Archeologists working in Wales have made an incredible discovery: over 240 skeletons, about 100 of which were children, have been found in the ruins of a medieval priory beneath a former department store in Pembrokeshire.
The team working at the site of the former Ocky White store in Haverfordwest believes they've stumbled upon the remnants of St. Saviour’s Priory. This is based on the sheer scale of the ruins. Although its exact location has been lost to time, St Saviour’s Priory has been described as being a "significant complex of buildings" including dormitory buildings, scriptoriums, stables, and even a hospital, founded by a Dominican order of monks around 1256.
But the wealth of skeletons discovered here records a chilling story from one of England's bloodiest conflicts: the Welsh Revolt.
Shot with lead and arrows
"It’s quite a prestigious place to be buried. You have a range of people, from the wealthy to general townsfolk," says Andrew Shobbrook from Dyfed Archaeological Trust, the site's supervisor.
The Ocky White department store was a popular local business that had served its customers faithfully for over a century by 2013, when its riverside premises closed. The site has been cleared and is being redeveloped to become a food emporium, bar, and rooftop terrace. But although nobody suspected this at the time, the closing would lead Haverfordwest and its county town, Pembrokeshire, to recover an important piece of their history.
Among the ruins of the newly-unearthed priory, archeologists have found the remains of 240 people, with around half of them being children. While this underscores the huge infant mortality rates that our ancestors suffered through, this is only part of the story.
Some of the remains show significant head injuries. These, the team explains, are consistent with wounds sustained in battle, especially those produced by falling arrows or incoming musket balls. Although the dates could not yet be confirmed, the Priory's known timeline makes it possible that some of the skeletons found here were killed during an attack by Owain Glyndŵr.
A hero to the Welsh, Owain Glyndŵr led the country in a rebellion against the English crown that lasted for over a decade. Although ultimately unsuccessful at gaining independence for his people, Owain Glyndŵr was the last person to hold the title Prince of Wales, with his story and exploits becoming the stuff of local legend. Nevertheless, his cunning and bravery led today's United Kingdom through one of its bloodiest conflicts, and the skeletons at Pembrokeshire could have lived and died during those times.
According to the team, a joint Welsh and French assault against the English occupiers of Wales was the likely cause of the wounds seen on several of the skeletons here.
"We know that the town was besieged in 1405 by Owain Glyndŵr and they could be victims of that conflict," said Mr Shobbrook.
The remains and other finds from the site, including tiles, are being stored at a nearby disused shop and are awaiting cleaning and drying. After analysis, all the bones will be reburied on consecrated ground nearby. Based on the number of bodies found and their disposition, the team believes that the site may have seen use as a burial ground up until the 18th century.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be involved in something so big. The site is showing itself to be a massive part of the history of Haverfordwest and Pembrokeshire. It can be slightly overwhelming at times but it’s also quite humbling to be part of that person’s journey," says Gaby Lester, an archaeologist working at the site.
Excavation work at the site started last February and will continue through to January.