Discovering the Past from our Ancestors

When local policeman Roger Smith was made aware of a human skull exposed in the sand dunes above a popular Pembrokeshire beach he knew exactly what to do: rather than call his scenes of crime team, he contacted Dyfed Archaeological Trust

Discovering the past web image

"People in the area know the St Patrick’s Chapel site at Whitesands, which was excavated back in the 1920s and then more recently the 1970s,” says University of Sheffield archaeologist, Dr Katie Hemer, who is a leading authority on early medieval cemeteries in Wales, and a specialist in reading the past from the scientific analysis of human bones.

“My work happens at the interface between the sciences and the humanities,” said Dr Hemer, a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow. “By combining bioarchaeology with the ability to draw on historical records you get a much more holistic interpretation of the past.”

In the case of the St Patrick’s Chapel cemetery, however, it looked very much like the past might suddenly be washed away. The skull had been unearthed by a spate of stormy weather, and heightened fears among the trust that other remains might be threatened by the ravages of coastal erosion, despite previous attempts to stabilise the site.

With funding from Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service, Hemer and Dyfed Archeological Trust quickly assembled a team of volunteers for a three-week excavation. Among the volunteers was Sergeant Smith. “I had intended to stay for a day or two, but the whole project was so well run that I stayed a full ten days. The sense of community involvement in the project was remarkable. I was being stopped in the street and asked by people how the dig was getting on and what we had found.”

“We discovered around 25 burials in stone-lined graves known as cists,” says Dr Hemer. “And because of the nature of the dunes, we were able to see quite clearly the sequence in which the remains had been buried.”

But there were other discoveries that suggest St Patrick’s Chapel has more intriguing secrets buried deep beneath the sea swept dunes. “Those burials cut through an earlier structure,” says a clearly excited Dr Hemer. “We know it is a very large rectangular building, made from quite large boulders, which was clearly in use before the seventh century. But exactly what it is, and how it relates to the rest of the site is a big mystery and one we hope to solve when we conduct another excavation next year.”

“Among the other important discoveries is the only known example of a cist burial with a cross inscribed grave marker still in situ from this period,” says Dr Hemer. “These findings, along with the discovery of later craft working, and finds which suggest a connection to Ireland, show that St Patrick’s Chapel could be a very significant site in terms of our understanding of early medieval communities in Wales, the development of the church and Christianity in this region, and the connections between Pembrokeshire and beyond.”

We called on Katie because we have a longstanding working relationship with her and  she is an acknowledged expert in using scientific methods to unlock the secrets stored in human remains,

Ken Murphy, Trust Director, Dyfed Archaeological Trust

With support from the University of Sheffield’s Impact, Innovation and Knowledge Exchange (IIKE) funding, Dr Hemer was able to use the project to reach out to a much wider audience.

“We had guided tours of the dig every hour which attracted more than 1,000 visitors to the site during the excavation,” she says. This, coupled with a daily dig diary on the Internet, allowed the wider community to keep up to date with events.

A soon-to-be-published film of the excavation provides a striking visual documentary of the work that went into the project. “But the high point for me was an installation and exhibition at St David’s Cathedral which really raised awareness of what we have been doing. This culminated in a one-day conference for everyone involved in the excavation.”