Fascinated by the secrets of the mysterious Pillar of Eliseg, hundreds of people turned out to an archaeological open day held at the close of a very special excavation project.
Project Eliseg is an ongoing collaborative archaeological research project between the University of Chester and Bangor University, investigating the enigmatic early medieval monument situated in Llangollen, North East Wales.
Set on the lower slopes of the Horseshoe Pass, Llangollen, this centuries-old landmark is believed to have been erected in the ninth-century AD by Concenn, the last native ruler of Powys, to commemorate the victory of his ancestor Eliseg over the English.
For two weeks a team of archaeology experts and students from both institutions, supported of Llangollen Museum, have carried out excavations of this site with the joint aims of exploring the archaeological context of the Pillar of Eliseg, investigating how the site has been used over the centuries, conserving the mound and helping to explain the site better to its visitors.
Professor Howard Williams ofthe University of Chester, explained: “The Pillar of Eliseg is part of a round cross-shaft set within its original base. The cross-head is now missing and, almost invisible to today’s visitors, the pillar once bore a long Latin inscription saying that the cross was raised by Concenn, ruler of the kingdom of Powys, who died in AD 854, in memory of his great-grandfather, Eliseg.
“In the ninth-century, genealogy was crucial to claims of succession and power for early medieval kingdoms. By raising this monument, Concenn was asserting not only his inheritance of Eliseg’s kingdom, but celebrating myths and legends of rulership back to the Roman period to the Emperor Magnus Maximus.”
By the late 17th-century the pillar was no longer standing, but the damaged inscription was recorded by a famous Welsh antiquary called Edward Lhuyd (AD 1660–1709). The mound was dug into in 1773 by the local land-owner Thomas Lloyd and is reported to have contained a stone cist with a skeleton. He also re-erected the pillar. However, until now the site has never been subject to modern archaeological investigation.
During the excavation, the Project Eliseg team opened three trenches on the mound to determine its make up and to try to locate the antiquarian trench.
Professor Williams said: “The mound was found to consist of a stone cairn held in place by a well-preserved kerb, mainly made up of large slate slabs and rounded boulders. No dating evidence was found but the construction would be consistent with a burial monument of the Early Bronze Age.”
He added: “In future research, it is hoped to investigate further possible traces of antiquarian disturbance on the west side of the mound. Yet the evidence from the dig seems to suggest that the mound was far older than the pillar.
“If so, it shows that Concenn chose a location for the cross that mirrored the text. Placing a cross on a mound already many thousands of years old may have been to publicly legitimate his inheritance of the region’s land and people.”
As the excavation came to a close, members of the public were invited to an open day which coincided with the Festival of British Archaeology.
Around 200 people were given tours of the site and also have the opportunity to watch re-enactments by Cwmwd Iâl at Vale Crucis Abbey. Dr Aaron Watson, artist in residence, has created a DVD photo-animation of the excavation which contains a visualisation of how the cross may have originally looked.
Further information about Project Eliseg, is available at www.projecteliseg.org