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Your Community - Flint
Archaeology and early history of the town
Flint in the prehistoric, Roman and early medieval periods
During the early post-glacial period sea level lay about 35 metres below its present level. The area now occupied by the town would have been on the edge of a deep and wide river valley, well inland, on a low coastal plain that stretched from the north Wales coast across Liverpool Bay to the Isle of Man and the Lake District. A rapid rise in sea level took place between about 10,000 and 3,000 BC due to the melting of the glaciers; the consequent flooding of the great coastal plain created what is now Liverpool Bay and, in the wide river valley, the Dee estuary.
Along the coastline further to the west, notably between Prestatyn and Rhyl and up the estuary of the Clwyd inland to Rhuddlan, evidence has recently come to light of how the area was used during this dynamic period of environmental change from about 8,000 BC, by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and from about 4,000 BC by Neolithic communities. The seasonal importance of marine and estuarine resources is highlighted by the presence of middens of cockle and mussels shells of these periods which have been excavated at Prestatyn, and from a date as early as about 3,500 BC there is evidence of agriculture involving ploughing and the rearing of domestic herds of animals by more settled farming communities in that area.
Given its location close to the former valley, and subsequently the estuary of the Dee, early human activity in the immediate vicinity of the latter-day town could be expected, though no positive evidence has yet been found.. The earliest evidence of activity that has so far come to light in the Flint area belongs to the Early Bronze Age, in the period between about 2,000–1,500 BC, based on the chance discovery of a flat bronze axe in the Pentre Ffwrndan area to the east of the town centre in the 18th century.
Evidence of activity throughout Bronze and Iron Ages still awaits discovery, though it is probable that the area was occupied by small and possibly dispersed farming communities over the course of several millennia before the Roman conquest of the area after the middle of the 1st century AD. Probably from a date well before the conquest the area was inhabited by a tribe or political grouping known to early Roman writers as the Deceangli, whose territory extended over the coastal area of north-east Wales. The name of the river Dee survives from this period, being derived from a Celtic root which became Dwy in modern Welsh and gave its name to Deva, the Roman name for Chester.
The earliest evidence of industrial activity in the immediate area of the town dates from about the mid 60s AD when the processing and smelting of lead ores mined on Halkyn Mountain, 3-4 kilometres to the south-west, was being undertaken in what was possibly the earliest and most extensive of the Roman mining operations in Wales. At first the industry appears to have been a private commercial enterprise, possibly by a civilian mining operator moving swiftly in the wake of the Roman army but later on it seems to have been more firmly under the control of the Roman military authorities.
Few actual Roman mine sites have been identified on Halkyn Mountain possibly due to later mining activity, but positive evidence is known of the sites on the banks of the Dee at Flint where the lead ore brought down by horse and cart from Halkyn Mountain was processed before trans-shipment of the refined metal. The presence of ancient lead processing works in the Pentre Ffwrndan area has been suspected since at least the late 18th century, as described in some detail in Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Wales. Pennant records the tradition ‘that in very old times stood a large town at this place’ and noted the presence of ‘great quantities of scoria [cinders/slag] of lead, bits of lead ore, and fragments of melted lead’ that had recently been reworked for the recovery of lead. Pennant associated this activity with a translation from the Welsh of ‘ffwrndan’ – the second element of the place-name, – as ‘place of the fiery furnace’. The tradition of an earlier settlement in this area can in fact be traced back two centuries before the time that Pennant was writing. Writing of the Croes-ati area in 1574 the scholar John Dee noted that ‘in ancient tyme stode a town . . . now utterly defaced, no ruyn thereof or monument appearing’. Edward Lhuyd, a second scholar of Welsh descent, writing in 1699 said that ‘according to tradition there stood a Church heretofore at Pentre Attiscrosse half a mile from Flint; for Gravestones have been found here’. Much of the Pentre Ffwrndan area fell within the medieval open fields of Flint until the 19th and 20th centuries. It seems likely from these accounts that waste heaps, building remains, and possibly burials belonging to the former Roman settlement had been periodically turned up by the plough in this area over the course of many centuries. Early lead processing industries were often inefficient and it was not uncommon for Roman waste heaps to be reworked as improvements were made in processing technology. Pennant’s mention of the use of ‘washes’ to extract the lead at Pentre Ffwrndan most probably refers to the construction of rectangular buddles of the kind which were commonly used in the processing of metal ores, fed by water from the neighbouring stream.
Discoveries which have been made in the area in the face of industrial and housing developments from the 1840s up to the present day point to the existence of a well-established Roman industrial settlement occupying an area of 3 hectares or more to either side of Chester Road (A 458) in the Pentre Bridge area, between St David’s Church and The Yacht public house (formerly The Ship). Finds include traces of numerous furnaces, stone and probably timber strip buildings as well as a number of human burials. Some of the industrial remains were found to be in poor state of preservation no doubt due to the later reworking mentioned by Pennant. The settlement was active for a period of at least two centuries, from the mid 80s to the middle of the 3rd century AD.
