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Early Medieval Cemetries on the Pembrokeshire Coast Dig Diary 2005     

EARLY MEDIEVAL CEMETERIES ON THE PEMBROKESHIRE COAST

For the 2006 West Angle Dig Diary, click here

Early Medieval graves at Angle

Early Medieval graves at Angle

For a number of years, Dyfed Archaeological Trust has been aware of the threat posed by coastal erosion to archaeological sites along the Pembrokeshire coast. These sites include a number of cist grave cemeteries dating to the early medieval period (between 400 and 1100 AD). We now intend to carry out small-scale excavations at two sites between July 16th and August 5th with the support of Cadw and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, and with the assistance of students from the University of Cardiff.

West Angle Bay - Up to three groups of cist burials exist at West Angle Bay. It is not clear whether these represent different zoned areas within a single cemetery, or previous, small cemeteries which had fallen out of use. The first was recognised in 1997 when up to four graves were identified within the eroding cliff face. Others have been noted by walkers and by National Park rangers. The burials lie 100m northwest of an oval enclosure which may represent the churchyard around the former St Anthony's Chapel, recorded during the later medieval period. The chapel building has gone but the enclosure is still detectable as a low, subrectangular earthwork.

No dates have yet been obtained from the burials – they may be early medieval but are possibly later. Establishing a dated sequence for such burials, cemeteries and chapels is crucial to our understanding of cemetery development within west Wales and in Britain as a whole.

St Brides - A smaller project will be undertaken at St Brides. Here, a cemetery, comprising cist- and dug-graves, is eroding out from the low cliffs on the east side of St Brides Haven. The site lies 50m north of St Brides parish church. The cemetery was first recorded in c.1700, when it was already affected by coastal erosion. It was associated with a medieval chapel which had been lost to coastal erosion by the late 19th century. Again, understanding of the development of this site-type is crucial in both Wales and beyond. A cist burial exposed in 1985 gave a radiocarbon date of the mid 900s AD. In more recent centuries, the cliff edge has been altered by the construction of a limekiln and this has obscured many of the earlier features.

In both cases the information gained through excavation will assist in drawing up management plans for the sites, to avoid accidental damage, and to try and conserve them as effectively as possible.

An open day is planned for Friday 22nd July, hopefully to include both sites. Please contact Polly Groom for details (p.groom@dyfedarchaeology.org.uk, 01646 624880).

EARLY MEDIEVAL ECCLESIASTICAL SITES ASSESSMENT PROJECTS PAGE

Day 1 (July 18th)

Our first day of fieldwork! We spent today at St. Brides, which is the site of a fairly well-known early Medieval cemetery. The stone-lined graves here (known as cist graves) have been dated to the mid 900s AD. We know that the site is suffering from coastal erosion, but we don’t know how fast this process is. To help us monitor it in the future, the students photographed and recorded the exposed graves, and made a scale plan of the current extent of the coastal erosion.

We also investigated along the cliff-edge a short distance away from the known site – and found evidence for five more graves! This is a really important discovery since it shows that the cemetery was more extensive than we previously thought.

 

 

 

Day 2 (July 19th)

Today we began to excavate at West Angle Bay. We measured out trench 1, stripped the turf from it, and began to remove the topsoil. Trench 1 is a large trench which runs across a very slight earthwork. We believe that the earthwork may be the remains of a boundary bank, possibly the boundary around either a chapel or a burial ground. The aim of this trench is to see if the boundary is there and, if it is, to see how it was built and whether we can find any evidence for its date.

We also measured out three small test-pits in another part of the field. We hope that these trenches will help us to find the edges of the cemetery.

Students from Cardiff University taking the turf off Trench 1

Students from Cardiff University taking the turf off Trench1

 

 

Laying out our three test-pits. In the background is Thorn Island - one of a string of 19th century forts which were built to guard the Milford Haven waterway

Laying out our three test-pits. In the background is Thorn Island – one of a string of 19th century forts which were built to guard the Milford Haven waterway

 

Day 3 (July 20th)

It’s sunburn and blistered hands all round! The ground is so dry and hard that digging is proving very difficult, so we halved the width of trench 1. All day was spent removing the topsoil from this trench and, in the afternoon, two pieces of pottery were recovered from the west end of the trench. They are only tiny sherds, but we think that they are both Medieval in date. Even more encouragingly, at the very end of the day, we began to think that we were uncovering a feature which may be our boundary. A stony ‘strip’ across the trench may be the boundary bank, and next to it is an area of looser, darker soil which could represent an infilled ditch.

