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The Lady of Llong

They were hoping for something astonishing and the omens were good. The accidental discovery of the Mold Gold Cape at Bryn yr Ellyllon in 1833, and the Caergwrle Bowl in 1823 suggested that the curious, somewhat unusual river valley tumuli along the Alyn were special, that within were treasures that would bring the peoples of the Early Bronze Age further into the light, that would confirm the power, prestige and wealth of this area of north east Wales. Ellis Davies, writing some twenty years before the excavations noted the name of the field as, Dol yr Orsedd – Meadow of the Throne. Perhaps more interestingly, the tithe map of the area, notes the field as Dol roredd – possibly rendering into English as, Meadow of Abundance. Hopes were then high with the excavation of the burial mound at Llong, two miles to the south west of Mold - and while no gold cape was found beneath the turves there, something rather impressive was unearthed, nevertheless.

 

There is now very little show of the cairn, within the field beside the River Alyn - a slight, grassy mound is all. Its nearness to the river was a concern when excavations began in September 1954, and there were fears the site would flood. Quite right to, since the cairn at Llong is believed to be the lowest of the mounds in the Alyn Valley, and would have likely flooded often. One imagines the mound as a sort of miniature Llanynys, with the cairn at times proud of the flood waters, visible from higher ground within a glass-like landscape - likely an important aspect of continued ceremony.

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The River Alyn, flowing through this ancient landscape, often flooded the fields within which the Llong Burial Mound was raised.

Mindful of the flooding, the initial excavation in the autumn of 1954 was just four days of work, and consisted of one trench. Still, it established that the barrow was indeed sepulchral, since it discovered two cremation burials to the near west of the mound, adults as it transpired. It also suggested that the barrow was more complex than had first thought, that the site had in fact been extended in the years after its first raising, since the excavation established the edge of a small primary cairn, some 30-40 ft across.

 

Work recommenced in July 1955 with an east-west trench, to complete a cross section with the work the previous year. The edging to the cairn was found, as a ‘reasonably consistent line of slightly larger river pebbles’*. But, more thrillingly, the excavation also discovered the cairn’s primary burial not far from the apparent centre of the mound, a tightly crouched inhumation burial - later dubbed the, ‘Lady of Llong’.  The bones were badly decayed, of course, having been in the earth for several thousand years, but a skull and long bones survived and were sent for examination. Unfortunately, the results of the examination, if indeed they actually took place, have been lost, and we are left with the record of an in-field examination made at the site in 1955 and reported in the Chester Chronicle (6/8/1955). The remains suggested a female, aged between 19-35 at her death and just over 5 ft in height. The body had been deposited in a shallow grave, just 12 inches deep, at the base of the cairn, which excavations showed had itself been built over a small natural mound. The body had then been covered in a layer of turf, followed by a cairn of stones. And it was amongst these stones that the stunning discovery of a group of beads was found.

 

We are fortunate to have them, since it seems the cairn was subjected to an apparent robbery some time in the past. A small but fairly deep disturbance was found which thankfully failed to find the body or beads. Some 954 discs, ranging in size between 3 and 4mm, were found, shale in the main, along with 4 jet fusiform beads and a rectangular spacer plate of oil shale - a necklace then. All were found in a restricted space, identifying them as part of the same artefact. Also within the space was found some flint implements, cremated animal and human bone and a piece of unburnt human cranium. The human remains, including the cranium were of three different individuals - a mature adult, and two children, one of about 5 years of age, the other about 2 to 3 years old. The animal bone was apparently bovine. And while the burnt remains were of course of interest, it is fair to say that it was the necklace that took the headlines, since this was the first discovery of a Bronze Age necklace incorporating jet, a high status mineraloid, found in Wales - and still remains a rarity, despite further examples having been since found at Pen y Bonc in Holyhead on Anglesey and Pant y Butler in Ceredigion. It’s worth noting, that the beads were not found with the body, but were deposited in the earth above the remains - a very deliberate deposit, which while separate has been consistently associated with the crouched remains. And despite some frowning of the forehead, we are probably right to do so. There are other examples in which such grave goods were deposited separately to the body, though contemporary to the burial.

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A barely discernable rise in the field is all that now remains of the once striking cairn within which the Lady of Llong was buried.

More will be said on the necklace in due course, but there was another series of excavations in 1956. These were of a smaller scale which largely confirmed the findings of the previous two seasons. However, there was one genuine surprise - the presence of a large boulder was discovered, some 2ft in breadth and a little over 3ft in height. It’s believed that this was a standing stone, marking the edge of the primary cairn. As such, it is much like the menhir at nearby Treuddyn, which sits atop a supposed tumulus. And it is worth noting that in the very near vicinity of Llong were several other menhirs, all now lost, buried or exploded. Was this also a particular characteristic of the peoples of the Alyn Valley, to sometimes raise standing stones with their dead?

