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Llyn Cerrig Bach: Lake Full of Treasure

Llyn Cerrig Bach © Mick Sharp

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Llyn Cerrig Bach is situated on the west coast of Anglesey, between Rhosneigr and Valley, on land adjoining the RAF aerodrome.

To get there by car: Take the A55 to junction 4. Carry on through the village of Llanfihangel yn Nhowyn - over a railway bridge, turn right and park in the airfield " Plane Spotters" car park. Walk right a few hundred yards and you will come to a large commemorative stone placed on the roadside by the entrance to Llyn Cerrig Bach.  This is opposite a 24-hour guard-controlled gate onto the airfield.

Facilities nearby: The Cymyran Hotel is situated around the corner a few hundred yards from Llyn Cerrig Bach towards Cymyran Bay. It serves drinks and meals. Tel: 01407 742858; 

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.

William Owen RobertsIt 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.

Llyn Cerrig Bach Slave Chain; © Amgueddfa Cymru / National Museum of WalesWith 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 Cardiff.

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 nation

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.Llyn Cerrig Bach hoard; © Amgueddfa Cymru / National Museum of Wales

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 in Switzerland.

But what does it mean?  

© Nikita Rogul | Dreamstime.comWhy 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.





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