A four week dig to reveal the secrets of early medieval St Bride’s started on March 14th 2011.
Local volunteers are working with the Dyfed Archaeological Trust to record the remains of a chapel cemetery
before they get swept away by the sea. The work is being funded by Cadw, PLANED and the Pembrokeshire
Coast National Park.
St Bride’s Bay
Exploring The Nab Head
It all started with such promise – a beautiful location on the Pembrokeshire coast, sun
shining, plenty of interesting archaeology to get stuck into. Only one thing missing – a digger. Still,
not to worry, plenty of things to keep us occupied – Masonic symbols on a tombstone in the churchyard,
a walk along the coastal path to The Nab Head, site of a Mesolithic settlement, and a nearby Iron Age hillfort,
Tower Point. Not forgetting the splendour of the Tescos in Haverfordwest. So all still lies before us, let’s
hope the weather lasts.
Man and machine
Duncan and Gareth ponder one of the walls
Tipping down with rain! The digger arrived and the weather slowly but surely improved as the
trench was opened up. Topsoil contained a menagerie of animal bone, oyster shells and a pair of flip-flops.
A couple of walls and a possible cobbled surface were revealed as well as the location of several graves, so
not a bad start. The day was spent cleaning back the excavation area before exploring these features in more
Buckets and spades at the seaside
Mags and Flick brush up on their archaeology
Sun, sea and shovels. We continued to clean back the site to reveal a number of probable grave
cuts, some with stone linings, caps and possible markers. The two walls appear to be of differing dates but
their function is still, as yet, unclear. A steady stream of passers-by, both locals and holiday-makers enjoying
the sunshine, stopped for a chat and to see how we were getting on.
The graveyard shift
Duncan and Gareth clean up
We continued to clean back the trench to define the archaeology. There are several graves,
some with stone capping and possible markers. Mags excavated an area containing a number of quartz pebbles that
are believed to be associated with early medieval burial rites. The view out to sea slowly receded throughout
the afternoon as the rain returned.
Chris in grave mode
Hubert has a cunning plan
Fun in the sun, discovering yet more graves. Hubert and Irene got down to planning the site
while Chris unearthed yet another stone-capped burial. Everyone’s itching to start digging into the grave
cuts themselves – will the bone have survived? The more substantial wall and possible associated mettled
surface may mark a trackway leading from the limekiln down to the beach – to be confirmed.
We continue cleaning the trench and start drawing the features we have revealed
Mike describes our discoveries to a visiting group from Pembroke
A sunny Saturday = people, people everywhere! Well, relatively speaking after the tranquility
of the week. Divers, holiday-makers, locals, a wedding party and members of the Pembroke Historical Society,
who came down for a site tour. With the pre-excavation planning almost completed we were free to start opening
up the graves. They appear to be quite densely packed in; all, as expected, aligned east-west in true Christian
fashion. A frequent observation from interested site-seers was how short the graves appeared - generally no
more than about 5'5" long. Another quartz pebble was recovered from one burial, and a few fragments of
degraded bone were found but, as yet, no skeletons to report.
A row of graves can now be seen clearly
Hubert and Emma survey in a grid for the geophysical survey
Monday was the final day of cleaning up the site. Tomorrow everyone is hoping to be able to
start on the exciting job of excavating some of the features which have been revealed. One further grave with
capstones was discovered by Anna, whilst cleaning back in the central portion of the trench. The capstones disappear
underneath what now appears to be a later boundary wall, possibly associated with a former building that we
discovered next to the nearby lime kiln when we dug here two years ago. Hubert and Emma have started on the
topographic (lumps and bumps!) survey of the field to the south of St. Brides Church. There may now be a few
days delay in the dig diary because our ‘web wizard’ is on safari in South Africa. Normal service
will be resumed soon…
Chris begins to carefully excavate one of the burials
One of the stone lined ‘cist’graves.
Will the bones be better preserved inside ?
