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Pentre Ffwrndan Roman Settlement

There is a tradition, that in very old times stood a large town on this place; and it is said the foundations of buildings have been frequently turned up by the plough.

Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol I, p. 68

 

The people of Flintshire are no strangers to the dangers of lead, as well as to its rewards. If one were able to cut a section through Flintshire’s history, one suspects an intertwined cord of lead and coal would be found running powerfully through its length - such has been the impact of its mineral wealth. So, one supposes that the landholders around Pentre Ffwrndan on the Chester road were well aware that it was the lead in the soil that was killing their livestock.

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Pennant’s observation that tradition pointed to a settlement on what is now the near outskirts of the Edwardian town of Flint was not the first written recollection of an ancient history here. John Dee, the Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, teacher, occultist, and alchemist, in one of his hiraeth inspired journeys through the border country of Wales at the end of the 16th century makes mention of the remains of a large town here, and this clearly reflects the consistent belief amongst those local to the area that this was an ancient settlement.

 

In ancient tyme stode a town now utterly defaced, no ruyn thereof or monument appearing.’

John Dee, 1574

 

It was Pennant, however, that identified the area as being originally Roman, and he was convinced that there was a Roman Station at Flint, focusing on the lead that was being mined on Halkyn Mountain.

 

But more remarkable are the great quantities of scoria of lead, bits of lead ore, and fragments of melted lead, which have been discovered in several spots here.

Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol I, (1781), p. 68

 

In naming the area, Pentre Ffwrndan, or the, ‘place of the fiery furnace’, a name he claims the area had always been known by, Pennant makes clear his belief that here, on the outskirts of Flint, people were bringing down lead from Halkyn Mountain and smelting the ore on the Roman road connecting Deva (Chester), Varis (probably located at St Asaph), Caerhun (in the Conwy valley) and Segontium (Caernarvon) - once thought to be largely beneath the modern A548 Chester Road, but more likely there or thereabouts the current road. But what is perhaps more remarkable is about how very prescient Pennant seems to be, since he also ponders the possibility that here,

 

the Romans made this their port for exporting the metal, after it was fused from the ore of the adjacent mountains. Here might be placed a small garrison to protect the antient smelters, or to collect the duties, or to receive the tribute of metal.

Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol I, (1781) p. 69

 

It would be another two hundred years before evidence of a high status building, thought to be that of a high ranking Roman official, perhaps military, was found on the outskirts of the settlement at Pentre Farm. It would be another decade or so after that before the tenuous evidence of a quay was discovered in the fields behind what is now the Yacht Inn.

 

By the time of Pennant’s writing, the area on the north of Chester Road, within Pentre Ffwrndan had attracted the attention of local entrepreneurs, who had returned to take advantage of the anciently mined lead that was being unearthed. And it was one of these speculators, a Thomas Williams (described by Wynne-Foulkes as, ‘an intelligent carpenter’), who had leased Ship Field, behind the Yacht Inn (previously known as the Ship Inn) from a Crewe Readle for a, ‘venture in lead’, that made a startling discovery.

 

Some time before Christmas last [1855], Mr Thomas Williams [agent of J. O. Crewe Read, Esq, Wern Hall, owner of Pentre], with that gentleman’s permission, commenced digging there for lead ore supposed to be left by that people [the Romans], and strange to say, in the course of his researches for that metal, he exhumed five skeletons  of gigantic proportions buried upon the strata he was loosening, and about two feet and a half from the surface; also a few coins, one of Trojan [Trajan], handles of urns and vases, and pottery with devices. The bodies lay east and west, and the head of each was protected and fenced off by stones laid longitudinally, and as far as the middle of the bodies two of the skeletons had only a single stone placed on each side of the head and one over the face… Mr Williams has been indefatigable in his labours, and is daily rewarded by finding some curious and ancient relic.

Chester Courant, March 5th 1856, quoted, E. Davies, The Prehistoric Remains of Flintshire, (1949), p. 131

 

Hearing of the finds and being well aware of the 1840 discovery of furnaces at the site of what is now Pandy Pool (noted on 19th century OS maps), Wynne-Foulkes, living in nearby Christleton on the outskirts of Chester, hurried to Pentre Ffwrndan to investigate. Gaining permission to get his hands dirty, he discovered all manner of assorted Roman debris in the field, confirming the finds as Roman - pottery, of course, but also walling and flagging, the remains of what he suspected were furnaces and a coin of the rule of Trajan, dating the finds to sometime after 98AD - as well as the several bodies, one of which he claimed to have been an extraordinary 6’ 7’’ in height when alive. It was likely his identification of the finds that the Chester Courant reported two days after his visit.

