St Patrick's Chapel, Whitesands, St Davids
Between 4th and 22nd May 2015, Dyfed Archaeological Trust,
in collaboration with the University of Sheffield will be
undertaking a second phase of excavation at St Patrick's
Chapel, Whitesands Bay. The chapel and early medieval cemetery,
probably dating from the 6th to the 11th century, was first
excavated in May 2014 after winter storms exposed a number
of burials from the side of the sand dune, prompting the
With the help of a number of volunteers, this year's excavation
is set to uncover more cist burials and explore an early
stone building which was found in Trench 1 last year. The
aim of this year's excavation is to ensure that no archaeology
will be at risk from coastal erosion for the next fifty years.
Throughout the excavation, we will hold daily tours of the
site so that anyone who is interested can come and see the
excavation and learn about the project.
St Patrick's Chapel Projects page
St Patrick's Chapel Dig Diary 2014
Monday marked our return to Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire for
a second phase of excavation at the site of St Patrick's Chapel.
The day started with some good weather and plenty of sunshine the
beach was already packed with surfers by the time we got onto the
site and visitors were making the most of their bank holiday Monday.
Our first task was to set up the mess tents and have a de-brief/health
and safety meeting before we went onto site. The boundary of the
site was set up, and the area coming back from the edge of the
sand dune (last year's Trench 1) was marked out for excavation.
The rest of the day focused on removing (by hand) the turf that
had been put back in place at the end of last year's project; at
times this was quite difficult as the grass had grown fairly thick
in places. Our efforts attracted attention from a number of members
of the public who came to see what we were up to and hear about
What a difference a day makes! In contrast to yesterday, today
was wet, cold and windy in fact, severe weather warnings had
been issued for much of south Wales, and Whitesands Bay certainly
bore the brunt of it at times! But nonetheless, we carried on regardless
wearing our protective goggles to shield us from the wind-blown
sand. The focus of today was to continue excavating Trench 1 and
Trench 2 from last year in order to return to where we left off.
Once through the topsoil, we were down to sand which was a lot
easier to dig, but also meant that sand was blown about everywhere.
We had to finish early because the wind became so strong that conditions
were not suitable for working. Despite today's weather, we had
made good progress, and by the end of the day, the west wall of
the later medieval chapel was revealed once again.
The bad weather continued today, with the winds picking up and
hitting us from all sides. This made work very hard but we carried
on regardless, and made really progress. Today, we focused on exposing
the west wall of the later medieval chapel, and by the end of the
day most of that wall was revealed. We started to remove the soil
around the west wall as well to make sure it was clear for the
following day of excavation. Towards the end of the day, we had
some sunshine which warmed us up. Whilst the strong winds continued,
it was great to have a few visitors to the site.
We have sunshine, thank goodness! With the help of a new volunteer,
the day started with clearing the area around the later medieval
chapel in preparation for photographing and drawing. Excavation
continued in Trench 1 to clear much of that area, and whilst doing
so, some burials started to appear. So far, we can see the top
of two cist burials and possibly a third, and for the first time,
we can see the outline for at least one dug grave, and possibly
another; this is very exciting! Considerable progress was made
on exposing the wall of an earlier structure which runs along the
length of Trench 1; further excavation will reveal more of that
and how it relates to the cemetery. Towards the end of the day,
we started to survey the site and the first plans were drawn. The
good weather meant that we had a number of visitors to site today,
including a couple of visitors who returned to see our progress
from earlier in the week.
We have just had radiocarbon dates back for
four burials excavated last year, and these date between the
mid-7th and early-11th centuries AD this is great news!
Before we had even arrived on site this morning, the rain had
well and truly set in for the day! We spent the morning working
across Trench 1; this involved starting a survey, cleaning an area
of stones to the front of west wall of the later medieval chapel,
and investigating the two simple earth-dug graves. The weather
was so bad however, that progress was slow, the sand started to
resemble cake mixture, and by lunchtime we were so wet through
that we decided to call it a day. It was so wet that we couldn't
even take any photographs!
The rain has gone (for now)! Today's brighter weather lifted the
spirits of everyone who worked in the rain yesterday, and we were
ready to carry on where we finished the day before. A handful of
new volunteers started on site and were set to work extending Trench
1 to the north and south. Excavation in Trench 1 began to reveal
that the area of stones in front of the wall of the later medieval
chapel (partly excavated the day before) was in fact a stone setting
arranged in an arc shape. Even more exciting was the discovery
of the first skeleton of this year's excavation, which was in fact
buried within the stone-arc arrangement! By the end of the day,
the lower legs were exposed and it became apparent that the skeleton
belonged to a child. We had a number of visitors to the site today,
as well as our first guided walk which went from the site to St
David's head and up to Carn Llidi to explore some of the headland's
other archaeology; the good weather made for a really enjoyable
day all round.
