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Holy Island is named for its many burials. This Late Roman cist cemetery was uncovered during the dig. Source: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust.

Archaeological Finds Tell the Story of Wales’ Holy Island

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In the United Kingdom, finds from a remarkable archaeological project are being unveiled to the public for the first time. This treasure trove of artifacts provides an insight into the 6,000 year history of a Welsh island. The ancient finds are believed to be of international importance because they uniquely allow researchers to trace the development of a society from the Later Stone Age to modern times.

The remarkable discoveries were made on Holy Island, which lies off the coast of northwest Wales. The island is named after its large number of burials and religious sites and is a popular tourist destination. Between 2008 and 2010, the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, excavated the Parc Cybi site, on the windswept island, in advance of a major construction project.

Large Archaeological Site Excavated at Holy Island

This became one of the largest ever excavations in the country and was supported by the Welsh Regional Government. “Over 49 acres (20 hectares) were carefully stripped of topsoil to reveal an archaeological landscape” according to the Parc Cybi project website. At one time 40 archaeologists were working on the dig.

Areas of Holy Island were mapped and the features recorded and described. (Gwynedd Archaeological Trust)

Areas of Holy Island were mapped and the features recorded and described. ( Gwynedd Archaeological Trust )

North Wales Live reports that Jane Kenney, the Holy Island site director, stated that “such a big area was excavated - the whole landscape was looked at in detail”. This allowed the archaeologists to study how society on Holy Island changed and evolved over thousands of years. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust Dig Diary reports that the archaeological horizons “were planned and located using a Total Station survey, with detail recorded by hand-drawn plans”.

Holy Island Houses a Stone Age Hall

There were a great many important discoveries made. They include a wooden hall from the Neolithic period. Kenney told North Wales Live , that the structure “dates back to 3,700 BC which is the early Neolithic period when farming and pottery were first introduced”.

Once it was a rectangular building that was about 45 feet (15 meters) in length. This was a huge building for the period and such a find is very rare in Wales.

One house, found on Holy Island, had a question-mark shaped drain with a pit at one end and the other end exiting out of the building. This house had a hearth but relatively few other features. (Gwynedd Archaeological Trust)

One house, found on Holy Island, had a question-mark shaped drain with a pit at one end and the other end exiting out of the building. This house had a hearth but relatively few other features. ( Gwynedd Archaeological Trust )

Also found was a very unusual prehistoric bead. Ms. Kenney is quoted as saying that “we also found a large bead made of cannel-coal, which is sort of related to coal but looks like jet - a dark semi-precious stone” by North Wales Live . Similar stones are still found in Whitby, Wales.

This tiny object was lost before it could be finished - probably by someone living in the timber hall. The team also excavated a Neolithic pit which contained an ancient mace-head.

Bronze Age Burials Discovered at Holy Island

The team also identified a Bronze Age cist cemetery, with burials made of slabs of stone. Some pots and other artifacts were retrieved from these burials.

Bronze age cist with ceramic pot found at Parc Cybi, Holy Island. ( Gwynedd Archaeological Trust )

It appears that later in the Bronze Age that a barrow or tumulus was created near here which was also used for burials. Between the burial places was found an enclosure and according to the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust , this “odd D-shaped ditched feature” may have been a ceremonial structure.

Archaeologists also identified an Iron Age settlement , roughly the size of a village. This is of uncertain date; it may even be as late as the Welsh-Roman period. “The prehistoric settlement includes five stone-built roundhouses” according to the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust Dig Diary.

The roundhouses had a long and complex history of development and they were built on an earlier inhabited site. Archaeologists found enclosures, drains, and ditches surrounding the roundhouses.

Remains of a square stone building unearthed on Holy Island, from the Welsh-Roman period. ( Gwynedd Archaeological Trust )

Treasures of Holy Island on Display

A large Roman industrial complex was also located during the digs. Later finds include a medieval cemetery that date from the time when the island was a very important Christian center. Some medieval ruins and cemetery and an 18 th century homestead was also mapped.

Romans introduced Christianity into Wales and burial in full length, stone-lined graves (long cists). (Gwynedd Archaeological Trust )

The treasure trove of artifacts found on Holy Island is now going on display in Holyhead, in North Wales for five weeks. Ms. Kenney told North Wales Live that “we can now start telling people about what we found and give a very brief overview of what is there”. It is believed that more could yet be found at Parc Cybi, Holy Island. Two summaries of the finds have been published in the journal Archaeology in Wales .

Top image: Holy Island is named for its many burials. This Late Roman cist cemetery was uncovered during the dig. Source: Gwynedd Archaeological Trust .

By Ed Whelan

Comments

As a child growing up in Ireland 1950's-1960's, we learned of the ancient pre-Roman/Christian connections between the various Celtic groups on these western-most islands off the European Mainland. We were aware that 'Druids' from each place would periodically gather on Inis Mona (modern Anglesey) for convocations. The Roman invaders quickly realised the powerful significance of this sacred place and when the 'Druids' of Prythania retreated to Mona for a last stand the Romans commenced their version of a 'Final Solution' against them.

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