Revealing the archaeology of Ramsey Island

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Aerial view of Ramsey Island, an uninhabited island off the coast of Wales that is owned and managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). (IMAGE: Crown Copyright RCAHMW: AP_2011_4374)

Just off St David’s Head in Pembrokeshire, Wales, lies Ramsey Island. It is currently owned and managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), as the island is home to many avian species and, in particular, is a Special Protection Area for the chough. Historically, though, Ramsey Island was also home to humans – and a new study involving detailed airborne laser-scanning technology (LiDAR; see CA 215) is revealing this intricate archaeological landscape, highlighting the island’s use over the past 5,000 years.

The scanning was completed by Bluesky International Ltd for a European-funded Irish–Welsh joint project called CHERISH (Climate, Heritage, and Environments of Reefs, Islands, and Headlands, see CA 324). This collaboration is carrying out research to better understand the impact of climate change on coastal heritage along the Irish Sea.

The island is full of bracken and scrub vegetation, which hinders traditional field survey conducted on foot. The LiDAR scans – which have a resolution of 25cm – have, however, thrown the archaeological heritage of this remote island into stark relief. Earlier surveys, which were undertaken in the mid-1990s by archaeologists Heather and Terry James for the RSPB, had identified prehistoric cairns and field systems on the island’s two summits – Carn Ysgubor and Carn Llundain – but the CHERISH project was able to extend the surveys over the entire island.

Airborne laser scanning (LiDAR) of Ramsey Island has revealed previously hidden archaeological features. (IMAGE: Crown: CHERISH Project 2017)

Prehistoric discoveries include Bronze Age burial mounds, as well as a promontory fort uncovered on the northernmost tip of the island. This latter site, which was probably a permanent defended settlement, will now be monitored by CHERISH to track ongoing coastal erosion. There was also a plethora of medieval sites, including earthworks suggestive of settlement and industry, along with pillow mounds probably used for animal husbandry. Additionally, on the east coast of the island, the researchers may have discovered the remains of the lost Capel Dyfanog, a chapel which, according to historical records, was built on the island sometime before the 15th century. In this location, the chapel would have had a perfect view across Ramsey Sound towards the city of St Davids.

‘We have added a wealth of new archaeological sites to the story of Ramsey Island, using an incredible 3D dataset which has presented us with a stunning view of the island in enormous detail,’ said Dan Hunt, CHERISH archaeologist at the Royal Commission. ‘We look forward to working closely with the wardens of RSPB Ramsey Island, and other colleagues in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, to investigate these discoveries further.’

You can find out more about the CHERISH project at the website

The article appeared in CA 339.

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