‘Next succeeds Moel Fenlli. Beneath that is another post, on a lesser hill, which juts into the vale of Clwyd, and is called by the common name of Moel y Gaer.’
T. Pennant, Tours in Wales, Vol II, p.63
There are several hillforts by the name of Moel y Gaer in North East Wales - three within the Clwydian area. But Moel y Gaer Llanbedr is somewhat different to those similarly named at Llantysilio to the south and Bodfari to the north. This curious late Bronze Age, early Iron Age hillfort overlooking the village of Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, has the hallmark of a promontory fort, sited on a spur of high ground thrusting out into the fertile Vale of Clwyd.
At 339m at its highest point, it is the lowest hillfort in the Clwydian Range, just shy of 200m lower than mighty Moel Fenlli and lower still than nearby Moel Famau. Why so is an interesting question, with the answer likely to have much to do with the importance of the Vale of Clwyd. Little is known about the prehistoric and Roman farming methods here in the Vale, but it is thought that several million years ago, the Vale of Clwyd was once a lake - Llyn Clwyd. The sediments left in its demise have created an area of astonishing fecundity. It is one of the few areas in North East Wales, where wheat could be grown from early times. Whereas other hillforts in the Clwydians would seem to dominate and defend pass and pathway, lines of communication through the Range, Moel y Gaer at Llanbedr has no other role than that of defending, dominating, making claim to the fertile lands of the Vale of Clwyd. Is it perhaps telling that there is no evidence of an older cairn here, as will be found at Moel Fenlli and Penycloddiau? Does it suggest that Moel y Gaer Llanbedr had an entirely functional role - was in effect built with a single, pragmatic role in mind?
Relatively steep sided on its north, south and western slopes, its north eastern approach is fairly even tempered - hence its similarity to a promontory fort. And this would account for the addition of a third stone faced rampart at the north east entrance here, overlooked as it is from from height from the east. Two were deemed sufficient elsewhere along the circumference. The third rampart extends for some small distance along the north of the fort, forming a sort of small ‘extension’ around an area of flatter ground. The entrance enjoys in turned ends which would have made an attack here considerably more costly. Of great interest is the inner rampart overlooking the eastern entrance, dating to the earliest phase of occupation to perhaps the late Bronze Age, possibly early Iron Age. During the eight day excavation of W. Wynne Ffoulkes in 1849, which focused on the eastern entrance, a considerable amount of vitrified material was found - burnt stone, which puzzled Wynne Ffoulkes considerably. It would seem the discovery of this burnt stone, however, fully excited the eminent historian Willoughby Gardner to a sort of educated frenzy, picturing battle and fiery destruction. In his presidential address to the Cambrians in 1926, he painted a quite splendid, florid picture of an attack on Moel y Gaer.
‘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 indeed. Unfortunately, it is likely that Gardner was being a little over enthusiastic in his depiction of slaughter on the slopes of Moel y Gaer. There is no real evidence of an attack, of, as he claimed, ‘a chevaux de frise of sharp pointed stones firmly inserted in the ground’. Indeed, there has been a notable lack of artefacts found at Moel y Gaer, other than a single piece of glazed but ‘rotten’ Roman pottery. A bronze looped palstave and a bronze ‘axe’ were said to have been found, and displayed at the Ruthin Meeting of the Cambrians in 1854, but have since been lost. A local ‘rustic’ apparently found several ‘iron balls’ - again, lost. And no chevaux de frise have yet been found.
It was subsequently thought that the vitrified material was possible evidence that the walls had been intentionally burnt to fuse the stone together. However, investigations and excavations between 2007-2009 discovered that this was not the case, that in fact, the burnt material had been brought from elsewhere and deliberately deposited to form the inner rampart at the north eastern entrance. Rather than evidence of battle, the vitrified material is more likely evidence of some form of ritual event at the foundation of the hillfort. The questions this poses are legion.
The investigations of 2009 by Bangor University did, however, confirm that Wynne Ffoulkes' discovery of the entrance being ‘paved’ with small stones was correct, though no guard chambers were found. As for habitation, evidence of some 15 huts were found, mainly within the western inner rampart - not a particularly large number for what is a not inconsiderable area at some 2.6 hectares. As mentioned elsewhere, it would seem that Moel y Gaer enjoyed at least two phases of occupation, stretching from the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age, through to the middle or later Iron Age. The second (and third) ramparts later builds than the original inner rampart. It is also worth noting that Moel y Gaer is highly visible from a number of other hillforts both near and far - including Moel y Gaer Llantysilio to the south. Intervisibility would seem to have been highly important.
So, while we ever inch our way to a greater understanding of hillforts, questions remain - questions which have set and continue to see historians and archaeologists 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. But at Moel y Gaer Llanbedr it is quite possible to comfortably sigh away those concerns for a while, in glorying in the beauty that surrounds. It’s worth remembering that our ancestors doubtless looked out over the Vale of Clwyd and felt the same.
I. Brown, Discovering a Welsh Landscape. Archaeology in the Clwydian Range, Denbighshire County Council (2004)
W. Gardiner, The Native Hill-Forts of North Wales and their Defences, Archaeologia Cambrensis 7th Series Vol 6 (1926)
E. Jones, The Prehistoric & Roman Remains of Denbighshire, Cardiff (1929)
R. Karl & H. Butler, Moel y Gaer: Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd. Excavations, Summer 2009 Preliminary Report, Bangor Studies in Archaeology Report No.1, (August 2009)
ed. J. Manley, S. Grenter & F. Gale, The Archaeology of Clwyd, Clwyd Archaeology Service, (1991)
T. Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol II, (1781) ed. J. Rhys (1883)
RCAHMC, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire Denbigh, London (1914)
W. Wynne Ffoulkes, Castra Clwydiana No. II Moel Gaer Part of Moel Famma, Archaeologia Cambrensis, (July 1850)