Moel y Gaer hillfort is situated on a spur of the Clwydians close to the village of Llanfair Dyffryn Llanbedr. At just over 2.6 hectares in area, it is not an inconsiderable size, although dwarfed by Penycloddiau to the north. It remains a curiosity, since its design has impressed historians and archaeologists over the last two hundred years, with its multivallate double circuit of stone fronted ramparts and a massive third rampart to the north east, an elaborate entranceway and, as Willoughby Gardner claimed in his presidential address to the Archaeologia Cambrensis in 1926, an impressively engineered second ditch, ‘set with a chevaux de frise of sharp pointed stones firmly inserted in the ground’. This would suggest that it was built with a military purpose in mind. However, the hillfort is overlooked by the highest point of the Clwydians, Moel Fama, which from a military point of view is tantamount to suicide, and the evidence of the chevaux de frise has been lost, if in fact it existed at all. It is only one of the issues which have set historians and archaeologists to stroking their chins, chewing their pencils and developing a champion skin pallor which would disturb small children and the faint of heart if ever they left their studies.
Moel y Gaer has been well studied, as hillforts go. It was investigated in 1849 by W. Wynne-Ffoulkes. In a series of trenches he found evidence of Roman pottery, and from the radiocarbon dating of burnt wood found at the base of a rampart within the enclosure, there is a possibility that Moel y Gaer was actually first built at the end of the Bronze Age. There have been findings of Bronze Age material, including a bronze looped palstave and a bronze axe, but they have now been lost. A Bronze Age date is in itself not unusual, since there is considerable blurring between the start and end dates of the Ages, rarely with clear water between them, but recent excavations have tentatively suggested an initial building date range of 7th – 5th century BC.
Wynne-Ffoulkes also found considerable evidence of burning close to the gate, and took this to be evidence of battle and fiery destruction. The idea of a battle taking place is an intriguing one, and certainly excited the imagination of Willoughby Gardner. Describing an attack on Moel y Gaer in his presidential address to the Archaeologia Cambrensis in 1926, one can imagine him quite bouncing.
‘Let us picture to ourselves an assault upon the south west wall of this hillfort. The attacking horde would first charge across the little obstacle ditch, and, rushing on the ‘glacis’ they would be brought to a halt by the first row of spiked stones inserted on its edge. Then for the distance of forty five feet or more up the ‘glacis’ slope they could but slowly pick their way among the bristling points protruding out of the ground on every side. By these they would be badly bruised and cut if they tripped or were struck down by the staves or slingstones and other missiles poured down upon them from the rampart above. Those who survived this ordeal would renew their rush across the next ditch and scramble up the steep scarp in front which was very probably made still more difficult by being covered with slippery scree upon its lower half. When they reached firmer ground, another charge would be made to cross the next ditch. But here an unseen and terrible reception was prepared for in them in the form of a seven foot belt of sharp stone stakes lining the bottom of the ditch; on these they could hardly help but fall with the impetus of their dash over the last banks and the pressure of the throng behind. All this time the shower of missiles from the ramparts above would doubtless continue; and one can well imagine that but few of the host that started on the ‘rush’ would survive to climb the last bank and to cross the final ditch and thus reach the foot of the great stone rampart.'
W. Gardiner, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1926 7th Series Vol 6 Page 259
Thrilling stuff, and enough to make you think that hillforts were primarily military structures. It is not that easy, unfortunately. Recent excavations by Bangor University have conclusively proven that the burnt, vitrified material was brought from elsewhere and used to build the stone faced ramparts. It is not the product of war. It is however, possible that the use of this burnt material was part of a ceremonial ritual, to elicit protection for the occupants, perhaps to establish ownership. There is an intriguing possibility that it is evidence of a continuation of Bronze Age practice into the early Iron Age.
As for evidence of habitation, this was strangely elusive until 2007, when some 15 roundhouse platforms were discovered. Who were the inhabitants? This we do not know, although there is no evidence of smelting or metalwork on site, so perhaps not craftsmen…Excavations continue, and it is to be hoped that we will eventually find more answers than questions as to the past of the curious Moel y Gaer.