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DIG DIARY FOR AN EXCAVATION AT PORTHCLEW, FRESHWATER EAST, PEMBROKESHIRE, SUMMER 2008

Introduction

The cemetery at Porthclew, Freshwater East was discovered accidentally, when workers digging trenches for electricity cables came across burials in stone-lined graves. These are known as ‘cist’ graves, and are very typical of the early medieval period in Wales – roughly speaking, the 5th – 11th centuries AD.

Local residents also say that when houses were being built in the 1950s, workers uncovered burials – so we don’t know how much of the cemetery has already been disturbed.

In the field next to the cemetery stand the ruined remains of a chapel, thought to date back to the Medieval period, perhaps the 15th century. We hope to discover how the cemetery and chapel relate to each other – is there a break in the use of this site, or does it represent several hundred years of religious use? We also want to know how big the cemetery is, and to recover some material for dating – at the moment, the early Medieval date is only an informed guess, and we may be wrong!

Geophysical survey has shown that the chapel stands inside an enclosure. We hope to find out more about this enclosure, as well as getting some material to date it. Is it a prehistoric enclosure, re-used when the chapel was built? This has been seen at other Welsh sites.

All of this information will aid our understanding of religious sites from this period, and help us to look after them better. During the three weeks of the excavation, this ‘dig diary’ will be updated regularly – so come back, and see how we’re doing! If you’re in the area, come and visit the site, there will be a site tour at 3pm each day from Tues – Sat.

The project is funded by Cadw, and run by Dyfed Archaeological Trust and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority.

 

Geophysical survey of the field. The chapel is the blank square on the left hand side of the main survey area, note the enclosure around it. The cemetery was discovered in the smaller field, to the left of the main survey area
Geophysical survey of the field. The chapel is the blank square on the left hand side of the main survey area, note the enclosure around it. The cemetery was discovered in the smaller field, to the left of the main survey area

Pete Crane carrying out a resistivity survey in the field, with the remains of the chapel behind him.
Pete Crane carrying out a magnetometry survey in the field, with the remains of the chapel behind him

 

Porthclew Chapel

Monday 28th July 2008 - Day 1

First day on site, opening up new trenches and setting everyone going.

The first trench sits across the enclosures which the geophysics highlighted. We hope to find out what form these enclosures took, and also some evidence for their date.

The other trenches are in the 'cemetery field'. Here, we want to find out how large the cemetery is, and also recover some material for dating.

The weather is fantastic, and there's a bit of a 'summer holiday' feel. With the sea in the background, the sun high and the sky blue, all that's needed is an ice-cream van…

 

The daily 3pm site tour is well-attended, the dig is sparking  local interest
The daily 3pm site tour is well-attended, the dig is sparking
local interest

Possibly two crossed finger-rings, this small object was spotted by a visitor to the site. After the dig, it will be cleaned and examined further.
Possibly two crossed finger-rings, this small object was spotted by a visitor to the site. After the dig, it will be cleaned and examined further

Tuesday 29th July 2008 - Day 2

Today concentrated on finishing off the cleaning back of trench 1, across the enclosures. We appear to have a sequence of large ditches - as we expected - but the situation is made a bit more complicated due to very complex geology.

In the cemetery field, we are starting to reveal burials in 3 out of 4 trenches, perhaps indicating the extent of the graveyard. The most exciting find of the day was made by local enthusiast Ted Owens when he visited the site and spotted what looks like a silver finger-ring.

 

Pembrokeshire in the summer holidays....
Pembrokeshire in the summer holidays....

Wednesday 30th July 2008 - Day 3

With drizzle, cloud and a thick sea-mist, the "summer holiday" feel is well and truly gone … cups of tea and coffee brought to us by local residents have been very much appreciated! In these poor conditions we decided not to work on the burials at all, and have concentrated on trench 1.

As well as the big enclosure ditches, we also have a very shallow, narrow ditch cutting right through the trench. The volunteers have, today, been cleaning this out, ready to start work on the bigger features tomorrow.

 

Thursday 31st July 2008 - Day 4

The main features in trench 1 have resolved themselves into three large ditches, corresponding to the enclosures around the chapel which the geophysical survey picked up. The ditches are cut into the bedrock, and arranged in roughly parallel lines. As yet, we don't have any dates for these ditches, hopefully as we excavate them we will discover some dating evidence.

