An Assessment of Recent Field Work on the Great Orme, North Wales

by E.C. Wager


In July 1993, a Research Steering Committee was set up to co-ordinate research on the Great Orme, North Wales, a precipitous headland rising 220 metres above the Irish Sea (Figure 1). The extensive copper mineralisation hosted by this isolated outcrop of Carboniferous limestone was exploited in prehistory and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. IMAGE: Plan of the Great Orme showing the location of all the
sites mentioned in the text
Figure 1. Plan of the Great Orme showing the location of all the sites mentioned in the text.
In their search for copper, the prehistoric miners produced a labyrinthine complex of rifts and galleries within the headland, which date primarily to the Bronze Age (the second millennium BC) and cover an area of at least 240 metres by 130 metres, with vertical depths of up to 70m (Lewis 1997: 106, 158). The extent and unparalleled degree of preservation of these workings render the Great Orme copper mine one of the most important sites in Britain and Europe for research into prehistoric copper metal production (Figure 2).

IMAGE: The southern entrances, trench workings and tourist walkways at the Great Orme copper mine in 1996 (taken by A. Lewis)

Figure 2. The southern entrances, trench workings and tourist walkways at the Great Orme copper mine in 1996 (taken by A. Lewis).

Consequently, from the early 1990s when the antiquity of the site began to be widely recognised as a result of the publication of a number of important papers (e.g. James 1988, 1990; Dutton 1990), a variety of independent geological and archaeometallurgical investigations were carried out on the Orme, frequently on an ad hoc basis and without any overarching research framework in mind. The newly formed Research Steering committee aimed to rectify this situation by developing a research strategy for the mines designed to ensure the conservation of the prehistoric workings (some of which are now scheduled; RFGOM 1994; see below) and to realise the full potential of this unique archaeological resource.

The first step was the production of a strategy document in December 1994, Report to CADW and the Board of Celtic Studies: Research Framework for the Great Orme Mines (RFGOM), which outlined a number of research priorities to be addressed by both general and more focused research projects. The Research Steering Committee, comprising members of Great Orme Mines (the private company overseeing the site's development as a tourist attraction), and various academics and representatives from Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT) intended to assess prospective research projects, publish interim and final reports and arrange periodic meetings reviewing the results of on-going and completed research (RFGOM 1994: 16). The last of such meetings was held at the Great Orme Mines in April 1997 and a report on this meeting is planned but has not yet been published.

This short discussion aims to consider in detail three of the research priorities presented in the Research Framework (1994), by assessing to what extent they have been met by the relevant work carried out since the report's publication and the implications of this for the continuing applicability of the report and its research objectives. The authors of the 1994 Research Framework stress that it is a draft report: is the time now ripe for a second edition? Other reports outlining research frameworks for the Great Orme have also been published or are planned; what are the implications of these for the work of the Research Steering Committee and the continuing relevance of the Research Framework?

The three research priorities discussed below are concerned with research focused on areas of the headland other than the mine itself. This reflects my own research interest into the broader practical and social context of prehistoric copper mining on the Orme.

Research priorities
At the time the Research Framework was published in 1994, 20 of the 21 researchers involved in projects on the Orme were tackling questions concerning the nature of the ore mined, the extent, chronology, and location of the workings, and the extractive technology and artefacts used at the mine itself. Only one research project, carried out by Susan Jones, an MA student at the University of York, was attempting to look at the wider practical context of prehistoric copper ore exploitation on the headland (RFGOM 1994). The results of her investigation into the identification of possible prehistoric ore processing sites on the Orme, presented as part of her MA dissertation, are still unpublished (Jones 1994). Recognising that prehistoric activity at the Great Orme copper mine can not be studied in isolation from the practical, social, and economic context within which it occurred, the Research Steering Committee proposed the following research priorities (RFGOM 1994):

1. Production process and products

Research falling into this category would look for evidence for prehistoric ore processing and smelting, both at the mine and on the headland as a whole. Ore processing and smelting are the two stages following mining in the production of copper metal from its ore. At the time the Research Framework was published, the lack of information about where and how (and even if) these processes were carried out on the Orme during the Bronze Age was seen as 'a major area of ignorance about the mining enterprise which needs to be addressed' (RFGOM 1994: 13). The detection of geochemical anomalies (e.g. 'hotspots' of copper concentration) was suggested as a means of locating ore processing sites.

One investigation into a possible prehistoric ore processing site had been carried out on the Orme before 1994. Spoil that appeared to represent the waste produced by ore washing (a method of processing the ore in order to prepare it for smelting) was recovered during excavations in the early 1990s at Ffynnon Galchog, a spring 0.8 kilometres to the northeast of the mine. However, the interpretation of Ffynnon Galchog as a prehistoric ore processing site has since been cast into doubt by the radiocarbon date range of cal. AD 720-740 and cal. AD 680-960 obtained for a bone sampled during the excavations (Ambers and Bowman 1998; Jones 1994; Lewis 1997). This site may therefore represent a hitherto unrecognised period of mining and processing on the Orme during the early Medieval period, rather than prehistoric activity.

2. Environmental context

No palaeoenvironmental work enabling reconstruction of the environment on the Great Orme during the second millennium BC had been undertaken by 1994. This was seen as a major omission because it is difficult to address questions relating to the scale of fire-setting (a prehistoric ore extraction technique) and smelting without an appreciation of the extent to which an area was tree-covered during a particular period. The Research Steering Committee suggested molluscan and soil analysis techniques could be used to reconstruct the Orme's Bronze Age environment, as there are no contexts suitable for pollen preservation in the vicinity of the headland (RFGOM 1994).

3. Social context

At the time the Research Framework was being produced, nothing was known about the settlement history of the Orme during the second millennium BC. In order to begin to address this omission, the report suggested that Llety'r Filiast, the (presumed) Neolithic chambered tomb located in a field immediately to the south of the mine, and Pen-y-Dinas, a later (presumed) Iron Age hillfort at the eastern end of the headland, be investigated (RFGOM 1994).

Research projects
Since the production of the Research Framework, a number of projects focusing on these research priorities have been carried out by a range of individuals and groups, including archaeologists working for GAT, members of the Great Orme Mines company and the Great Orme Exploration Society (GOES), and academics and students from the Universities of Sheffield and Liverpool. GOES has been particularly active in the history of the mine's development as a major tourist and academic resource and its members regularly undertake programmes of field work and underground excavation on the Orme, on a voluntary basis. The GOES Journal, published two or three times a year, and the more regular newsletters, are an excellent way to keep up to date with research being carried out on the headland, both by the Society and other groups [1].

The projects I discuss here have involved the use of a range of techniques, including topographic and geophysical survey, excavation, fieldwalking, geochemical analysis and museum- and library-based studies of aerial photographs, journal articles and artefacts. Many of the sites examined since 1994 are mentioned in the Royal Commission survey of 1956.

1. Surveys at Llety'r Filiast, Pen-y-Dinas and Mynydd Isaf

Jo Jones, a PhD student at the University of Liverpool, has carried out a programme of topographic and geophysical survey and excavation at a number of sites on the Orme, with the help of students at the same university. She has investigated the Neolithic chambered tomb at Llety'r Filiast and the field in which it stands, the Iron Age hillfort at Pen-y-Dinas, and Mynydd Isaf, an area to the northeast of the Orme where traces of possible long huts and cultivated fields are mentioned in the Royal Commission survey of the area (RCHME 1956).

Although Jones proposes that a large prehistoric community serviced the mine (pers. comm.), the traces of which we have yet to find, there is no conclusive evidence (such as diagnostic pottery sherds or radiocarbon dates) for Bronze Age activity at any of the sites she has investigated to date. Her work at Llety'r Filiast and Pen-y-Dinas has been published by GOES (Jones 1996, 1997); that at Mynydd Isaf is unpublished.

2. Badger's Cave

Badger's Cave to the north of the Orme has been excavated during the last couple of years by members of GOES including Nigel Bannerman, Geoff David and Dave Chapman, together with Jo Jones. They have excavated a vertical shaft within Badger's Cave, revealing an adit at the bottom. A number of small animal bones have been recovered and charcoal samples taken for radiocarbon dating, though no dates have yet been published (Edwards 1996, with brief accounts in later newsletters).

Nigel Bannerman also co-ordinates the Bronze Age Coastal Project, which aims to investigate submerged features in the vicinity of the Orme and to assess the extent and implications of possible sea level changes in this area in prehistory (Anon. 1998 and regular updates in GOES newsletters).

3. Pen Trwyn

Earlier this year (1998) GAT excavated a possible prehistoric smelting site at Pen Trwyn, to the northeast of the Orme. This site was located by Dave Chapman, a member of GOES, who was also involved in its excavation (Edwards 1997). Samples for radiocarbon dating were taken during the excavation and the results are currently being awaited. If activity at this site does date to the second millennium BC, it will be the first Bronze Age smelting site ever recovered in the British Isles and hence will be of enormous importance for the understanding of prehistoric copper metallurgy. A report on the results of this excavation is due to be produced, though it is still unclear when and by whom (K. Geary, pers. comm.).

4. Ffynnon Rufeinig

Ffynnon Rufeinig (the Roman Well) is a spring located to the north-west of the mine. A small-scale excavation was carried out at this site in 1996 by a group of archaeology students from the University of Sheffield, directed by Dr Barbara Ottaway (Figure 3). Spoil interpreted as the waste from a prehistoric phase of ore washing at the site was recovered. However, the excavated deposits had all been extensively disturbed by later reworking and none of the excavated bone has yet been radiocarbon dated. IMAGE: Ffynnon Rufeinig from the air. The area within which excavations were carried out in
1996 is circled. North is at the bottom of the photograph (RCAHMW, AP no. CN 132,
Figure 3. Ffynnon Rufeinig from the air. The area within which excavations were carried out in 1996 is circled. North is at the bottom of the photograph (RCAHMW, AP no. CN 132, 5/03/86).

No other diagnostic material, such as pottery, was found. Given the lack of conclusive evidence, it is difficult to determine whether the material recovered was produced during a prehistoric or later (perhaps early Medieval) phase of ore processing at the site. A brief account of the results of this excavation has been published by GOES (Wager 1997); the more detailed discussion (Wager 1996) is still unpublished.

A small-scale geochemical survey was carried out at Ffynnon Rufeinig in March this year (1998), in order to delineate more precisely the extent of the copper contamination in the vicinity of the well. The most likely source of copper contamination at this location on the Orme is the presence of mining spoil that may have been transported from the mine to the site for processing or reworking during prehistory or some later period. Geochemical analysis was therefore carried out in order to indicate potentially fruitful areas for future topographical survey and excavation at the site, aside from those already investigated. A topographic survey of the area indicated by the results of the survey is planned for later this year and the results themselves are discussed in more detail in Wager, et al. (forthcoming).

Jenkins using the portable XRF Analyser (taken by Heather
Figure 4. David Jenkins using the portable XRF Analyser (taken by Heather Jackson).

The geochemical analysis at Ffynnon Rufeinig builds on the work of David Jenkins and Andy Owen, whose pilot study 'A rapid geochemical survey of the Bronze Age copper mines on the Great Orme, Llandudno' (Jenkins, et al., forthcoming) indicates that field analyses, carried out using a portable X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) Analyser (Figure 4), are ideal for the detection of areas of copper contamination, and hence for the location of areas with evidence for ore processing and smelting on the Orme.

Their survey of the entire headland detected a number of 'hotspots' or areas of copper concentration that should be targeted by future excavation and survey programmes. The principles of geochemical survey on the Orme and the use of a portable XRF Analyser are discussed in detail in Jenkins, et al. (forthcoming).

Time for a reassessment?

Since the production of the Research Framework in 1994, many of the gaps in our knowledge of the broader context of prehistoric copper mining on the Great Orme, highlighted in the Research Priorities discussed above, have begun to be addressed. Attempts have been made to locate evidence for prehistoric ore processing and smelting on the headland, albeit with varying degrees of success, and the use of geochemical surveying techniques for the rapid detection of such sites has been amply demonstrated. Preliminary investigations have also been carried out at Llety'r Filiast and Pen-y-Dinas, the two sites specified by the Research Framework as being in urgent need of archaeological assessment.

However, there are still enormous gaps to be filled and problems to be overcome. No research into the palaeoenvironmental context of prehistoric mining at the Orme has been carried out since 1994. The lack of secure dating evidence at all but three of the sites discussed (Pen Trwyn, Badger's Cave and Ffynnon Galchog; those at Pen Trwyn and Badger's Cave are still awaited) is also a major cause for concern, as this severely hampers attempts to relate convincingly the evidence for prehistoric mining on the Orme to the archaeology of the headland as a whole. As the report itself recognises, 'It is unwise to consider the evidence for an industry such as mining in isolation' (RFGOM 1994:11). More than one radiocarbon date measurement is required to provide a meaningful indication of the date of an object or activity (Aitken 1990: 95) and radiocarbon dating is an expensive process. GOES has frequently lacked funds to obtain an adequate number of dates for excavated material, a problem it is well-aware of and is seeking to address through the acquisition of sponsorship (Edwards 1998). Continuing close links with universities who may have better access to facilities and sources of funding could improve this situation.

Despite the Research Steering Committee's stated role as a conduit for publication (RFGOM 1994: 16), the publication of the results of the field work carried out on the Orme since 1994 is at best haphazard. Much of it is buried away in postgraduate theses or is only published by the GOES journal. While it is important that local people participating in research into, and discussion about, the Orme's (pre)history should have access to the results of on-going investigations, this information should also be more easily available to a wider audience. The Research Steering Committee's strategy for ensuring the publication of interim and final reports is not clearly stated in the Research Framework, and this needs to be reassessed. Perhaps they could co-ordinate the publication of a regular series of yearly Interim reports. The Internet is an ideal medium for such a series: publication is rapid and far cheaper than in conventional print format and the information can be easily accessed by millions of people worldwide.

In order to fulfil satisfactorily the research priorities outlined in the Research Framework, excavation, as well as topographic and geophysical survey etc., must be carried out. This is problematic as large parts of the Orme have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to the rare flora and fauna flourishing there. Conwy County Borough Council (who, together with Mostyn Estates, own most of the land on the Orme) may therefore refuse permission to excavate for reasons of conservation.

New directions?

The situation is further complicated by the recent publication of a report addressing issues relating to the future development of the Orme, such as archaeology, landscape, ecology, access, and infrastructure. The Great Orme Development and Management Study: Final Report (GODMS) (1998) was produced by a consultancy, W.S. Atkins, on behalf of the Great Orme Management Committee [2]. This Committee was set up in 1980 in order to oversee and co-ordinate the conservation and enhancement of areas of scientific and archaeological interest on the Orme, and to promote the enjoyment and understanding of this major resource by the public. Its members include representatives of the County Council, Mostyn Estates, The Countryside Council for Wales, GAT and Llandudno Town Council (T. Gravett, pers. comm.).

The GODMS report addresses the question of archaeology on the Orme at some length and presents a number of proposals:

1) The drawing up of a Heritage Management Plan. This is envisaged as a research design detailing archaeological research to be carried out on the Orme. It will set out priorities for desk-based analysis and field work. Significantly, the GODMS report stresses that no destructive archaeological research (i.e. excavation) should be carried out on the Orme prior to the publication of this Plan, which is due to be drafted between April and September 1999. This has major implications for the future direction of on-going projects, such as the investigations at Ffynnon Rufeinig.

A further section of the GODMS report entitled 'Archaeological Research' appears to dovetail with the overall aims of the Heritage Management Plan.

2) A study at Pen-y-Dinas. The GODMS report highlights this hillfort as a site warranting archaeological investigation. It recommends that a programme of clearance and consolidation be undertaken there as soon as possible, the self-evident suitability of this site for archaeological assessment negating any need to await the publication of the Heritage Management Plan (T. Gravett, pers. comm.).

A number of comments can be made about the GODMS report's recommendations. As this discussion has shown, the existing Research Framework, produced by the Research Steering Committee, is in need of reassessment in the light of recent work on the Orme: many of its recommendations (at least those relevant to the research priorities discussed here) have been met and new problems and gaps have naturally arisen. The Research Steering Committee's role in overseeing the publication of interim and final reports also needs refocusing. The GODMS report potentially sets in place a mechanism by which these new issues can be addressed through the development of a Heritage Management Plan, hence it is to be welcomed. However, it places the future of the Research Steering Committee in doubt, as its role as co-ordinator of new research directions on the Orme is now fulfilled by the Management Committee.

However, rather than there being two separate committees, made up of different interested groups and individuals, but discussing the same issues, all interested parties could be involved in the drafting of the Heritage Management Plan: the landowners (Conwy County Borough Council and Mostyn Estates), the Countryside Council for Wales (and other relevant official bodies), the Great Orme Mines company, GAT, GOES, academics (be they archaeologists, geologists, soil scientists etc.), and the public [3].

Co-operation will produce a healthy atmosphere of constructive debate and discussion and will ensure that no group's interests are sidelined or marginalised. It will also help ensure that we do not keep turning over the same turf, each new research design highlighting the same research priorities without reference to progress or recommendations already made [4]. In this way, the work of the Great Orme Management Committee and the recommendations of the forthcoming Heritage Management Plan will facilitate the successful continuation of the research into, and the conservation of, this important and fascinating site.


Copyright © E.C. Wager 1998


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