A Potted Prehistory of Newport and Nevern Parishes written by Nicky Evans
The Old Stone Age and the Middle Stone Age
This page contains a short and very basic prehistory of the parishes of Newportand Nevern. It includes some information about the sort of lives that people were leading in this area before the birth of Christ, and some of the sites which were occupied at the time.
The Last Glacial Episode ended at about 10,000 BC. Before that we have no direct evidence of any human activity in North Pembrokeshire, perhaps because no-one was here, or perhaps because the traces of habitation were destroyed by the Irish Sea Glacier that crossed the coast from the north-west.. However, there is evidence of human presence in South Pembrokeshire, for example on Caldey Islandand also in caves on the mainland coast. Bones of extinct animals that lived here when the climate was completely different have been recovered from the earth filling the caves: bear and hyena, mammoth and lemming, lion and reindeer. The layers of bones can tell archaeologists something about the climate and the flora and fauna that existed here thousands of years ago. Ancient human bones were found on the Gower. The "Red Lady of Paviland" (who was actually a young man!) was buried about 27,000 years ago, before the coldest part of the last glacial episode; he might have belonged to a hunting party that had crossed what is now theBristol Channel in pursuit of reindeer or mammoth. The sea level was much lower then, so Caldey would have been a hill rather than an island, and Paviland Cave would have looked out over a vast plain, not the sea.
The sea-level was still rising after the retreat of the Irish Sea Glacier when the first groups of human beings arrived in Newport. On the bank of the River Nevern, about one hundred yards to the seaward side of the bridge, is a Mesolithic "knapping" site. Meso-lithic just means Middle Stone Age, and refers to a time before the use of metal was discovered. Around 7,000 BC coastal sea-level was slowly rising towards today's position. In Newport Baythe sea-level during the early Mesolithic was between 75 and 120 feet lower than today (approximately at the position of the present 20 fathom line.) The flint knapping site would have been four or five miles from the sea then; the climate was warmer and drier than today's and the valley's sloping sides would have been covered with birch, pine and hazel, with perhaps some oak as well. As the climate improved most ofBritainbecame covered with trees that replaced the sparse tundra vegetation. Under the foreshore of Traeth Mawr there are peat beds and the remains of a submerged forest, sometimes revealed by wave action following winter storms. These trees would have been alive and thriving when the flint knapping site was in use, perhaps about 6,000 BC. The site was used for the manufacture of tools. Mesolithic hunters used bows and arrows tipped with tiny, sharp flint flakes called microliths. They were used to form the barbs on fish spears too and to tip spears for hunting deer and wild pig. Many discarded waste flakes have been found, but no finished microliths. The people were nomadic, going wherever they could find the best seasonal food. The site by the Nevern would have been very well placed for fishing, wildfowling, egg-collecting and the hunting of beaver for skins. We know they ate quite a lot of deer meat from other well known sites of the period like Starr Carr. There, food remains were found from fish and a wide variety of small birds and animals as well as red deerbones and antlers. Many of the antlers had splinters removed for the manufacture of barbed points for hunting. The people also ate and made use of the skins of beaver, fox, hedgehog, pine-marten, hare and badger. They would also have eaten nuts, fruits and tubers in season. Modern hunting-gathering communities who still live in this way get about seventy per cent of their food intake from gathered vegetable matter. The people who camped on the banks of the Nevern more than 8,000 years ago could have been accompanied by their only domesticated animal, the dog.
The Neolithic or New Stone Age
Over the next few thousand years life changed comparatively little, but then the knowledge of farming spread across Europe from its origins in the Middle East. By about 3,500 BC we have a population still hunting and gathering but in a much more restricted home area and practising part-time farming as well. The Mesolithic people had built camps of hide tents or temporary hut shelters. Now there were permanent settlements in the area, probably established in clearings in the almost totally wooded landscape. The sea had risen to cut off Britainfrom the continent and to bring sea-level to about its present height. The river levels may have been a little higher because the climate was warmer and moister than now. The people still hunted to supplement their food supplies and for furs and other useful things like antlers and bone. They certainly still gathered hazel nuts and other wild foods but much of their diet came from cultivated plants like beans, peas and cereals, and from their domestic animals, cattle, sheep and pigs. The ground was cleared by stone axe and fire for farming plots; uncultivated forest (mainly oak but including elm, lime and alder) covered most of the land.
All the local cromlechs (dolmens) were built in this time -- the New Stone Age or Neolithic -- between the development of a settled, agricultural way of life and the introduction of metals. We do not know what the Mesolithic people did with their dead, but the Neolithic community built the cromlechs as tombs, to house the bones of at least the top people. When the tombs were in use they were covered with mounds of earth that either completely encased them or came up to the large cap stones. Entrances were opened so that either whole bodies, or sometimes just bones, could be put inside. There is evidence that these bones were moved around quite a lot, not just put in the tombs and left, so perhaps the ancestral remains were used in religious ceremonies or kept in other places from time to time. The tombs in this area may not have all been in use at the same time; the only one we have a definite date for is Carreg Coitan near Penybont, which was constructed between 3,650 and 3,250 BC.
