An extraordinary early medieval burial site with women’s bodies carefully placed in crossed positions has been found near the end of an airport runway. Wales.
The bodies, which were buried about 1,500 years ago, were all laid on their sides facing south, suggesting that they had been the subject of a specific ceremony.
In addition to the human remains, fragments of butchered animal bones and pieces of rare imported glass drinking vessels were found, indicating that this was also a place for feasting.
Dr Andy Seamana lecturer in early medieval archeology at Cardiff University, said: “This is a very exciting discovery. Sites of this date are extremely rare in Wales and often do not preserve bone and artefacts.”
There are believed to be around 80 bodies at the site in the grounds of Fonmon Castle near Barry, Vale of Glamorgan. So far, 18 have been examined and of these, four were buried in a squatting position – a much higher percentage than seen at other sites.
Seaman said: “Other similar sites have found bodies in crossed positions like this, but considering the number of graves we’ve looked at so far, it appears to be a large percentage. This may be evidence of some kind of funeral ritual being performed.
“Certain individuals are clearly given specific funeral rites. Whether this has to do with their social identity or role in the community, we do not know. But all the crouching burials are on their right and they face south, so there is a connection between them.
“It may or may not be significant that so far all our crouching burials are female. We are dealing with small samples so far. What we will do in the coming years is to investigate this further.”
Archaeologists believe the site was not only used for burial. The recovered fragments of rare imported glass drinking vessels are thought to be from western France, while some of the animal bones show evidence of butchery and cooking. Metal debris was also found.
Seaman said: “There is nothing to suggest that people lived near the site, so the evidence of cooking and glasses certainly suggests some ritual feasting, perhaps to celebrate or mourn the dead.”
Another fascinating find is a small bone peg that could have been used as a marker in a game or as a tuning peg for a musical instrument.
Geophysical surveys undertaken in the area during 2021 revealed a number of sites of interest which the team from Cardiff University’s School of History, Archeology and Religion investigated. The researchers initially thought they had discovered an old farmstead, but more detailed excavations revealed a cemetery with burials dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries.
Seaman said: “This is a period of Welsh history that we know relatively little about. This will help us to expand and improve our understanding of this post-Roman period.”
The project will continue for years to come under the guidance of experts, but with the help of students and volunteers. “We will be able to tell the story of this community in an unparalleled level of detail and resolution,” Seaman said.
Jessica Morgan, an archeology student from Cardiff University who has worked at Fonmon for the past two summers, said: “It has brought me closer to my Welsh heritage. It is such an important and fascinating site.”
Fonmon Castle was built in about 1180 as a defense guard and administration center. Originally owned by the St John family, descended from Norman knights, it is now open as a visitor attraction and venue.