Archaeologists in the mist! Hubert and Tom survey the site
At last! We begin to start revealing the contents of two of the graves, but it soon becomes
clear that that the bones are in very bad condition. Some bone does survive, but only the larger and more durable
ones such as the skull, and long bones. The cause of the poor bone preservation is the acidity of the soil in
this part of Pembrokeshire. The bones have literally dissolved! Hopefully, we will find that the burials in
stone lined graves will be better preserved. We also begin to make a plan of the site using the ‘Electronic
Pete and Nick do the geophysics
Tom and Emma investigate a grave
Chris plans a grave
A busy day with plenty of visitors, enjoying the sunshine and the archaeology – feels
like summer has arrived early! Pete and Nick start the geophysical survey in the field to the west of the church.
We are hoping to find evidence of a ditch and possible buildings spotted on an aerial photo. Chris makes a scale
drawing of the burial he excavated yesterday. Tom and Emma continue to excavate one of the graves. The graves
have been carefully placed in rows, suggesting the cemetery was ‘managed’.
Judy cleans up the confusion of stones to identify more graves
The team take a well earned break in the hot weather
Another day of beautiful weather and we continue to make good progress. The geophysical survey
is finished and has produced some intriguing results…now all we need to do is to guess what they might
mean! …..Meanwhile on the excavation we have removed part of one of the walls to reveal some graves that
appear to run beneath it. Having removed the badly preserved bones from one grave we have discovered two more
earlier graves underneath it. This is interesting because it may suggest the cemetery was in use for a long
time. It also means it will be very difficult to untangle the sequence of burials in this corner of the excavation.
Tomorrow we hope to investigate one of the stone lined ‘cist’ graves of which we now have six examples
in an assortment of sizes.
Having removed the stones covering the grave, the stone slab lining is revealed. Only part of the skull has
The clear skies cause strong shadows, making photography difficult... so Louise, Hubert and Chris create a
Louise reveals more of the ‘quartz pebble grave’
Today we removed the flat stones covering some of the stone lined cist graves and began to
remove their fills. But unfortunately, the extra protection from the stones has not helped to preserve the bones,
and again all we find are skull fragments and a few teeth. On the western edge of the site Louise digs an extension
to reveal the full extent of a grave unlike the others we have so far identified. This one has several white
quartz pebbles on the top of its fill. Such pebbles have been found in early medieval graves on other sites,
but we do not know exactly what they represent, they appear to be part of a burial ritual. Although one half
of the site is ‘managed ‘, with graves arranged in straight lines, the other half appears to be
much less organised and using a lot more stone in the graves.
Helen shows the Keeston history group around the site
Louise plans the ‘quartz pebble grave’
The dig makes good progress. As we take apart one of the walls we find several fish vertebrae,
perhaps this is evidence of the fishing industry that was once based here. We continue to clean down to define
the edges of graves….we think we have evidence of about thirty…. As we continue to discover more
graves, it is becoming clear that towards the west of the site several of the graves are cut into earlier graves
beneath them... plenty to keep us busy! Today we have many visitors including members of the Keeston history
group and visitors from Angle where Dyfed Archaeological Trust have excavated part of another early medieval
cemetery eroding into the sea.
Head to head - Chris excavating the skull
Pete gets geophysical
Geophysics results from area below the church
Work steadily progresses on site, the scraping of trowels mingling with the raucous cries
of gulls and high-pitched squabbling of oystercatchers down on the beach. Chris carefully excavated the skull
from one of the graves, the surrounding earth all that still bound the fragmentary bone together. The later
wall, of thin stone slabs possibly re-used from burials, was largely removed to reveal further grave cuts running
beneath it. Pete and Emma completed the geophysical survey of the site environs, this time concentrating on
the area around the walled garden. Hopefully the results will be available tomorrow.
Off with his head - Flick removes a skull
We few, we happy few
The riddle of the wall continues. Is it associated with the 19th century limestone burning?
Maybe part of a cottage? Or is it a boundary wall for our cemetery? No graves were revealed "beyond the
wall" as Chris, Tom and Emma dug through the deposits - suggesting that this might be the answer. But wait,
what was that grinning from beneath the wall? A human jawbone! So surely the wall must post-date the cemetery.
Of course nothing is ever so cut and dried in archaeology and the wall may yet be a cemetery boundary, enclosing
an area that was already being used for burials... Questions, questions! Elsewhere, the graves continued to
be excavated and recorded. Flick carefully lifted the skull, femur - all that survived from the burial - and
Duncan found a grave cut that broke away from the norm, being aligned north-west - south-east rather than the
usual east-west - more questions!