The tomb-builders were developing new skills; they were making pottery and learning to spin and weave the wool plucked from their domestic sheep. The pots were made from local clay; they were thumb or coil pots, sometimes strengthened with grass stems to help hold the clay together when it was fired. They were round bottomed rather than flat, so they would need to have been set in soft earth or ashes to stand upright. Small stone tools prove that the people were working with wood and leather. Other tools were made from deer horn, bone and shell. String was made from elm bark and vegetable fibre. The people fished in the river using nets, and they also collected shell fish (such as cockles and mussels) from the shore.
Neolithic houses were square or round, built of wooden posts and wattle and daub and roofed with reed thatch, bracken or heather bundles. They were probably grouped together but were not defended with ditches or banks so there may have not been such pressure on available fertile land as there was later. The fields were small and tilled by hand with mattocks and hoes made of antler or wood with stone heads. The number of domestic tools found in the excavation at Carreg Coitan suggests that a settlement may have been in the vicinity. Five Neolithic axe heads have been picked up in Newportand Nevern, two from the beach.
There are cromlechs at Pentre Ifan, Llech y Drybedd, Trellyffaint and Carreg Coitan, and a very unusual one with five chambers at Cerrig y Gof. There are stone hut circles that may be Neolithic on Carningli Common, Waun Mawn and Mynydd Caregog. The best monuments to visit are Pentre Ifan and Carreg Coitan.
The Bronze Age
The knowledge of metal working spread toBritainby about 2,000 BC, at the beginning of the Bronze Age. Social habits changed at this time; over a period of many years people stopped burying their dead in large communal monuments and began cremating them and depositing the ashes in pots in round barrows, or under cairns. Some people of this time are called Beaker Folk because of their custom of burying beaker shaped vessels with their dead. None of the local barrows have been excavated but others in North Pembrokeshirehave produced typical Beaker pottery, urns containing bone fragments and ashes. Ritual pits containing charcoal were also found.
The land not cleared for agriculture was covered in mixed oak woodland. A great variety of cereals were being grown: wheat, rye and barley. Peas, beans and flax were also being grown. The horse was occasionally tamed for riding by now, but it was the cattle that pulled the primitive plough that made cultivation of the fields easier.
Flint sickles and knives were slowly being supplemented with metal blades. A great deal of the copper used at first came from Ireland. In west Waleswe have plentiful supplies of lead, some copper and a gold mine at Dol y Cothi; these deposits may have been first discovered and used in the Bronze Age. Local casual finds include a bronze spear and palstave that could have been used for hunting, but also include a halberd that looks very much like our first offensive weapon. Stone was still being used and hammers or mace heads have also been found locally. Bronze was expensive and rare. Somewhere in the Preseli Hills there may have been an axe factory producing stone axe heads that have been found well away from Pembrokeshire. They could have been passed hand to hand over many years or carried by travelling traders.
On the northern flank of Carningli, not far from Carn Llwyd, there is a section of a circular Bronze Age enclosure; it was never completed, but it could have been intended for penning stock or for enclosing a small farm. There are in the same area small cairns made when the land was being cleared of rocks for agriculture, field boundaries made from stone, a ring cairn and a standing stone. If this was a settlement it was in a much higher and more exposed area than the Neolithic one near Carreg Coitan. There is another concentration of Bronze Age remains at Waun Mawn, an equally cold and windy place. Perhaps the people preferred to be on higher land, possibly the valley land was exhausted, or maybe these sites survived because they are in inclement areas and all the ones in more popular places have been built over since?
There are many standing stones in the district; we do not really understand their significance but those that have been excavated appear to have had quite a lot of activity around them, perhaps they were ritually significant in that pre-Christian era.
There are round barrows on Moel Feddau, Crugiau Cemaes and Foel Eryr, standing stones at Carreg Hir, Penlan Trehaidd, Trellyffaint, Waun Mawn, Cerrig y Gof, Carreg Hir and on Carningli. If you look up at the high ridges as you drive round the area you can often see bumps on the horizon; many of these are Bronze Age stone cairns. There is a good example (Carn Briw) on the ridge between the peak of Carningli and Bedd Morris. These cairns may have been used as boundary markers; they are often to be found on the boundaries between parishes. There is a stone row at Parc y Meirw and a stone circle at Gors Fawr near Mynachlogddu that is of this era as well.
The Iron Age and After
Iron was discovered next and almost completely replaced both bronze and stone as a basic raw material.
