Washing Skeletons

I was very interested to read, in the last issue of The Friend, Paul Bolton’s article about the house of the Grey Friars and his recollection of watching the excavations taking place behind T.P. Hughes during 1984-5, and how he later found the storage boxes in the Museum containing detailed reports on the work which took place between 1983 and 1990, with the additional work in 1997.

In 1997 Cambria Archaeological Trust were given the chance to work alongside the developers, Morrison Ltd., to sift through another area of the former Friary to uncover as much evidence as possible before the site was covered by a new shopping mall.

The Archaeological Trust’s earlier excavations had uncovered ‘a whole suite of buildings ranged around two cloisters’. The buildings included an infirmary, chapter house, kitchen and dormitories. The Friary had been one of the largest in the country. The skeletal remains from this excavation were washed by Audrey James and later re-interred in St. Mary’s churchyard after a service at the church.

The 1997 excavation took roughly two months. Heather James had asked me if I would wash and clean the skeletal remains and any artefacts found. I did not hesitate for a moment - my favourite programme is Time Team. But I have to admit a feeling of revulsion when the first black bags arrived on the door-step and I looked inside: the jaw bones and teeth were only too human.

The weather had been very wet during July so the remains were covered with thick yellow clay. They arrived packed into black bin bags, boxes and trays, every skeleton was labelled. I had the perfect facilities for the work: an outdoor garden tap which ran on to paving slabs and from which the water and soil could drain into the garden beds. I used a toothbrush and a finer tool for the more delicate work. Fortunately the month of August was

hot and after the washing and cleaning, the remains soon dried in the hot sun and could be packed away. The bones certainly made a very interesting display arranged around the lawn to dry an attractive golden brown.

There were about 40 medieval skeletons in various degrees of completeness. There were also many animal bones; decorated tiles; some fragments of painted window glass; bits of pottery and dozens of rusted coffin nails. The work took three weeks. As I understand it, the bones had come from a burial-ground adjacent to the Friary. The bodies could have been those of friars, lay helpers or people from the town who were allowed to be buried there. Nigel Page, on behalf of the Trust, told the Carmarthen Journal that ‘a couple of shrouds had been found and that some of the remains would be sent to Cardiff and Glasgow for analysis’.

The whole experience remains particularly vivid as, on the last day of August, we heard the news of Princess Diana’s death. I washed some of the skeletons in the intervals between watching the funeral.

Heather James wrote an article, Roman Carmarthenshire, for the Carmarthenshire Antiquary, Vol. XXXVI (2000). It is a review of all Roman sites and excavations in the County. In the same issue was an article by Terrence James, Carmarthenshire Religious Houses, which deals with recent excavations, including the Greyfriars site. Both are well illustrated and very easy for a lay person to understand. Copies of the Antiquary are kept at the Museum, the Library and the Archives Office. Major Francis Jones’s fascinating article, The Grey Friars of Carmarthen, was published in the Carmarthenshire Historian, Vol.III. There is a complete set of the 20 volumes in the Library and in the Archives Office - collectors’ items now.

Edna Dale-Jones

First published in The Friend September 2003