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
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
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.
First published in The Friend September 2003