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Three communities living near historic iron age hillforts join forces for new collaborative project

24 March 2022

A project which has helped thousands of people to learn more about the history of their area is expanding its reach to two new sites.

CAER Connected builds upon the award winning archaeological and historical co-research partnerships developed by the CAER Heritage Project (CAER) and its community partner Action and Caerau in Ely (ACE) over the past decade.

To date, CAER’s initiatives have focused on the communities of Caerau and Ely in Cardiff and involved more than 19,000 participants of all ages in discovering the story of Caerau Hillfort – an important and previously undervalued prehistoric monument. They have used archaeological and historical research as inspiration for art, film-making, social enterprise and other creative activities.

Now, the project is teaming up with community organisations in Penparcau, Ceredigion and Oswestry, Shropshire – where two other hillforts are also situated. Following a series of exchange visits and events, which will include a focus on creativity and art, the collaborative project will culminate in a touring exhibition of residents’ work.

Dr Oliver Davis, based at Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion, said: “This is an exciting new chapter for the CAER project. All three CAER Connected communities face different social and economic challenges, but they are all joined together by a shared heritage of stunning prehistoric hillforts that provide striking landmarks in their local landscape.

“Strong relationships already exist between community action heritage groups at each site. CAER Connected will build on these existing friendships and partnerships by developing and delivering a range of artistic and creative responses that reflect on the similar experiences, and embrace the different challenges faced by these communities."

Dr Oliver Davis Senior Lecturer, CAER Heritage Project Co-director (Study Leave 2022/3 (Semester 1))

"In doing so, we will develop confidence and skills, create peer-support networks, share expertise and, crucially, explore how local heritage can benefit people through creating visions of both past and future.”

Caerau Hillfort has been developed into a community heritage site through a major National Lottery Heritage Fund grant. A community centre, which includes play area and historic trails, was officially opened by First Minister Mark Drakeford last year.

Iron Age hillforts are prehistoric settlements on raised areas of land, usually shaped and enclosed by significant earthwork ramparts, offering outstanding views of the surrounding landscape. Archaeologists have traditionally regarded hillforts as defensive structures; yet more recent interpretations argue convincingly that they are socially charged monuments, impressive expressions of community identity built by ancient hands.

Community spirit

Helen McCarthy, who lives a short distance from Caerau Hillfort, has been involved with the CAER Project since 2013. Her parents were brought up in Ely, as was her husband.

She said: “My mother-in-law still lives in the same council house she was born in 91 years ago, so there is obviously something positive that leaves people wanting to remain here. I think that something is the community spirit. People are friendly and helpful to each other, but unfortunately, the image outsiders have is one of a deprived area, full of crime.

“ACE and the CAER Heritage Project and its partners have helped to challenge this image and showcase our area in a more positive light. They share an attitude that everyone has something to offer and try very hard to engage people of all abilities and talents. As a result of this approach, in our community we have found artists, photographers and writers, amongst many other things."

Helen McCarthy

“I can see only positives coming from CAER Connected, in that we will all be able to learn from each other’s sites and experiences. I think there would have been communication and visits between the many Hillforts all those thousands of years ago, so it seems natural that there is communication once again.”

Creative focus

John Swogger is an archaeologist, artist, and co-coordinator with Diana Baur of the Hillfort Creativity Group, which they set up two years ago to bring together all the visual art, music and writing being done about Old Oswestry Hillfort.

He said: “The hillfort is a creative focus and inspiration for lots of artists, musicians and others in the area because it holds such a special place not just in people's hearts, but in their daily lives. It's where we go to walk the dog, to get a breath of fresh air, and to take visitors when we show them the sights.

“It dominates the town's visual landscape - visible from the moment you near the town on the A483, and visible from almost everywhere in town itself. It's also a focus because of efforts to protect the site and its setting from encroaching housing developments."

John Swogger

“We got involved in CAER Connected to make links with other hillfort communities so that we can learn from their experiences, but also to share our own: what it means to be creatively-inspired by the place one calls home, and how we can use that to help defend the places and things we think are important.”

A Land of Giants

The Hillfort Pen Dinas is situated in the village of Penparcau in Ceredigion. Located close to the sea, it sits between two rivers, the Ystwyth and Rheidol and has two distinct sections. Its prominent position on the horizon means that it is visible for miles around.

Dr Alan Chamberlain, who is a Senior Research Fellow and a member of the Penparcau History and Heritage Group said: “Being able to engage with other communities outside of Penparcau who have had different experiences and who can share their expertise is invaluable.

“Pen Dinas is an amazing site, which goes back beyond the Iron Age, with a Bronze Age burial mound situated on the summit of the site. There are also myths and legends about Maelor Gawr the giant king and his sons who lived on Pen Dinas! The site is hugely important to the local community. It’s the biggest local nature reserve in the UNESCO Dyfi Biosphere and is a place that people can go to walk their dog, relax or learn about the history and culture of th area. The views out to Cardigan Bay and the Llyn Peninsula are astounding.

“As part of this project we’re hoping that we’ll be able to develop a range of activities that link archaeology and art, which will support the wellbeing of the community.”

Pen Dinas excavation 2021 (C) Toby Driver

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. (AHRC).

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