Officially the Iron Age begins at about 700 B.C. and ends with the Roman Conquest of Britainin A.D. 43. In fact, the basic farming way of life changed very little in this area from the Iron Age up to the Middle Ages. The Romans did not extend their conquest to Walesuntil the late first or early second centuries AD, and the extent of their activity and influence in Pembrokeshire is still uncertain.
This whole locality is dotted with hill-top enclosures and small promontories with banks and ditches shutting them off from the mainland. Many of them are known by the Irish name of raths. The largest hill-fort in Pembrokeshire is inland about twelve miles from Newport, at Foel Drygarn (Drygarn means threecairnsand refers to the three Bronze Agecairnswithin the Iron Age enclosures). There are slightly smaller hill-forts near Eglwyswrw, above Pwllderi and on Carningli. Smaller still are the many defended enclosures like the one at Castell Henllys.
The hill-fort on Carningli has never been excavated; it spreads over the whole of the rocky peak, the entire area enclosed and crisscrossed with now rather flattened stone walls. The funnel entrance is still obvious on the western side, and there are gaps in the walls that could be subsidiary gates. There are many hut circles and hearths to be seen and the remains of retaining walls for cultivation terraces. On the leeward side of the mountain small square fields can be seen and more hut circles that are outside the defences. The houses may have had timber walls on the stone foundation rings or they could have been stone-built up to the eves of their thatched roofs. This hill fort is of an unusual type and may also contain shrines.
The defended settlement at Castell Henllys is much smaller and more typical of the usual self-contained farm units. The reconstructions there give a good idea of the general look of small Iron Age buildings.
The small amount of Iron Age pottery found in Pembrokeshire as a whole may indicate a local preference for leather, wooden or horn vessels. Loom weights and spindle whorls are quite a common find, revealing the usual clothing material. Spinning and weaving were of a very high standard; one of the things that the Romans imported from Britainwas woollen cloaks. Animal bones that have been found from this period show that there were a great many domesticated sheep and some cattle. Carbonised grain has also been found so cereals were still being grown and ground into flour using stone querns. There were improved ploughs, and manuring of the fields meant better yields; nitrogen fixing crops like Celtic beans were being rotated with cereals. A lot of the small defended settlements were on ridges that overlook good pasture and back onto moorland. Cattle could have been run on the better land where the crops were also grown, and sheep allowed to forage on the highland, while pigs were herded in the remaining oak woods.
Life had changed since the Bronze Age; the population had increased, and there appeared to have been some danger that made people huddle together in defended settlements and large forts. It does appear to have been a hierarchical society. From the later Roman writers we know that there were slaves, peasants, warriors and Kings. The warriors carried long swords and shields and rode horses, though it is unlikely that they used chariots here – the land is too rocky and there were of course no surfaced roads.
There are an exceptional number of hut circles in the hill-fort at Foel Drygarn; perhaps it was a meeting place for yearly gatherings for the whole area - a time for barter exchange, the replacement of stock, the sale of surpluses and marriage arrangements? The smaller centres at Carningli, Castell Mawr and Garnfawr could have been administrative and craft centres.
The smallest extended family units were probably mostly self sufficient, trading only for salt or small luxuries like glass beads. They would have had to exchange farm surpluses for iron to make their tools, though the fancier weapons were probably made by craftsmen. This was an unsettled and dangerous time. The Romans appeared to have pacified the area to the extent that it was possible for the people at Castell Henllys to leave the restricted fortified area and expand, though they still found it necessary to build a bank around the new annex. The people of South West Wales were known as the Demetae. The Romans built first a fort, then a town at Carmarthen as an administrative centre. There is some evidence of trading, a few coins and some amphorae fragments, but we have no villas in this area.
Carningli Hill-fort is well worth a visit and Castell Henllys is open to the public at advertised times.
Pentre Ifan SN 099370
Carreg Coitan SN 061393
Cerrig y Gof SN 036389
Waun Mawn SN 08393403
Glyn Gath SN 016366
Cot Llwyd SN 060379
Carnffoi SN 045381
Bedd Morris SN 037365
Parc y Meirw SM 998359
Iron Age Enclosures
Carningli SN 063373
Newport Long Street (Hen Castell) SN 058395
Carn Ffoi SN 048379
Castell Henllys SN 117390
Carningli Mountain is covered with prehistoric remains of all ages including ring cairns and round barrows. There are also field boundaries, clearance cairns and many hut-circles.
Many thanks to Nicky Evans for contributing this original research material to the Newport Pembs website. Also many thanks to Dr Brian John for providing the map of Carningli Hillfort. A recent publication dealing with the prehistory of Carningli is Carningli, Land and People, ISBN 978-0-905559-88-9. It is available from local shops in the Newport area.