Call it fate, or the will of God, or just plain luck. Sometimes
ordinary people stumble into extraordinary opportunities - and how
they react can change the course of lives or even nations.
It happened on Anglesey in 1943.
Before the Second World War, my father, William Owen Roberts,
was an ordinary man, a greens keeper at the local golf course. But
when the war came and the Ministry of War Transport needed to
expand the adjoining Valley Airfield, it called on my father to
lead its grounds crew, to help stabilize the sandy land and extend
the runways, so that large American planes could land.
It was my father who first noticed the now famous chain.
A curiously strong chain
Whilst dredging a pond for peat, a lorry had got stuck in the
mud. To pull it out, a wire rope was attached to its bumper, but
the wire rope soon broke. So did another. Then my father remembered
he'd seen an old chain lying in the mud. The men hooked the chain
up, and out came the lorry. They used the chain over and over that
day, and it didn't break once.
At the end of the day, my father took a closer look at this
super strong chain. It was extremely heavy and unusual. It had five
large links, joined together by a number of smaller ones.
Somehow, on a busy airfield in the middle of a world war, my
father noticed these details and decided to investigate further -
thereby making one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of
the twentieth century.
With the chain draped
over the handlebars of his bike, my father walked a mile to the
office he shared with the airfield's resident engineer, Mr. J.
Jones. Together the two of them studied the chain. They drew a
diagram of it and sent it with a letter to the National Museum in
And the museum chief rushed up
When Sir Cyril Fox, the museum's chief curator, read the letter,
he boarded a train and came straight up to Anglesey. He identified
it as a gang chain, used to connect five slaves or prisoners
together by their necks.
And it was probably 2,000 years old.
My father took Sir Cyril to show him where he'd found the chain
- in peat dredged from the small lake called Llyn Cerrig Bach. Sir
Cyril then identified some other artefacts found in the peat, from
the same period, namely the Iron Age. After he left, the work
continued, but my father kept an eye open for more items.
180 priceless artefacts saved for the
For several weeks, the workmen continued to dredge the area,
collecting piles of peat from the bottom of the lake and setting
them out to dry. As they did, other ancient treasures slowly
appeared at out of the mud - iron swords, a trumpet piece, a plaque
and shield boss made of bronze, a chariot tyre, horse bits,
currency bars, blacksmith's tongs and many other objects.
Word spread amongst the locals, and crowds began to gather at
the site to see other artefacts appearing from the lake. Worried
about losing them to plunderers, my father took responsibility.
He began collecting the pieces, wrapping them in sackcloth and
taking them home balanced on the handlebars of his bicycle. He then
wrapped them in newspaper, sealed them in old orange boxes and
posted them to the museum in Cardiff. He continued this work for
nearly four years.
By this time (about 1947) I was 12 years old. I remember clearly
one night when I sat at the family kitchen table, helping my father
to wrap strange bits of iron in newspaper and make three heavy
parcels of them. The next day, a Saturday, my father gave me one of
these parcels to carry (while he managed the other two) for the
mile-long walk to Rhosneigr train station. There we caught the
train to Bangor, where we walked another mile up a long hill with
our heavy loads, to get the artefacts safely deposited at the
Bangor Museum (then on College Road). My father wanted some of the
artefacts to remain here in North Wales, but soon the National
Museum requested that they all be sent down to Cardiff.
In all, my father helped to collect and preserve many objects
from Llyn Cerrig Bach, all dating from roughly 300 BC to 100 AD.
Now housed entirely at the National Museum in Cardiff, the hoard is
the largest Iron Age discovery ever made in Wales. It rivals both
in size and importance the renowned Iron Age discoveries at La Tène
But what does it mean?
Why were so many priceless antiquities at the
bottom of one remote small lake on Anglesey?
Even today, experts aren't sure. Most believe that the ancient
Celts worshipped water deities, and so they offered precious
objects into lakes and rivers in order to appease and implore local
gods and goddesses. Judging by the large numbers of disparate
(mostly military-related) objects at Llyn Cerrig Bach, some experts
contend that worshippers travelled great distances to the lake. Was
it perhaps to offer weapons before or after battle?
Some archaeologists have even suggested that many of the
deposits may have resulted from a mass offering. What if, in 60 AD,
the Celts saw the massive Roman legion preparing to cross over to
Anglesey? What if, in their terror, they grabbed their most
precious objects and threw them in the water, as desperate
offerings to their deity?
An ordinary man, an extraordinary legacy
By now, Llyn Cerrig Bach has become famous, not only in this
country but worldwide. I am very proud that this fact is due
entirely to my father, William Owen Roberts, who through his
knowledge of the local terrain made the decision to dredge this
boggy area for peat.
During the operation, he also recognised the significance of a
chain that had been unearthed during the day. Had he not done these
procedures, a wealth of history would have been unknown to us.
Today I still live near Rhosneigr, not far from Llyn Cerrig
Bach. Since retiring over 20 years ago, I spend much of my time
speaking, teaching, and blogging about Llyn Cerrig Bach - and
talking about my father, an ordinary man who discovered (and
defended) a national treasure.