The history of Wales is intimately bound up with the sea. As a country bordered on three sides by coastline, Wales has looked to the sea as a source of food, a means of transport, and a route of communication. The sea has played a major part in the growth of industry and commerce, and drawn people to it for leisure and recreation. From the shell middens left by Wales’ early inhabitants to the harbours and docks that distributed the products of the Welsh industrial powerhouse to the rest of the world, coastal and maritime sites are of the highest importance in understanding Wales’ development from prehistory to the present day. Hundreds of archaeologically and historically important sites and buildings have been identified around the Welsh coasts, and to date over 4,000 vessels have been recorded as being lost in Welsh waters. Details of all these can be found on Coflein or in the National Monuments Record of Wales.
Establishment of the Welsh Coast: Before and After the Last Ice Age
Today’s Welsh coast has not always been near the sea, and before the last Ice Age, when sea levels were far lower, much of what is now shoreline would have overlooked wide coastal plains. These areas attracted early man as hunting grounds, and there is artefactual evidence that Neanderthals were present in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic periods, possibly 200,000 years before the arrival of modern man. For much of the Upper Palaeolithic period, between 26,000 to 10,000 years ago, Wales was uninhabitable, as the majority of the land was covered with ice, but at sometime during this era, either before or after full glaciation, Homo sapiens was active here. The famous 'Red Lady' find at Paviland Cave - the grave of a young male whose bones are stained with red ochre - is the earliest known burial in Britain, and is fundamental in understanding Britain’s first modern humans. Paviland Cave is now on the Gower coast, above the Bristol Channel, but at the time of the burial it looked out over broad grassy plains.
After the Ice Age, during the Mesolithic period, sea levels rose dramatically and the coast of Wales was generally established at its modern position. However, coastal margins have changed considerably over the intervening centuries and what is now rocky foreshore, exposed beach or estuarine mud may have variously been peat bog, reed swamp, woodland, and seashore again in various phases. Evidence of such phases survives around the coast, and ‘submerged forests’ – remains of vanished woodland often visible at low tide – are a striking example, common to several areas of Welsh foreshore. These submerged palaeo-environments, particularly exposed peat deposits, can provide excellent data on climatic, floral and faunal changes across a considerable period of time and, when considered in relation to man-made artefactual evidence, can help to build a picture of human activity and settlement in this zone.
The Prehistoric Coast: The First Traces of Man's Activity
It is clear that the Welsh shoreline has been an area of human activity from the earliest times, primarily as an important source of food, as evinced by the middens of discarded cockle and oyster shells discovered in estuarine areas, some of which date from the Mesolithic period. Footprints from that era preserved in the intertidal zone at Uskmouth near Newport give extraordinarily direct evidence of the coastal activities of hunter-gatherers. Lithic scatters remaining from stone tools indicate continued human presence throughout the Neolithic era, while the distribution of distinctive regional types of stone axe hints at their seaborne transportation. The stylistic similarities between ritual monuments such as tombs in Wales and Ireland suggest cultural contacts across the Irish Sea.
The earliest vessel remains yet discovered in Wales date to the Bronze Age, from a ‘sewn boat’ (of timbers laced together) of around 1,000 BC, found at Goldcliff on the Bristol Channel. There is good evidence for Bronze Age coastal settlement, including a hut site discovered in the intertidal zone of the Severn Estuary at Magor and finds of pottery, animal bone and charcoal. By the Late Bronze Age, and throughout the Iron Age, the Welsh coast was being exploited for its defensive potential, with numerous hillforts and promontory forts sited to take advantage of high sea cliffs and precipitous slopes. Finds indicate that some of these sites continued to be inhabited throughout the Romano-British period.
The Coast in Early History: From the Romans to the Vikings
The Roman occupation resulted in an expansion of coastal habitation, both in military sites and related civilian settlements. Legionary fortresses were often sited on navigable rivers or estuaries, to facilitate the movement of men and supplies, and it is from the Roman period that evidence is found of the first substantial quays or wharves in Wales, for example on the Usk near the legionary fortress at Caerleon. Wales’ inclusion in a world empire obviously meant an upsurge in overseas trade and cultural contacts, as well as increased coastal traffic between local settlements. A Roman-period boat has been found at Barlands Farm, near Magor, with a possible stone quay nearby.
