Heritage of Wales

Episode Two

Episode Two follows the extraordinary rediscovery of an Industrial Revolution copperworks in Swansea through an urgent rescue excavation, sees night-time photography of a lost early medieval inscription and reveals a vast Iron Age hillfort near Welshpool, hidden in dense woodland.

See the episode on BBC Wales History.

  • Upper Bank copperworks from the air during the excavations in March 2008 (Image:AP_2008_0113 /NPRN:40465)
  • A contemporary print of a copper ore calcining furnace (Image: DI2008_0717)
  • Gas producers for the zinc smelters (Image: AP_2008_1311 /NPRN:40465)

Stephen Hughes, the Royal Commission’s Head of Survey and

Investigation, visits a major rescue excavation by Oxford Archaeology

that is revealing new evidence about the copper industry at Swansea

during the Industrial Revolution, when it was known as Copperopolis.


role of Swansea as the world centre of copper smelting during the

Industrial Revolution has been researched by Stephen

Hughes for the Royal Commission’s book Copperopolis . Most

of the structures of this great industry have long gone, but a recent

housing development gave an exceptional opportunity to reveal the Upper

Bank copper smelting works, established in 1755. The Commission had

advised that remains of early furnaces would lie below ground and

Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust requested an archaeological

watching-brief during development. Oxford Archaeology were contracted

by the developer, Barratts. When the floors of later buildings were cut

through something resembling a hidden city was revealed. The quays

along the River Tawe, paved with cast slag blocks, showed where copper

ore that came by ship from Cornwall, Anglesey and Chile was stockpiled.

It was possible to see how a calcining furnace for the initial drying

and roasting of the ore was emptied using long rakes by workers who had

to cover their mouths to reduce their exposure to the sulphur. The

bases of reverbatory-type copper furnaces and nine furnaces from the

conversion to zinc smelting after 1890 survived. Remains were also

excavated of granulation pits where molten copper was dropped into

water so as to solidify as granules for further processing. The Swansea

valley may yet produce further significant remains of ‘Copperopolis’.

Look up the site on Coflein

Visit Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust

Visit Oxford Archaeology

The Pillar of Eliseg

  • The pillar of Eliseg on its ancient mount and later plinth (Image: DS2008_022_003 / NPRN: 165274)
  • Pillar of Eliseg from the air (Image: GTJ25725 /NPRN: 165274)
  • Night-time recording of Pen Waun inscribed stone near Fishguard.  Image:DI2008_0446 / NPRN 276068)

Royal Commission photographer Iain Wright works at night with artificial lighting to try to recover any fragments of the eroded inscription that told the story of the early medieval Welsh leader Eliseg on the pillar put up in his memory near Llangollen.

A cross was erected at Valle Crucis near Llangollen in the ninth century to commemorate and early medieval leader, Eliseg (or Elisedd). Only the shaft of the cross remains and its inscription, which was already almost illegible when the antiquary Edward Lhuyd tried to transcribe it in 1696, has disappeared. Eliseg’s great-grandson, Cyngen (died 854), commemorated the achievements of his ancestor by raising the cross. The inscription, written in Latin in thirty-one horizontal lines, was broken into paragraphs separated by small crosses. It glorified Eliseg and Cyngen, proclaiming their lineage from the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus and his son Vortigern (or Gwrtheyrn), and asserted that Eliseg drove the English from the area after they had laid this borderland waste for nine years. Work by the Royal Commission to record early medieval inscribed stones started in 1987 for a revised edition of Early Christian Monuments of Wales. The best approach was working at night with artificial light projected onto the stone at an oblique angle. However, stones with multiple facets or very coarse texture, like the Pillar of Eliseg, pose particular problems. The new photography could only hint at where the original lines of text once were, but it recorded the eighteenth-century inscription describing the re-erection of the cross before it, too, is weathered to illegibility.

Look up the site on Coflein

Find other inscribed stones

Gaer Fawr

  • The wooded Gaer Fawr from the air (Image: AP_2007_4037 NPRN:306997)
  • Gaer Fawr: south-west gateway (Image: DS2008_177_032 NPRN: 306997)
  • Gaer Fawr (Image: DS2008_177_001 / NPRN: 306997)

Investigators Louise Barker and Toby Driver make a record of Gaer Fawr Iron Age hillfort, which is hidden in woodland near Welshpool, and work with Tom Pert to create a computer model allowing it to be seen in its full glory for the first time in hundreds of years.

Iron Age hillforts represent an astounding communal feat of prehistoric civil engineering. Gaer Fawr, at Guilsfield near Welshpool, is one of several large hillforts overlooking the upper Severn valley which indicate the power of communities in this area in the Iron Age. A bronze helmet mount in the form of a boar found in the nineteenth century conjures an impression of the people who may have commanded and inhabited the settlement in its heyday. The fort covers 5.8 hectares with up to five lines of ramparts over 8 metres high but dense woodland makes it impossible to appreciate its form or scale. The Royal Commission’s digital terrain model, based on painstaking survey, allows the hillfort and its setting to be visualised and makes it clear that Gaer Fawr was constructed in many phases. It originated as a small summit-fort. Additional space was enclosed later on its west and two highly-developed entrance-ways were created with graded approach ramps and defended gateways. An annexe was also added to the south. One intriguing feature uncovered in the survey is a bank dividing the interior space, possibly associated with early medieval occupation.

Look up Gaer Fawr on Coflein

Find other hillforts on Coflein

Read about Pen Dinas hillfort.