We have also opened two small trenches beside the chapel walls, in the hope of finding some dating evidence for the current building.

 

The smallest of the ditches fully excavated
The smallest of the ditches fully excavated

Volunteers working on one of the other ditches
Volunteers working on one of the other ditches

Friday 1st August 2008 - Day 5

The smallest of the three ditches is now cleaned out, to reveal a steep-sided, flat-based profile. Fortunately, we also discovered some charcoal towards the bottom of the ditch - hopefully this will help us to date it. One of the other ditches is also being emptied out - it is proving to be rather larger than the first one!

In the cemetery field, we are working on revealing some of the burials, ready to lift them out. We are not planning to excavate many burials during this evaluation, but we would like some samples for dating and analysis.

 


 

Volunteers at work in the trench by the chapel
Volunteers at work in the trench by the chapel

Mystery object! This large, polished green stone was found in the infill of the ditch - could it have an inscription on it?
Mystery object! This large, polished green stone was found in the infill of the ditch - could it have an inscription on it?

Saturday 2nd August - Day 6

In trench 1, work continued on emptying out the ditch. There is a suggestion that it may have been re-cut - i.e. started out as a wide, shallow ditch which was then deepened at a later date. An intriguing find has been a large, polished green stone. This is not "native" to this area, so clearly someone has brought the stone up to the chapel site. Currently the stone is embedded in the in-filled ditch, but workers across the site are taking bets on whether, when we finally get it out, the stone will have any inscriptions or carved crosses on it!

We are also finding a series of pits and post-holes. These are cut into the back-filled ditches, so they must post-date the enclosures. They are very difficult to spot, relying mostly on changes in soil texture.

In the cemetery field, we have lifted one of the burials, and are starting work on defining further cist graves.

Early finish today - the beach was calling to us.

 


 

End of week one - a quick look at what's hot and what's not, this week's loves and hates on-site...

Going up:
Green-glazed Medieval pottery (from ditches in trench 1)
Burials where we expected them
Chocolate bars
Regular provision of tea and coffee

Going down:
Fog
Rain
Never-ending ditches
Invisible post-holes

 

Monday 4th August 2008 - Day 7

Disappointment all round. The big green stone turned out to be just that - a big green stone (no inscriptions!) which, for some reason, has wound up in the fill of one of the ditches. As yet, there's no really convincing explanation for it being there.

On the plus side, the trenches in the cemetery field have revealed two very well made stone-lined cist graves which will, presumably, contain burials. There's also a feature which looks like it may be a boundary, but there have been burials noted on both sides of it. Maybe it was to divide the cemetery into seperate areas?

By about lunchtime, heavy and very persistent rain had finally defeated even our intrepid volunteers.

 

Tuesday 5th August 2008 – Day 8

Work began cleaning up in Trench 1 to identify possible pits and post holes inside the chapel enclosure. In Trench 6, excavations have shown that the floor of the chapel has been removed. A few fragments of green glazed tiles recovered from inside the chapel may be the remains of the original floor surface. Eventually, however, a light drizzle developed into constant rain and we abandoned work for the day. An afternoon excursion was made to St David’s Cathedral to view Early Christian Carved Stones and to sample a fine assortment of ice creams!

 

Wednesday 6th August 2008 – Day 9

Rain stopped play!

Today we began to prepare cist graves in Trenches 2 and 3 for excavation, and to clean up in Trench 1 after Tuesdays rain. Unfortunately, bad weather again hampered progress, and the site was abandoned in the afternoon.

 

Some of the pits and post-holes after investigation. Some may be 'real', others are probably tree-roots or animal burrows, but its hard to tell which are which ...
Some of the pits and post-holes after investigation. Some may be 'real', others are probably tree-roots or animal burrows, but its hard to tell which are which ...

Thursday 7th August 2008 – Day 10

At last the weather has improved and good progress has been made. In Trench 2, a small cist has been found to contain the well preserved skeleton of a young child. In Trench 3, the larger cist grave has been disturbed by a later burial, making the excavation very complicated. In Trench 1 we have been investigating some of the possible pits and post holes, while some appear to be real man made features, others look more like animal burrows or root holes.