Excavations opposite Pentre Farm in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought to light a high-status building complex belonging to the period between the earlier 2nd century and the mid 3rd century. Built initially of timber and subsequently of stone parts of the complex extend below the Chester Road, it included a small bathhouse, and had rooms decorated with painted wall-plaster. The presence of stamped tiles of the Twentieth Legion, which replaced the Second Legion at Chester in about AD 90, suggests that it may have been the residence and administrative complex of a resident official with responsibility for overseeing the metalworking industry. The complex was possibly laid out to lie parallel with the course of a Roman road which ran further to the south and it is perhaps no accident that this mansion was sited over 150 metres up-wind from the lead-processing works.
Lead had a wide range of uses in the Roman period, including for water-pipes, water-tanks and coffins. Lead from the Flintshire orefields contains a relatively high proportion of silver which could be extracted by the process known as cupellation and which would have added considerably to its value, perhaps explaining the apparent presence of a high-ranking Roman official at the settlement. Lead pigs – bars of processed lead – weighing 70 kilos cast in a mould with the letters DECEANGL on one side, standing for an abbreviation of the Iron Age tribal name in the phrase such as Deceanglicum plumbum (‘Deceanglian lead’), have been found not only in Chester, which would have formed a ready market for Flintshire lead from the 70s AD, but also as far as the village of Hints in south Staffordshire, over 100 miles away.
The industrial settlement at Pentre Ffwrndan appears to have been sited on the shores of the Dee estuary in order to take advantage of transport by both sea and land – the first instance of what was to become a recurrent theme in the later industrial history of Flint. Other factors which may have influenced the siting of the settlement were the availability of water from the stream entering the Dee at Pentre Ffwrndan, and the availability of fuel. Up to the later 17th century lead smelting remained heavily dependent upon the use of charcoal and it is likely that the felling of local woodland had a significant and perhaps long-lasting impact upon the environment at this period.
Some evidence of the economy and the relationship of the inhabitants with their environment during Roman times is provided by finds from the Pentre Farm excavations. These show that in addition to the consumption of cattle, pigs and sheep, local marine resources also formed a significant element in the diet. Species recorded include the shells of mussels, cockles and native oysters, bones of either Greylag or domestic goose and Crane (the latter possibly the first recorded on an archaeological site in Wales), and bones of mackerel, plaice and a fish of the cod type suggesting an active local sea fishing industry.
The very recent identification of a Roman timber-revetted tidal channel to the east of The Yacht – several hundred metres from the present mean high water mark – seems to confirm earlier suggestions that the refined metal was probably exported by sea from wharfs along the Dee estuary. About 20 Deceanglian lead pigs discovered in the later 16th century at Runcorn – a journey of roughly 25 miles by sea around the Wirral peninsula – may have come from the site of a Roman shipwreck.
It has been thought that the Roman road west of Chester took a course along the estuary, roughly on the same line as the modern Chester Road (A458) before heading off to the unlocated place called Varis (possibly at St Asaph) and then on to Canovium (Caerhun), documented in the probably early 3rd century register known as the Antonine Itinerary. Recent excavations have revealed a stretch of the road to the south of The Yacht at Pentre Ffwrndan with two mid 3rd-century coins on its metalled surface. At this point the road was perhaps as much as 12 metres wide and diverged from the course of the modern road, bisecting the industrial settlement at Pentre Ffwrndan. The next certain trace of the road is near Rhuallt, about 15 kilometres to the west. Although traditionally thought to follow more or less the line of the present-day A485 the route the road actually took below the area now occupied by the town of Flint has still to be discovered.
Other less certain Roman finds have been noted elsewhere in Flint. Roman coins are said to have been found during the erection of the new Town Hall in 1840 – though whether they came from an original context is uncertain. They are possibly the same coins said to have been found in or near the castle before 1850. Another uncertain find is the ‘Roman hypocaust, or hot-bath’ said to have been found in the area of the former smeltery west of the castle in about 1700 ‘whilst digging for foundation of a copper-works’. Similar uncertainty surrounds the record that ‘Roman tiles and bricks were also brought to light’ when the works were being extended in the early decades of the 19th century. Thomas Pennant, writing in the late 18th century, had assumed from the regularity of Flint’s street layout that the town itself was of Roman origin, but as we shall see below the town itself is now quite clearly known to be of medieval origin.
Little is so far known in detail about the history of the immediate environs of Flint in the period of almost 800 years between the later Roman period in the later 3rd and 4th centuries and the Norman Conquest in the later 11th century. Many of the major place-names which emerged during this period clearly indicate that the region formed a complex cultural and political border zone between the emerging Welsh and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms with some infiltration by sea-borne Viking settlers. The unstable and vulnerable political status of the region is hinted at in the name Perfeddwlad (‘the middle country’) by which it became known to the Welsh, a territory stretching for thirty miles along the north coast of Wales between the present-day Llandudno and Hawarden. The cantref or administrative area in which Flint fell was known to the Welsh as Tegeingl and to the Anglo-Saxons as Englefield, echoing the pre-Roman tribal name of the Deceangli.
