Preserving Pembrokeshire’s Past
The St Patrick’s Chapel Excavation Project
Introductory video to the project
Bilingual version - Welsh/English
The St Patrick’s Chapel Excavation Project is a collaborative research project between Dr. Katie Hemer, University of Sheffield and Dyfed Archaeological Trust.
St Patrick’s Chapel is an early medieval (5th-10th century AD) Christian cemetery situated in sand dunes overlooking Whitesands Beach, Pembrokeshire. This Scheduled Ancient Monument has been at significant risk from coastal erosion since the 1920s, and severe winter storms in 2013/2014 battered the eroding sand dune, and subsequently human remains were visible from the beach below. The erosive damage to the site and the exposure of the burials meant that there was an urgent need for excavation in order to retrieve and preserve ‘by-record’ this important part of Pembrokeshire’s coastal heritage.
Since 2014, excavation has taken place at the site thanks to generous funding from Cadw, and support from the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority and local volunteers.
The Early Medieval cemetery
Excavation of the cemetery has revealed a significant burial site with over 45 burials excavated to date. Radiocarbon dates from the first phase of excavation suggest that burial activity at the site begun before the 6th century A.D. and continued into the 11th/12th century AD. Burials consisted of stone-lined cist graves, most of which were oriented east to west with the head at the west end; a burial tradition common across much of west Wales during the early medieval period. The deceased received no possessions in keeping with a Christian burial tradition. One of the most significant discoveries to date is the burial of a young adult female; at the head of the grave, excavators uncovered a cross-shaped grave marker with a ring-cross carved on the surface of the stone. This is the only example from Britain of a radiocarbon dated 7th-9th century AD cross-carved grave marker found in situ at the head of a cist grave.
The human remains were very-well preserved and are now undergoing osteological analysis at the University of Sheffield to establish the demographic profile and health status of the population. A number of skeletons will also be subjected to stable isotope analysis for dietary reconstruction, and to identify whether the people buried at St Patrick’s Chapel were local to the region as children.
Excavations carried out at St Patrick’s Chapel, and the analysis of the remains of those who were buried there, have the potential to transform our understanding of Christian coastal communities who once lived and died in Pembrokeshire during the early medieval period.
The Project incorporates a meaningful program of public engagement. For instance, local volunteers played a fundamental role in the excavation itself, whilst bilingual (Welsh/English) talks and tours of the site were offered to members of the public visiting the site during the excavation. Dr. Katie Hemer has worked with a film-maker to co-produce a short, bilingual film of the excavation and post-excavation analyses, and an exhibition of the project has been installed in St Davids Cathedral throughout August and September.
B. Badger and F. Green, ‘The Chapel traditionally attributed to St. Patrick, Whitesand Bay, Pembrokeshire’, Archaeologia Cambrensis 80 (1925), pp. 87-120.
Excavation at St Patrick’s Chapel Interim Report (2014): Dyfed Archaeological Trust.
The Project would not be possible without the help of the project’s volunteers and staff from Dyfed Archaeological Trust. Thanks must also be given to Cadw, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, the Nineveh Trust, the British Academy and the University of Sheffield for their generous support. Our aim is to secure future funding in order to continue the excavation and research into St Patrick’s Chapel and its community.