Ancient Connections

Explore the early medieval links between Wales and Ireland using geophysics

Ancient Connections is a new cross-border arts and heritage project linking the regions of North Pembrokeshire in Wales, and County Wexford in South East Ireland.

Although they’re separated by the Irish Sea, these two coastal communities have long been connected by the stories of St David (patron saint of Wales) and his protégé St Aidan (of Wexford).

Funded by the European Union, Ancient Connections explores how the early saints, and medieval pilgrimage, has shaped the landscapes, development and present identity in both regions.

By rediscovering this shared heritage, it also aims to explore how this joint history can be used to attract new visitors, share skills, and revive ancient links to the benefit of both these coastal communities.

DigVentures will be leading a series of community-powered investigations at a multitude of early medieval sites, including chapels, holy wells, and churches. These sites make up the distinct and connected landscapes of pilgrimage that developed in the two regions.

Using geophysical and archaeological surveys, in collaboration with local communities, the results will help to establish the layout and chronologies of these sites, in order to draw comparisons which can provide new information about the cultural, religious, and historical connections between Pembrokeshire and Wexford.

The connections forged by two early medieval saints link our present day communities. Rediscovering this shared history can benefit the people who live here today.

St David, patron saint of Wales, was lived during the 6th century. Although the details of his life have become shrouded in myth and legend, one thing we do know is that the bond between him and his protege St Aidan has influenced the development and identity of Wexford and Pembrokeshire for generations.

St Aidan is said to have sailed from Wexford to Pembrokeshire to become his pupil. When Aidan finally returned home to Ireland after years of study, he brought back with him more than just a Christian education: he also established his own monastery at Ferns, as well as a wider network of religious infrastructure modelled on what he had seen during his time in Wales.

Over the centuries, both Wexford and Pembrokshire developed distinct landscapes of pilgrimage, filled with churches, chapels, cathedrals, cemeteries, monasteries, holy wells, and other sites of pilgrimage.

These sites are a reminder that ideas, beliefs, and knowledge flowed between the churches of Ireland and Wales, across their shared Atlantic sea lanes. They are the physical remains of the ancient connections forged by Saint David and Aidan, and they capture the stories that link them.

Although many of the upstanding ruins date to later centuries, many appear to originate in the early medieval period. To date, they these landscapes of pilgrimage remain understudied, yet the sites within them have the potential to yield exciting new evidence of the cultural, historical, and religious links forged between the two regions over the course of millennia.

Geophysical survey and archaeological excavation can reveal the layouts and chronologies of these early medieval sites, in order to draw comparisons between Wexford and Pembrokeshire, and provide new information about these ‘ancient connections’.

In archaeology, geophysical surveys can be used to create maps of buried archaeological features, like walls, foundations, ditches, or traces of human activities like metalworking.

When their physical properties contrast measurably with the surrounding ground, these features can be detected using a range of different geophysical survey instruments, such as magnetometers, electrical resistance meters, ground-penetrating radar (GPR), and electromagnetic (EM) conductivity meters.

These instruments are used to take regular readings across an area, which are then rendered as image maps. Archaeologists can then interpret these maps, and use the survey results to gain insight into the layour of a site, and even to guide decisions about where to excavate.

Unlike other archaeological methods, geophysical survey is neither invasive nor destructive, which is why it tends to be used where preservation (rather than excavation) is the goal, and to avoid disturbance of culturally sensitive sites such as cemeteries.

As part of Ancient Connections, DigVentures is using a combination of geophysical and archaeological techniques to investigate a multitude of sites, including churches, chapels, cemeteries, and holy wells which make up the distinct landscapes of pilgrimage spread across both Wexford and Pembrokeshire.

The survey results will help the Ancient Connects team to to understand the layout and chronology of these sites, and establish the location of early medieval monastic enclosures, in order to draw comparisons that can provide new information about the cultural, historical, and religious links between the two regions over the course of millennia.

Data collection and interpretation of the results will be carried out in collaboration with local communities, through workshops, skill-building, online courses, and participation in geophysical surveys.

Results and progress will also be shared through:

  • Geophysical and Archaeological Report
  • Public event announcing project discoveries and highlights
  • Digital engagement, including articles, social media, and live updates
  • Bilingual legacy webpages summarising the results

Pembrokshire, Wales

St David's Cathedral

St David’s was clearly the focus of substantial ecclesiastical activity in the 1st millennium AD. The presence of a substantial assemblage of early medieval carved stone are testament to the importance this site held from the 7th century onwards. In the 10th and 11th centuries AD it suffered a series of Viking attacks. Although the current site is primarily of Norman and later planning, the possibility of the survival of earlier medieval features had been raised and geophysics has been completed on Chanters Orchard to the south-west of the cathedral.

The results reveal a lot of activity with intriguing features potentially relating to earlier enclosures, a potential boundary wall and features associated with the nawdd (zone of sanctuary).

Mathry Church

This large early medieval circular enclosure around possibly a 5th or 6th century precursor to the ecclesiastical site at St David’s.

Llanrhian Church environs

This site is potentially an early medieval church enclosure.

Waun y Beddau cemetery/Carreg Nymllwyd

The names suggest an early medieval burial ground which has already produced graves of early medieval date.

Capel yr Hen Fynwent

The name means ‘the chapel of the old cemetery’ which implies an earlier medieval or early medieval phase of activity at the site.

Rosina Vallis/Hodnant

This site is a possible predecessor of the later ecclesiastical site at St David’s defined by an enclosure with fragments of medieval floor tile.

Wexford, Ireland

Ferns Abbey

Founded at the turn of the 7th century by St Aidan, also known as St Máedhóg (who died in 624), he was reputed to have been a pupil of St David of Wales. There are three plain granite crosses and a cross slab that testify to the earlier origins of Ferns. Diarmait MacMurrough King of Leinster reputedly died at Ferns in 1171 and the broken fragment of a decorated high cross in the graveyard is said to mark his grave. Ferns was later known as St Mary’s Abbey and that field contains the probable early monastery and monastic enclosure that have been already been targeted for excavation by the Irish Archaeological Field School and geophysics will help with the excavation targeting.

Toombe church

This site is probably an early monastery with an oval ecclesiastical enclosure consisting of an inner and an outer enclosure.

Ballyorley Upper

This site appears to be an early ecclesiastical enclosure with a tradition of being an early church site.

Kilmyshall

Kilmyshall is the site of an early church, graveyard and holy well in an oval enclosure.

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