All washed up - finds processing in the dry
Soaking up the sun
"I love it when a plan comes together!"
A day of two halves. A grim, grey, rain-splattered morning forced us to leave the site swathed
in plastic sheeting while we sought shelter to process finds and update records. Then around lunchtime the clouds
dispersed, the sun returned and the view across to St David's Head was revealed once more. With the sun came
a steady stream of holiday-makers, intrigued to learn what we are up to. No new discoveries today, as we continued
to clean, excavate and record the grave cuts. Then back on with the plastic, in preparation for further promised
rain tonight. March came in like a lamb and seems determined to go out like the proverbial lion.
Surf's up! The rhythmic lapping of the sea has been replaced by a far more dramatic soundtrack
as breakers crash on the rocks. The work of uncovering and recording the graves continues, with a real jigsaw
of intercutting burials in the southern half of the trench contrasting with the far more ordered layout elsewhere.
Emma unearthed a cluster of luminous green worms - which was nice.
This photograph is taken across the bay, with Cliff Cottage in the foreground. This was traditionally referred
to as the 'fisherman's chapel' and the blocked arched doorway visible in the rear wall allowed pilgrims, on
their route to St David's, to receive their blessing and continue their journey without the need to retrace
their steps. The current excavation is behind the orange fencing on top of the cliff and the restored limekiln
can be seen to the right of the picture.
The cold man and the sea - Duncan gets his records in order
Visit from local history groups
Three weeks in and new graves are still being revealed - maybe as well that the occupants have
largely disappeared as recording and lifting skeletons can be a slow, time-consuming job. Leg bone preservation
in a couple of the burials is fairly good so we should be able to get more radio-carbon dates. It will be interesting
to see how they compare to the 9th-10th century date obtained from the bone retrieved from the cliff a few years
The persistent cold and drizzle didn't deter members of the Walwyn's Castle and the Templeton History Groups
from taking a site tour this afternoon. The interest, enthusiam and support of such groups is very much appreciated.
All lined up - the excavated graves
Dig another day – the process of excavating and recording the burials steadily continues,
and we are still discovering new graves. There may be a distinct lack of skeletons but in two of the graves
we have discovered empty spaces where skulls have dissolved completely away!
In some parts of the cemetery there are so many burials all cutting into each other, that the
site is beginning to resemble a Swiss cheese.
On the edge - Pete and Hubert survey the cliff and eroded burials
Tomb with a view - stone-lined burials protruding from the cliff
Once sealed with a cist - human bones survive within a stone-lined grave
Some of the best preserved human remains have been revealed in two graves in the west of the
trench, excavated by Emma and Tom. Both graves were stone-capped but it is uncertain exactly why the bone should
have survived here while elsewhere it has all but disappeared completely. Perhaps the most likely explanation
is that they are relatively later burials - the cemetery would have been used for a long period and the time
difference between the earliest burials and the latest would have been considerable. Hopefully radio-carbon
dates will help to resolve the issue.
Today our record of the site extended to surveying the edges of the cliff on which it sits. Hubert and Pete
also plotted in the location of the graves that protrude from the cliff edge as a result of coastal erosion.
The dig has now entered its fourth and final week and the site is to be backfilled on Friday.
Swell weather - St Bride's takes a battering
The rocks were taking another battering this morning as the sea roared and crashed. A chance
for more finds processing and record updating while we waited for things to clear up. A group from Rosemarket
made the trip to see our progress, bringing better weather with them.
Another grand tour in full swing
Gone to ground - Chris excavates one of the western burials
Skeleton staff - (from left) Duncan, Hugh, Mike, Tom, Chris, Hubert (posing in front), Gareth, Flick, Anne,
Emma and Pete
On to the final straight - just two full days of excavation left. As discussed before, the
better preserved skeletal remains are located within the west of the trench and it is here where our efforts
are concentrated, with most of us busy exposing bones, recording burials and (still) identifying further grave
cuts. Maybe the frequency of burials in this area, many intercutting each other, is a clue as to where the lost
chapel was sited? Hubert started to draw the sections of the excavation trench, recording the sequence, depths
and types of soil layers that once sealed the grave cuts.