The withdrawal of the Roman Empire cut Wales’ connection with an extensive overseas trade network, but the age-old maritime links based upon the Irish Sea and western seaboard assumed renewed importance in the Early Medieval period, especially in relation to the spread of Celtic Christian culture. The written record from this period makes constant reference to journeys undertaken by those involved with the church, not just between Wales and Ireland, but to Cornwall, Scotland and Brittany. The strong cultural affinities between Ireland and Wales at this time are highlighted by contemporary inscribed stone memorials that incorporate both Latin and Ogam script and are common to both south-west Wales and south-east Ireland.
Despite the existence of Viking place names for several coastal features, such as Skokholm or Orme, and mentions in the contemporary written record, archaeological evidence for Viking activity in Wales is rare. One of the most striking Viking-age finds from Wales is an inlaid gold sword-guard dating from around 1100, discovered by a sport diver on the Smalls reef, off Pembrokeshire, which led to the find spot being legally designated as the site of a possible shipwreck. However, there are virtually no sites identified as places of Viking settlement, apart from the fortified site at Glyn, Anglesey, which possibly developed as a trading centre.
Expansion of Coastal Settlement: The Middle Ages
A significant expansion of coastal settlement occurred during the medieval period, and virtually all of the substantial towns along the Welsh coast today were founded during this era. The various phases of Norman and Edwardian conquest required military bases that could be supplied by sea, and the great chain of castles which rings the Welsh coast is an enduring testament to this. The attendant civil settlements that sprang up around these military centres developed significant populations, prompting a commensurate growth in seaborne trade and commerce. However, the ongoing development of these settlements through subsequent centuries has left a relative dearth of surviving built evidence of medieval maritime activity – the towns and their harbours, docks and wharves have continued to grow and change, newer developments obscuring the old.
Nevertheless, the nautical archaeological record confirms the importance of maritime commerce to medieval Wales through significant discoveries of vessel remains from this period. A thirteenth century cargo vessel, with its load of iron ore, found at Magor Pill in the Severn estuary, is evidence of coastal traffic and of early trade in industrial raw materials. Overseas trade in the fifteenth century is illustrated by the well-preserved merchant ship uncovered on the banks of the Usk at Newport - a find of international significance. Artefacts from the ship, such as cork, coins and pottery, suggest commerce with the Iberian peninsula. The location of the vessel, adjacent to the medieval castle, is associated with the probable contemporary water frontage, overlain by later wharf developments.
The economic exploitation of the coast during this period is also demonstrated by the many fish traps and weirs, designed to catch fish with the receding tide, which are distributed the length of the Welsh coast. Although the earliest verified remains of such sites in Wales date to the fifth or sixth centuries, and there is perhaps evidence of traps dating to the Bronze Age or earlier, the majority of established fish traps date to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. That these structures were an important economic resource in medieval Wales is well attested by the substantial stone construction of many, and by the contemporary written record, which includes documentation of legal rights to their resultant catches. The prominent fish traps visible on Aberarth beach in Ceredigion, for example, were the preserve of the monks of Strata Florida Abbey, and the grant of this right is recorded in Rhys ap Gruffydd’s charter of 1184.
The Growth of International Trade: The Post-Medieval Period
The post-medieval period saw a steady increase in coastal activity - growing populations and the expansion of world-wide trade meant growth in the volume of shipping, and port and harbour facilities grew commensurately. The Irish Sea’s importance as a major sea lane also increased, both between Britain and Ireland and along the western length of the British Isles. Transatlantic trade, which sprang up with the colonisation of the New World, gave the western coast of Britain a new importance, and the two great western ports of Bristol and Liverpool resulted in particularly heavy sea traffic along the Welsh coast. The nautical archaeological record provides vivid illustrations of this traffic, not least in two legally designated shipwrecks of early modern date, which lie off the Welsh coast. The former royal yacht Mary, which foundered on the Skerries, off Anglesey, in 1675, whilst transporting dignitaries from Ireland, is an example of the perils of cross-channel travel in the seventeenth century. Whilst the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century 'Bronze Bell' wreck, lying just off the beach at Harlech, represents a substantial armed merchant ship, and its cargo of Italian marble is evidence of increasingly sophisticated European trade.