 

The cist, or stone-lined grave, in which the child was laid to rest.
The cist, or stone-lined grave, in which the child was laid to rest

One of our hard-working volunteers planning the inter-cutting burials in trench 3
One of our hard-working volunteers planning the inter-cutting burials in trench 3

Friday 8th August 2008 - Day 11

With the weather more-or-less holding, we decided to crack on with excavating the cist graves revealed in trenches 2 and 3. In trench 2, the cist contained the well-preserved remains of a child, and once drawn and recorded, this was lifted out. In trench 3, the two intercutting graves proved more time-consuming. We are not planning to excavate many burials in this evaluation, but we are selecting some for complete excavation in order to be able to date the cemetery and see if we can identify any particular phases of use, and how they relate to the chapel building. The skeletal remains will also be analysed for information about the age, sex, health and diet of the individuals buried.

Meanwhile, our search for the bottoms of the ditches in trench 1 seems to be never-ending ...



 

cist: This is one of the cist graves in trench 3.
Cist: This is one of the cist graves in trench 3. A later burial had cut through this grave, and some of the side slabs have been removed. However, note the care with which the grave has been constructed

Don't feed the animals! Working on the boundary in trench 2, with onlookers... well ... looking on
Don't feed the animals! Working on the boundary in trench 2, with onlookers... well ... looking on

Sunday 10th August - Day 12

Work continued on lifting the skeletons which have been selected for excavation. A good part of the day was also spent examining the 'boundary feature' in trench 2. It appears that it may be a stone-faced bank or wall, with a ditch on the outside. Interestingly, the one in trench 2, in the cemetery field, now looks like it may be a continuation of one of the ditches which we have picked up in trench 1. This would confirm that the whole area around the chapel was enclosed, as we imagined it must be.

However, the geophysics didn't pick up any ditches in the cemetery field - perhaps they are too deeply buried?

We are absolutely indebted to the landowners of this site, not just for letting us dig in their field, but for their generosity in providing tea, coffee and biscuits at regular intervals. Today they surpassed themselves and came up with ice-cream. They have won an army of loyal fans!

 


 

Week 2 - Round-up

What have we loved, and what have we hated? A weekly glimpse into the minds of our volunteers ... for those brave enough to go there.

This week's favourites include:
"Bonekickers" (no, really, it does!)
Features with clear-cut edges
Cist graves
Gin
Lovely landowners

This week's problems include:
Sticky mud
Thick mud
Gloopy mud
Runny mud
Puddles

 

 

Trench 1 under excavation, in the rain
Trench 1 under excavation, in the rain

Monday 11th August - Day 13

We have pretty much given up on any hope of sun, and are donning winter coats and wellies at the start of each working day. The great British summer-time, I guess ...

In trench 2, we have finished excavating a slot through the ditch or boundary feature, and it does look very much as if this is part of one of the enclosures which runs around the chapel.

Interestingly there are clearly burials on both inside and outside the enclosure - whichever way round 'inside' and 'outside' prove to be.

In trench 1, we now have two clear ditches which run parallel with each other and mark out a roughly oval area around the chapel building. The third ditch - the largest of them - is what we are currently working on, but the post-holes cut into the backfilled ditch are very difficult to see. Until we are satisfied we have excavated all these later features, we can't start working on excavating the whole ditch to look at its profile and search for dating evidence.

 


 

The possible cist grave in trench 6, by the chapel
The possible cist grave in trench 6, by the chapel

Taking environmental samples in the cemetery field, looking for evidence of past land-use and environment
Taking environmental samples in the cemetery field, looking for evidence of past land-use and environment

Tuesday 12th August - Day 14

Trench 6 - just outside the chapel wall - provided today's excitement.

Underneath the tumbled rubble from the collapsed wall there are a couple of stones set on their edges. These look very much like they may be a cist
grave, though the more cynical amongst us are reserving judgement.

In the cemetery field, the volunteers are cleaning up the trial trenches, looking for any evidence of further grave-cuts or cists. If we find any, we will be able to record their positions, and get an idea of how densely used the cemetery was.

Further 'excitement' was provided by a visit from the rest of the staff of Dyfed Archaeological Trust...

 


 

A brief glimpse of the sun, as work continues to extend trench 6
A brief glimpse of the sun, as work continues to extend trench 6

Wednesday 13th August - Day 15

The so-called 'cist' in trench 6 is still dividing opinion. The trench is being extended to look for further evidence - if its a cist grave, we should find the east end of it before too long.

