time, especially in more recent decades.

It is no surprise that this study of history – confined by modern parameters – is a popular and important activity.

But to solely concentrate on recent history is not to dig deeper (literally) into our past.

When I was asked to contribute to a Newyddion 9 report on the shortage of archaeologists in Wales, I felt compelled to understand why we were in this situation and its significance for understanding our history.

After all, archaeology was one of my central fields of study at university, and something I had come to value over three years as a tool of historical enquiry. Yet I am readily aware that most young people, or people of all ages and backgrounds, either are not familiar with the work of archaeologists or understand what the practice entails.

This is a worrying prospect for historical enquiry.

For Wales, archaeology provides a unique opportunity to change perspectives on history – moving away from conventional narratives about our modern history – and instead learning about the foundations in which our communities were built upon.

Take recent work in Pembrokeshire, for example, where excavations have uncovered more artefacts at the first Celtic chariot burial in southern Britain. According to the BBC, two iron tyres and a sword from the chariot were retrieved.

By going back in our history, we can capture a new identity; learn not just about Wales and its relationship with England (a recent fascination from academics since Brexit), but, for instance, understand what it means, if anything, to be of “Celtic” origin and whether this has implications for us today.

This is just one example of how archaeological enquiry stirs the imagination that written sources do not always capture.

Bigger picture

More importantly of course is that we do not move away from historical sources but to a more holistic approach to looking at our human past.

The recognition received by St Fagan’s Museum for its work in restoring ancient buildings demonstrate that archaeology and history can work together to inform the wider public too.

Museums have always been the domain of material culture fanatics; and for Wales, we can make use of this to provide useful and informative forums for understanding our past. To add to this, there are also organisations like CADW that show the government realise the importance of maintaining our most famous castles and structures.

But that isn’t the only archaeology we need to be preserving, and that’s where we need a new generation of practitioners to come in.

It’s difficult to achieve this if archaeologists don’t tell people about what they do better. Unlike historians and political scientists, media-savvy archaeologists are few-and-far-between. In any part of the world, being active on social media means archaeologists can make their findings accessible to a wider audience.

It also involves more archaeology in the school curriculum. It is not much good in relying on some students (me included) to fall into archaeology by accident; when we learn about history, archaeology should be a key component of our studies at a young age.

But more importantly, to value archaeology means a broader re-evaluation as to what we want to learn about. I doubt people are solely interested in what has happened since 1900, or 2000, for that matter.

History is always being made, but we arguably know so much about it in the world of digital archives compared to the history of thousands of years ago. Archaeology is that tool that can allow us to see that bigger picture, and the twists and turns of our story as a people.

When we think of history in the broadest sense – things that have happened before “now” – we usually (and sensibly) think of events, people and action that influence us directly today.

But to neglect that deeper past conducted through archaeological research is surely to neglect our full story, one that can tell us more about who we are than most fields of the social sciences.

That is why when we look at Welsh history there needs a different approach.

Theo Davies-Lewis studied Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He now works in communications in London. Follow him on Twitter @TDaviesLewis.

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