 

The excavations did not resume in 1957, although there was a discussion as to whether further work should be undertaken. But it was felt that all that could be discovered had been unearthed in the previous three seasons of digs. Thus, the mound at Llong was left to reduce and grass over, to slowly render to silence.

 

It would seem then, that the burial at Llong incorporated at least two separate phases. The primary cairn was raised on a natural hillock, within which the tightly flexed body of the ‘Lady of Llong’ was discovered, along with the burnt human and animal remains and some flint implements. As to when the astonishing necklace was deposited is another question. Buried above the body, it is supposed that while it was contemporary to the crouched body, it was a deliberate act in not placing it directly with the remains - a little mystery, then. The edge of the primary cairn was marked with the presence of a standing stone - another little mystery. At some point later, the cairn was then extended to about 30 metres within which 3 unaccompanied cremation burials were deposited.

 

But it was the necklace that captured the acclaim, both at the time of its discovery and since. Its presence goes some way to confirm that this area of north east Wales was very special indeed - a place of wealth and power. To look upon it now, restrung and displayed beside a replica of the awe inspiring Gold Cape in the museum in Mold town centre, you would perhaps be forgiven a shrug. It does not gleam quite as brightly as the Cape. But it represents prestige - it represents the reach of power.

 

The initial discovery in 1955 found 954 beads, of which 788 remained by the time the necklace was restrung by Alison Sheridan, Principal Curator of Early Prehistory at National Museums Scotland, in 2013. Before Sheridan’s involvement, no one had seemingly attempted a seriously considered reconstruction of the necklace - presumably since it was believed that there was no way to accurately represent the Early Bronze Age piece of jewellery. Alison Sheridan’s involvement was prompted by the return of the Gold Cape to Wales in 2013, its display at Wrexham Museum, and an offer to attempt a reconstruction incorporating the remaining discs, fusiform beads and spacer was gratefully accepted. Sheridan restrung the necklace in the light of her extensive research, and the result was a dramatic change in its appearance from the single, simple strand of beads and discs that had been. Sheridan believed that it had been worn a choker-style necklace, with the fusiform beads placed next to the spacer plate in order to emphasise their value. It was, in short, a ‘bit of bling’, if you’ll forgive the colloquialism - a very beautiful item of jewellery, a stand out piece of work. The necklace can now be seen, as said in the delightful little museum above the library in Mold town centre.

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The necklace, restrung and resplendent in Mold Museum.

During the restringing process, it was established through x-ray fluorescence spectrometry that the fusiform beads were jet, the discs of shale or perhaps cannel coal, which could then have been of local origin, and the unusual spacer plate made of an oil shale (due to the similar colour to jet, both cannel coal and shale were frequently used alternatives). The jet almost certainly came from the Whitby area of North Yorkshire, and suggests the considerable reach of the peoples living in this area of north east Wales, jet being a very high status commodity. The presence of the jet fusiform beads goes some way in enabling us to date the ‘Lady of Llong’, since the Early Bronze Age (roughly 2200 - 1800 BC) was the peak period of jet working in the Whitby area (though it’s worth noting that the earliest use of jet in Wales was recorded with the find of a jet belt slider found with Neolithic remains in Gop Cave, not so very far from Llong). And despite the fact that it is thought that within the Alyn Valley were artisans and workshops of real genius, the jet beads were likely to have been fashioned where they were quarried - in the Whitby area.

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In the Early Bronze Age, jet had a mystical quality much admired by our ancestors.

But, why all the fuss about jet? Why was it so valued by our ancient ancestors? As a start, it is black - densely and completely black in colour and texture, and it's possible we underestimate the value of this. In fact, such depth of darkness is a little startling if considered, but of course, we recognise this in the phrase, ‘black as jet’, without really thinking on its origin. There is also its ability to be worked fairly easily, which makes artistry possible, beyond mere working, and it is capable of a high polish. Jet is also electrostatic, much like amber, which one imagines was something of a marvel to our ancestors. Pliny and Solinus were much taken with its qualities. Clearly then, jet had a status quality that meant much.

 

And so we return then to a consideration of how the Lady of Llong contributes to our understanding of north east Wales in the Early Bronze Age. The fact remains, that the necklace found within this curious cairn in the Alyn Valley is probably contemporary with the nearby Mold Gold Cape, and suggests that the area was one of prestige and wealth. Here were ancient glories, both fashioned in the area and imported from elsewhere. A Bronze Age centre of power.