The Role of History in Placemaking: The Caerau and Ely Re-discovering Heritage Project

Olly Davis, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Civic Mission at Cardiff University

The housing estates of Caerau and Ely in western Cardiff are home to some 26,000 people. Despite being within Wales's largest and most prosperous city, they face significant social and economic challenges. Until the 1970s, many of the residents worked at several major manufacturing companies that had premises in the area, but deindustrialisation in the following decades saw many of these close. The subsequent decline in employment has cast a long shadow and recently, the Wales Index of Multiple Deprivation identified 11 neighbourhoods within the area as being amongst the top 10% most deprived in Wales.

The challenges faced by the communities that live in Caerau and Ely are complex. In addition to high unemployment, educational attainment is poor – many young people leave school with few qualifications while only 7% go on to Higher Education, for example. Adverse health effects manifest in birthweights and life expectancies lower than the Cardiff average. These burdens foster a sense of marginalisation amongst local communities, who often face stigmatisation and discrimination by others, particularly those from the more affluent parts of the city. Yet this belies the valuable social capital of the area – many residents feel a deep sense of community spirit, enriched by strong family ties, attachment to place and involvement in community activism.

While Caerau and Ely are peripheral to the economic and political heart of modern Cardiff, this has not always been the case. Nestled within the housing estates are the remains of a significant heritage, including a large Iron Age hillfort, Roman villa, Medieval ringwork castle and churches. This heritage is a significant asset, yet one that, until recently, was little involved in improving the area's cultural, economic and social situation. The Caerau and Ely Re-discovering Heritage Project, or CAER for short, was established in 2011 to help address the challenges local people face by developing educational and new life opportunities rooted in the research of this important shared history.

CAER is a collaboration between Cardiff University, Action in Caerau and Ely (a community development organisation), local schools, heritage professionals, residents and many others. From the beginning, CAER has placed local communities at the heart of historical and archaeological research. The ethos is to value the contribution of all participants through the co-production, co-design, and co-delivery of heritage-based activities. Over the last 12 years, this has included accredited adult-learner courses, exhibitions, art installations, archaeological excavations, performances and films. The project has built strong institutional relationships and produced internationally significant research, but most important have been the social outcomes. Thousands of local people have actively participated in co-produced research that has built confidence, facilitated learning opportunities and brought young people and adults through to university. Evaluation has demonstrated that engagement with local heritage has also created new friendships, showcased local talent, and fostered a heightened attachment to place.

These social benefits have been physically manifested through a major National Lottery Heritage grant, which has seen significant infrastructural development, including creating a community heritage and learning centre and a pathway network around Caerau Hillfort. These developments have encouraged people to explore their local heritage, get out and about, and improve their well-being. None of this work would have been possible without the long-term commitments of the organisations and individuals involved. It demonstrates the power of heritage to bring together diverse people and be part of broader community regeneration and placemaking.

To find out more about CAER please visit:


1: A view from the top of the hill looking down on the estates below.

2: Aerial photo showing Caerau Hillfort in the foreground and the housing estates of Caerau and Ely surrounding it. Crown Copyright RCAHMW.

3: Young people getting their hands dirty on an archaeological dig.

4: The First Minister opening our new CAER Heritage Centre.