In trench 1, work has started on excavating the 'big ditch'. If this all proves to be one feature, then at over 4m wide, it has the potential to be exceedingly deep.

Some of us, today, thought we had seen the sun for a few moments... but we could have been mistaken.

 


 

Trench 6. The cist grave is on the left hand side of the picture, and the chapel wall on the right. Note the difference in alignments
Trench 6. The cist grave is on the left hand side of the picture, and the chapel wall on the right. Note the difference in alignments

The 'big ditch' in trench 1, which turned out to be two seperate features. This picture shows the rock-cut ditch being excavated, the post-holes or pits are to the left of the picture
The 'big ditch' in trench 1, which turned out to be two seperate features. This picture shows the rock-cut ditch being excavated, the post-holes or pits are to the left of the picture

Thursday 14th August - Day 16

Our 'cist' in trench 6 has been proved to be exactly that - a narrow cist grave. The alignment of this grave is interesting, although it does run roughly east-west, it is on a noticeably different alignment to the chapel building itself. This may suggest that the grave pre-dates the chapel - if they were contemporary we would expect that the grave would respect the alignment of the chapel building. It may be, of course, that the cist grave was following the alignment of an earlier building, but so far this evaluation hasn't found any evidence for one.

In trench 1, the 'big ditch' has resolved itself into two seperate features - one fairly shallow, rock-cut ditch which runs fairly parallel with the other ditches, and a line of intercutting pits or post-holes. We're not sure what these features represent - whether they are the remains of a long-vanished building or structure, or part of a palisade?

Discussion continued over good food and wine well into the evening at the 'end of dig BBQ'. Even the sun came out to see us off.

 


 

This picture shows the set of boundaries encircling the chapel building. The photographer was standing on the edge of ditch 1 (just out of shot), looking south. We don't currently know the date of these features, we'll have to wait for radiocarbon dates
This picture shows the set of boundaries encircling the chapel building. The photographer was standing on the edge of ditch 1 (just out of shot), looking south. We don't currently know the date of these features, we'll have to wait for radiocarbon dates

The chapel occupies a commanding position in the landscape. From the building, looking northeast, this picture shows the remains of Medieval strip-fields running off the Ridgeway, seen on the skyline. The sea is just to the right, out of shot
The chapel occupies a commanding position in the landscape. From the building, looking northeast, this picture shows the remains of Medieval strip-fields running off the Ridgeway, seen on the skyline. The sea is just to the right, out of shot

Friday 15th August - Day 17

Our last day on site, spent 'finishing up'. Lots of recording - planning, photographing and drawing sections, as well as finishing the excavation of the cist grave by the chapel.

PCNPA's Building Conservation Officer came out to give us his opinion on the chapel building. He is suggesting that the current building dates to the 13th century, perhaps with the east gable being re-built in the 14th century.

So, what have we learnt?

The site, potentially, has a significant time-depth. The current chapel building, dating back to the 13th century, sits in an enclosure formed of several substantial ditches. The dates of these ditches are, currently, unknown, but we are hopeful that the samples we have taken will contain enough charcoal for radiocarbon dating.

The chapel is also associated with a substantial cemetery, which has at least one set of subdivisions within it, perhaps reflecting different phases of use. The burials are typical of those which we would expect to see in the early Medieval period, (5th - 10th centuries AD) once again, the radiocarbon dates will be key to understanding how the cemetery develops.

The extent of the cemetery, and the density of burials within it, suggests a substantial population in the area - the next question, then, is 'where is the domestic settlement' ?

The excavation has shown us that, as we suspected, Porthclew can take its place amongst Pembrokeshire's early Christian coastal chapels, important for pilgrimage, for the development of the Christian church, and for worship.

They were probably also markers in the landscape, used for navigation by the small vessels which would have been travelling up and down the coast. Porthclew certainly retained its significance over hundreds of years - and its landscape setting may be part of the explanation for this.

 


 

And finally...

We need to say thank-you to the local residents for their tolerance, generosity, and enthusiasm. We also need to say thank-you to the landowners for permission to work here, for unfailing support, exceeding kindness and excellence in tea-making.

And a huge thank-you to all our many volunteers, who have been back day in, day out, in - how shall we put this? - variable weather conditions. The project wouldn't have been possible without you all.

 

 

 

 

 

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