One spring day in 2002, a farmer noticed something odd about the molehills in his fields. They seemed to be speckled with something; they looked like mouldy crushed strawberries. On closer inspection, he saw that the “seeds” were more like bits of old pottery—chinks of light, as he came to perceive it, from a vanished world.
The farmer, Jonathan Badham, from the village of Trellech in southeast Wales, dutifully brought his observations to the attention of the Monmouthshire Archaeological Society; he was aware, as were many others, of the controversial theory of the society’s treasurer, Julia Wilson, that somewhere to the south of the village, buried beneath the fields, was a medieval city that had been lost for over five hundred years.
The Trellech Jonathan Badham knew was just a small village on a plateau beyond the Forest of Dean but, the Society claimed, this was just a forlorn relic of what had once been an expansive city—for a time, indeed, the biggest in Wales—a powerhouse of industry that had played a definitive role in the protracted wars that had forged medieval Britain and left a permanent mark on the landscape. But there was a hitch. No one could say with absolute authority where the carcass of this great medieval city lay; rival theories had been posited. Could moles boring blind into the earth have succeeded where humans had failed, turning up fragments of the lost city?
It was a delicious proposition, too poetic almost to be true: a second reclamation of the city by the forces of nature. The news reached the ears of a young archaeology graduate called Stuart Wilson, who lived in the nearby town of Chepstow. Wilson was working as a tollbooth operator on the Severn Bridge between England and Wales, policing the crossing between two nations with very different histories.
He was a local history aficionado; ever since he had finished his undergraduate degree at the University of York he dreamt of being a professional archaeologist, but it hadn’t happened. He was familiar with Julia Wilson’s theory that the medieval city lay to the south of the present-day village towards Catbrook, a theory that the moles’ haul would seem to corroborate, and turned up on Jonathan Badham’s doorstep quite out of the blue one day. Let me dig, he said, just some test trenches at first to see what, if anything, I can turn up.
Within minutes Farmer Badham had been won over to the proposition. Wilson could proceed. A little dig could go ahead. Within a mere ten minutes, Wilson claims, he had found evidence of melted walls which aligned nicely (though not conclusively) with written evidence of devastating attacks in 1291 and 1295 that had razed much of medieval Trellech to the ground. Further artifacts were found. The lost city, in Wilson’s view, was stirring from the earth. He dug for two more seasons until Jonathan’s elderly mother, disturbed by the noise of the machinery, the constant comings and goings, all the palaver, put a stop to the whole operation. It was ruining her sleep.
That might have been the end of it, were it not for an extraordinary twist of fate. In early 2005, Wilson noticed that livestock had been moved from an adjacent field (one where, he had noticed, moles had also turned up potsherds). When he enquired, he found that the landowners were planning to sell it. There was something strange about the field, thought Wilson. It consisted of rigid, square plots that seemed slightly out of keeping with the landscape.
To Wilson’s eyes, it seemed probable that the square plots were a footprint, and the field’s usage as pastureland reinforced this idea—could there be something underneath that was preventing crops from growing? Most auspiciously, to Wilson’s mind, it had a road frontage, which he took as a clue that this had once been part of a high street. The high street. Beneath this field, he intuited, lay the core of the lost city of Trellech, its buried medieval heart. Perhaps, then, all was not lost.
The field came up for auction. What the moles had turned up was suggestive not definitive, and he was effectively ploughing ahead as blindly as they, driven by the strength of his convictions. Yet he was determined not to squander this potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The auction, as it turned out, was a fraught and close-run thing; also bidding was a developer who’d had the land in his sights for some time. The asking price was £12,000. But within minutes it had leapt to £32,000. This was unnerving for a twenty-six-year-old who had £20,000 in savings from his job, but wasn’t quite sure where the rest was going to come from.
Seeing his son flounder, Wilson’s father bid on his behalf, and, eventually, they won. Wilson got his field, but for £36,000—almost three times the asking price. There would be consequences, sacrifices. As he filed out of the county hall in stunned silence the young man knew that the trajectory of his entire life had, in the rap of a hammer, spun off in a completely different direction from virtually everyone he knew; he hoped his victory would not prove false.
No one could have predicted that the moles’ retrieval of the little shards of pottery from the ground would trigger a protracted archaeological conflict that would establish one of the longest-running and most democratic digs in British history, engaging the attention of the British and American mass media, and, for some, betraying the otiose irrelevance of academia. There have been moments in this drama when it has all become a little unpleasant and vitriolic, with reputations smeared and entire decades of work casually dismissed on glowing smartphone screens, a controversy played out not just in the rustic fields of Trellech but in the mud-slinging coliseum of Twitter, in the orderly pages of peer-reviewed journals and the headlines of tabloid newspapers, on television, radio, and in the vituperative comments of newspaper websites. It shows no sign of abating.No one could have predicted that the moles’ retrieval of the little shards of pottery from the ground would trigger a protracted archaeological conflict that would establish one of the longest-running and most democratic digs in British history.
