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Dig reveals medieval Welsh convent

18 July 2014


The excavation site of the convent at Llanllyr

The excavation site of the convent at Llanllyr

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have found hard evidence of a rare medieval convent, long known to have existed in west Wales.

Until now, mystery surrounded the exact location of the Llanllyr nunnery in the Aeron Valley, near Aberaeron. But experts from the Dyfed Archaeological Trust, and the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, have unearthed the remains of the convent, its cemetery, and a Tudor mansion.

It lies near a Victorian country house built by the descendants of the Lloyd family, who acquired the convent at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537.

"Medieval nunneries like this are incredibly rare, with only one other known in Wales," Dr Jemma Bezan, of the university's School of Archaeology, History, and Anthropology, said. "This is an incredibly important site, dating back to the late eighth century at least, and gives us an unparalleled opportunity to gather more information about monastic life."

The nunnery was founded in 1180 by Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd. It was a daughter house of the substantial Cistercian monastery 15 miles away at Strata Florida, which was demolished during the Dissolution and rediscovered only in the 19th century.

Dr Bezant said: "We know that the nuns farmed sheep and cattle successfully, and they would have tended mills, orchards, and fishponds. There are medieval fairs nearby at Talsarn and Llanerchaeron, and they could have been trading far and wide, with coastal access only a couple of miles away at Aberaeron.

"We have already recovered fragments of sumptuous glazed floor tiles, indicating that the nunnery was lavishly built and decorated. The site is on a wetland valley floor, and waterlogged timbers are being analysed at Lampeter Dendrochronology laboratories."

Very little is known about the layout of the convent; so the team is using 18th-century estate maps, and a 17th-century depiction of the mansion in a bid to find the medieval chapel .

The convent was on the edge of a valley floor that was drained and improved, although watery places were likely to have held continuing spiritual significance for the nuns and pilgrims alike. Today, the water is sold globally by the Llanllyr Water Company.

"The discovery of the grave features is very exciting," Dr Bezant said, "but it is unlikely that skeletal material remains in the acidic west-Wales soils. If we are able to recover such fragments, they could tell us about who was buried here . . . and what kind of lives they led."

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