Around 200 well-preserved medieval skeletons have now been recovered from one of Britain’s best beaches, archaeologists say, including 90 in the last three weeks alone.
The bodies, believed to belong to an early Christian community, are thought to date back as far as the 6th century and were laid to rest in the cemetery of a former chapel at Whitesands Bay in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
They are well preserved because they have been buried in sand at what was once a medieval trading post with Ireland.
Up to 200 skeletons have been found in total, just yards from Whitesands Bay. Natural erosion and storms exposed the graves before excavation work took place
Preservation of the bones is ‘absolutely incredible’ because the skeletons have been immersed in sand, according to Dyfed Archaeological Trust
ST PATRICK’S CHAPEL
St Patrick’s Chapel is an medieval chapel dating to the 11th century, at Whitesands Bay, Wales.
The chapel is named for St. Patrick, who allegedly set sail from the beach in 432 AD to convert Ireland to Christianity.
The holy building was reportedly decayed by the 16th century and first excavated in 1924.
The chapel had a burial ground that was in use from the 8th to 11th centuries. Bodies are still being excavated from the burial ground today.
A description of the chapel by George Owen in 1603 said: ‘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.’
Excavation work is ongoing at Whitesands Bay, a Blue Flag beach near the city of St David’s, which used to be the location of the chapel, called St Patrick’s.
The skeletons were found just below the surface of the dunes where the chapel’s cemetery used to be, exposed by natural erosion and storms.
They are now being preserved by experts at the University of Sheffield.
Preservation of the bones is ‘absolutely incredible’ because the skeletons have been immersed in sand, according to Jenna Smith at Dyfed Archaeological Trust, which is leading the dig.
‘We’ve lifted over 90 burials in the last three weeks,’ Smith told the BBC.
‘It’s really important that we do so because it gives that snapshot in time which we don’t normally get in Wales. The bone doesn’t normally exist.
‘And the main reason that we’re here is because we are here to stop the bones and the burials from eroding into the sea.’
Analysis by the University of Sheffield revealed the burials were of all ages and a mix of men, women and children and are likely to date between the 6th and 11th centuries.
All the graves were aligned with the head pointing west and with no possessions, in keeping with early Christian burial traditions.
Some of the skeletons were found to be in cists – graves lined and capped with stone slabs, a burial tradition common across western Britain in the early medieval period.
Some of the child burials were also found with white quartz pebbles placed on the top of the cists.
Whitesands Bay has been the focus for archaeologists since the early 1920s, because of St Patrick’s Chapel and its associated cemetery.
Very little is known about the chapel, the only historical reference being from George Owen’s Description of Pembrokeshire from 1603.
Whitesands beach, which curves north towards the remote rocky headland of St Davids Head, is said to be one of the best surfing beaches in the country (stock image)
Whitesands Bay is a popular location for families on sunny days. It’s a Blue Flag beach near the city of St David’s in west Wales
It reads: ‘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.’
Although the cemetery is thought to have been in use from the 6th century, the chapel is believed to have been built in the 11th century and was reportedly decayed by the 16th century.
Remains of the building were first excavated in 1924 when a cross-incised stone was found.
As for the burial ground, erosion continued to affect the site so badly that human remains periodically became exposed from the sand, before finally the graves were excavated in 1970.
There was an attempt by Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority to protect the burial site in 2004 when large boulders were placed on the dunes to try to slow erosion.
When human remains were exposed during the severe storms of 2014, a large-scale rescue excavation was undertaken by Dyfed Archaeological Trust and the University of Sheffield. Pictured, excavation work at the site in 2021 during the most recent six-week excavation
All the graves were aligned with the head pointing west and with no possessions, in keeping with early Christian burial traditions
However, in 2014 stormy weather ripped the boulders away and exposed further burials, leading to a large-scale rescue excavation by Dyfed Archaeological Trust, followed by two further seasons of excavation in 2015 and 2016.
By 2016, efforts had revealed over 100 burials, but more found remains over the six-week excavation has brought the total to about 200.
The Dyfed Archaeological Trust said there is ‘still a significant amount of evidence left to excavate’, including an ‘intriguing stone structure which pre-dates the burials’.
The excavations from Whitesands Beach are set to be stored at the National Museum of Wales.