Archaeologists Discover Early Medieval Cemetery in Wales

The site contains skeletons in unusual positions and evidence of feasting rituals

Straight Skeleton
Some skeletons found in the cemetery are lying flat on their backs, while others were buried in unusual positions. Andy Seaman

Researchers have unearthed a 1,400-year-old cemetery in Wales. The early medieval site clearly isn’t a typical burial ground, and the excavated graves—containing strangely positioned skeletons and evidence of ritual feasting—present more questions than answers.

Found during excavations at Fonmon Castle, the graveyard is located near a runway at Cardiff Airport. Researchers from Cardiff University think it contains about 80 bodies dating to the sixth and seventh centuries.

“This is a really exciting discovery,” says dig leader Andy Seaman, an early medieval archaeologist at the university, in a statement. “Sites of this date are extremely rare in Wales and often do not preserve bone and artifacts. The Fonmon cemetery will allow us to discover so much about the people who lived here.”

Crouching Skeleton
A crouching skeleton lies in a stone-lined grave. Andy Seaman

Predating the nearby castle by about five centuries, the cemetery has already provided new insights into the lives of its dead. As BBC News’ Rebecca Morelle and Alison Francis report, researchers have discovered “unexpected artifacts” and skeletons lying in “unusual positions.”

While some were buried lying on their backs, others were found lying on their sides, and some had their knees pressed to their chests.

“Other similar sites have found bodies in crouched positions such as this, but considering the number of graves we have looked at so far, there seem to be a high proportion,” says Seaman in the statement. “This could be evidence of some sort of burial rite being carried out.”

Though the reason for the strange positions remains mysterious, researchers have learned a lot from the bones, which are in surprisingly good condition, as Summer Courts, an osteoarchaeologist from the University of Reading, tells BBC News.

“We have some teeth that are very worn in 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.”

Alongside the human remains, researchers uncovered metal working debris and pieces of animal bones, which appear to have been butchered and cooked. One small, carved bone peg even resembled a board game piece, reports the Guardian’s Steven Morris.

A group of people excavate a grave
The team uncovering a grave during initial excavations Andy Seaman

They also found shards of glass, which likely came from imported beverage bottles. One such piece appears to be from a “very fine” conical glass vessel from France’s Bordeaux region, now famous for fine wine, Seaman tells BBC News. Additionally, the team uncovered evidence of other imported goods, such as pottery fragments that may have been made in North Africa.

Despite the presence of these artifacts, no evidence suggests anyone lived near the cemetery, leading researchers to conclude the site was once a place of “ritual feasting, perhaps to celebrate or mourn the dead,” says Seaman in the statement. Excavations are still ongoing, and the team hopes to learn more about the customs of the groups that used the cemetery, particularly regarding the treatment of death and life.

“We tend to think of graveyards as sort of enclosed spaces that we don’t really go to, but they probably would have been quite central to life in the past,” he tells BBC News. “It’s not just a place for people being buried, but it’s a place where communities are coming together.”

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