Life in Nevern Castle

Finds from the Excavation

The artefacts we have recovered from Nevern are from the people who lived in the castle: a mixture of Welsh and Anglo-Norman.  In the 12th century, life for most people involved subsistence farming; there was little wealth even in castles.  This is reflected in the functional nature of the artefacts we retrieved during the excavation.  These have included fragments of pottery, highly corroded iron artefacts, and pieces of shaped stone.  No coins nor jewellery were found.  In addition, almost all the organic material—wood, leather, and textile—has long since degraded. Even bones have decayed in the acidic slatey soil of this site. However, in the base of the ditches, below 2m in depth, there are waterlogged deposits which have preserved some discarded organic material.  Fragments of waterlogged wood and leather including a mid-12th century leather shoe (known as a turnshoe from its method of construction) were recovered from these deposits and have been treated for preservation in the conservation laboratories of the Department of Archaeology, Durham University.

The laboratories also X-rayed, identified, cleaned and conserved all the ironwork from this site, which is too corroded to be identified when it is initially recovered.  Subsequently the artefacts were studied and reported on by specialists. The ceramics, for example, were recorded, analysed and researched by Dr Peter Webster working in the National Museum of Wales.  All the material will be or has been returned to be exhibited and stored in Wales. 


Prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, the Welsh do not appear to have used pottery.  They cooked food on an open fire or on heated bakestones and ate from wooden bowls and dishes which leave no archaeological evidence.  The availability of pottery from the start of the 12th century led to cooking food in pottery vessels. Soups, stews and pottages became common.  The principal type of cooking pot found at Nevern is known as Dyfed Gravel Tempered Ware, locally made in south and west Wales.  It was produced from the 12th to the 16th century and whilst the location of the earliest kilns is not known, later kilns of the 14th and 15th century are found in nearby towns. (A fine kiln of that period is exhibited at Newport Memorial Hall, and can be seen from the outside.)

Rim sherd of Dyfed Gravel Tempered Ware

A few fragments of pottery have been recovered. They were impressed with a stylised flower or asterisk decoration indicating their origin in the West Country.  Their presence suggests trade between Cemais and other FitzMartin lands in north Devon.

Finer ceramics were used at the lord’s table, such as green glazed pottery imported from Bristol.  Most of this glazed crockery was found around the Round Tower, indicating that in the mid and late 12th century the lords of Cemais normally lived in the upper floors of that Tower.

North Devon pottery

Though most ceramics were used for cooking and serving food, other ceramic artefacts were unearthed including this damaged, rare cresset lamp recovered from the rock-cut ditch beside the Inner Castle.  The bowl would have contained animal fat with a wick and provided a weak flickering light. Whilst the 12th century pottery derives from the occupation of this site, pottery of the 17th to early 20th century is also present because the fields were fertilized by farmyard dung-heaps, which contained all the detritus, including broken pottery, swept out of the farmhouse.

Cresset lamp

Food residues

What did the occupants of Nevern Castle eat? Normally, discarded bones provide evidence about the medieval diet. But bone does not survive in this slatey soil. Instead, we used organic residue analysis.  Samples of pottery were powdered and the fats and oils (lipids) which had infused into the pottery during cooking were extracted with organic solvents.  Following chemical treatment, this mixture was fed into a gas chromatograph. This instrument separates complex mixtures of organic molecules on the basis of their molecular weight and composition, giving a chromatogram of peaks (below left).  Through comparison with known materials, it is possible to identify the distinctive fats, oils and waxes of specific foods which were cooked in the pots over 800 years ago.

Brassicas (cabbage, sprouts, kale) as well as degraded animal fats and dairy produce (milk. butter, cheese) appeared in our analysis of sherds from 12th century Nevern Castle.  Surprisingly, there was no evidence of fish, despite the fact that Nevern is only three miles from the sea. 

Gas chromatograph of cabbage

Photograph of cabbage


Though organic material normally rots away in the soil, when charred in a fire it is preserved.  Our excavation collected samples of soil formed in and around human occupation. These were sieved for charred seeds and fragments of carbonised wood (charcoal), which were then identified under a microscope.  From this evidence we have started to build up a picture of the cereals and associated weeds present in the local harvest brought into the castle, as well as the wood burnt for cooking and heating. 

Oats were the principal cereal grown in 12th century Nevern, but evidence for wheat, barley and even rye was also recovered.  Lacking pesticides, weeds were far more common in 12th century crops, and at Nevern they included sheep sorrel, stinking mayweed and corn marigold. 

