Tywyn y Capel Excavations

Project No. G1746

Two seasons of excavation during 2003 and 2004 were undertaken on the early medieval cemetery at Towyn y Capel, resulting in the complete excavation of the site. The work was supervised by Andrew Davidson and George Smith from Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, and undertaken with the aid of archaeology students from University College, Cardiff and forensic science students from University of Central Lancashire, Preston. Advice and valuable assistance was given by Michael Wysocki, Jennie Hawcroft and Rosa Spencer from the Department of Forensic and Investigative Science, UCLan.

A programme for the post-excavation phase of the project was prepared at the start of the year. Cross-referencing the skeletal records, context records and plans and section drawings has allowed a fuller understanding of the development of the site. This, combined with the results from radiocarbon dates, make it clear that the site was in use from the 7th century through to the 12th century.

The earliest phase represented on the site was a buried soil, sloping upwards towards the west. The soil was over 20cm thick in places, and excavation revealed that upper levels of sand had been incorporated into the buried soil in regular rows, suggesting ploughing had taken place over the entire surface of the excavated area. In section it can be seen that the top layer of soil has been turned over, thus implying use of a mould-board plough rather than a simple ard. Samples of the buried soil have been analysed for buried pollen, but its alkaline nature, though ideal for preserving bone, has failed to preserve pollen. Charcoal from the soil was radiocarbon dated to AD 540-660.

Sand incursions covering the plough soil were already underway when a series of cist burials were dug through the buried soil. Approximately ten cist burials were excavated, containing both juveniles and adults. Though variations existed, the graves typically comprised side and lintel but no basal slabs, lining a rectangular pit approximately 1m deep. The cists were carefully constructed of large side slabs, the tops of which were levelled, sometimes by using additional horizontal stones, in order to take the top slabs. The bodies were usually fully extended inhumations, though the legs were on occasion slightly flexed. Following construction of the cist and burial, the grave above was backfilled, and a low mound created on the surface surrounded by a ring of boulders. The accumulation of wind blown sand over the burials shortly after their construction preserved the above-ground grave mounds. The skeletons within the cists were well preserved, and two of the skeletons had hair remaining, one in long lengths over the shoulder and down the front of the body. Radiocarbon dates from the collagen remaining in the bone suggest burial dates within the period AD 630-780.

Rapid sand incursions continued, and the tradition of burying in stone cists stopped, to be replaced by simple dug burials in the wind-blown sand that collected around the earlier cemetery. A total of over sixty burials were recorded from the upper layers. There was a high percentage of infant burials, some of which formed a distinct cluster on the south side of the site. The adult burials revealed several different methods of laying out the body, including a group of three which were buried with their knees upright and their legs flexed.
Another buried soil layer marked the upper level of the burials. A stone wall encircling the top of the mound had been constructed on this surface, and this would have encircled the former chapel. No remains of the chapel were found, know to be still standing, in ruins, in the eighteenth century, though considerable quantities of stone lay on the upper surface, and these are likely to have fallen from the chapel walls. No slates were found, though some stones contained slight traces of lime mortar.

All of the skeletons from the 2002-3 excavations have been examined, and approximately 75% of those from the 2003-4 excavations have been recorded. The skeletal remains are in the process of being examined and recorded by the Department of Forensic & Investigative Science, University of Central Lancashire. Once analysis is complete a general statistical analysis of age, sex and pathology will be undertaken. Details of genetic traits and occupational traits will be recorded and analysed. Teeth will be examined for evidence of health, diet and weaning age. The use of stable isotope analysis for diet information will be assessed.

Animal bone was recorded in the lower plough soil with occasional other fragments within the higher levels of sand. These bones were of cattle, pig and sheep.

An initial sequence of radiocarbon dates show continuous use of the site as a burial ground from c. AD 600 to AD 1200. Further radiocarbon dates will be obtained once the examination of the skeletal evidence is complete.

Andrew Davidson