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CASTELL NADOLIG HILLFORT, FINDSPOT OF THE LATE IRON AGE PENBRYN SPOONS

Site Details

© Copyright and database right 2020. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey licence number 0100022206

NPRN 304136

Map Reference SN25SE

Grid Reference SN29855040

Unitary (Local) Authority Ceredigion

Old County Cardiganshire

Community Penbryn

Type of Site DEFENDED ENCLOSURE, HILLFORT

Broad Class DEFENCE

Period Iron Age

Site Description Lying alongside the main A487 coast road Castell Nadolig, or ‘Christmas Castle’, occupies a prominent rounded summit at 212m O.D. The busy modern road which passes on the south side of the fort may well fossilize an ancient east-west ridge route which runs along the watershed. The site was first mentioned in the 1695 edition of Camden’s Britannia, with observations by Edward Lhuyd. While relatively prominently sited on a low summit, the interior of the fort is largely invisible from outside on the eastern approaches. On the west and south-west approaches the interior of the outer enclosure can be glimpsed, but the interior of the inner enclosure is invisible from all approaches; nor can the outside world be glimpsed once inside the innermost enclosure. This suggests a level of ‘privacy’ or concealment to the everyday activities practised at Castell Nadolig.

The hillfort is an oval concentric enclosure, measuring about 230m east-west by 185 north-south enclosing 3.8 hectares including the eastern annexe. The inner oval enclosure measures 130m x 78m enclosing 0.84 hectares but is open on the east side where two arms of an ‘antenna’ entrance link through to the outer circuit. The surviving ramparts, now largely incorporated into hedgebanks, stand between 2-3m high and 7-10m wide at their base. There is good evidence for massive stonework used in the rampart walling, with later post medieval repairs to the ramparts evident in the form of drystone walling.

On the east side a roughly crescentic annexe measures about 30m east-west by 136m north-south. The land between the ramparts has long been cultivated and is now set down to pasture, with more recent cross-banks constructed as part of the farming landscape. Earthworks of the plough-denuded ramparts still define the eastern and south-eastern ramparts and stand up to 1m high, surveyed by the Ordnance Survey. These suggest the site of an inturned entrance at the south-east, probably the site of the original main outer gate now slighted by the road. Additional earthworks between the inner and outer enclosures and in the field beyond the western rampart suggest further denuded elements to the fort which require a modern survey.

In 1799 George Lipscomb noted the ongoing damage to the southern defences in his description; ‘Castell yn Do’ig [Nadolig] about two miles farther on [from New Inn]: it is evidently the remains of a British Encampment of very large size. The exact form can not, at this time, be ascertained, the embankments having been destroyed in several places, and the area crossed and intersected by the turf enclosures of the fields. The turnpike road passes over the southern side of this fortification, and the changes which are perpetually making in the surface of the ground, will soon wear out every trace of its original lineaments.’ Nicolas Carlisle in 1811 first noted ‘there is also a tumulus adjoining this fortress’, a description repeated by later visitors.

This hillfort is famous, and unusual, for finds made here in the nineteenth century. A pair of bronze ‘spoons’ were unearthed at Castell Nadolig, Penbryn, from beneath a heap of stones in around 1829. Believed to be used in divination, one bears a cross incision and is perforated by four holes, which were then inlaid with different metals. The other has no marks except a single hole, offset towards the right-hand edge of the spoon. Dating to the 1st century BC (100BC – AD 0) the ‘Penbryn Spoons’ now reside in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with copies in the Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth. Only 26 other similar spoons are known from Britain, Ireland and France of which the Castell Nadolig pair – unearthed in 1829 - were the earliest to be found. They were not brought to wider attention until published in Archaeologia Cambrensis by Barnwell in 1862. A recent study by Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick (2007) suggests they were likely to have been used by religious specialists, while reanalysis found that at least one of the small holes on the cross-incised spoon was originally inlaid with gold which is currently unparalleled in the British Iron Age.

The site was visited during the 1859 Cardigan Meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association (Malet, 1859, 328) when burials were recorded but before the 1829 spoon finds were widely known; ‘The next object recorded was a large, strongly fortified camp, called Castell Nadolig, well situated for commanding the passes to the south. The form is unusual, being nearly semicircular, having two lines of defence on the side of its chord, the outer one which is straight, and runs nearly parallel with the present road, the inner one presenting three curves. Another camp joins on to this work, in which was lately found, under a large stone now lying on the spot, three urns containing ashes. Near the same spot may be also seen a considerable number of bones, on the surface of the ground, which have undergone the action of fire…’

No record of the whereabouts of the urns is known, but a large rectangular slab – the only stone of any size on the land - measuring 150 cms x 77cm, being 40cms thick, now resides in a field to the north of Temple Bar Farm. In addition the gateposts of an old gate on the south-west side of the outer enclosure opening onto the road are formed of two sandstone slabs, both measuring 0.7m high and between 0.5-0.8m wide.

A prominent rock-cut spring marked by a pool of water lies against the inner rampart on the south-west side, measuring 12m x 6m (Driver 2016, 104-7). Several other springs occur in surrounding fields, while a large springhead, now a bog at the head of a stream, lies below and to the east of Temple Bar Farm. The frequency of wells and springs here may have contributed to the selection of the site for a fort whose inhabitants practiced divination and possibly burial.
In December 2019 a new high resolution magnetic gradiometer survey was completed of the site, and the fields to the east and west, by SUMO Services for the Royal Commission, which identified a group of plough-levelled barrows immediately outside and to the east of the fort. The summary of results notes:

‘A detailed magnetometry survey was conducted over approximately 7.8 ha of pasture at Castell Nadolig, Ceredigion, with the aim of clarifying the nature of the hillfort and any internal or external buried remains. The survey has identified the ditches associated with the fort and a possible entranceway is visible into the main enclosure on its eastern side. Two sub-circular responses within the main enclosure provide tentative evidence of domestic use. The eastern,
crescent-shaped annex is clearly visible, and contains a tentative ring-ditch at its southern extent. A complex of ring-ditches have been identified to the east of the hillfort which are likely to represent funerary monuments.’ (Fradgley, R. 2019, 2)

Toby Driver, RCAHMW, December 2019

References:
Barnwell, E. L. 1862. Bronze articles supposed to be spoons. Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol. VIII Third Series, 208-219.
Craw, J.H. 1923-4. On two bronze spoons from an early Iron Age grave near Burnmouth, Berwickshire. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 52, 143-60.
Davies and Kirby 1994, Cardigan County History Volume I, 187, 243, 272
Driver, T. 2016. The Hillforts of Cardigan Bay. Logaston Press
Fitzpatrick, A P. 2007. ‘Druids: Towards an archaeology’ in C. Gosden, H. Harrow, P. de Jersey and G. Lock (eds). Communities and Connections: Essays in honour of Barry Cunliffe (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 287-315.
Fradgley, R. 2019. Geophysical Survey Report: Castell Nadolig, Ceredigion. Survey Report 16161, December 2019. SUMO Geophysics Ltd, Upton upon Severn.
Lipscomb, George, Journey into South Wales…in the year 1799, (London, 1802), p. 170-171
Malet, 1859. Cardigan Meeting – report, Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol V, Third series. 1859. 320-352
Murphy, K and Mytum, H. 2012. Iron Age Enclosed Settlements in West Wales. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society Vol. 78, 263-313.
Ordnance Survey record card description for SN 25 SE 4
Way, A. 1870. Notices of Certain Bronze Relics, of a Peculiar Type, Assigned to the Late Celtic Period. Archaeologia Cambrensis. Volume 1, Fourth Series, 199-234

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