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Ancient burial ground discovered in Wales

Pic: BBC/Kevin Church

An early medieval burial ground, a rare find in Wales, has been discovered, causing intrigue among archaeologists.

Dating back to the 6th or 7th Century, this cemetery comprises approximately 70 graves, with 18 already excavated.

Among the excavated graves are well-preserved skeletons positioned in unconventional ways, accompanied by unexpected artifacts emerging from the site.

As the dig progresses, insights into this ancient community are emerging, yet the discoveries are also prompting further inquiries. Situated in an unassuming field within Fonmon Castle’s grounds, near the Cardiff airport’s runway’s end, this cemetery’s unveiling has occurred over two summers. The team meticulously removed the topsoil, revealing graves carved into the bedrock from centuries past.

Summer Courts, an osteoarchaeologist at the University of Reading, remarks that despite their age of approximately 1,500 years, the skeletons are remarkably well-preserved. She highlights a recently excavated skull that offers valuable insights into the lifestyles and occupations of these ancient individuals.

“We have some teeth that are very worn in a kind of a funny way that might indicate the use of teeth as tools,” she says.

“Maybe for textile work, leather work or basketry – they’re pulling something through their front teeth.”

However, a conundrum arises with some of the skeletons; they are positioned in an assortment of ways. While some lie flat on their backs, a customary stance for the era, others rest on their sides, and a handful are interred in a crouched position, their knees drawn close to their chests.

The archaeologists are grappling with the significance of these varied positions. Is it indicative of the cemetery being utilized across an extensive period, witnessing shifts in burial practices? Or does it imply the differentiation of certain individuals within the community?

The discoveries around the graves further accentuate the striking differences in life during the middle of the first millennium. Unearthed items such as fragments of crockery and cups, along with remnants of animal bones showing signs of butchering and burning, contribute to this understanding. Among these findings lies a particularly intriguing artifact: a tiny carved peg, potentially used as a scoring marker in a game, resembling those seen on a cribbage board, providing a glimpse into the community’s activities.

However, what adds to the intrigue is the nature of the unearthed artifacts, hinting that these individuals were anything but ordinary. Among the discoveries is a glass fragment found in one of the graves, believed to originate from the Bordeaux region in France. Notably, this isn’t the sole imported item; the team has also uncovered pottery fragments, potentially originating from North Africa. The exceptional quality of these findings suggests that the inhabitants held a distinguished status.

Tudur Davies, from the University of Cardiff, says: “The evidence we’ve got here is that the people have access to very high quality imported goods, that you can only get through trading or exchange networks, with people with a lot of wealth, to bring it here. 

“What exactly is going on? Who are these people being buried here?”

Further investigation is necessary to pinpoint a more precise timeline for the cemetery’s usage. DNA analysis of the buried skeletons promises additional insights into the individuals interred there. This cemetery stands as a window into the lives of both individual occupants and the broader community, offering a deeper understanding of an era that remains largely enigmatic.

Nevertheless, unraveling the identities of those who resided and were laid to rest here might prove to be an enduring pursuit requiring extensive inquiry.