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The Nevern Castle Project - Site and Archaeological Excavations

Nevern Castle comprises a large ditched and ramparted enclosure or bailey, its massive defences cutting off the end of the spur in a manner reminiscent of an Iron Age or Early Medieval promontory fort. The defences are doubled on the north side, from which it is now approached. The remaining sides are defended by precipitous slopes plunging down to the river Gamman. Overlying the north-western angle of the ramparts is a substantial motte. Excavations started in 2008 and will continue for a number of years. Most of the evidence relates to the 12th century castles. The earliest castle of Robert FitzMartin was built of earth and wood. On the summit of the motte was a large wooden watchtower based on 4 massive posts sunk into the top of the mound. Wooden palisades ran along the top of the banks. These were replaced at least 3 times before the castle was destroyed in 1195. Within Robert’s early 12th century castle there were wooden buildings based on posts in the ground, later these were replaced with wooden buildings based on beams seated on the ground.

At some point in the mid to late 12th century, stone buildings and defences began to be built on the site. It is unclear if these were built by the Lord Rhys in the 1260’s and 1170’s, William FitzMartin and Angharad in the 1170’s and 1180’s or the Lord Rhys and his sons in the 1190’s. A large cylindrical ‘round’ tower was built on top of the motte. The eastern tip of the promontory, isolated from the bailey by a massive, vertical sided, rock-cut ditch to form a small roughly triangular court, described as the ‘Inner Castle’ was given a perimeter stone wall and a large square tower facing the bailey. Though that tower now largely exists as a mound of rubble, small areas of the face of the perimeter wall and the square tower can still be glimpsed.

On the south side of the site, beside the steep drop to the valley floor were at least two stone buildings. The one now beneath the Pembrokeshire bank appears to have been a large hall, more than 16m long and 8 m wide, it may have been the Great Hall of the castle. This building showed signs of burning and damage, probably the deliberate destruction of the castle by Hywel Sais in 1195. At the east entrance to the Great Hall in the destruction deposits, in the 2008 excavations a Nine Men’s Morris Board – slate gaming board broken into 2 pieces plus small circular slate counter were discovered. Nine Men’s Morris became a very popular game in the 12th and 13th centuries, being scribed on the walls and seats of the cloisters of many 13th and 14th century English cathedrals and is still played today.

All the stone buildings are built of slate secured with clay mortar. This is unusual as almost all castles are built with lime mortar. Analysis has shown that the natural clay subsoil was used as the mortar at Nevern. It seems likely that Nevern Castle is a very rare survival from the age when castles were changing from wood to stone. There are a number of other examples of clay mortared stone walls in castles from the 12th century in Wales and it may have been a traditional building technique used in areas of Wales where lime was scarce. The Great Hall and other stone buildings in the Bailey had doorways made of square carved sandstone blocks. The use of carved stone blocks is normally associated with Anglo-Norman building work. Their use in a wall with slate and clay is unusual and shows a merging of traditional ‘Welsh’ and ‘Anglo-Norman’ building techniques. After the destruction of the castle this area was extensively ploughed for agriculture since high crop yields are gained farming on old habitation sites. The ploughing removed archaeological traces from the centre of the site and reduced the height of all the stone buildings. Large drainage ditches also damaged the archaeological remains.

Dr Chris Caple
April 2010






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