A dry but blustery, overcast day. One of the first tasks of the
day was to remove the human remains uncovered in the stone setting.
Excavation also began on a second burial; at first, it appeared
like any other stone lined cist, however as excavation continued,
it became apparent that an arrangement of thirty or so white quartz
pebbles had been carefully placed over the lintel slabs covering
the burial, almost like the stone chippings that are found over
grave plots in cemeteries today. The stones and lintel slabs were
removed to explore the inside of the burial; all that was found
was a handful of bone and a pillow stone at the head of the grave.
Finally, just after lunch, the burial of an infant was found protected
by slate lintel slabs. Excavation begun on the remains which
are beautifully preserved but very fragile due to the young age
of the individual and it became apparent that the skull was surrounded
by a number of limpet shells! Elsewhere in Trench 1, volunteers
revealed a wall at the south end of the trench, and is believed
to be the boundary wall of the later medieval chapel. It is apparent
that this wall is curving round but its furthest edge has been
lost to the sea, in the area that is now the edge of the sand dune.
Today was a very clear day, but also very windy. A number of different
activities took place across the site today, and it felt that the
pace of work had gone up a notch, and the complexity of the site
is becoming increasingly apparent. Work was undertaken on a number
of burials; the lintel slabs were removed from one of the stone
lined (cist) burials to reveal a wonderfully preserved adult skeleton,
the grave cut of another burial was excavated and the lintel slabs
cleaned ready for lifting the following day. Excavation of the
first pebble burial continued to ensure that all fragments of bone
from inside the grave fill had been retrieved. An infant burial,
possibly one of the best preserved skeletons on the site so far,
was also carefully removed. Elsewhere in Trench 1, drawing began
on the west wall of the later medieval chapel, whilst three volunteers
set to work digging a large pit down through the front edge of
the trench so that the site's stratigraphy is made visible. We
hope to continue with the excavation of this pit and would like
to reach the pre-sand dune levels, however it will be necessary
to secure/stabilise the sides of the cut before we do so, as the
sand is likely to collapse as it dries out!
Today was yet another clear but windy day, and despite the sunshine,
there was a nip in the air! More work continued on a number of
burials yet again; there are so many burials to excavate that it
has become a daily task by now. The skeleton from the cist burial
that was opened the day before was recorded in situ and then lifted.
On the other side of the trench, work began on a burial that had
a visible footstone, and by the end of the day, it was apparent
that this was yet another cist burial with a scatter of well-placed
white quartz pebbles placed over the top, similar to the burial
excavated on Day 7. Only a tiny amount of human bone fragments
were retrieved from this grave. A nearby skull found on the edge
of the trench was also removed. A couple of volunteers have started
to brush and sieve the bone retrieved earlier in the week, which
is a great help. Groups of visitors coming to the site for our
hourly tours have been increasing in size which is fantastic; word
is obviously getting round!
Glorious sunshine and no wind (for a change) delightful! The
day started with a visit from one of last year's volunteers who
bought with him a remote-control drone camera which was flown across
the site to take low-level pictures of the excavation; luckily,
the drone was not attacked by the seagull that was seen eyeing
it up! In addition, an aerial photographer from the RCAHMW flew
over the site a couple of times to take high-level aerial photographs
of the excavation. On site, a skeleton was recorded and lifted
from the cist burial excavated on Day 8, whilst the poorly preserved
remains of infant nearby were also removed. A layer of limpet shells,
situated in the middle of the trench in the area in front of the
chapel wall, was removed to see the relationship of this layer
to other features on the site. It is apparent that limpets figure
prominently on this site, and have been found in association with
a number of burials; the significance of this will be explored
in greater depth once the excavation is finished. The drawing of
the west wall of the later chapel continued, and we are now trying
to establish whether the chapel wall had one or two phases of construction.
In the afternoon, we had a visit from the Trustees, Members and
staff of Dyfed Archaeological Trust, who were given a tour of the
excavation, and a walk up to St David's head. Stephen captured
a lot of today's activity on camera, and we managed to get some
great interviews with a number of volunteers. Once again, there
was a steady stream of visitors for our hourly tours who were interested
in what's going on. A great day on site, with plenty going on!
11 14th May 2015
In the early hours of the morning, we were woken to the sound
of lashing rain and howling wind, which hadn't stopped by the time
we were ready to go to site. It was not going to be possible to
excavate in these conditions, so a quick, early-morning ring-round
to all the volunteers followed and the day's digging was called
off. This was a shame, but it gave some of us the opportunity to
catch up on some much needed admin, and the chance to reflect on
the progress we had made so far.
