Human bones from Welsh cliffs could come from "unofficial" Tudor burial ground

By Ben Miller | 14 March 2014

Archaeologists in Wales will investigate remains eroded by the January storms

A photo of black rocks on a beach under eroding cliffs
Human remains are known to protrude from Cwm Nash, on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast© GGAT 2014
Dozens of human bone fragments, eroded from perilous cliff heights onto a beach known for dredging up remains from hundreds of years ago, are being investigated by archaeologists in Wales.

Burials have tumbled from the soft tufa cliffs at Cwm Nash, where experts presume a cemetery once stood, since at least 1982. A skull and east-west graves, radiocarbon dated to the Tudor period, suggest the site was an “unofficial” burial ground used by Catholic individuals who wanted to leave bodies close to a nearby holy well and grange.

A photo of a cliff
A member of the public found the remains on January 6© GGAT 2014
“A very kind member of the public collected and handed over around 50 fragments of bone collected from the beach that we were able to identify as human,” says Richard Lewis, the Head of Projects for the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust, which hopes to analyse the remains next month before giving them to the local parish church of St Mary’s – preferred by “more conventional” funeral organisers of the era, according to historians.

“We hope to excavate what’s left of the burial in April so that all the remains can be properly reburied in the local parish church.

“We have radiocarbon dated burials excavated in the early 1990s, and more recently in 2011, to around the 17th and 18th centuries, and the new burials are likely to be similarly dated.

“It appears that the area above the cliff was used as a cemetery in the Tudor and Stuart Periods.

“The cliff is a soft mineralised limestone and is very vulnerable to erosion. With the terrific storms in January 2014, it’s no surprise that a large section of the cliff fell onto the beach exposing yet more burials.

“What you can see today is the lower leg bones jutting out of the cliff – the rest of the body fell onto the beach along with tons of material from the cliff.”

Three “well-defined” graves, originally exposed in 1993, were each found to contain an adult burial, with the central grave containing a jumble of bones from at least two other people who died between 1532 and 1607. Archaeologists also theorise that they may have been shipwreck victims.

“Its particularly challenging excavating burials found on the edge of the cliff,” reflects Lewis. “We approach this with extreme care.

“Archaeologists are tethered to ground anchors and abseil over the edge of the cliff to remove the burials.”

A geophysical survey last year, aimed at locating the burials before erosion caused them to fall, was unable to distinguish between the sandy soil in the graves and the surrounding undisturbed soil.

“In 2011, the Trust excavated a burial which was found eroding from the cliff after storms,” adds Lewis.

“The human remains exhumed were those of an adult man, around 35-45 years old when he died.

“The man had arthritis in his hands, knees and ankles, and his leg bones showed he was very muscular or carried out demanding manual labour such as farming.

“This burial was also radiocarbon dated to AD 1640 to 1810, which fits nicely with the dating of the previous excavations in the early 1990s.”

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