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

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


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.

Cardiff Archaeology Made My Childhood Dream Come True

Lisa Backhouse, PhD candidate
University of Reading

I remember being seven years old and telling my parents: ‘when I grow up, I want to be an archaeologist’.  Inspired by my mother’s love of history and my grandparent’s watching of the classic, TimeTeam, I set about conducting mini excavations in the garden.  Most of what I found was pretty boring – until the 1960s, the land my childhood home was built on had been cow pasture. However, I vividly remember my most exciting discovery – fragments of what turned out to be part of a Victorian Era china doll.  During my teens, I became distracted from archaeology by my love of literature and wanted to study this at university.  It was almost on a whim that when searching for undergraduate courses I revived my childhood dreams of archaeology and came across my perfect degree: a joint degree in English Literature and Archaeology at Cardiff University.   

Excavating a 16th century horseshoe in Hungary, 2016
One of the very many bags of pottery I excavated in Hungary.

As an undergraduate at Cardiff, I was the only student studying this joint degree but in spite of this, I always felt ‘at home’ and more suited to the archaeology department and I quickly realised that was where my passion lies.  The combination studying two subjects was, however, crucial to my academic development.  My literature course gave me the opportunity to study Old English and Medieval English, which later became essential in opening up the opportunity for me to read and use written sources of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval date in my Masters and PhD theses.  My three years at Cardiff not only created and instilled my love of archaeology, but cemented my fascination with the study of the medieval period, inspired by the passion I observed from my lecturers and the excavation opportunities I was fortunate enough to partake in. I completed placements near Burghead, Scotland, excavating an Iron Age to Pictish site and in Esztergorm, Hungary, excavating a medieval castle.  It was during this excavation in Hungary that I developed a fascination of medieval pottery, something which grew when I met Dr Ben Jervis joined the department at Cardiff in my final undergraduate year and eventually evolved into my current PhD project.

The addition of further excavations I arranged myself gave me enough experience to be offered a commercial fieldwork archaeologist contract for the summer I graduated which saw me join Cambridge Archaeological Unit, where a number of my colleagues were also Cardiff Archaeology alumni.

Following a year at Sheffield University completing my master’s degree, my current PhD project saw me partially return to being part of the archaeology department at Cardiff as my co-institutional partner with the University of Reading where I am based.  Despite not being based full-time at Cardiff, two of my three PhD supervisors are associated with Cardiff; Dr Ben Jervis who is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Cardiff and Duncan Brown (currently Head of Archaeological Archives at Historic England) who is a Cardiff Archaeology Department alumnus.   

Taking over one of the teaching rooms at Cardiff to record my PhD pottery assemblage.
Supervising Cardiff undergraduates at Cosmeston, giving some on site pottery lessons.

My current PhD research examines the relationship between people and pottery in early medieval Kent, focusing on social and cultural identity.  The Archaeology Department at Cardiff has played a vital role in my PhD, particularly during my data collection phase, allowing me to take over one of the teaching laboratories to record a large proportion of my main pottery assemblage.  I was also an excavation supervisor for the undergraduate fieldschool at Cosmeston Medieval Village, near Cardiff, coming full circle from my own undergraduate experiences on Cardiff field schools.

With my Cardiff associated supervisors, Ben Jervis and Duncan Brown

Over the course of nearly 6 years, archaeology at Cardiff has been a huge part of my life and I always feel a sense of great pride in being able to tell people I am both a Cardiff archaeology alumnus and current student.  Archaeology at Cardiff has been essential in my journey so far in archaeology and, I hope (!) will continue to be for many more years to come! 
Pen-blwydd hapus canmlwyddiant Cardiff!  

Twitter: @lisaback_house 
Facebook: Lisa Backhouse