Perched atop Caerau Hill in west Cardiff is an archaeological site known as Hidden Hillfort – one of Wales’ largest and most important. Yet this Iron Age hillfort remains, as the name suggests, hiding in plain sight. For the last decade, the CAER Heritage project has been working to change that – including through a recently opened heritage centre, reports Ben Woolhead.
“At the beginning, we knew we had an amazing archaeological site that had never been studied before”, explains Oliver Davis, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Cardiff University and CAER Heritage’s co-director, his initial excitement still undimmed. “It was a place everyone in Cardiff should know about, but no one did.” One of the first steps in putting the Hidden Hillfort on the Cardiff map – and indeed nationally and internationally – was to invite Channel 4’s Time Team to investigate. Their excavations revealed that the site was heavily occupied for centuries, unearthing evidence of roundhouses and metalworking as well as shards of 3,000-year-old pottery.
The programme naturally piqued interest on which CAER Heritage subsequently sought to capitalise. Since its inception in 2011, the project – a collaboration between the university, Action in Caerau and Ely (ACE), Cardiff Council and local schools, residents and assorted community groups – has been as much about making a difference in the present as about piecing together the past.
“We wanted to find out something about the Hidden Hillfort”, says Davis, “but primarily give opportunities to local people to be at the heart of that process and for them to tell their story of their local heritage and encourage people to come and see it.” At first, no real thought was given to a heritage centre: “The project focus was more about engaging people with the history on their doorstep and widening access to higher education.”
All that started to change around five years ago, recalls Davis, in the course of “lots of discussions with local people and organisations about what the local community needed, how we could encourage more people to visit and discover the site and how best that could be achieved.” From the start, the concept was for a multi-purpose venue – “a hybrid between a community centre and a place to find out about history and heritage. The only way to make it sustainable in the long term was to make sure it met the community’s needs first.”
Thankfully, there was no need to do much digging when it came to finding a suitable home for the centre. “As luck would have it, there was an old, derelict, gospel hall at the bottom of the hillfort near to the public right of way that leads over the site. We felt that we could make a big difference here – the building’s position lent itself to being a kind of ‘gateway’ to discovering the hillfort.”
ACE duly took on the lease, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund provided the financial means to realise the vision, and in September 2021 – four years on from the design phase – the Hidden Hillfort Community Heritage Centre finally opened its doors. “There’s been lots of challenges along the way, not least COVID,” Davis acknowledges, “but everyone’s so happy and proud of what’s been achieved.”
Not that there’s any time for sitting back and resting on laurels. The centre is still “a work in progress”, Davis admits, and there remains much to do. “The building is open and usable, but we’re only just now starting to fill it with all the interpretation required for people to discover the site. That process is very much co-produced – local people and volunteers get involved in the making and shaping of all of the information and other interpretation we have on site. Over the next six to eight months, things will really start to take shape.”
Davis is under no illusion as to the critical importance of all of those who have bought into the project along the way and helped to make it a reality. Ask him what he has found most rewarding about the experience and he’s unequivocal. “Undoubtedly seeing the enjoyment and efforts of everyone involved, particularly all of our volunteers who give so much time and love to the project. As much as the hillfort is central to the project, the project wouldn’t exist without all the people involved.”
For an academic who spends his days teaching students, working collaboratively with the community has proven to be an enriching and inspiring learning process. “Everything we do is co-produced – that is to say, all the decisions and outputs are a result of a collective effort where everyone’s contribution is valued and appreciated. Certainly, ACE have been fundamental in this.”
The scale of the project is such that new recruits to the team are always very welcome. Willing volunteers can get involved in maintaining paths and litter picking, as well as helping out with archaeological surveying and even getting their hands dirty on digs. Pandemic permitting, big plans are afoot for 2022, including preparations for the excavation of another possible Iron Age site nearby and work to conserve the ruins of St Mary’s Church, which sit within the hillfort.
words BEN WOOLHEAD photos CAER HERITAGE
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