An amazing grave: Archaeologists say skeleton of woman is latest known early medieval burial found in Wales

By Ben Miller | 26 March 2015

Tests on dental enamel of skeleton to tell archaeologists more about skeleton found beneath church site

A photo of a skeleton through an opening in a floor
The skeleton of a woman in her 60s, found in Nefyn, is thought to be the latest known early medieval burial in Wales© CR Archaeology
A stone-built cist grave carrying a skeleton and a mysterious metre-wide wall, missing from early maps and believed to have been part of a medieval monastic settlement, have been found by archaeologists during excavations carried out at a church in North Wales with foundations in the 6th century.

Experts say they immediately realised the “huge significance” of a set of large flat stones a metre below the foundations of St Mary’s Church in Nefyn, where the current building was built by the Victorians in 1825 before being converted into a museum in 1977.

Lifting the stone cover, a skeleton – identified by osteologists as a woman in her 60s who was in good health aside from some signs of arthritis – was discovered. Human remains from the period are a rarity in Wales due to the country’s acidic soil conditions.

“This type of grave is generally believed to be of an early medieval date, although due to the lack of surviving skeletal remains this hypothesis often goes untested,” says Catherine Rees, of CR Archaeology.

A photo of a square archaeological trench with a red and white measuring stick
Flat stones were found at a depth of a metre below the current church foundation level© CR Archaeology
“Amazingly, when this individual was radiocarbon dated she was found to have been buried sometime between 1180-1250 AD, which makes the lady found at Nefyn the latest known burial of this type in Wales and one of only a small number of a similar date known in the UK.

“This was a very exciting find as this type of grave would have been contemporary with the founding of the church.

“She would have lived through some very turbulent times in Welsh history and could have lived through the rise to power of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, or as he is more well known Llywelyn the Great, as he consolidated north and much of Wales under his control.

“She may have also been alive when the famous medieval chronicler, Gerald of Wales, stayed at Nefyn in 1188 as part of a campaign to raise support for the third crusade.”

A photo of a circular find from an archaeological dig
A single rounded stone found in the subsoil could have been a prehistoric hammer or grinder© CR Archaeology
The dig began in the winter of 2013, six years after the local community won funding to repair, modernise and reopen the maritime-themed museum, which had been forced to close in 2000.

“The project was carried out in several stages, with archaeological discoveries being made throughout the scheme of works,” says Rees.

“The first major discovery was made during the excavation of foundations for the storage shed in the churchyard.

“Beneath the planned shed foundations, the remains of a large stone built wall with internal plaster were uncovered.

A photo of an archaeologist in orange high-visibility clothing looking at stones in an opening
A medieval monastic settlement is known to have developed around the early church© CR Archaeology
“The wall was over a metre wide and does not appear on any of the early maps of the area. It is therefore believed that this wall is part of the medieval monastic settlement which is known to have developed around the early church and is still evidenced today through local street names such as Brynmynach, or Monks Hill.

“A single rounded stone found in the subsoil in this area showed clear signs of being used as a hammer or grinder and is evidence of prehistoric activity in the area.”

Studies of strontium and nitrogen isotopes from the dental enamel of the skeleton could allow archaeologists to reveal where the woman grew up.

“These remains have provided us with a rare opportunity to obtain secure dating evidence for this type of grave and to gain further knowledge about the person buried, including their sex, height, age, diet and the location where they may have grown up,” says Rees.

“A study of the type of stone used in the cist construction will also be conducted to determine whether or not the stone is from a local source.”

Nefyn is on part of the route to the important Christian pilgrimage site of Bardsey Island, causing excavators to suggest that the woman could have been a local resident or a pilgrim travelling to worship.

A recent follow-up phase of excavations also revealed a brooch from the 13th or 14th century. Curators hope to put the artefact on display at the museum.

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