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St Patrick's Chapel, Whitesands, St Davids 2014

In sand dunes by the popular Whitesands beach, St Davids, is the site of St Patrick's Chapel. Apart from the fact that the chapel was ruinous by the sixteenth century, history is silent. Excavations in 1924 revealed the stone foundations of the chapel, and in 1970 excavations revealed three skeletons in stone lined graves (called long cists), probably dating from the sixth to the eleventh centuries. More graves were revealed during the severe storms of January and February 2014, prompting the current excavation.

The excavation is a Dyfed Archaeological Trust / Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority partnership project and is part-funded by Cadw.

Graves are exposed in the eroding sand dunes, shown here after the winter storms

Recording the graves exposed by the winter storms

Day 3 - 14 May 2014

Owing to no electricity, no mobile phone and no internet it has not been possible to post a dig diary for days one and two.

Three trenches have been opened. Several methods of preventing erosion have been attempted in the past including dumping an old car in the sand. This was revealed in trench 1 and removed with the help of a JCB. It lay directly on cist graves.

In the other two trenches the west and north wall on the medieval chapel have been recovered.

Removing the old car from trench 1

Day 4 - 15 May 2014

There has clearly been a lot of disturbance in trench 1, with loose human bone found in layers containing bits of old car and modern bottles the site is a popular barbecue spot. Towards the end of the day the tops of what looked like several cist graves were uncovered.

In Trench 2 the west wall of the chapel was uncovered and cleaned, and in trench 3 a revetment wall to the chapel-ground with a quartz pebble surface inside it was revealed about 1m below the ground surface.

The top of two possible cist graves in trench 1

The outside wall of the chapel in trench 2

The quartz pebble surface in trench 3

Day 5 - 16 May 2014

In trench 1 the lintel stones of two well-preserved cist graves were revealed and three other burials were excavated, two below spreads of boulders. One of these burials was disarticulated and the bones placed in a pile.

Cist graves were found in trench 3, and a new trench, trench 4 was opened running south from the chapel.

The west chapel wall in trench 2

Planning the burials in trench 1

The tops of two well-preserved cist graves in trench 1

Day 6 - 17 May 2014

Continuing excavation in trench 1 revealed yet more cist graves close to those already exposed. The trench was extended to the north, and almost immediately more cist graves were found, including one with an upright stone cross at its head end.

What is probably the south boundary to the chapel was found in trench 4 work will continue on this feature tomorrow.

The cist graves in trench 1

Photograph showing the good bone preservation in one of the cist graves

Extending trench 1 to the north

The grave marker in the extended trench 1

Day 7 - 18 May 2014

The tops of the cist graves in the extension to trench 1 were cleaned and recorded, including the one with the grave marker. Work began in excavating the cist graves. Bone preservation was variable, but generally very good for west Wales. One cist seems to have two skeletons in it, and overlies another cist and other burials.

The grave marker can be seen at the west end of the grave in the foreground

Close-up of the grave marker

A well preserved skeleton in one of the cist graves

Day 8 - 19 May 2014

All the bone in the cist grave with the grave marker was found to have disintegrated, although there is probably another grave below it. The cist that seemed to have had two skeletons, on excavation, was found to have just one, but with two skeletons immediately below it.

What is assumed to be the boundary wall of to the chapel yard was revealed in trench 4, to the south of the chapel, with what may be tops of cist graves between it and the chapel.

The grave marker with the excavated grave

Work progressing in trench 1

Two skeletons revealed on removal of a cist grave

Trench 4 with the chapel wall in the foreground and the chapel-yard boundary wall mid-way down the trench

Day 9 - 20 May 2014

Backfilling the site is going to be quite a task, and so work started on reinstating trench 3.

In trench 1 what seems to be the west wall of a stone building is emerging, perhaps the west wall of an earlier chapel. If this is correct, then it is a relatively earlier building, as it is cut through by some of the cist graves. A black soil layer in the sand dune below the foundation of the wall and beneath the cist graves was sampled for charcoal for possible radiocarbon dating.

Backfilling trench 3

The black soil layer in the sand dune with the stones of the wall above it

General views of the site

Day 10 - 21 May 2014

Several children's graves clustered towards the north end of trench 1. All were cist graves. Bone preservation was variable.

A skeleton beneath one of the previously excavated cist graves had, uniquely, its head to the east, and was in slightly flexed position.

Excavating a child's grave, and the excavated skeleton only the skull survived

The skeleton with the head to the east

Day 11 - 22 May 2014

The cist below the grave with the grave marker was excavated and found to be largely sand-free and contained a very well preserved skeleton of a young woman. What was considered to be a wall of a building in trench 1 wall resolved itself into just that. It was built of massive boulders. Its date is unknown.

The well preserved skeleton in the cist with the grave marker

The wall in trench 1 after the removal of all the graves

Day 12 - 23 May 2014

The last day, a wet day, and a day devoted to back-filling and restoring the site.

The excavation team above the back-filled trench 1

The site of St Patrick's Chapel now, and as it was at the time of the 1924 excavation (postcard kindly supplied by Roy Lewis)




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