DIG DIARY FOR AN EXCAVATION
AT PORTHCLEW, FRESHWATER EAST, PEMBROKESHIRE, SUMMER 2008
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
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
Pete Crane carrying out a magnetometry survey
in the field, with the remains of the chapel behind
Monday 28th July 2008 - Day
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
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 -
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....
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
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 -
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
Volunteers working on one of the other ditches
Friday 1st August 2008 -
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
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
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...
Green-glazed Medieval pottery (from ditches in trench
Burials where we expected them
Regular provision of tea and coffee
Monday 4th August 2008 -
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
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
Tuesday 5th August 2008 –
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
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
One of our hard-working volunteers planning the
inter-cutting burials in trench 3
Friday 8th August 2008 -
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
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.
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
Sunday 10th August - Day
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
This week's problems include:
Trench 1 under excavation, in the rain
Monday 11th August - Day
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
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
Tuesday 12th August - Day
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
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
A brief glimpse of the sun, as work continues to
extend trench 6
Wednesday 13th August - Day
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
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
Thursday 14th August - Day
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
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
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
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.
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.