Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield and the Dyfed Archaeological Trust are currently working on a dig in southwest Wales that is literally a race against time. On Whitesands Bay beach in the county of Pembrokeshire, they are searching for the skeletal remains of men, women, and children who were buried in an ancient medieval cemetery , which was in use between the sixth and 11th centuries. The archaeologists are in a hurry to find as many burials as they can as quickly as they can before coastal erosion sweeps this medieval Wales cemetery out to sea.
Medieval Wales: An Oceanside Chapel Burial Ground Emerges
The Whitesands Bay seaside burial ground was first discovered in the 1920s. Since then, the skeletal remains of approximately 200 people have been recovered, virtually all in excellent condition. The sandy soil along the beach is the reason why these skeletons have been so well-preserved, despite being in the ground in some instances for more than 1,400 years.
The most recent six-week dig is the latest in a series of excavations at the site that first began back in 2014. In recent times archaeologists have been alerted to the existence of new burials in the area by locals, who’ve reported seeing bones sticking up out of the local sand dunes on numerous occasions.
Recording and photographing the stone features underneath the coastal remains of St Patrick’s Chapel (Pembrokeshire), which is an ongoing project related to the history of medieval Wales. ( Dyfed Archaeological Trust )
It is the forces of erosion that revealed these bones, and that same erosion has been a factor in other discoveries. But those same forces will eventually destroy the cemetery site. The only question is when, not if.
“We’ve lifted over 90 burials in the last three weeks,” team member Jenna Smith, an archaeologist affiliated with the Dyfed Archaeological Trust, told BBC News .
“It’s really important that we do so because it gives that snapshot in time which we don’t normally get in Wales. The bone doesn’t normally exist … and the main reason that we’re here is because we are here to stop the bones and the burials from eroding into the sea.”
In 2004, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority made a valiant attempt to protect the archaeological site from the ravages of the Irish Sea . They placed large boulders on the sand dunes as a way to slow the erosion, if not stop it altogether. But in 2014 a severe storm washed the boulders away, ironically exposing more burials for archaeologists to recover in the process.
It was in this part of the site where many of the 200 skeletons were unearthed, which were buried here when this coastal section of medieval Wales was the site of an ancient chapel and cemetery. (Dyfed Archaeological Trust )
The Forgotten Story of St. Patrick’s Chapel and Cemetery
The cemetery was located on what was once the grounds of St. Patrick’s Chapel. This religious shrine was built just to the west of the historic city of St David’s , which was the population center of the region during the medieval period.
Virtually nothing is known about the chapel. The only reference to it is in a historical record is from 1603. It was mentioned in a book called Description of Pembrokeshire , which was the work of a scholar named George Owen.
“Capel (chapel) Patrick ( is) full west of St David’s and placed as near his country, namely Ireland, as it could well be. It is now wholly decayed ,” Owen wrote.
Owen’s statement about Ireland refers to the fact that there was an Irish trading post located on Whitesands Bay beach in the medieval era, just across the Irish Sea from the Irish mainland. It was the devoutly religious Christian founders of that trading post who presumably constructed the chapel and broke ground on the cemetery. Whether they were the only ones who used the site is currently unknown.
Radiocarbon dating revealed the ages of the skeletal remains, which were buried at different times over a five-hundred-year period. A close analysis of the skeletons proved they represented a mixture of people, including men, women, and children. It appears the cemetery was installed in a location where an ancient Bronze Age funerary cairn (burial monument) once stood.
Archaeological excavations in medieval burial sites take time and Welsh archaeologists feel that time is running out as they find more and more skeletons on the beach of Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire, Wales. ( Microgen / Adobe Stock)
The Burial Practices of Early Medieval Christians in Wales
The archaeologists studying these burials hope to learn a lot more about the lifestyles and beliefs of Christian communities in Wales in the early Middle Ages.
Unfortunately (from the standpoint of the archaeologists), Christian burial practices at that time did not include the custom of burying valuable, beloved, or frequently used items alongside their owners. So, none of the graves contain artifacts that might reveal details about the habits of the people who were buried inside them.
Fortunately (from the standpoint of the archaeologists), the characteristics of the burials themselves do reveal some interesting facts about the beliefs and practices of early medieval Christian communities in Pembrokeshire and Wales.
For example, the graves were all aligned with the heads of the bodies pointing west and the feet pointing east. Many of the bodies were placed in cists, which are graves that have been lined and capped with stone slabs. Each of these practices is well-known from other early medieval burials in the region from that time, revealing no departure from the normal Christian traditions.
There was at least one unusual feature in these burials, however. Some cists that contained the skeletons of children had white quartz pebbles placed on top. As of now, the purpose of the quartz pebbles remains unknown.
There is still much to uncover at the Whitesands Bay beach burial site, and excavations will continue for a little while longer. The archaeologists are especially anxious to unearth the structure beneath the cemetery that they’ve tentatively identified as a Bronze Age funerary cairn.
This structure would obviously predate St. Patrick’s Chapel by many centuries and could open up a whole new perspective on a site that up to now has been strictly associated with early medieval era Christian practices in medieval Wales.
Top image: A new find on this day of digging at the medieval Wales site on Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire was a clay furnace which was removed from next to the ancient chapel wall (St. Patrick’s Chapel). Source: Dyfed Archaeological Trust
By Nathan Falde