Today saw calm after yesterday's storm, and the weather was lovely
once again. Back on site, excavation focused on a number of burials;
on the trench edge was a partial skeleton, placed in an unusual
folded position. Nearby, a cist containing the remains of a child
was recorded and excavated, whilst in the northwest corner of the
trench, disturbed remains, including two skulls, were found overlying
an in-situ burial. Work focused on removing these bones so that
the in-situ burial beneath could be planned and excavated the next
day. Continued work on the later medieval chapel revealed that
the west wall had two phases of building, and a blocked- up doorway
is now clearly visible in the centre of the wall. In front of the
wall, clearing of the surface has revealed a stone pathway leading
up to that entrance.
The painstaking task of removing the rest of the
disarticulated remains overlying the in situ burial began in the
northwest corner. This task particularly onerous due to the soft
sand; removing one scoop of sand was immediately replaced by the
equivalent of two scoops of sand! In the northeast corner of Trench
1, a layer of sand that had built up against an enclosure wall
was excavated to reveal a soil layer, inside of which was a clearly
defined outline of a grave. On the other side of the trench, excavation
revealed a small cist, containing the remains of a very young child,
which was removed by the end of the day. The site tours were particularly
busy today, no doubt because of the good weather.
Today was a dry but blustery day. Work continued on the in-situ
burial located in the northwest corner; once again, it was slow
going because of the soft sand which was being continuously blown
back into the grave. Excavation revealed a couple of other cist
burials elsewhere in Trench 1 so they had to be planned and recorded.
The volunteer bone cleaners were certainly being kept busy by now!
15 18th May 2015
Today marked the start of our last week on site, and it was becoming
increasingly apparent just how much work there was left to do before
the end of the week. Luckily, the weather was dry (although windy),
so at least we could get on with the job! It was finally possible
to remove the in-situ burial from the northwest corner; this was
a great relief given the amount of time that had been spent on
the burial due to the windy conditions and build-up of sand. Across
the trench, plans of the site and its various features were being
drawn and recorded, whilst a number of volunteers concentrated
on other burials.
A gloriously sunny but chilly day. Having removed the in-situ
burial in the northwest corner yesterday, it became apparent that
underneath was a pair of legs which were running into the section
in front of the burial! Attention was given to removing the overlying
sand in order to excavate these bones. It turns out, that the in-situ
burial had in fact cut through an earlier double burial containing
the remains of two individuals lying side by side who had obviously
been buried at the same time. All the disarticulated bone (including
two skulls) excavated previously clearly belonged to these two
skeletons but had been thrown back in by whoever dug the later
grave. On the other side of the trench, the corner of the earlier
stone built structure was revealed ready for planning. At least
three more cist burials were identified in the trench; it is now
clear that there is no way we are going to be able to excavate
all of Trench 1 by the end of the week so we just have to try and
get as much done as possible.
17 20th May 2015
Good weather again which is a blessing given how much we have
to do! Work on the multiple burial continued ready for removing
the remains. Nearby, two cist burials were being cleaned up and
recorded before they could be opened. One of the cists belonged
to a child whilst the other was a substantial grave, inside of
which lay the remains of a very well-preserved adult. There was
an air of excitement on the site after a cist burial of an infant
was found with a cross-inscribed lintel slab! This is the second
cross-inscribed stone found in-situ at the site (the other was
a head-stone found last year), and is really significant to our
understanding of early medieval Christian populations from Wales.
All the activity of the past few days has been caught on camera
as the project's film maker, Stephen, has been on site to capture
all that has been going on.
18 21st May 2015
The last proper day of excavation is finally here
.and the pressure
is on! Two of the cist burials are still in the process of being
excavated and the remains of the individual's need to be removed
before the end of the day! By lunch time, work has begun on covering
the phase we've reached with plastic sheeting ahead of back-filling.
Lots of visitors come to see what is happening on our last day
which is fantastic, although by mid-afternoon much of the site
is covered over and back-filling by hand has begun. All this is
going on in the background whilst the last cist burial is being
recorded and excavated. The last few bones are finally removed
as the sound of the JCB (which has come to back-fill the rest of
the sand) can be heard on the beach below talk about cutting
it fine! Eventually the site is cleared and the JCB can move in
and push all the sand back over the Trench!
19 22nd May 2015
The final day is here! After the trench was back-filled yesterday,
we now have to re-lay the turf over the area of excavation. The
human remains have left and are on their way to the University
of Sheffield for recording and analysis. It has been a fantastic
three weeks; everyone has worked so hard, we couldn't have done
it without the volunteers, and we've found so much exciting archaeology.
It has become increasingly apparent as the excavation has gone
on just how significant the site of St Patrick's Chapel is to our
overall understanding of life and death in early medieval in Wales.
As we finish, we just hope that we can secure further funding to
return next year to continue our work, as we know just how much
more invaluable archaeology there is left here waiting to be discovered.