After facing years of doubts, Stuart Wilson’s claim that he has found medieval city on English-Welsh border is being listened to
Stuart Wilson believes he has found medieval city in field he spent life savings on
Tuesday 3 January 2017 12.33 EST
Last modified on Wednesday 4 January 2017 03.44 EST
The first clue was provided by moles. As the creatures burrowed beneath a farmer’s field close to the border between England and Wales, they threw up fragments of what appeared to be medieval pottery.
Stuart Wilson, an archaeology graduate who was working in a toll bridge booth, took a **** and bought the field for £32,000 when he could have been investing in his first house.
Over the past 15 years he and a hardy band of volunteers have painstakingly unearthed what they believe are the remains of a sprawling medieval city.
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Wilson, 37, is preparing for an exciting 2017. When the weather improves he and his colleagues will continue their work on the site, focusing particularly on what he says is the skeleton of a moated manor house.
He is applying for planning permission for an interpretation centre to tell visitors about the lost city of Trellech, and for a campsite for tourists and helpers.
After facing years of scepticism from some within the archaeology community, he is now being listened to seriously. Before Christmas he was invited by Cardiff Archaeological Society to speak at Cardiff University.
Wilson said his decision to buy the land had been vindicated. “People thought I was mad and really I should have bought a house rather than a field,” he said. “But it turned out to be the best decision of my life. I don’t regret it at all.”
Back at the turn of the century, professional, well-equipped archeologists were trying to find the remains of the city but were focusing on the modern village of Trellech, on the Welsh side of the border between Tintern and Monmouth.
In 2002 a farmer told the Monmouth Archaeological Society about the pottery that had been found in molehills on his land outside the village.
“I went and took a look,” said Wilson. He investigated the site and within minutes had found what he believed was the remains of a wall. “That was a very good start,” he said.
One of the artefacts found at the site
One of the artefacts found at the site. Photograph: Wales News Service
Two years later the 4.6-acre plot came up for sale and Wilson took a punt. “Much more experienced people were saying the city wasn’t there but I was young and confident,” he said. “If I was right the high street was right there in that field. It was a wonderful opportunity.”
Wilson gave up his job so he could focus on the dig. Over the years he estimates that about 1,000 people have joined him, from archaeology students to intrigued people from the area.
He said he had so far pinpointed eight buildings, adding: “We’re finding building after building after building.”
A manor house, thought to have included two halls and a courtyard, may be the most spectacular but Wilson is fond of a well that was unearthed containing pieces of wood, bone and leather. Other features discovered include parts of jugs, cooking vessels, fireplaces and drains.
One of the best finds last year was more ancient: a flint knapping kit thought to date back to neolithic times. “I’ve asked the person who found that to come again,” he said. “They are clearly lucky.”
Wilson said the city was once home to about 10,000 people, perhaps a quarter of the size of London’s population at the time. He said the settlement was founded by a family called De Clare in the 13th century to manufacture weapons, armour and other military equipment.
Agricultural workers were tempted into the city by the prospect of more lucrative employment. “If you’re working in the fields you are living hand to mouth every single day – it’s a really hard existence,” said Wilson. “Suddenly, a big industrial town comes here, this is a great opportunity for you. You up sticks and move to the industrial town where the opportunity is.”
Most of the buildings, according to Wilson, seem to date from when the town was reorganised and built in stone after attacks by both English and Welsh forces. Evidence of the earlier town has been found below some of the buildings and occupation on the site may have started 100 years before that again, he believes.
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The city did not last long as a major centre. It was attacked by enemies of the De Clares and ravaged by disease. In later centuries fighters led by the Welsh leader Owain Glyndŵr targeted Trellech and it fell into ruin.
Wilson’s project has not been cheap. He estimates that it may have cost as much as £200,000 over 15 years. It has been funded by individual donations, commercial activities such as “experience days”, and through an online shop selling historical documents.
Wilson, who lives in a converted toilet block in Chepstow, believes that unearthing the city of Trellech will be his life’s work. “I think we’ve only found 0.1% of it,” he said.
This year’s digging season will start in the spring and students and volunteers are invited to sign up to join in with key excavations in July and August.
But what if Wilson’s **** 15 years ago had come to nothing? “The field would have been a nice place to have a picnic.”