Gaynor Bussell, Volunteer at Nevern Dig 2009-2018
After working over 30 years in London, in June 2008 I decided to give it all up. I was not sure what I wanted to do with the rest of my life; I was not quite 50! But I had developed hiraeth for the lands from where my family had come and where many of my relatives still lived.
I had already moved to Fishguard for the last year and a bit and had been commuting backwards and forwards to London and partially working from home. An old friend, Paul Harris, told me that there was to be a dig that summer at Nevern Castle.
I first discovered the Castle in my school holidays, when Paul and I used to work in the restaurant of the Trewern Arms. (Although my family lived in Cardiff, we spent every holiday in a caravan in Dinas Cross. My Dad was from farming stock there.) I remember Nigel Reed, the son of the then owners of Trewern, showing me the site of an old castle up the road on a hill. Honestly, you could not tell there had been a castle there, but there was certainly something there that seemed magical and very old!
So, before I started on the next working chapter of my life, I signed up as a volunteer on the dig. I got so bitten by the archaeology bug that I cleared my desk and returned to dig every summer, until it sadly completed in 2018.
I did not expect us to have opposition. But when we first started, apparently we had broken some magic circle, and we could expect some curses to come our way. I must admit that in that first year of the dig we had three or four broken ankles!
The first structure I worked on was the Square Tower. As we progressed, I remember my fellow digger volunteer, Miranda, declaring that the corners were not square: two of them had rounded edges. Apparently this was very rare for the time, so we got very excited. What was interesting too in that tower was seeing the floor of molten slate emerge. This was from the slighting of the castle in 1195. To actually melt slate, the burning temperature must have reached 1200 degrees C. I could not imagine in those days that there would have been enough combustible materials around to burn it to that extent!
Throughout the dig there were so many exciting things emerging, that it kept us digging with fervour. There was not a huge number of finds; the castle had not stood for that long, but there were lots of walls to discover and it was great to keep unearthing these and seeing where they went. Gradually the castle’s structure was being unveiled.
There were however some surprisingly beautiful finds too; with so much rough stone and slate it was fantastic to find the decorative stonework, such as the gritstone with a beautiful saltire pattern carved into the surface. Only two fragments of this were found; it is thought the decorative stuff would have been taken and used somewhere else after the castle was abandoned.
I remember one of the volunteers finding the Nine Men’s Morris board (a medieval gaming board). He had been digging quite hard in one area using a mattock and a shovel and was about to throw the ‘rubble’ on the spoil heap. Amongst this rubble was a flat bit of slate and when it landed on the spoil heap it got turned over and there was the scratched outline of the game. We took extra care to look at the underside of each flat bit of slate like that from then on!
The work was varied; sometimes you were mattocking through thick stone walls or through thick slate on the ground—there was a lot of slate about! Other times it was working with a fine trowel, carefully making an area of wall look as clean and precise as you could without damaging the structure. Someone then carefully drew the walls and this had to be to scale. The exposed ground also was carefully trowelled and ‘planned’. I enjoyed the physical work the most as it was a great stress reliever!
After a while you felt as if you could almost ‘see’ the inhabitants going about their daily life, such as finding fire remains used for cooking, seeing ruts in some cobbled stone where some sort of carriage wheels had cut into them again and again. And seeing how a big slab of slate at a doorway, we think was a church, had been worn down by people treading on it. Another reflection on the daily life in the castle was finding slates at an entrance with scratched apotropaic symbols drawn on them. We thought at first that some guards were bored and had started to doodle!
The site of entrances was always perplexing and it wasn’t until near the end that the west entrance was found; it had been hard to find as it had been covered up. It had been believed to be on the North side for a while.
Sometimes I imagined it was like working on a building site and hard hats had to be worn. Sometimes the jobs we had to do were not so interesting: like measuring the size of projectiles that were found at the base of the square tower. (Don’t get me wrong: an exciting find; but not measuring them to the nth degree.) Another job that awaited us when it rained was bailing out the puddles with plastic containers and then using big sponges to soak up the rest of the water. Mind you I think all archaeologists secretly like playing in mud!
Breaks were very important; it was tempting to just keep going, but Dr Chris Caple ensured we had a break in the morning, lunch and an afternoon break. The talk varied, not always about the dig, but usually there was lots of humour and laughter! If it rained, we all huddled in the marquee but more often than not it was sunny (or so it seemed) and so we all sat outside. Some people you would not have seen since the last dig. We chatted with the students too; there were usually at least eight of them, and some came back even after graduating and took time off their jobs. Most seem to have got jobs in archaeology!
So, archaeology has really gripped me. Since Nevern I have been on many digs with Dyfed Archaeology Trust, and also with Professor Mike Parker Pearson on the Blue Stone dig in the Preselis. I had to have a year off last year due to a knee injury. You have to be able to kneel if you are doing archaeology, and knees can get affected. But it’s worth it! I can’t wait to get back to it now.
© Copyright 2022 Gaynor Bussell.
Photos copyright: Gaynor Bussell, [CC] Chris Caple, [PCNPA] Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority