Dinas Powys Hillfort: A Dark Ages Trading Center


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When the Romans abandoned Britain around 410, an economy based on mass production and export collapsed. But international trade did not die. From the 5th through 7th centuries, the inhabitants of Dinas Powys hillfort might have enjoyed olive oil, spices, and other imports.

Southwest of today’s Cardiff, Wales, the hillfort is a treasure trove for anyone interested in post-Roman Celtic life. Anglo-Saxons (a catchall term for Germanic tribes who migrated to England) didn’t conquer Wales. The site probably was abandoned around 700, but a nearby village of the same name exists today.

Cadoxton River

The Cadoxton River, near Dinas Powys hillfort (by Jaggery, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 410, Britons might have thought themselves freed from Roman occupation. Still, they needed to rely on resources close to home for survival, and they faced the constant threat of invasion from opportunistic Irish, Picts, and Anglo-Saxons.

When Dinas Powys, the setting for “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” was thriving, it was home to a petty king and his family, along with household servants, weavers, and metalsmiths. The property is about one-fourth of an acre, about the size of a good-sized lot in the United States.

Two stone buildings apparently sat at right angles to each other. One was a 600-square-foot hall, a place for feasting. The meals often included meat, particularly pork, but the livestock was likely raised elsewhere and bought into the fortress. The second structure, about half the size of the first, might have been used for storage or slave sleeping quarters. I can imagine it as a treasury.

The hillfort was in a forested area about 1.5 miles from the sea, a good location to trade with merchants who sailed from far-away lands.

Whoever chose the hillfort’s site had defense in mind. The fortress was on a ridge, with steep slopes to the north and west. Over ensuing decades, its rulers constructed a series of ramparts and ditches on the southern part of the area, and they employed smiths to smelt and craft iron, essential for armor and weapons.

The defenses served other purposes. Commoners did the actual building, probably as a service to their king. This reinforced the social order—peasants served their lord, and their lord protected them from enemies. Bulwarks and ditches were also a show of wealth—that the family had possessions worth guarding.

The kings were indeed protecting their source of wealth, much of it not from Britain. Archeologists have found North African and Mediterranean amphorae that could have contained olive oil or wine. The family might have also bought spices, dried foods that didn’t grow in their climate, or textiles.

Amphorae Detail

Detail from illustration by S. Martin-Kilcher CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the kitchen, servants used unglazed, undecorated, and unpainted course ware from western Gaul. Made on a wheel, jugs, jars, and bowls were light brown to grey but could also be red, black, or cream. Hard and gritty, the surface looks like someone had wiped or sponged it while it was still wet.

At the table, visitors would have seen imported pottery, a better quality than vessels made by Britons. Plates, bowls, cups, and mortaria (bowls with flanges and embedded with sand or grit to pound and mix food) from the Bordeaux region would have greyish-black slip, and the bowls featured rouletting and stamp decorations.

Host and guests might have drunk that imported wine from a Kentish blue-glass squat beaker, similar to one in an Anglo-Saxon princely burial, or glass bowls. Apparently, the Celts and Anglo-Saxons weren’t always fighting.

What the kings at Dinas Powys traded for these goods is open to speculation.

They probably didn’t pay with money. The system of exchanging coins for products went away with the Romans.

So the kings needed commodities worth a long and hazardous voyage from the Mediterranean. The fortress could produce cloth, furs, and leather, and it had hearths for melting copper-alloy, silver, gold, and glass, and making the materials into jewelry. Bronze Roman coins might be worth more if they were melted and shaped into a brooch.

The kings might have been something of middlemen, too, trading goods made elsewhere in Britain with merchants from overseas. At their feasts, they would give and receive presents. Perhaps, they exchanged some of those gifts—say an Anglo-Saxon glass claw beaker—a few amphorae of wine.

The finds at Dinas Powys show us Britain was not completely isolated from the rest of the world after the Romans left. Those discoveries also cut into a few stereotypes about the Dark Ages. Although life in early medieval times was far from ideal by 21st century Western standards, it was not all poverty and war.

This post was originally published on English Historical Fiction Authors.


Dinas Powys in Context: Settlement and Society in Post-Roman Wales by Andrew Seaman

Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, by Geoffrey Ashe

“Early Medieval E Ware Potter: An Unassuming but Enigmatic Kitchen Ware?” by Ian W Doyle, Fragments of Lives Past: Archeological objects from the Irish road schemes

“Mediterranean and Frankish pottery imports in early medieval Ireland” by Ian W. