Unveiling the ancient history of the Gwent Levels

People have lived on the Gwent Levels for millennia. Hunter-gatherers roamed the coastal plains during the Mesolithic period, the Romans left their mark during their occupation, and many castles and moats were built in the Middle Ages, although most have now all but disappeared. People have been here for a long time, and through the years they have shaped the landscape in many ways.

Over the past few decades, the area has boasted some amazing archaeological finds, from 6000-year-old ancient footprints and historic field markings to the remains of a 13th-century boat. To discover more about them and to give people the opportunities to try out some of the techniques used to learn about the past, we organised a week full of archaeological activities and talks in the village of Redwick for the local and wider community to volunteer and take part.


Exploring the Levels

We started off with a session that explored the world of digital mapping. To learn more about ancient history, we sometimes have to use the newest, cutting-edge technologies and techniques. We explored how digital mapping is used to spot ancient sites, and how lasers and sensors (LiDAR) are used to create complex and informative 3D maps. The Living Levels Project will engineer and produce a public interactive digital GIS map incorporating the heritage of the levels which will be launched later in the project.

We went on two surveys to explore the local fields of Redwick. The hundreds of fields that make up the Gwent Levels have been shaped by human hands for many years. The Romans originally created this landscape by draining the land with a network of ditches and reens. They did this as the Gwent Levels are below sea level so by creating the drainage network made the land more suitable for farming, and some of the ancient tools they used, along with evidence of their work can still be found today. The information gathered during these surveys will be used on our online digital map that highlights the archaeological potential of the Levels.

Jessica Morden MP joined us for a session to explore the foreshore of the Severn Estuary. The intertidal mudflats may be slippery and wet, but it is a potential treasure trove for archaeological findings. With the guidance of Professor Martin Bell, we surveyed the Redwick foreshore was exposed during low tide. Many artefacts have been found here over the years, as they are preserved in the mud including multiple Bronze Age settlements at Redwick.

The Gwent Levels also boasts a wonderful array of unique, old buildings. One good example is the Church of St Thomas, in Redwick, famous for its unusual design. We went on a guided walk to explore, document and record some of these structures. Our findings will also be included in the online map of the Gwent Levels.

We started the week by exploring the Gwent Levels with modern technology but we finished off with two events that took us back to the basics. On 3-4 August, we got our hands dirty and conducted test pitting which is essentially mini-excavations at a 1m2 x1m2 scale to look for ancient artefacts and items. Digital mapping may be a great way of exploring the area for interesting objects and artefacts, but sometimes old techniques work best! We found 250-year-old pottery as well as a lace bobbin from the test pit behind the old poor house.

Future events

After the success of Redwick we plan to do another week-long archaeological taster session next year so keep an eye on our events calendar and project lead Dig Ventures website for upcoming archaeology activities. If you can’t wait that long the Living Levels will be having a History Day event on the 28th September at Tredegar House with stalls and activities suitable for the true History buffs and young families. Look out for future events across the Living Levels and if you want to be more involved we have lots of volunteering opportunities available so contact the Living Levels Volunteer Officer on Beccy.williams@rspb.org.uk for more information.

The GIS website is currently still under construction, and we are looking for volunteers to help populate this. However, for now take a look at our interactive map of the Gwent Levels. It gives you a picture of the different archaeological finds, historical events and wildlife that can be found on the Gwent Levels.

Day 6 iii.jpg

You can see more images from the event on Dig Ventures Flickr page.