Uncovering Ancient Connections

Visit Pembrokeshire

Free guided tours of an archaeological dig in Pembrokeshire are to be offered under a new heritage and arts programme.

‘Rediscovering Ancient Connections – The Saints’ is an EU funded project led by Pembrokeshire County Council uncovering historical stories connecting the Celtic communities of North Pembrokeshire and Wexford in Ireland.

Also involving the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, Wexford County Council and Visit Wexford, the initiative aims to form links between the two regions and attract tourists.

The first ‘Ancient Connections’ activity to take place is the re-opening in September of the excavation of St Patrick’s Chapel which overlooks the beach at Whitesands near St Davids.

St Patricks Chapel right on the edge of Whitesands Beach

Little is known about the Chapel, the only historical reference being from George Owen’s ‘Description of Pembrokeshire’ from 1603:

‘Capel Patrick (is) full west of St Davids and placed as near his country, namely Ireland, as it could well be. It is now wholly decayed.’

Coastal erosion has been a concern at the site since the early 20th Century with regular reports of burials emerging from sand dunes.

In 2004 the National Park Authority attempted to slow down the rate of erosion by placing large boulders on the seaward side of the dunes.

This was successful until 2014 when severe storms stripped away the boulders exposing burials once again.

Continuing damage to the Scheduled Ancient Monument meant there was an urgent need for excavation to retrieve as much information as possible.

Excavations were carried out in 2014, 2015 and 2016 by the Dyfed Archaeological Trust and the University of Sheffield with support from Cadw, the Nineveh Charitable Trust and the National Park Authority.

One of the skeletons found on the chapel site

Excavation of the cemetery has revealed over 100 burials to date. Radiocarbon dating has shown that the cemetery was in use from the 6th Century to the 11th Century AD.

Analysis of the skeletons has revealed a mixed population of men, women and children of all ages.

“We estimate that there may be up to 1,000 people buried at St Patrick’s Chapel,” said archaeologist Ken Murphy.

“They are likely to have been a mixture of local people and sailors, traders, pilgrims and others travelling to St Davids in the 8th to the 11th Century.”

Graves were aligned east to west with the head to the west. In keeping with the Christian burial tradition, there were no

possessions buried with the bodies.

Some of the skeletons were in cists – graves lined and capped with stone slabs, a burial tradition common across western Britain in the early medieval period.

A unique burial rite was also identified – burials of children with white quartz pebbles placed on the top of the cists.

There is still a significant amount of evidence left to excavate, including an intriguing stone structure which pre-dates the burials.

The project is part of the Ireland-Wales programme 2014-2020. European funding has also been obtained for further excavation in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

The aim is to continue the research into St Patrick’s Chapel as the archaeological evidence has the potential to transform our understanding of the Christian communities who once lived and died in Pembrokeshire during the early medieval period.

The Dyfed Archaeological Trust will be providing the regular guided tours from 9th September to 27th September. There is no need to book and the tours are free.