Firewood came almost exclusively from oak and hazel trees, species that appear to have dominated the local woods and forests of 12th century north Pembrokeshire. 

Charred fennel seed from Dryslwyn Castle



Cereals were invariably stored as grain in granaries and then ground into flour when needed.  Nevern has produced three 50cm diameter rotary hand querns for grinding small quantities of grain into flour, or kibbling (cracking) grain which was then used to thicken up stews.  This is an important reminder that food storage and preparation was an essential and time-consuming role for most people in 12th century society.

Other stone implements from the site included many hone stones, used for sharpening all edged iron blades such as knives and sickles.

Hand-turned quern stone



The principal tool used in the medieval world was the single-edged knife.

We have recovered 45 examples of knife blades from Nevern. The original bone and wood handles of the knives do not survive.  They were used by all members of society for everything from eating food to shaping wood.  Most knife blades were small but were frequently sharpened on hone stones.  Iron was also widely used in buildings for door hinges, wall-hooks and for the numerous nails used to fasten the wooden structure together.  Many of these iron fixtures and fittings had been removed prior to the castle’s destruction in 1195; only a few broken examples remained.


Equestrian Equipment

Some of the most distinctive finds from the site are horseshoes and horseshoe nails.  Welsh horses were invariably unshod whilst the larger horses of the Anglo-Normans were almost always shod.  The horseshoes of the 12th century have a rippled or scalloped outer edge, unlike the smooth shoes of later centuries.  Examples of both types have been recovered from Nevern.  As there were few paved roads at this time, the head of the ‘fiddle key’ horseshoe nails we see from this period at Nevern normally projected down beneath the horse’s shoe, giving horse and rider more purchase in the soft ground. 

This extra grip enabled Norman cavalry to ride down their opponents, as they did at the Battle of Hastings.

Horseshoe with fiddle key nails
© Anna Wirth

Horses were normally only ridden by aristocrats and warriors.  Other objects associated with riding often displayed the wealth of the owner, such as this rare stirrup (complete but in seven pieces).  After extensive early use it was refurbished, adding tinned sheets of copper alloy foil to restore its original silvery appearance.  Such an expensive decorated item may have been the property of the Lord Rhys or one of his sons.


A number of spurs, again with evidence of tinning, have also been recovered from the site. 



Locks and keys were normally seen in towns in the later Medieval period: places where there are many strangers and a need for security.  We found parts of at least 14 barrel padlocks in Nevern: devices usually used on chests containing personal possessions.  This could indicate that many traders, administrators, visitors and other strangers were seen in this castle.  This need for security emphasises Nevern’s role as the social and administrative centre of Cemais. 

Barrel padlocks were tubes with a two-armed leaf spring inside holding a bolt in place.  When a key (often coated in copper to prevent rust) with the right sized holes was inserted into the end of the lock the arms of the leaf spring were squeezed closed and the bolt could be withdrawn from the lock so releasing it. 


Due to damage by later ploughing, complete lock mechanisms are rare. They often have to be identified from small corroded fragments of the internal lock mechanism.  This emphasises the need for careful X-radiography and examination of every iron fragment from the site.

The most unusual locks found so far are the shattered remains of two padlocks with built-in shackles.  Such padlocks and shackles were normally used for securing people: evidence that prisoners, hostages or slaves were held in Nevern Castle in the 12th century.  Prisoners were held and tried in the Great Hall of the castle, as this was the centre for delivering justice for the whole of Cemais.  The Vikings continued to trade in slaves across the Irish sea until the 13th century, although the trade was in decline due to the disapproval of the Christian church. 

One padlock and shackle is unusual in being decorated.  This could have been used to restrain the Lord Rhys who was held hostage in Nevern castle in 1194. 

Shackle padlock

Angharad’s key?

Another decorated item is this padlock key, found in the 1195 destruction levels. The expensive inlaid spiral decoration suggests that it was owned by an aristocratic lady, perhaps to safeguard jewellery or clothes. Because there has been no substantial occupation of the site since the castle was burned down, it is quite credible that it was owned by Angharad, wife of William FitzMartin and daughter of The Lord Rhys. It is most unusual to be able to connect an archaeological find to a specific owner.