After buying the land, Wilson began to dig. At first he employed a small team of local volunteers but before long—people were pouring in from all over the country, and even the world, to contribute each summer. What had once been lonely pasture was now gouged into rectangular pits overlooked by rows of tents, supervised by Wilson.
From the outset, by Wilson’s account, the dig was remarkably successful. In the first season alone Wilson reported that he had discovered the foundations of a large stone manor house with a series of courtyards and a defensive round tower; it was not long before they stumbled upon the remains of a cobbled pavement, drains, fireplaces, wells and defensive ditches. It was quintessentially medieval, born of a war-torn world; the idea of building a settlement without any defenses, on the model of Skara Brae over four thousand years earlier, would have been practically suicidal in this part of 13th-century Wales.
A pleasing range of artifacts was recovered too, some highly evocative of the mental world of the medieval occupants—a roof finial to stave off witches, a gorgeous pilgrim’s flask, a mummified cat. The earth has also disclosed pouches of silver coins, sharpening knives, and a jewel-encrusted plant pot. The more he dug, the more justified Wilson felt in his assertion that there was indeed a lost world beneath his feet.
The media got wind of these seemingly miraculous finds in the Monmouthshire soil soon after Wilson began his dig. In 2006, Radio 4 put out a program called “The Boy Who Bought a Field.” The press embraced Wilson’s lost city with especial gusto. “Man finds ancient medieval city on border of England and Wales” declared the Independent in 2017; a “history fan” has been “proved right” after excavating “a lost medieval city” announced the Daily Mail. The Telegraph wrote of Wilson’s field as “home to a medieval city”—”the industrial heart of Wales,” no less—and according to BBC News, Trellech was “once Wales’s largest city.” (We should bear in mind, however, that sub-editors, not journalists, tend to come up with headlines for stories and there is an obvious imperative to arrest the reader’s attention.) Local papers struck a very similar tone, as have numerous websites, whether dedicated to nature, history or amateur archaeology. The media, it seems, accepts Wilson’s dramatic account and is doing what it can to engrain medieval Trellech in the public imagination as that most alluring of things—a lost city in, of all places, a field in Wales.
There was only one slight problem. Wilson was not the first person to have gone in search of medieval Trellech. Archaeologists had in fact been on the trail long before he bought his field, publishing their findings in academic journals between 1990 and 2005. Far from a visionary graduate, some of these professionals took him to be a roguish amateur bypassing the rigors of academia and feeding his findings to the clickbait media, undermining long, hard years of serious scholarship, and sometimes even tarnishing the reputations of his academic rivals who have had to do all the heavy lifting away from the glamour of the limelight.
For all his claims, Stuart Wilson, they argue, is peddling a myth; he cannot possibly be digging up a “lost city” for the very good reason that medieval Trellech was nothing of the sort, and nothing that he has turned up to date proves otherwise. He is not digging up a city in the earth, they say, but building castles in the air.
I talk to Stuart Wilson at twilight one Halloween. There is nothing weird or obsessive about him—nothing of the Balzacian monomaniac about his manner—and I feel a little foolish for expecting there to have been. He is broad, gym-trim, and, with his bellowing laugh and unbounded passion for Trellech, immediately likeble. This is a relief— going on some of the comments about him online, he may as well be the devil incarnate. He seems grounded; why then, I ask, did he decide to spend his entire life savings on a field that may or may not have contained the ruins of a lost medieval city? Was that not the most extraordinarily reckless of gambles?
“No, it wasn’t really that much of a gamble, not financially,” he says. “It’s true I had to use my life’s savings and take out a loan of £16,000 but it’s not as though no one would have wanted the field if it had turned out to be a dud.” He tells me there were developers at the auction, and that it probably would not have been that difficult to sell it on (although, ironically, they may well have had to fund an archaeological survey to proceed, meaning qualified archaeologists would likely have excavated the spot anyway).
But there must have been sacrifices? He tells me yes; he had to move back in with his parents in his mid-twenties, but it wasn’t a problem. The biggest sacrifice, it soon becomes clear, was, and is, time. Wilson could quite easily have spent the best part of his life digging and found nothing. Happily, that was not the case. But it is clear he expects it to be his life’s work. “What we have discovered so far is just a tiny fraction of what is down there. To excavate the rest, or even part of the rest, may well take half a century or more”—certainly the rest of his life.
How can he be so sure? I mention the professional academics and archaeologists who have disparaged his description (or, more cynically put, branding) of Trellech as “a lost medieval city” as a canny way of eliciting media attention. He moves his chair a little closer to the table. “Look,” he says, clearing his throat, “medieval Trellech, at its peak, contained at least five hundred buildings housing at least ten thousand people.” When, I ask? “1288.” His tone is stolid; I suspect he has rehearsed this speech many times. “So it was bigger than Monmouth, bigger than Chepstow, bigger, almost certainly, than Cardiff. It was roughly the same physical size as the City of London and very nearly as populous as the city of Winchester.” And that, he adds, was just within the walls. “Thousands more citizens —perhaps tens of thousands—may have dwelled outside, beyond the perimeter bank in the suburbs.”