The ever-present dangers of navigation, as indicated by the numerous wrecks which dot the coast, resulted in the proliferation of another type of coastal site from the early modern period onwards – the lighthouse. There is evidence of unlit markers, visible by day from the sea, or simple lit beacon towers, from the middle ages and possibly Roman times. From the early eighteenth century, lighthouses became increasingly sophisticated and numerous. Such sites were constructed not only on the coast but out at sea, built on islands or even sea-washed rocks. One particularly striking and innovative example was on the Smalls, where a habitable piled wooden structure was built in 1775, replaced by a substantial stone lighthouse only in the mid-nineteenth century.
The post-medieval period also saw the first defensive sites purpose-built to counter foreign seaborne invasion along the Welsh coast. The block houses situated at either side of the mouth of Milford Haven, for instance, built in the sixteenth century to provide artillery defence for the important natural harbour, are the first in a long line of such structures, which were to proliferate during times of threat across the coming centuries – most notably the 'Palmerstonian' coastal fortifications of the late nineteenth century and the extensive coastal defences of World War II.
Commerce and Leisure: The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution led to massive development of port and harbour facilities able to support the world-wide export of Welsh coal, iron, steel, copper, tinplate and all the other products for which the South Wales Coalfield became internationally prominent. All the major modern cities of Wales - Cardiff, Swansea and Newport - owe their importance to being key industrial ports during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The features common to these ports - substantial dock installations, loading facilities, warehouses and administrative buildings - are important industrial site types, many of which are under pressure from redevelopment after the steady industrial decline of the post-war period. Industrial-age coastal development also existed on a smaller scale, and several harbours in north Wales, in places like Porthmadog or Caernarfon, were developed for busy slate or granite industries. In addition, coastally-sited industries such as brick making, stone quarrying, and lime burning have left traces along the entire Welsh coast, often in the form of integrated complexes involving extraction, processing and shipping sites.
From the late eighteenth century the social elite had taken to the coast for recreation, and sea bathing became a popular leisure activity amongst the upper classes, with Swansea and Tenby, among other towns, becoming elegant Georgian resorts. By the late nineteenth century this habit had spread through all strata of society, and the development of seaside towns as leisure resorts was in full swing, supported by the new passenger railways. This was especially important to the large industrial populations of south Wales, where nearby resorts like Barry or Porthcawl provided opportunity for affordable recreation, whilst in mid- and north Wales, workers from industrial centres such as Birmingham and Manchester began to flock to the Welsh coast for holidays in places like Rhyl, Aberystwyth and Llandudno. The promenades, piers, and pleasure beaches common to many Welsh coastal towns are the legacy of this movement, and whilst the British seaside holiday saw a sharp decline in the latter half of the twentieth century, visitors to the coast and recreational use of the sea continue to make an important contribution the Welsh economy.
The Coast's Continuing Importance: The Present Day
In the present day use of the coast and sea around Wales continues to grow and change. Leisure is still one of the main driving forces behind this, and in recent years marina development for pleasure craft, along with associated residential development, has affected many Welsh harbours, bringing regeneration to previously declining ports and resorts alike. Industrial development of the coast has also continued, mainly in relation to the reception and distribution of fuel, particularly in Milford Haven. The most recent event in this sphere is the construction of two major terminals for the import and supply of liquefied natural gas at Herbrandston and Waterston, which will connect to a national distribution network – an internationally significant civil engineering project. The sea is also being exploited for renewable energy, and the siting of offshore wind farms has begun in earnest, the first being at North Hoyle, near Rhyl. Wave power may join wind as a developing energy source, and turbines are currently being tested in the Bristol Channel.
Continuing activity on sea and coast will add new sites to the Welsh coastal record, but such development also places pressure on existing archaeology. It is imperative that an adequate record is made of this fragile resource, which is not only at threat from human activity but through the harsh nature of the marine environment. The planning process needs to be informed by sensitivity of the coastal heritage. Since 1992 the remit of the Royal Commission to make a record of the human environment has extended to include '... the ancient and historical monuments and constructions in, on or under, the sea bed…' and it consequently aims to record coastal and maritime sites seamlessly, from the land to the sea. Much remains to be learned about our relationship with the sea. The exceptional discoveries of new evidence preserved in coastal sites, wrecks and seabed landscapes show the enormous potential of coastal and maritime archaeology to contribute to our knowledge.