They used to call him “the boy who bought a field.” Now headlines declare him the man who found a city underneath it.
Stuart Wilson was half a joke a decade ago: a young tollbooth worker who spent everything he had on four acres (1.6 hectares) of Welsh grass, which hid — he was convinced — the ruins of a mysterious 700-year-old settlement that archaeologists had been seeking for decades.
Then, Wilson unearthed building after building on his field.
Now people fly from Japan to dig on it. TV producers line up to film it and Wilson now lectures to the academics who once shunned him.
The self-described “militant archaeologist” — who, despised by his academic rivals, despised them in turn — found ancient Trellech when others found dirt.
But in the universities, that legend leaves some amused — others angry.
Wilson’s lost city is no such thing, they say. And anyway he didn’t find it so much as steal credit from the same rivals he now mocks.
“We don’t believe it is a city,” said David Howell, an archaeologist with the University of Gloucestershire, whose father published a dozen papers on their digs at Trellech. “But if it is, we discovered it 20 years before he did.”
Trellech never quite disappeared in the first place. It’s a tiny village today, but full of mysteries.
Clumps of iron slag litter fields and forests, suggesting great blast furnaces roared long ago. Bits of medieval pottery occasionally pop up in the pastures.
“It’s a very old and magical place,” said Deborah Zsigo, who owns the local pub. “There clearly used to be an ancient civilisation and an awful lot of people living here.”
In some legends, old Trellech had seven churches. In others, its standings stones were thrown by either Satan or a Welsh magician.
But even scholars are intrigued. Tax rolls from the late 13th century indicate that nearly 400 buildings and plots of land once stood in Trellech — on a damp, landlocked hill.
“How in heaven’s name can you have a town of that size in a location as unlikely as Trellech?” Ray Howell, then an archaeology professor with the University of South Wales, said in an interview with BBC Radio in 2006.
The working theory: Ancient Trellech was an enormous weapons factory — funded by the lords of Glamorgan to make iron for the endless wars that shaped medieval Britain.
A succession of attacks, fires and disease wiped it out, leaving just a medieval church and the stump of a vanished castle.
So go the theories. Archaeologists demand evidence.
Ray Howell and his team had been digging between the church and castle remains for about a decade by the early 2000s when Wilson came along — with a job at the tollbooth up the road, a fresh bachelor’s degree in archaeology and a conviction that the experts were looking in the wrong spot.
“The academics were saying, ‘Who ... does this chap think he is?’” Wilson said. “They’d found rubbish. But they were so focused, they could not accept anything else.”
In his early 20s at the time, Wilson was intrigued by a local hunch that ancient Trellech actually lay outside the modern village. A farmer up the road kept finding ancient pottery in mole hills.
So Wilson foraged into a sheep pasture in search of sunken buildings. “We had the first wall with the first hour,” he said.
He and a group of mostly amateur archaeologists established a rival dig site — a five-minute walk from the university’s excavations, but a world apart in method and philosophy.
“We’re a bunch of independent militants,” Wilson said. “We were more than happy to bend a few rules, and break them when no one was around.”
Wilson said he once sneaked onto Howell’s dig site to prove an ancient wall the professor had uncovered was really a modern field drain. He put out news releases and told anyone who’d listen about a “lost city” beneath his field.
Academics sneered. Medieval cities had cathedrals, and Trellech had no sign of one. But Wilson carried on. After two summers, he said, he had dug up melted walls that matched historical records of a great fire set by Trellech’s enemies.
He became convinced that the settlement’s main street was buried in the fields. So in 2004, with a bank loan and savings from the tollbooth job, he bought one and resolved to dig on it for the rest of his life.
His gamble brought the BBC to town two years later to produce a radio show, The Boy who Bought a Field.
“It really is the most extraordinary project,” the host said. “We’ve got a field full of mole hills. We’ve got a — well, I hope not — a mad archaeologist who spent £32,000 (Dh146,830) to buy it.” Down the road, other archaeologists were getting annoyed.
Ray Howell briefly spoke on the BBC show, too, although his own work on Trellech was barely mentioned.
“Dad had been digging up Trellech for the better part of a decade, but we were never going out of our way to publicise what we were doing,” David Howell told The Washington Post this month. “What’s coming out the ground is important. It’s of tremendous value, but tagging on this brand of ‘city’ — it raises expectation far beyond what Trellech can ever hope to produce.”
As a child in the early 1990s, David Howell washed ancient pots that his father’s students uncovered at Trellech, he said. After getting a master’s degree in archaeology, he supervised the digs.
It was slow, careful work — made slower by government restrictions on the land around the old church.
“As a professional academic unit, we didn’t have the luxury of being able to buy up land,” David Howell said.
They got approval to dig six trenches near the church, and through the early 2000s slowly uncovered a large building that they think was Trellech’s hospice — or perhaps a large tavern.
They found a medieval pilgrim’s flask, and presumed blacksmithing sites that may have produced swords and spears for the lords of Glamorgan.
Some of these artefacts went to museums for study. Academic journals published Howell’s discoveries at Trellech a dozen times between 1995 and 2008.
But other trenches the Howells dug — in spots that satellite radar suggested were filled with ruined walls — turned up none. Up the road, Wilson hammered their “mistakes.”
“Were we given permission to open up that entire field, we can say with confidence there were more buildings,” David Howell said.
Instead, their university funding dried up. By the late 2000s, the Howells had moved on and Wilson’s “lost city” was the only excavation going.
Enticed by the coverage and Wilson’s flair, hundreds of enthusiasts began flying to Wales, paying a small fee to dig for Wilson. They unearthed more and more structures beneath the field — most notably a mansion.
Wilson’s team members didn’t bother with academic journals. They announced their discoveries in newspapers, self-published reports and the occasional ad.
And after 14 years of digging, Wilson’s legend of Trellech approaches reality.