The site in the morning….

The site in the morning….

 

and in the afternoon…

and in the afternoon…

and at the end of the day!

and at the end of the day!

 

Day 4 (July 21st)

Much the same as yesterday! We continued to excavate the possible bank and ditch in trench 1, but we haven’t been able to make a firm decision about whether it is an archaeological feature. We also opened up another trench, trench 2, close to the cliff-edge and immediately behind where the eroding graves are. We hope that trench 2 will reveal more cist graves, so that we can retrieve some bone for dating.

Our three test-pits haven’t produced anything yet. This means that the test-pits may not be within the area of the cemetery - going some way towards answering one of our questions about how big this cemetery site actually is.

It still hasn’t rained, and the ground is still absolutely rock solid.

 

Working in Trench 2

Working in Trench 2

 

 

Day 5 (July 22nd)

Today we had an open-day at the excavation. This was part of the National Park’s activities for National Archaeology Week, and was also a really good chance for locals and visitors to come and find out what we’re doing. We must have had about 100 people through the site today – but it felt like far, far more! Even though we haven’t got any exciting finds to show them, people were really interested in what we were doing and what we hoped to discover.

The archaeology continues to be very elusive! There’s still no clear answer as to what’s going on in trench 1, and the test-pits are still archaeologically empty. We have actually reached natural, undisturbed soil in the first two test-pits, so they can now be closed down. We had high hopes that trench 2, by the cliff edge, would reveal more cist graves, but instead we seem to have some kind of hard-standing. We’re speculating that this might be a surfaced path, or perhaps a platform for a bench? There’s also a possibility that it relates to WWII defences. We need to dig through the hard-standing and see what’s underneath it.

Talking to one of our visitors by the test-pits

Talking to one of our visitors by the test-pits

 

Continuing work in trench 2, in the hope of finding more cist graves

Continuing work in trench 2, in the hope of finding more cist graves

Day 6 (July 23rd)

Still no rain, and still no archaeology! We’ve started to back-fill two of the test-pits, and the third test-pit is nearly finished. Interestingly, this one has much deeper soil in it – we’re not sure why this is.

Trench 2, bizarrely, appears to contain no graves. This is a real surprise as the graves in the cliff-face are only a few metres away from the trench. This means that the distribution of the graves within these cemetery sites is more complex than we thought. The graves must be in very small, very discrete clusters rather than being evenly spread. Maybe these ‘clusters’ of graves represent families, and each family was buried in a slightly separate plot? Until we find another group of graves we’re just not going to know.

 

 

The third test-pit. We don’t know why the soil in this pit is so much deeper than in the other test-pits.

The third test-pit. We don’t know why the soil in this pit is so much deeper than in the other test-pits

 

Finishing off trench 2

Finishing off trench 2

Days 7 and 8 (July 24th – 25th)

Well-deserved days off!

 

 

 

 

 

Days 9 and 10 (July 26th – 27th)

Over our days off we did a lot of thinking about what the best way will be to continue this excavation. So far, our strategy is telling us where the cemetery ISN’T, but its not giving us any positive evidence. The negative evidence that we have already got is certainly useful, and it will help us to put together a management plan for this site. However, it’s not enough! We want to be sure, before we finish the excavation, that we’ve found out as much as we can. So we’ve decided to get a mini-digger in, and to open up quite a lot of new trenches – as many as the digger-driver can do in a day!

Now that we know the depth of the plough soil, we know that we will not damage any archaeology by using a machine to strip the new trenches. Trench 2 is now finished – no graves, but some animal burrows and a shallow, modern trench which seems to be associated with the hard-standing. The trench has been planned and photographed, and can now be closed down. The first two test-pits have been back-filled and closed down, and the third test-pit is also finished.

We’ve decided to concentrate our new trenches along the cliff-edge, to see if we can pick up any burials there. If we do, we can extend the trenches to see how many burials there are, and how they relate to the ones we already know about. We’ve also decided to investigate one more possible earthwork – fingers crossed!

