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Excavations at St Michael's Church, Abergele


A small-scale research excavation was undertaken to provide training for local volunteers and students from Abergele College. The first phase of excavations was undertaken in September 2005 with a second phase in April 2006.

Abergele excavation

Right: Removing the turf in the main excavation area

The first phase of excavations focused on the south side of the nave, which contained the remnants of a structure variously interpreted as a medieval chapel or priest's house. This area was investigated further in 2006, as well as a separate area at the east end of the north side where vaulted masonry had been revealed by workmen in 2005.

The main area of excavation included an isolated length of surviving masonry wall running east to west and the two rubble 'buttresses' protruding from the south nave wall.

The hand-removal of turf and topsoil allowed the recovery of a wide array of dateable artefacts such as iron roofing and funerary nails, coins, ceramics, bottle glass, pipe-clay and other miscellaneous finds, most of which could be dated to the 19th century. It was evident that later burials had often disturbed earlier features, including burials, structures and floor levels, so that many earlier artefacts had been redeposited, including a Roman glass bead of 1st-century date, a copper-alloy pin from an annular brooch and a decorated bronze belt mount, both of 12th/13th-century origin.

Abergele grave slabs

Right: Grave memorial slabs

Alongside the western edge of the main area there were four 18th_century grave memorial stones , all in their original positions to the south of the stone buttress. Removal of post-medieval deposits to the east of the graves revealed a further six post-medieval burials. At least two of these were marked by the remains of slate plinths containing positioning slots, presumably for the attachment of upstanding memorials which have since been removed. A layer containing fragmented sandstone and limestone resembled the construction material of both the wall and the buttresses indicating possible disturbed demolition layers of medieval material. Further investigation of the areas to the south of the 'buttresses' failed to identify the medieval ground level and provided no information relating to the masonry fragments.

Carved stone

Right: Inscribed medieval stone beneath the priest's door

A sondage excavated immediately to the south of the blocked 'priest's door', located along the south wall of the nave revealed an in-situ articulated burial, of unknown date. It was also noted that underpinning the blocked-up doorway was a previously unrecorded inscribed medieval grave slab. The sandstone block, re-used as a threshold for the doorway, displayed decorative carvings consisting of an interweaved vine/floral pattern terminating in at least one 'tulip' style head. The decoration, consistent with 13th-century medieval gravestone carvings, was only partially visible.

Medieval wall

Right: Excavations around the west end of the medieval wall

The excavations revealed further details of the isolated east to west wall. A sondage excavated at the west of the wall revealed further courses of stonework, and suggested a possible west end as well as identifying another post-medieval grave. The wall comprised six courses of exposed stonework, constructed predominantly from slate with a mixture of limestone and sandstone core, bonded with lime mortar. The exposed section of wall extended for 6m, standing to a height of 0.6m at the west end and 0.8m in the east, with a width of around 0.87m. A possible terminal was identified at the west end although there was no visible return, suggesting a possible doorway.

Stone vault

Right: The top of the stone-built vault

An area of 4.5m by 4.5m was excavated near the north-east corner of the church with the aim of establishing the extent and nature of the vaulted structure together with its relationship to the adjacent church masonry. During the removal of the topsoil it was evident that the area had been disturbed frequently in the last one hundred years. The modern overburden contained numerous sherds of 19th/20th-century pottery, glass, waste electrical and battery cables and the ever-present fragments of disarticulated human bone. Immediately beneath the topsoil was a stone-built vault orientated east to west. Apart from some minor disturbance to the east end and a small void in the roof created recently by workmen, the structure appeared to be intact. Externally the vault measured 4.5m by 4.2m, although internally the vault was 5.5m long, extending beneath the later boiler house. Unfortunately, the lower courses of masonry on the north chancel wall have been re-pointed obscuring the relationship between the southern edge of the vault and the church. Although it was not possible to directly access the vault it was clear that structure was empty and there is evidence to suggest an entrance below ground level at the eastern end.