 

Near the hedge along the road, and towards the southern corner of the field, five skeletons were discovered, imbedded in soil mixed a good deal with charcoal.’

W. Wynne-Foulkes, Roman Remains and Ancient Lead Works, Near Flint, Archaeologia Cambrensis (Oct. 1857) p. 307

 

Here then was evidence that the long memory of the site as a Roman industrial settlement was confirmed by the archaeology, a site founded some thousand years before the raising of Flint Castle, along the Roman road out of Deva, and exploiting the mineral riches of Halkyn Mountain. However, despite the obvious importance of the finds, there would seem to have been very little further investigation of the site in the 19th century. In fact, it was not until the early 1920s that archaeologists returned - confirming many of the discoveries of the mid 19th century as those representative of a Roman industrial settlement, finding further evidence of buildings and at least 6 more lead smelting furnaces on either side of Chester Road. The findings of Taylor and Atkinson between 1923-25 established that the 19th century discoveries, and indeed the long muscle memory of the area as Roman and ancient were entirely correct.

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In 1932, James Petch began a series of investigations into the area around the traditional site of Atis Cross, marked on 19th century OS maps, hoping to develop the overall understanding of the extent of the Roman settlement discovered to that point - perhaps also looking to link the Medieval with an earlier past. Permission for the works was gained from one Ernest Lloyd of nearby Pentre Farm. It is amusing to note, that had Petch focused instead on Pentre Farm, he would as likely as not have found the site of a remarkable high status building, not actually discovered until 1960. His investigations at Atis Cross proved ultimately fruitless, and so he sought to move his investigations to the area immediately across the Chester Road from Ship Field.

 

Petch’s findings confirm and affirm much that was already known - industrial buildings and furnaces aplenty - but curiously his writing in Archaeologia Cambrensis (1936) seems not to believe Pentre Ffwrndan of any real consequence.

 

That the Roman lead smeltery was extensive is not suggested by the evidence in spite of the conveniences of the site.’

J. Petch, Excavations at Pentre Ffwrndan Roman Settlement, near Flint in 1932, 1933 and 1934, Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol. 91, (1936), p. 82

 

Looking at the finds to that point, the mid 1930s, perhaps such a conclusion is warranted. Looking back on the investigations of the mid 20th century, we should not see the site as we know it today - a hugely important area of Roman industrial activity. After all, little knowledge had been added to what had been known and suspected from the mid 19th century. But, it remains curious nonetheless, since it seems hard to credit that further investigation might not unearth new discoveries - especially that of residences, as well as furnaces.

 

Possibly brute chance has caused the richest portions of the Roman site at Pentre Ffwrndan to be destroyed in comparatively recent times or rendered them inaccessible at the very moment when examination was becoming possible. As it is, apart from further turns of chance, it appears that the story of the site is written for at least some years.’

J. Petch, Excavations at Pentre Ffwrndan Roman Settlement, near Flint in 1932, 1933 and 1934, Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol. 91, (1936), p. 83

 

Such a ‘turn of chance’, as Petch describes, came about in 1960, when on the site of Pentre Farm in 1960, a little further along the Chester Road towards Flint, during the digging of a trench for an electricity cable, Roman tiles and pottery were found. A trial excavation in 1961 found a length of wall ending in a pillar base made up of roof tiles, fragments of flooring, more roof tiles and some plaster.

 

This new Roman building leaves a gap of about 230 yards between it and the nearest remains found in the earlier excavations. This limited excavation suggests, however, that it is a different character from the buildings found on the rest of the site and may be the residence of some important executive concerned with the lead smelting.’

P. Hayes, Flintshire Historical Society Publications 19, (1961), p. 95

 

It would be another fifteen years and a threat of imminent development before further investigations of Pentre Farm were undertaken. The work of 1976 confirmed that the site was important, a building of some stature and tentatively dated to the late 1st, early 2nd centuries. Its presence threw further light on the workings at Pentre Ffwrndan, since it was clear that Pentre Farm was in fact a high status building, and its purpose must surely have been as a direct consequence of the nearby lead smelting operation a little further south east along the Roman road. Pennant’s observations at the end of the 18th century, that the Romans were likely to have raised some form of bureaucratic overview here, were proven, it seems.

 

Subsequent investigations on the site of Pentre Farm established that there had, in fact, been 8 phases of development, beginning in around 120 AD and ending sometime in the mid 3rd century with much of the stone robbed away, but some occupancy still evident. The extensive building is likely to have been military, although there remains some debate. However, the plan of the building, its size, the type of bath house that was discovered (Phases 5 and 6) and the presence of stamped military tiles would suggest a strong military connection. And of course, the road itself was no doubt built by military engineers. There is also the matter of the Halkyn lead itself, which with its relatively high quantity of silver was possibly valuable enough to warrant a high status presence on the site to manage.

