Archaeological recovery of Human Remains at Cwm Nash

Towards the end of Summer 2011, the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust, funded by Cadw, recovered the remains of a single burial that had been eroding out of the cliff edge at Cwm Nash, Monknash, Vale of Glamorgan. These had been spotted by a member of the public who alerted the Trust to their presence. Below is an account of the recovery and analysis of the remains by Fay Bowen, who was part of the team that carried out the the fieldwork.

Location of the excavation

Location of the excavation

The day started out as rather pleasant and sunny, if a little bit chilly. There were three of us from GGAT, namely Rob Dunn, Paul Huckfield and I.  Very kindly, John a regular volunteer at the Trust, came along to make sure no passers by were endangered by the excavation or any falling material. We arrived at the car park and nervously waited for our High Ropes instructor Richard Hamilton to arrive. We gathered our equipment, including a ladder and harnesses and walked down to the beach to find the bones that were eroding out of the cliff edge. It was at this point that we realised exactly just how high up they were, right at the top of the 7m tall tufa cliff! For me in particular this was pretty daunting as I am rather frightened of heights.

The grave cut at the top of the 7m tall tufa cliff.We went back up to the top of the cliff and Richard put our minds at ease and explained exactly how safe it was going to be. So we donned our helmets and harnesses and Richard secured the rope into the top of the cliff. Richard and John then secured us to the ropes, allowing only enough length to go as far as we safely could, which was right at the cliff edge. Before the excavation began Rob bravely (if begrudgingly!) volunteered to take the pre-excavation photographs, which normally is just a little point and click, making sure the scale is correctly positioned. But this was somewhat different. He had to climb down over the edge of the cliff and lower himself onto the ladder that John securely held at the bottom. The top of the ladder was about 6ft below the cliff top, so this was no easy feat. I had my hands covering my eyes because the thought of doing such a thing really frightens me, but I did have a peep! He did a really good job and managed to position himself to take a few photos showing the bones and the grave cut. He could see that the grave had actually been dug into the tufa cliff.

The next task was drawing the profile of the grave cut. This was also a bit different to normal circumstances, as due to the wind and height we were unable to set up a string line and the safest way was to do it from the cliff top. This meant we had to use the tapes and measure down from the top of the cliff to record the depth of each deposit and the shape of the grave cut. This entailed poor Rob dangling over the cliff again to take measurements and me drawing them once he had shouted them back to me. Seems like he drew the short straw!
We then began the excavation. The wind had picked up and trying to deturf the thick dune-like grass was very difficult. We endeavoured with the conventional spade and sometimes even with the mattock to lift the more stubborn pieces that had anchored themselves to the cliff. We thought this was pretty difficult, but we didn’t realise what was coming next! The best way to continue the more delicate part of the operation was to take it in turns to lie on our stomachs with our heads at the cliff edge. This meant we could see the protruding bones at the cliff edge and slowly remove the grave fill to expose them. The problem was that the wind and rain had picked up so much that any soil loosened would blow up the cliff directly into our faces. So we took it in turns. It was very interesting and a brilliant day’s work, but it was very challenging, as despite our safety glasses our eyes were filling with mud, as were our mouths, noses and ears!! As we removed each bone John helped us bag and label them ready to take back to the office. We managed to recover the lower limbs and part of one hand. Needless to say when we finished we were all looking forward to a nice cup of warm tea, but it was all worth it. The excavation means that no more of these remains will be lost by erosion in the near future. We really appreciate the local people that saw the bones and reported it to us, as otherwise more would have been lost.
Once back at the office the bones were prepared and sent off to a specialist to tell us everything they could about the individual. Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy of Wessex Archaeology kindly looked at the bones for us. She found that he was a man over the age of 35 and estimated his height at about 1.71m (5′ 7″). She found a difference between the tibiae suggesting stresses possibly related to activity, along with small lateral squatting facets on both tibiae, (this means that there were marks indicating the repeated bending of the ankle joint from squatting). It seemed from his finger bones that he suffered from advanced osteoarthritis and the knees and ankles may also indicate that he was beginning to suffer in these areas too. The shape of the femur shafts suggested strong stresses on the muscles of the back of the thighs, whilst the left tibia had more distinctly ‘twisted’ shaft in comparison to the right.
The recovered remains of the lower limbs and part of one hand from the individual we christened 'Cliff'.
It is not the first time bones have eroded out of the cliff here. The first time was in 1982, when a human long-bone was found (GGAT HER 01584s). The next time it happened was in 1990, when part of a human skull was picked up. Three years later, the landowner told the Trust that there had been more erosion again, and we made plans for an archaeological investigation. The excavations revealed three adults buried in an east-west line. The middle of the three also had disarticulated remains of at least two other people and a skull had been carefully placed at the western end. Only the lower part of the burials remained, as unfortunately the upper parts had eroded out of the cliff. But some these bones were recovered from the base of the cliff. The finds didn’t really give any dating evidence, but were thought to be Post-medieval in date (1485-1901), which matched the early Post-medieval date given by radiocarbon dating.

Local history shows that this area of land was part of the Lordship of Ogmore, until the Norman Robert Fitzhamon seized power over the whole of Glamorgan in the late 11th century. He then gave the land to Neath Abbey. At this time there was already a church nearby, which was probably the parish church. When the church was given to the monks, the right to hold burials and baptisms was taken away, so people had to use Neath Abbey instead. The building then became a chapel.
The burials that have been found on the cliffs at Cwm Nash probably date to somewhere in the Post-medieval period (1485-1901). One theory is that the area was used as an ‘unofficial’ burial ground by the local people of Monknash from 1542 to 1607, who didn’t want to be buried somewhere other than their local area. A license for burial was eventually given to St. Mary’s Church, Monknash in 1607, so most people would have been buried there from then on. But it is possible the Cwm Nash burial place was still used by some local people who refused to accept the Anglican Church (these people were also known as Recusants). They may have also preferred Cwm Nash because it was associated with the nearby well and grange. Another theory is that the people buried here were not put here by choice. It is quite possible that the people found buried at Cwm Nash were the unfortunate victims of shipwrecks, their bodies having been washed ashore and kindly buried by the local people who found them. Sadly there were a large number of shipwrecks just off this piece of coastline during the Post-medieval period, and this sort of thing was not uncommon. Now the bones have been analysed plans will be made to rebury them.
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