Early Medieval Cemetries on the Pembrokeshire
Coast Dig Diary 2005
EARLY MEDIEVAL CEMETERIES ON THE PEMBROKESHIRE COAST
2006 West Angle Dig Diary, click here
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
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
An open day is planned for Friday 22nd July, hopefully
to include both sites. Please contact Polly Groom for details (firstname.lastname@example.org,
MEDIEVAL ECCLESIASTICAL SITES ASSESSMENT
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.
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 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
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….
and in the afternoon…
and at the end of the 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
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
Continuing work in trench 2, in
the hope of finding more cist graves
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
Finishing off trench 2
7 and 8 (July 24th – 25th)
Well-deserved days off!
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
Preparing yet another new trench!
Fingers crossed that this one yields good results…
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
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
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
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.
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)
Working to expose the stone spread
in trench 13
14 (July 31st)
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
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
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!
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.
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
Trench 13 is a hive of activity!
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
Excavating the best-preserved and
largest cist which we have found. So far, we haven’t
found any evidence of a burial in it!
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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
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
By the end of the excavation, everyone
was working at top speed…