The Finds

The artefacts recovered from the excavations have been extremely varied in date and, surprisingly for cemetery deposits, numerous in quantity. Three items of specific note were recovered during Phase one of the excavations which were identified by Dr Mark Redknap (National Museum of Wales) as a 1st-century AD Roman glass bead (of green/olive opaque form), a copper-alloy pin from a 13th-century annular dress/cloak brooch and a 13th-14th-century decorated copper-alloy belt mounting.

Small finds

Right: Small finds, top to bottom: 1st-century AD glass bead, 13th-14th-century belt mount and a 13th-century annular brooch pin

Throughout the general overburden deposits in all three areas there was a consistent assemblage of 18th and 19th-century ceramics and bottle glass. The majority of the pottery could be identified as typical coal measures Buckley wares, in either red or cream fabric. These local wares were either brown, black-glazed or slip-decorated; both fine domestic and earthenwares being well represented. Other typical 18th and 19th-century ceramics recovered were transfer printed whitewares, industrial wares and stonewares. The earlier 16th and 17th-century was predominantly represented by sherds of mottleware, midlands yellow-ware and purpleware. Local regional wares usually appeared as unglazed red coal measures with the occasional sherd of earlier fabrics such as Cistercian wares recovered from the lower deposits.

Other artefacts from the post-medieval period included large quantities of funerary nails, pipe clay, bottle glass, coins and pewter buttons. A broad period of coinage was recovered ranging form c.1699 to 1929, including two fine examples of late 18th-century mining tokens; one from the Anglesey Mining Company of c.1785/95 and the other from the Macclesfield Town Mining Company of c.1791. The coins were so numerous as to suggest a form of tradition associated with human burial. Of similar note were the number of pewter coat buttons recovered, again almost certainly associated with earlier disturbed burials. Three other noteworthy items recovered were a lead (possibly fishing) weight, the broken end of a slate stylos/pen, a small bone carved trinket/snuff (?) box (complete with screw-threaded lid) and fragments of early stained glass.

Medieval pottery

Right: Medieval pottery

Although no secure stratified medieval or earlier deposits were identified during the excavation, with the possible exception of the deposits abutting the medieval grave slab, a small assemblage of medieval pottery and a single sherd of 1st-century AD Roman Samian ware was recovered from deposits that ranged from the topsoil to the earliest recorded levels (17th-century). A total of fourteen sherds of medieval pottery were retrieved ranging in date from the 13th to the 15th-century. The earlier pottery was unglazed and typical of regional cooking pots whilst the later medieval ceramics were characterised by orange or white sandy wares, coated with an heavy green or orange/yellow lead glaze, typical of the regional Rhuddlan and Ewloe kiln sites.

Conclusions

The overall aims of the excavations in Areas A and B were to ascertain the nature, date and extent of the masonry wall and its possible relationship to the 'buttresses' on the south side of the nave wall. From the outset it became apparent that these answers would only be achieved by the removal of large quantities of post-medieval burial deposits from in and around the features. Unfortunately, due to the number of in-situ burials and disarticulated human remains, it was not possible to fulfill these aims in the time available.

The excavations were, however, successful in providing further information relating to the isolated section of medieval wall, although not with regard to the two 'buttresses'. In addition, the excavations revealed a previously unknown carved medieval memorial stone which had been reused as the threshold for the now blocked priest's doorway. The carving has been tentatively attributed to the 13th century and its position suggests that the south nave wall is of later date. This could imply that the 'priests door' was possibly blocked some time after the 14 or 15th century. Any associated external buildings, fragments of which survived within the excavated areas, would then have become surplus to requirements and are likely to have been demolished.

The stone-built vault at the north-east corner of the church remains undated although it could be contemporary with, if not earlier than the adjacent section of the chancel. The fact that the vault is empty implies a re-use of the structure probably during the early post-medieval period.

It is well documented that gravestones/headstones in the churchyard were removed in the later part of the 20th century followed by a policy of general landscaping. However, the overall depth of the surrounding re-deposited cemetery deposits encountered during the excavations indicate that the churchyard had witnessed other such levelling/landscaping phases as early as the 17th century. If the re-deposited material has come from within the bounds of the churchyard then the recovered assemblage of medieval and Roman artefacts casts a new light on the early occupational history of the site.


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