 

 

Recording in trench 2

Recording in trench 2

Preparing yet another new trench! Fingers crossed that this one yields good results…

Preparing yet another new trench! Fingers crossed that this one yields good results…

 

 

Day 11 (July 28th)

The whole pace of the excavation has changed today. The digger arrived first thing in the morning, and was set to work opening up a number of trenches along the cliff edge. They are being stripped by machine down to the base of the plough-soil, and then cleaned by hand after that. This way we should make sure that any archaeology within the trenches is not damaged by the machine bucket.
Trench 6, a new trench near to the eroding graves on the cliff, has some very promising soil marks in it. Its too early to tell for sure, but we’re hopeful that these may be cut marks indicating where graves will be. Some of the students have started work excavating these features.
And we’ve finally got our rain! Though none of us remember asking for a downpour…

 

 

The soil marks in trench 6. We hope that the darker patches of soil may be archaeological features – maybe showing where graves have been cut.

The soil marks in trench 6. We hope that the darker patches of soil may be archaeological features – maybe showing where graves have been cut.

 

 

Another of our machine dug trenches. This is trench 10, in a promising location near to the small grave eroding out of a narrow spit of land at the end of the bay. Sadly, trench 10 was completely empty!

Another of our machine dug trenches. This is trench 10, in a promising location near to the small grave eroding out of a narrow spit of land at the end of the bay. Sadly, trench 10 was completely empty!

Day 12 (July 29th)

A day of high drama today! The digger carried on opening up trenches along the cliff edge and, disappointingly, they all seemed to be empty. The soil marks in trench 6, which we had such high hopes for, seem to actually be plough damage – furrows which have filled with looser, darker soil and give the appearance of being archaeological features. This is a real disappointment.

We were starting to think that the whole cemetery must have been placed on the coastal slopes, and therefore lost to erosion over the years. This, in itself, would be really interesting – why were people only being buried on the extreme coastal slopes? However, just as we had convinced ourselves (and our many visitors!) that this was the case, we were proved wrong, yet again!

At about 4.30pm, the digger driver began to suggest that he should go home, since we hadn’t found anything. We persuaded him to stay and do one last trench for us, across a very small earthwork which we had noticed. In the middle of the trench, he suddenly came across a huge concentration of stone. Beyond that was a feature which we’re pretty sure is the remains of a cist grave!! It has been ploughed in the past, and is quite damaged, but we’re quietly confident…

 

 

The stone bank which was revealed by the digger today. The ‘bank’ is made up of very substantial stones with no sign of any mortar, so it is unlikely to be the remains of a building.

The stone bank which was revealed by the digger today. The ‘bank’ is made up of very substantial stones with no sign of any mortar, so it is unlikely to be the remains of a building.

 

 

Day 13 (July 30th)

Day 13, in trench 13, with 13 people on site…..this may have been an unlucky day for some, but not for us! Trench 13 is proving itself to be remarkably interesting. The feature we thought we’d seen was indeed a damaged cist grave. We therefore extended the trench towards the cliff, and stripped the turf and topsoil away by hand. What we seem to be dealing with is some kind of stone boundary, which has collapsed over the top of the cemetery site. This is exactly what we were hoping for! We are now stripping away some of the stones, and troweling back the whole surface to expose any other features which may indicate that there are more graves in this area.

 

 

Trench 13, after extension. The disturbed cist is under the blue tarpaulin. The flat stone to the left of the large rock in the middle of the trench is another suspected lintel slab (the stone slab which covers a grave).

Trench 13, after extension. The disturbed cist is under the blue tarpaulin. The flat stone to the left of the large rock in the middle of the trench is another suspected lintel slab (the stone slab which covers a grave)

 

 

Working to expose the stone spread in trench 13

Working to expose the stone spread in trench 13

 

Day 14 (July 31st)

Day off!

 

 

 

 

 

Day 15 (August 1st)

This should have been our day off, but everyone decided to carry on work instead! We continued to clean the trench and to take off the stones, but our opinion of this stone ‘boundary’ is starting to shift. It may be more important than we ever thought, and it may not actually be a boundary bank! What we are beginning to wonder is whether this is actually a stone mound, which is covering the burials. If that’s the case, then we certainly haven’t seen anything like it before. The graves which we have located (we now have three) are all in the centre of the ‘mound’ and are very closely grouped. As the day wore on, and more and more stone became exposed, another fundamental question had to be asked. Is the stone mound later than the burials as we originally assumed, or could it actually be earlier? If the mound was there first, then we may be dealing with some kind of prehistoric monument, which was re-used in the early Medieval period.

 

 

Working in trench 13. The disturbed lintel slab can be seen in the centre of the picture (next to the large rock) and, behind and to the left, Laura is excavating an exposed cist. The other students are trying to find the edge of the stone spread.

