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St Patrick's Chapel, Whitesands, St Davids 2015

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 excavation.

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

Day 1 4th May 2015

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 the project.

Day 2 5th May 2015

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.

Day 3 6th May 2015

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.

Day 4 7th May 2015

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.

***News Flash***
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!

Day 5 8th May 2015

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!

Day 6 9th May 2015

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.

Day 7 10th May 2015

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.

Day 8 11th May 2015

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!

Day 9 12th May 2015

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!

Day 10 13th May 2015

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!

Day 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.

Day 12 15th May 2015

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.

Day 13 16th May 2016

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.

Day 14 17th May 2015

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!

Day 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.

Day 16 19th May 2015

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.

Day 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.

Day 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!

Day 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.

 

 

 

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