 

Further investigations of the Pentre Ffwrndan site were undertaken from 2013 onwards in light of a considerable amount of residential development being undertaken on the Chester Road. Any suggestion that here was a settlement of little real significance has been decidedly cast aside. What would seem to be apparent is that Pentre Ffwrndan was an industrial ribbon settlement, some 800m in length stretching along the Roman road, largely, but not entirely tracing the current A548, from Leadbrook Drive to the site of the Pentre Farm high status building. Alongside the road were residences, plots raised at right angles to the road, and workshops incorporating furnaces for lead smelting.

 

Certainly, the most recent investigations have added plenty to our understanding of the settlement, including the discovery of what would seem to be a small cemetery by Leadbrook Drive. Given that it was traditional for the Romans to place their cemeteries on the outskirts of their settlements, its presence here is a good indication of the likely extent of the Pentre Ffwrndan site, with the Pentre Farm high status building marking the opposite greatest extent. Within the soil here, seven individual cremations were found - one within an urn, several cremation pyres and two possible square barrows some 8m across. They have been tentatively dated from the late 1st to the late 3rd century - perhaps a little later - and so fairly stretch the length of the known occupancy of the Pentre Ffwrndan site.

 

The bodies found in Ship Field in the middle of the 19th century present something of a mystery. Despite their presence, they are not thought to represent the presences of a cemetery as such. It may be that they are from a date later than the cemetery at Leadbrook Drive, closer to the very end of Pentre Ffwrndan as a Romano-British settlement, and it has even been suggested that they may in fact be early medieval. It has been noted as significant that the Ship Field bodies were buried alongside the Roman road, a fact also recognised in the burials in the field alongside Ship Field just across the brook in which another Roman road was also discovered.

 

It has always been assumed that the siting of Pentre Ffwrndan on the coast was to enable the shipping out of the processed lead - roads, even Roman roads often being a poor alternative to the convenience of transport by water. Assumed, but not proven. However, in 2007, while work was being undertaken in laying a sewage pipeline at the brook running down alongside the Yacht Inn, a Roman timber revetted tidal channel was identified - interpreted as being evidence of the presence of a Roman wharf in the neighbouring field. This exciting development seems to confirm another of Pennant’s initial observations from the end of the 18th century - that the Romans made this their port for the exporting of the smelted lead. It is curious that an early Ordnance Survey drawing of Flint from 1834, draughted by Herbert J. Hughes clearly shows a wharf in the same area as the suggested Roman quay. And with the evidence that within the field lay a Roman road leading towards the believed quay, the belief that the Romans were shipping out Pentre Ffwrndan lead from here seems more likely than not.

 

It is hard not to see Pentre Ffwrndan, then, as representative of Flintshire as a whole - heavy industry and graft. It's likely that the mineral wealth of the area has been exploited for as long as there have been people here, and Halkyn Mountain certainly was mined before the Romans arrived. But here, on the coast, a thousand years before the building of the Edwardian massive that is Flint Castle, the evidence is undeniable, that the Romans brought down the lead from the hills surrounding, smelted it here in workshops along their road between Chester and Caernarvon, and shipped it out to markets elsewhere.

 

Here, beneath the earth.

 

 

 

 Further Reading

 

 

D. Atkinson & M. V. Taylor, Flint Excavation Report, Flintshire Historical Society Publications Vol. 10 Parts 1 & 2, (1924)

 

CPAT Report No. 1470, Roman Deeside, Flintshire, (2017)

 

CPAT Report No. 1552, Pentre Ffwrndan Roman Settlement, Flintshire (2017-2018)

 

CPAT Report No. 1633-1, Pentre Ffwrndan Roman Settlement, Flintshire, (2018-2019)

 

E. Davies, The Prehistoric and Roman Remains of Flintshire, Cardiff (1949)

 

P. Hayes & G. J. Jones, Flintshire Historical Society Publications 19, (1961)

 

T. Pennant, Tour in Wales Vol. 1, Caernarvon, (1883)

 

J. A. Petch, Excavations at Pentre Ffwrndan Roman Settlement, near Flint in 1932, 1933 and 1934, Archaeologia Cambrensis 91, (1936)

 

K. Pollock, The Evolution and role of burial practice in Roman Wales, Bangor University, (2005)

 

M. V. Taylor, Roman Flintshire, Flintshire Historical Society Publication Vol. 9, (1922)

 

W. Wynne-Foulkes, Roman Remains and Ancient Lead Works, Near Flint, Archaeologia Cambrensis, (October 1856)

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