Ysgol yr Hendre, Llanbeblig, Caernarfon

An early medieval cemetery and Roman construction camp

Introduction | Excavation Results | Neolithic Pit | Roman Pit Ovens and Possible Construction Camp | Early Medieval Cemetery

Medieval Features | 19th and 20th Century | Acknowledgements and Further Reading

The Early Medieval Cemetery

Roman rule ended at Caernarfon in the late 4th century – the last Roman troops were probably withdrawn from Segontium in AD 393, leaving the fort abandoned. An extra-mural settlement lay outside the fort, but to date there has been little evidence found about its development following abandonment of the fort. Archaeological evidence for the centuries immediately following Roman rule is relatively slight, typically recovered from cemeteries not settlements. Such is the case at Ysgol y Hendre.

Plan of the main cemetery with three mortuary enclosures surrounded by graves

Cemeteries from this period take different forms, and have graves of different types, but they all have certain common traits. Typically the graves lie on an approximate east-west alignment, the graves contain extended inhumations laid out with the head to the west, and the graves contain no grave goods.

However there are minor differences. Some graves can be lined and covered with stone slabs (such graves are usually called long cist graves), others lined with wood, whilst others have no apparent lining, but are dug and backfilled. Within some cemeteries certain graves are enclosed by a surrounding ditch, as is the case here. The enclosure can be referred to as a ‘mortuary enclosure’, and similar sites are also sometimes referred to as ‘square barrows’.

The main area of the cemetery had three mortuary enclosures surrounded by 41 graves, whilst a further two mortuary enclosures were found to the north. Though the limits of the cemetery were revealed on the southern, eastern and northern sides, it may have continued to the west under the present housing estate.

Plan of the northern mortuary enclosures with no surrounding graves

Three of the mortuary enclosures were square, measuring up to 7.3m by 7.3m, and two were rectangular. They were all defined by ditches, on about the same east-north-east to west-south-west alignment, with an entrance in the eastern side. Four of the enclosures each had a single central grave, but one rectangular enclosure had three graves arranged in parallel inside it. These look like a family group but as no bone survived in any of the graves (the soil is too acid for bone to survive) this cannot be proved. The mortuary enclosures are thought to indicate preferential treatment for specific individuals, reflecting, perhaps, their status when they were alive.

The northern mortuary enclosures fully excavated

Stripping topsoil with machines and
digging the cemetery by hand

The graves, both enclosed and unenclosed, varied in length between 2.6m and 0.6m. The variation in the length of graves is probably roughly related to the height of the individual buried and it is suggested the smaller graves were for children.

Although the exact orientation of the graves varied they were all roughly aligned east-west with the head to the west. The graves fell into groups, with graves in each group being equidistant and on the same alignment. The impression is of graves being added in small numbers, with some awareness of where earlier graves had been dug.

The graves closest to the mortuary enclosures tended to reflect the orientation of the enclosure, as if deliberately positioned in relation to them. One or more of the mortuary enclosures probably formed the focus for the cemetery but without dating evidence it is impossible to say which was first.

Many of the graves, including those inside the mortuary enclosures, had stones set against the long sides, in some cases stacked up to three stones high. These stones probably indicate that the graves had timber linings. Stones of the same sort were found in graves at Tyŷ Mawr, Holyhead and some of these had stains indicating timber planks. These may not have been jointed coffins, but unjointed planks supported by packing stones. None of the Ysgol yr Hendre graves contained stone-lined cists.

A few pieces of Roman pottery were discovered in the graves and enclosure ditches, but these had probably been lying in the topsoil when the graves were dug, and had been accidentally included in the backfill.

The lack of finds and human skeletal remains meant close dating of the cemetery was not possible. However some charcoal had been dumped into one enclosure ditch. Hazel charcoal from this deposit was radiocarbon dated to the 6th to 7th centuries AD. The finds (small fragments of burnt bone and ash) suggest this deposit might have come from a rubbish dump. It also contained a few sherds of Roman pottery, showing that some much earlier material was also mixed in. Unfortunately it is not clear why this material was dumped in the ditch, or where it came from before it was dumped. It is therefore difficult to use these results to date the mortuary enclosure, though the 6th to 7th century date for the charcoal does fit well with other comparable cemeteries which have been more accurately dated.

The wider context

Roman burial custom decreed that cemeteries should lie outside the area of forts, towns and other settlements. Cremation was the principal burial rite of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, following which inhumation burials slowly became the norm. Roman cremation burials in urns and other pots, dating to the late 1st to early 2nd centuries AD, were found when graves were being dug in the New Cemetery south of Llanbeblig Road, from about 1850 through to 1947. This revealed the location of a Roman cemetery typically situated by the road leading from Segontium to the fort at Tomen y Mur. A scatter of other burials have been found mainly to the north of the fort.

The Ysgol yr Hendre cemetery lay some distance from the Roman cemetery, so this probably did not influence the location of the later cemetery. So what might have done so?

Llanbeblig church, which is about 200m south-west of the early medieval cemetery, may indicate the site of an early settlement. The present remains of the church contain no material earlier than the 13th century, but the church is dedicated to Saint Peblig (Publicius), traditionally claimed to have been the son of Macsen Wledig (i.e. Magnus Maximus, who briefly became western Roman emperor between AD 383 and 388). The church is close to the site of the Roman cemetery and it has been suggested that its location and its dedication to a Roman Christian may indicate the continuity of Roman Christianity. Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the 4th century AD and was popular with soldiers. The presence of Christians in Segontium fort in the late Roman period might be hinted at by the destruction by fire of a temple to Mithras found and excavated in 1959, about 150m from the present site.

One of the graves showing the stones
that would have supported a wooden lining

Examples of some of the Roman pottery
found in and around the cemetery

The relationship between the cemetery at Ysgol yr Hendre and the medieval church must remain ambiguous, but if the church marked the site of a settlement it might be expected that the contemporary cemetery would be a respectful distance away. The concentration of burial and religious monuments within the area east of the fort can hardly be entirely accidental, and could indicate continuity of religious practice here, culminating in the construction of the church dedicated to St Peblig in the 12th or 13th century.

During the period of conversion to Christianity, and indeed for several generations afterwards up to the 7th century AD, cemeteries were linked to settlements, not to churches. Initially pagans and Christians were buried alongside one another, and it was only after AD 700 that the church sought to regularise burial, and encourage burials to take place alongside or within the place of worship. These early cemeteries are sometimes called ‘settlement cemeteries’ because they were identified as the burial ground of the community, not necessarily of the church. It is in this light, perhaps, that we should see the cemetery at Ysgol yr Hendre.

The site during excavation with the Llanbeblig Church and the modern New Cemetery
(site of the Roman cemetery) on the opposite side of the road