When I ask what archival evidence all these claims are founded upon, he refers amongst other things to medieval tax assessments, describing them as “detailed” and “conclusive” proof that Trellech was indeed a city, and one that was in all likelihood, for a time, the biggest in Wales. He does not set great store by the idea that a city must contain a cathedral, dismissing this Norman qualification as pedantic; as long as its population was the same size as other places that were officially cities, and as long as it was perceived by contemporaries as a city, it counts. (For me, though, there would need to be a discernible street layout, a certain density of population, shared communal spaces (like marketplaces or yards), services (like rubbish collection), some kind of municipal authority and perhaps even a sense of civic identity, too, before I could feel absolutely confident in the term.)
The excavation of Trellech is a golden opportunity, he tells me, and so rare. This is because normally the remains of cities, all the structures and artifacts, are buried beneath publicly or privately owned land or buildings. “You can’t just dig beneath homes and office blocks, schools, warehouses, hospitals and playgrounds.” It’s hard enough—as he discovered—to dig relatively lightly in a field belonging to a friendly farmer. “But here, there are no restrictions.” The core of an entire city was begging to be explored. His only obstacle was time, and, he adds, eyelids slightly aflutter, “the professional archaeologists.”
By this, he of course means the archaeologists who have been digging up Trellech since the 1990s, albeit under much more restrictive conditions. He finds them and much of what they stand for objectionable: sour professionals who have been digging in the wrong place for the best part of twenty years, “turning up hardly anything of consequence. Just rubbish and dirt, for the most part,” as he put it bluntly in an earlier newspaper interview (although he concedes this is what archaeologists dig up around ninety per cent of the time).
Their mistake, he explains to me, was to situate medieval Trellech between the church and motte (on which the Norman fort had once stood), not to the south of the present-day village, towards Catbrook, just like people had suspected for some time. He tells me that he snuck on to their dig one night to prove that what they thought were medieval walls were actually parts of a drainage ditch. They are closed-minded people, he adds, working at a glacial pace, refusing to admit when they are wrong, and publishing their faulty findings in lofty jargon-filled journals which hardly anyone actually reads. He chuckles and slides his chair back. “They don’t realize the world has moved on.”
For anyone who has ever met him, it is clear that the more Wilson digs, the more vindicated he feels. But the more I dug, the more complex the picture became. Historian and heritage consultant David Howell remembers dusting down and cleaning medieval pots from Trellech as a child in the 1990s. They had been excavated by students of his father, Ray Howell, a professor of archaeology at the University of Newport who had devoted a significant part of his academic career to an archaeological exploration of Trellech; when Ray retired, his historian son David continued to investigate the settlement. In the dozen or so scholarly articles Ray Howell published, medieval Trellech is described, with a very careful use of language, as “a medieval urban settlement.”
“We don’t believe it is a city,” David Howell said in an interview in 2017, “but if it is—we discovered it twenty years before [Wilson] did.” It is certainly true that most journalists, with the notable exception of a Washington Post correspondent, have been quite happy to write the Howells out of the picture, relegating them to the role of formal archaeologists who did things by the book but were apparently looking in the wrong place, as a foil to Wilson’s (and the moles’) sensational discovery.
“What is coming out of the ground is potentially of tremendous significance,” concedes David in the same Washington Post article, “but it simply cannot bear the associations of being described as a city.” Leaving aside for a moment their strong reservations about Wilson’s method and professionalism, why are they so quick to dismiss the possibility? What about medieval tax records? What about other archival evidence? David Howell wonders why on earth you would have a city on a damp landlocked plateau miles away from the nearest river. For him it beggars belief. “Exactly,” he declared on Twitter in response to an architectural historian’s post that if Trellech had been a city then he looked forward to the discovery of its cathedral, “#notacity #notagodamncity.”
Wilson operated his “people’s dig” just five minutes away from where the Howells’ professional digs had taken place, but they were worlds apart in other regards. Whereas the official digs had to abide by strict government regulations for the excavation of land around the church, forever replacing the topsoil and limiting how far and for how long they could dig, Wilson, in his field, had carte blanche. Of all Wilson’s claims, the one they find the most egregious is that they were somehow “looking in the wrong place” for fifteen years. If the Howells had had the liberty to churn up the fields till kingdom come, David argues, “we can say with confidence there were more buildings.”
As things stood, however, the university funding dried up, the project expired in 2008, and the Howells moved on to pastures new, just as Wilson’s rival dig was picking up pace and garnering media attention. To see decades of rigorous research “casually dismissed” in a series of newspaper articles and elsewhere clearly stung. Ray Howell cannot talk of Trellech any more, will not do interviews. It is still too raw.
Excerpted from Shadowlands: A Journey Through Britain’s Lost Cities and Vanished Villages. Copyright (c) 2022 by Matthew Green. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.