Kinship Analysis in Early Medieval Wales

Ciara Butler, PhD candidate
Cardiff University

Warning: this post contains images of human remains for educational purposes.

Hello! My name is Ciara, I’m an osteoarchaeologist and second year PhD student here at Cardiff University where I am studying cemetery organisation in Early Medieval Wales. For my Tiny Talk I’m going to discuss my PhD project and the commercial cemetery excavations I was involved in that prompted my research questions. The project is funded by the archaeological unit I work for, Archaeoleg Brython Archaeology, who excavated these cemetery sites.  

My project researches cemetery populations in Early Medieval Wales, from AD 400-1100. I am investigating the presence and extent of kin-structured burial within cemeteries, and whether the importance of burial in family groups changes throughout the period. Differences in grave location, structure, materials and orientation are visible within Early Medieval cemeteries in Wales. Factors such as age, sex and status are often explored to account for these differences, so this project will add evidence for biological and social kinship to the discussion.  

The primary methodology of the project is biological distance analysis based on dental measurements. Biodistance analysis aims to identify genetic affinity between individuals, or more commonly between populations, based on the evidence of skeletal and dental morphology. This involves collecting metric and/or non-metric data (traits that are part of normal human variation) from skeletal remains and using statistical analysis to see who groups together. 

This will be supported by targeted isotope analysis of geographic origin, and spatial analysis of grave location and type. Using this multi-analysis approach, both the biological and social relationships between individuals within a cemetery population can be explored, allowing a holistic exploration of the range of familial identities emphasised through burial practice.

As we know, units based around immediate relatives are only one of the ways a family group may be organised. A nuanced understanding of kinship is necessary to explore these ideas in the past, using diverse family models and considering the range of familial identities an individual can have. This consideration of family organisation and its relevance in a mortuary context can illuminate many other aspects of an individual’s social identities and lived experiences in the past (Johnson 2019).

The ideal family unit. Image by puppytoob.com

West-east orientated burials, without grave goods, are characteristic of Early Medieval cemeteries in Wales, as in much of the rest of Britain at this time (though this is not to say these kinds of graves don’t exist in other periods). The use of stone to line the edges inside the grave, called a cist, is also found in quite commonly. A lot of variation exists in the form of these cists – they may have side stones, capstones, floors stones, or any combination of the above. Many cemeteries present distinct groups of burials, often focused around a central “special” grave, or graves (Thomas 1971). Burial in family groups has been suggested as a possible reason for these patterns (Britnell et al. 1990; Brassil et al. 1991; White and Smith 1999).

Early medieval cist cemetery, Anglesey. Image: Brython Archaeology

The questions posed by this research were first considered when I was working as a commercial archaeologist, excavating Early Medieval cemeteries on Anglesey with Archaeoleg Brython Archaeology. At these sites we observed a range of different cist types and distinct areas of burial, as well as evidence for successive and double inhumations. Some dental non-metric traits were also identified in the osteological analysis at one site (Rusu and Madgwick 2017). These features suggested that further research was needed into genetic affinity between individuals and what role, if any, this plays in their burial treatment. This led to Brython’s sponsorship of the PhD project, to further knowledge not just about sites they excavated, but about patterns of Early Medieval burial throughout Wales. Being sponsored by the company who excavated these sites has been a huge benefit to the project, through promoting local involvement in Welsh heritage research and providing me with resources and insider knowledge!

Excavating a cist cemetery. Image: Brython Archaeology

Stay tuned for results! Data collection has been paused due to covid-19, but I hope to start back up again soon. Thank you for coming to my Ted Tiny Talk!

Excavating a cist cemetery. Image: Anglesey Council
Cist grave with reused quern stone. Image: Brython Archaeology

References:

Brassil, K. S. et al. 1991. Prehistoric and early medieval cemeteries at Tandderwen, near Denbigh, Clwyd. Archaeological Journal 148(1), pp. 46-97.

Britnell, W. J. et al. 1990. Capel Maelog, Llandrindod Wells, Powys: excavations 1984–87. Medieval Archaeology 34(1), pp. 27-96.

Johnson, K. 2019. Opening Up the Family Tree: Promoting More Diverse and Inclusive Studies of Family, Kinship, and Relatedness in Bioarchaeology: Deep Time Perspectives on Contemporary Issues. pp. 201-230.

Rusu, I. and Madgwick, R. 2017. The Human Remains from the Llangefni Link Road

Thomas, C. 1971. The Early Christian Archaeology of North Britain. Oxford University Press.

White, S. I. and Smith, G. 1999. A funerary and ceremonial centre at Capel Eithin, Gaerwen, Anglesey. Transactions of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society and Field Club, pp. 17-166.

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