Key shaft with inlaid decoration


Gerald Cambrensis says of the Welsh:

They use light weapons which do not impede their quick movements, small leather corselets, handfuls of arrows, long spears and round shields…. Their leaders ride into battle on swift mettlesome horses which are bred locally.  Most of the common people prefer to fight on foot, in view of the marshy uneven terrain…. The men of that part of Wales [north] are very skilful with their long spears.  Those of the south, especially Gwent, use the bow to great effect.

In contrast, the Anglo-Normans fought with large numbers of knights mounted on horses and protected by mail.  They carried large kite-shaped shields, lances, and swords like those seen in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Large weapons such as swords are not easily lost, and so valuable that they are always removed from castles before abandonment.  However, we recovered a silver wire-decorated scabbard band chape (securing loops broken off) which adorned the sheath of a large hunting knife.

Scabbard attachment fitting

Smaller weapons such as arrowheads are often lost during conflict, and over 35 whole or pieces of arrowheads have been recovered from excavations.  In Britain in the 12th century, most arrowheads were used for both hunting and warfare. On this site, we found a range of wide-bladed leaf-shaped arrows for cutting through muscle, and barbed arrowheads designed to pierce flesh and remain in the wound causing loss of blood.  Newer types of arrowheads specifically designed for warfare, such as the ‘bodkin’ arrowheads designed to pierce mail, were just starting to be used in Britain at the end of the 12th century.  A single example of such an arrowhead has been found at Nevern (bottom right example).  


Single examples of a spearhead and the head of a javelin (throwing spear) have also been recovered.  The spear was the standard weapon of the Welsh soldier, typically six feet long, used for stabbing at distance. Javelins would have been shorter and were thrown.  Gerald states ‘From the first fierce and headlong assault, and the shower of javelins which they hurl, they [the Welsh] seem most formidable opponents.’ 

Every major Norman lord would have a group of knights as part of his household, whilst Welsh lords had a war-band, or teulu, of skilled warriors.

Spearhead (top) and javelin

Norman forces sought open country for pitched battles where cavalry would be most effective. Gerald describes the Welsh soldiers thus:

They may not shine in open combat and in fixed formation, but they harass their enemy by ambushes and their night attacks.  In a single battle they are easily beaten, but they are difficult to conquer in a long war.

The wooded nature and mountainous terrain of much of Wales made Anglo-Norman colonisation of Wales a slow process.  Though the Welsh captured, held and even constructed castles, this was not their favoured form of warfare.  It has been suggested that the death or capture of around 40 of his teulu, trapped whilst defending the castle at St Clears, early in 1195, was the reason that Hywel Sais slighted and abandoned Nevern castle.  For fighting men, morale was as important as physical defences and weaponry.  The apotropaic symbols show further evidence that beliefs played a strong part in the lives of people at Nevern.


Lithic Projectiles

Once a weapon such as an arrow has been thrown, it is often lost. But metal was expensive in the 12th century. Consequently, rather than lose valuable arrowheads or javelins, many castles were defended with heaps of rounded stones which defenders could hurl down on would-be attackers.  Though these are not widely reported in historic literature and do not appear in castle financial accounts, they have occasionally been pictured and found archaeologically at sites such as Dryslwyn Castle. A number of rounded stones were recovered in the destruction deposits of Nevern castle. Numerous examples were found outside the entrance to the Square Tower of the Inner Castle.

Such rounded stones are not natural to a site with slate bedrock, so these are confidently interpreted as missiles (lithic projectiles) that have been deliberately brought to the site for throwing at attackers.

Lithic projectiles


Though much of peoples’ lives were taken up with practical tasks of feeding, sheltering, and protecting themselves and their dependants, there was still time during the long winter evenings or during guard duty for playing games and even gambling.  At Nevern we have recovered two complete and 10 partial Nine Men’s Morris boards. This game was popular in the 10th–13th centuries and it appears to have been played by all sections of society.  Boards can be quickly scratched onto any available surface, and have been found throughout this castle as well as on other sites, and even in monasteries, of this period.  The boards were invariably deeply scratched and in the best examples from Nevern the scratch marks cut through a thin layer of lighter grey brown slate to reveal the darker grey slate beneath.

We have also found several worn slate discs and carefully selected rounded natural white pebbles to use as counters on the boards. The game board pictured here was found broken and damaged by fire, lying on the floor of the East Hall, probably lost as people fled the building when it was set alight in 1195.

