ARCHAEOLOGY / Tourists lay siege to fortress town: David Keys reports on efforts to save a spectacular prehistoric mountaintop site

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ARCHAEOLOGISTS and politicians in north Wales have joined forces to save Britain's best-preserved prehistoric town.

Using a team of stonemasons, they plan to restore key sections of a spectacular 2,000- year-old site located on a remote mountaintop. The ruined town, complete with 1,000 metres of massive ramparts and scores of partially preserved Iron Age houses, has been quite literally tumbling down under the pressure of tourism.

Known as Tre'r Ceiri - literally 'Town of the Fortresses' - the site last year attracted an estimated 10,000 visitors, double the figure of five years ago.

Visitor pressure is responsible for many of the 42 masonry collapses which threaten to destroy some 35 per cent of the main rampart which encircles the town. In some places the town wall is still 10ft thick and 11ft high, complete with its original parapet - and inside the town one can still see the remains of 130 Iron Age houses and at least 20 probable stock enclosures. But 10,000 pairs of feet a year are rapidly dislodging the dry stone fabric of both the rampart and the houses.

Now the local district council, Dwyfor, plans to join forces with Gwynedd County Council and the Welsh heritage quango CADW to launch a management programme to save Tre'r Ceiri from further destruction. The management scheme will ensure that repairs are carried out, footpaths provided and information panels erected on site. The archaeological conservation work in the ruined town is being directed by the archaeologist David Hopewell, of Gwynedd Archaeological Trust.

Unfortunately, however, there are no immediate plans to provide a site warden to protect the ruins at peak visiting hours - bank holidays and the summer season. And although the site is of international importance and is officially protected as a scheduled ancient monument, it has never been brought under the guardianship of CADW, the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage.

Tre'r Ceiri is unique not only in Britain but in the whole of northern Europe. Its main rampart is 660 metres long and enclosed a small town of five acres with an estimated population of around 400. Originally it had two main entrances and three smaller ones (two of which are now blocked), and a 300-metre-long outer rampart. Perched on a 1,590ft-high mountaintop in the Lleyn Peninsula, the fortified town would have dominated the seaways approaching the ancient Druid stronghold of Anglesey. Tre'r Ceiri is thought to have been initially built some time in the 1st century BC and to have been inhabited until at least the 4th century AD.

Although some of the houses were 30ft across, and the defences were massive and well built, life in Tre'r Ceiri must have been relatively primitive. Virtually no pottery and no metalwork has ever been found in the town; most everyday tools were probably made of wood, skin and bone.

In medieval times the ruined town was thought to be the abode of a winged demon and his consort, an evil giantess. This malevolent pair - guarded by an army of smaller demons - had in their possession a secret book of great wisdom which they misused for their own wicked purposes - until one day it was snatched by a brave knight who rode his steed into the ruined mountaintop town to challenge them.

Desperate to escape, the good knight fled with the book in his hand and the demons of Tre'r Ceiri at his heels. The knight's quest for the demon's book of wisdom had been carried out at the request of a powerful wizard who wanted the book in order that it could be used to serve mankind. However, he warned the knight to be careful not to let the water of a certain stream wet his feet.

Tragically, on his return from his quest the gallant knight's leg slipped into the water. He felt what seemed to be a hand of red- hot iron seize his foot, which became black and withered for the rest of his life.

Historically Tre'r Ceiri was probably a town of the ancient Celtic Gangani tribe of north Wales. No other site of its type has survived in such an intact state.

A similar walled Iron Age town near by at Garn Boduan is in a dilapidated condition, most of its walls having collapsed, while a formerly ancient walled town at Braich y Dinas was destroyed by quarrying. Now Dwyfor council is determined to save Tre'r Ceiri from destruction by tourists.

Most of the damage is being caused by visitors climbing on the dry stone walls or standing on the walls of ancient huts.

Further damage stems from the futile efforts of metal detectorists in search of non- existent treasure. All they ever find are Victorian and Edwardian nails from earlier excavations - but their pits and holes are undermining the 2,000-year old houses.

Visitor pressure is nothing new, however. In 1894 the Cambrian Archaeological Association noted that 'tourists and others now amuse themselves by tearing down portions of the ramparts in order to erect small cairns'. It concluded 'these Goths and Vandals' should be rewarded with 'the two months' hard labour they so richly deserve'.

Tre'r Ceiri is located near the village of Llanaelhaern. Visitors should keep to footpaths and not climb on the walls.

(Maps omitted)