Working in trench 13. The disturbed lintel slab can be seen in the centre of the picture (next to the large rock) and, behind and to the left, Laura is excavating an exposed cist. The other students are trying to find the edge of the stone spread.

 

For some, the excitement is just too much.

For some, the excitement is just too much.

Day 16 (August 2nd)

This site seems to be getting more and more complicated, and at the moment we are juggling a few different theories as to what might be going on. We have continued to look for the edge of the stone spread, and to excavate the exposed cist graves. As work has gone on, we’ve begun to turn up more burials and cists - interestingly, we’re beginning to suspect that many of them were for children. The possible theories go like this:

Option 1. The stone spread represents a pre-existing monument which was later used as an early Medieval cemetery. The monument may have been prehistoric – maybe a Bronze Age ring cairn or even an Iron Age enclosure. We have often suspected that prehistoric sites were re-used during the early Medieval period, but it would be great to be able to be sure of this.

Option 2. The stone spread is later than the burials, and represents some kind of mound built over the cemetery when the plot fell out of use. There could be all sorts of reasons why this was done; maybe ‘closing’ the burial ground to prevent its re-use in the future, or acting as a memorial – a kind of mass grave marker.

Option 3. The stone spread is actually a boundary bank which has collapsed and been plough damaged to give the appearance of being a mound. If this is the case, we still aren’t sure whether the boundary is earlier or later than the burials.

The reason it is so difficult to establish a sequence at this site is because the whole area has been quite severely damaged by ploughing in the past. As well as disturbing the archaeology, the ploughing has actually removed some of soil depth, meaning that we are only dealing with the base of what may have been a much deeper deposit.

 

 

Everyone has now been pulled off the other trenches and is concentrating on trench 13. We also have a continual stream of interested visitors!

Everyone has now been pulled off the other trenches and is concentrating on trench 13. We also have a continual stream of interested visitors!

Looking east across trench 13. The edge of the stone spread is curving around the left-hand side of the trench, with the exposed cists in the centre.

Looking east across trench 13. The edge of the stone spread is curving around the left-hand side of the trench, with the exposed cists in the centre.

 

 

 

Day 17 (August 3rd)

We are all working flat out, and the site is beginning to resolve itself into a more understandable sequence of events!

The ‘boundary’ bank seems to be just that – a boundary, rather than a mound. It’s a very spread bank, made of earth and stone which has been damaged by ploughing in the past. But it’s still not clear how this boundary relates to the graves which we’ve discovered. Most of the graves seem to be inside an area enclosed by the bank, but one of the grave cuts may be running underneath it. If this is true, then it would suggest that the bank is later than at least some of the graves.

One of the cists in this trench is clearly much more substantial and better built than the others which we have uncovered. It’s also better preserved, and doesn’t seem to have been damaged by ploughing, though, strangely, it doesn’t seem to have a lintel slab covering it. We are excavating this cist, in the hope of recovering a good bone sample for dating.

 

 

Trench 13 is a hive of activity!

Trench 13 is a hive of activity!

Day 18 (August 4th)

We are now working ridiculously long days, and don’t know how much longer we can keep this pace up for! We have only a very short time left to unravel this site, and to take all the samples which we need for dating. We concentrated today on clearing out the remnants of topsoil and the plough-damaged layers which overlie the whole trench. Now that the site is clean, a few things are becoming clearer. Most importantly, the boundary bank is almost certainly earlier than the burials. The grave cuts don’t run under the bank, as we thought they might, but instead run very close alongside it. There are a number of graves which are inter-cutting (where one grave is disturbed when another one is later cut through it). We now have half a dozen burials which appear to be in situ and we can see parts of the cists surrounding them. Intriguingly, though, we also have disturbed bone turning up almost everywhere, including in the material which makes up the boundary bank. The one place we don’t seem to have any bone is inside the large, well-preserved cist…

Tomorrow is the student’s final day, and, quite clearly, we still have a number of questions to answer.

 

Excavating the best-preserved and largest cist which we have found. So far, we haven’t found any evidence of a burial in it!

Excavating the best-preserved and largest cist which we have found. So far, we haven’t found any evidence of a burial in it!