[Play Nine Men’s Morris]

Nine Mens’ Morris board


Heckle or Wool Comb

Within the castle many basic trades and activities took place, usually processing raw materials into usable objects, evidenced by the specialist tools and waste materials recovered by the excavation.  In addition to carpentry, stone working, building and blacksmithing, textile manufacture was evidenced through objects such as spindle whorls and this composite wood and iron heckle or wool comb, which is used to align fibres prior to spinning.

Heckle or wool comb

By the late 12th century, people of Welsh and Anglo-Norman descent lived together in castles which they had built.  Not simply subsistence farmers in ‘wattled huts on the edge of forests’, they wore leather shoes, had decorated stirrups, spurs, and scabbards as well as spears and javelins. They could lock away their possessions securely in chests and played Nine Men’s Morris by the light of ceramic lamps.


Decorated Stonework

Local stone was widely used for building, and at Nevern the local slate is used extensively.  However, by the late 12th century, when a decorative stone was needed for windows, doorways or mouldings, a high-quality carvable freestone was sought and used.  Rather than importing a soft limestone from the West Country, a hard local gritstone from the Preseli area was quarried and used.  It was probably brought to the site in squared blocks. Decorative mouldings were added on site; a number of discarded failed carvings or mouldings have been recovered.  This gritstone was also used at St Dogmael’s Abbey.  The Great Hall at Nevern castle has produced several fragments of carved stone, including two fragments decorated with a chip-carved saltire pattern.

This decoration is characteristically Romanesque.  Similar examples are seen throughout the Norman world from Sicily to the Orkney Islands.  Here in Wales, examples can be found in St David’s Cathedral and Chepstow castle.  This shows that by the late 12th century the Great Hall had decoratively carved windows and doorways which emphasised the wealth and cultural affiliation of the Lord of Cemais at this time, William FitzMartin.

Gritstone carved with a saltire pattern

Post-Medieval Finds

The site also has evidence of the lives and activities of the people who lived in the later post-medieval cottages.  A bone comb, from the 18th century cottage, has fine teeth and was used for combing nits (the eggs of head lice) out of the hair of both children and adults.

18th century nit comb

The presence of a 19th century inkwell speaks of people writing letters or the farm accounts hunched over the kitchen table.

19th century inkwell

More recent items include this gin trap (banned in 1958) traditionally used for catching rabbits; either to stop them eating crops, or for the pot.  They were widely used for poaching.

Gin trap – 19th or 20th century

Apotropaic Slates

In addition to their Christian faith, the people of 12th century Wales, even churchmen such as Gerald of Wales, believed in a range of good and evil spirits, fantastical beasts and magical events.  They were particularly concerned that malevolent spirits would enter their buildings and cause them harm.

‘…in these parts of Pembroke, in our own times, unclean spirits have been in close communication with human beings.  They are not visible, but their presence is felt all the same.  First in the house of Stephen Wiriet then, at a later date, in the house of William Not they have been in the habit of manifesting themselves, throwing refuse all over the place, of annoyance to host and guests alike, ripping up their clothes of linen and their woollen ones too, and even cutting holes in them.’

Gerald of Wales, A Journey Through Wales, written in the late 12th century.

To protect themselves from such spirits, people either scratched apotropaic symbols on sills and beams to repel evil, or placed objects such as shoes and pots in walls, roofs and under floors to catch and hold the evil spirits.  Though such practices are more widely known from the 16th–18th century and associated with repelling witches and their familiars, they originated much earlier.  Excavating the threshold of the southern entrance to the castle revealed a series of slates set on edge in the ground (page 30).  When recovered, several were found to be covered in faintly scratched symbols.  The marks have been highlighted in these images to make them clearly visible.

Slate with apotropaic symbols digitally enhanced

Some of these symbols, like the saltire (St Andrew’s cross in a rectangle), are well known as apotropaic symbols in later centuries. Other symbols are new and have not been seen before. Given their location, the symbols depicted, the fact they could not be seen (save by evil spirits) and that we do not see any scratched designs anywhere else in the castle, these slates can confidently be identified as apotropaic symbols.  They are some of the earliest examples ever recovered in Britain.  Though some slates were small, others were large, thick and had partially curved edges.  It is likely that these are the broken fragments of grave markers dating from an earlier period.  Such slates would already have powerful symbolic meaning, made all the more powerful by adding apotropaic images and burying them to form a threshold.  In 1188 when Archbishop Baldwin and Gerald of Wales visited the castle, they would have ridden over this threshold, unaware of the symbols beneath their horses’ hooves, though Gerald clearly believed in their use.

Grave marker re-used