By the 8th century this coastal area of Flint fell on the English side of Offa’s and Wat’s Dykes – the latter skirting the upland ridge only a matter of 4 kilometres to the south-west of Flint. The dykes had been constructed to define the western boundary of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia in the later 8th century, if not earlier. By the 920s Rhuddlan, over 20 kilometres further to the west, had become established as a Mercian frontier post, and though retaken by the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd during much of the early and mid 11th century, by the time of the Norman Conquest the territory between Rhuddlan and Chester had once again been claimed by the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Rhuddlan and a scattering of settlements along the Dee estuary were listed in the Cheshire section of the Domesday Book compiled for William I in 1086. Flint itself was not to come into existence of another two centuries, but other minor settlements in the immediate vicinity fell within the Cheshire hundred of Atiscros. This covered the same area as Tegeingl, and the personal names in the area indicate that there were estate owners of both Mercian and Viking origin holding lands on both sides of the Dee estuary. Entries in the Domesday Book for Coleshill and Leadbrook (spelt Coleselt and Latbroc), just to the west and the east of the town, show that there were small areas of ploughland in the area at that time and in the case of Leadbrook an extensive area of woodland ‘1 league long and as wide’.
The Domesday hundred of Atiscros is named after the former ancient cross known in Welsh as Croes-ati, presumably once a prominent landmark, traditionally located north of Croes-ati Lane, Pentre Ffwrndan, Flint, in an area overlain by a post-war housing estate. The scholar John Dee mentions ‘an old cross which place is called Adecross’ in 1574 and in 1699 Edward Lhuyd also mentions ‘an old cross which place is called Adecross’ suggesting it may have been still standing at the beginning of the 18th century, but Thomas Pennant writing in the 1780s only recalled having seen its ‘pedestal’. Excavations in the 1930s failed to reveal any surviving trace at the location recorded on early editions of the Ordnance Survey Map. There is no surviving description of the cross but but there seems a possibility that it fell within the same tradition as the Viking-influenced freestanding crosses in north-east Wales, Cheshire and the Wirral, such as the late 10th to early 11th-century Maen Achwyfan in the parish of Whitford, Flintshire, which is set within a substantial stone socket. The assumed location of the cross in close proximity to the Roman remains at Pentre Ffwrndan is intriguing. Continuity of settlement or estate holdings from the late Roman period to the late 10th century is one possibility but seems somewhat unlikely. Alternatively, in view of the frequent association of early Christian sites with much earlier mounds and burials – such as the proximity of Maen Achwyfan to a cluster of possibly prehistoric burial mounds – it seems possible that former Roman leadworking waste-heaps may have suggested remnants of the pagan past.
Perfeddwlad was to change hands between the royal houses of Gwynedd and England on several occasions during the course of the 12th and 13th centuries. It returned to Welsh hands when Owain Gwynedd annexed the territory in about 1150 during the turmoil in England in the reign of King Stephen, as part of Gwynedd Is-Conwy (‘Gwynedd below the river Conwy’). Owain Gwynedd repelled two attempts in the area to regain it, the first by the joint forces of Ranulf, earl of Chester and Madog ap Maredudd, prince of Powys in 1150 and the second by the forces of Henry II in 1157 at the so-called Battle of Coleshill. Neither battle site is closely located though the latter was traditionally held to lie in the area close to Flint Mill in the Aber Park Industrial Estate, on the north-west side of the town. The territory was reconquered for the English crown by Henry III in the 1240s but subsequently regained and reunited with the kingdom of Gwynedd by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1256.
Since much still remains to be discovered about way of life of ordinary people during this period the narrative is inevitably dominated by these political events which possibly only had a limited impact upon them. Something of the nature of the landscape and the economy of the area can be gleaned from the Gerald of Wales’s Journey through Wales and Description of Wales, written in the late 1180s and early 1190s. Farming no doubt continued to be undertaken but large areas of woodland still survived such as Coed Ewloe (spelt Eulo by Pennant) which was said to have stretched from Hawarden to Coleshill and which was where Henry II’s forces were ambushed. Ships were plying the north coast of Wales moving both people and goods. The Flintshire orefields were still evidently being actively worked for the recovery of lead and silver ‘by delving deep’. Gerald is possibly guessing at the origin of the place-name Coleshill (Coleshulle) to the west of Flint as ‘the hill of coal’ (which he gives in the Latin Carbonis collem), but at least implying that deposits of coal were known and being actively worked in the area by this date. By the early 14th century Coleshill also appears in its Welsh form as Mynydd y glo also meaning ‘coal hill’.
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