Day 19 (August 5th)

At last! The site is starting to make sense… Today was spent finishing up bits of cleaning and recording which we hadn’t had a chance to do before, and in clarifying the exact relationship between the stone boundary bank and the burials inside the enclosure. The burials in the middle of the enclosure seem to be aligned properly east-west, as Christian burials should be. Towards the edges of the enclosure, the alignment of the burials changes, with the graves running very close to the boundary bank and going off the true east-west alignment. There don’t seem to be any graves immediately outside the bank. It appears that it was only the ground inside the enclosure which was considered suitable for use as a burial ground – maybe the inside was holy ground, and the outside was not?


The large, well preserved cist is also a bit of a puzzle. There doesn’t appear to be a burial inside it! Although the bone preservation is generally not very good, we would expect some traces to survive, but there really doesn’t seem to be anything there. Astrid Caseldine, an environmental specialist, suggested that we take samples of the earth inside the cist and send them off for phosphate analysis. This may help us to establish whether there was ever a burial in this cist.


This afternoon was the student’s last digging day. We will be very sorry to see them go – the excavation wouldn’t have been possible without them, and they have worked incredibly hard. Some of the local residents, and our regular visitors, also came up to say goodbye. Everyone wanted to know if we’d be back next year.

 

The ‘main’ cist, almost fully excavated. Still no trace of any bone remains!

The ‘main’ cist, almost fully excavated. Still no trace of any bone remains!

 

 

West Angle Bay 2005. Back row, left to right: Helen, Polly, Neil, Louise, Laura, Polly, Jess, Frances, Dave. Front row, left to right: Mel, Laura, Jo, Bex.

West Angle Bay 2005. Back row, left to right: Helen, Polly, Neil, Louise, Laura, Polly, Jess, Frances, Dave. Front row, left to right: Mel, Laura, Jo, Bex.

 

Day 20 (August 6th)

Last day on site, finishing up odds and ends. It’s strange having only three people here instead of the whole team. And, true to form, the site has one last surprise to throw at us. We cut a section through the boundary bank today, in the hope of finding a buried land surface underneath it. Instead, we found a shallow foundation trench which seems to have been dug into the natural ground surface. Even more interesting, underneath the bank we seem to have some kind of earlier pit or, perhaps, ditch. There was some charcoal in this, so we’re hopeful that we may be able to get a date from it. It is clearly the earliest feature we’ve uncovered so far on this site.

Throughout the excavation we’ve come up with a lot of different theories and possibilities, and the site has been re-interpreted almost daily. The archaeology has been quite complicated, and the situation not helped by the damage to the upper levels.

However, we think we have a storyline, which goes something like this:
The cemetery we are digging is a small, defined cluster of burials marked out by a boundary bank. The boundary bank itself is made of stone and earth and, bizarrely, seems to contain pieces of bone within its make-up. The best explanation we can think of for this is that the bank is constructed on the site of an earlier cemetery – so some of the earlier burials were disturbed when it was built. This may also explain the earlier feature underneath the bank – what if this is the original boundary of an earlier cemetery?

A sad moment! The trench is now backfilled. The black sheeting is a geotextile called Terram. This is a protective membrane which will help to prevent the archaeology from being damaged. It will also make re-digging this trench much easier if we decide to return to this site in the future.

A sad moment! The trench is now backfilled. The black sheeting is a geotextile called Terram. This is a protective membrane which will help to prevent the archaeology from being damaged. It will also make re-digging this trench much easier if we decide to return to this site in the future.

 

 

 

 

Summary

The excavation is now finished, but a few thoughts came to mind in the cold, sober light of the following day.
We have gathered a huge amount of information, and have a reasonably convincing storyline, but there are still two big questions: How does this small, enclosed cemetery relate to the burials in the cliff? And why does the best-built and best preserved cist appear to be empty? There would need to be further work to try and come up with some answers to these questions.

It’s also worth stressing that this whole ‘storyline’, at the moment, is speculative. We need to go through all the excavation records and drawings to check our interpretations and, of course, we need to wait for the radiocarbon dates to come back from the laboratory. We could still be proved to be entirely wrong – and judging by how often we’ve had to change our minds so far, we’re not ruling anything out!

With thanks to Cadw and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority for funding this excavation, and to a wonderful bunch of students from the University of Cardiff who made it work. Thanks also to the landowner, Mr Allen-Mirehouse, for permission to carry out the excavation.

Finally, thanks to Marion Page and Helen Milne and huge, special thanks to the site director, Neil Ludlow.

By the end of the excavation, everyone was working at top speed…

By the end of the excavation, everyone was working at top speed…


 

 

 

 

 

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