Pete set to work digging in the area between the easternmost graves and the larger wall to establish that there
were no further burials here - warm work in the heat of a fine summer's day, which unfortunately led to the
removal of his shirt. Everyone pleaded with him to put it back on.
Groups fom Neyland and Llanstadwell came to find us this afternoon. It was good to be able to show them some
actual bones for a change - its certainly what people expect when they visit an excavated cemetery. Flick's
last day on the dig today so we took a group photograph. So many have volunteered over the course of the past
four weeks and contributed hard work, enthusiasm and good humour - many thanks to you all!
Making the news - Mike gets the feeling he's being watched
Child's skull within a cist burial
Alas... Chris has a Hamlet moment
The final day of excavation at St Bride's began with me giving an early morning interview on
Radio Wales - hope everyone was tuned in at 6.50am?!
As ever, the last dig day threw up even more archaeology. Yet another cist burial was defined in the western
end of the trench, which revealed a perfectly preserved child's skull when I lifted the main capping stone.
Meanwhile, the skeletal remains lying either side of this burial were carefully being excavated, lifted and
removed from site for further analysis by Emma and Chris.
At the other end of the trench, Pete, Tom and Gareth found themselves digging a ditch - possibly forming a boundary
to the cemetery - and what was that just under the wall? Of course another probable burial.
Further media coverage, with ITV News coming out in the afternoon to film our work for a piece for this evening's
Duncan, Hubert and Chris are at St Bride's tomorrow to finish any recording, supervise the backfilling and pack
up. We've all thoroughly enjoyed our four weeks digging in this idyllic haven. A beautiful spot, generally fantastic
weather and fascinating archaeology. As Outreach Officer for three of the four weeks - Helen fulfilled the role
in the second week - I've met some wonderful people during the course of the dig. Many thanks to all and hopefully
see you again somewhere soon... Mike.
The last day! After some last minute excavation and trench planning the end has come and its
time to back fill the excavation area and pack up all the equipment. Peace will reign at St. Brides again!
So what did we find? Was it all worth the effort?
We discovered over thirty graves in the excavation area and although the bone preservation
was not good, we should get some useful information about who was buried at St Bride's Haven and over what span
of time the cemetery was in use. This will be useful information to compare with what we have found at other
early medieval cemeteries in Pembrokeshire.
Interestingly, three types of 'cist graves' have been identified that are different to the
graves found at early medieval cemeteries at West Angle Bay, Brownslade and Porthclew. The 'new' grave types
have capping stones covering otherwise simple dug graves, without side slabs lining the graves. The second type
has capping stones, and one side of the grave lined with stones. The third type was a simple dug grave with
a 'kerb' of slabs filled with dozens of quartz pebbles. Does this suggest that the people at St Brides were
in some way different to other communities? Or do the burials date from a different period to the other cemeteries
we have investigated?
It is also interesting that the graves at St Bride's were originally laid out in neat rows,
with some evidence of grave markers at the head end of the graves. Perhaps the cemetery was being carefully
managed by the religious community at St Bride's Haven. Later, the burials began to cut into each other and
to be lain on top of earlier graves. This suggests that the area available for burial was limited, perhaps by
a cemetery wall. Alternatively, the burials may have become crowded because everyone wanted to bury people as
close to the chapel as possible. So, although we did not find any evidence of the chapel, the density of burials
suggests it may have been to the west of the site, perhaps where the lime kiln now stands.
Over the next few months, with analysis of the finds and further research, we will get some
answers to these and many other questions, and will learn a lot more about early medieval ecclesiastical settlements
in Pembrokeshire. The few human bones we recovered will be reburied in the churchyard at St Bride's. The site
will be monitored to make sure that the grass grows back as soon as possible.
I would like to express my thanks to all the volunteers who took part. You made a valuable
contribution to the project and without your help it would not have been possible to achieve as much as we did.
It was also great to have such a positive response from the many people who visited the site. When it is completed,
the report on the excavation will be available on this website, so watch this space!...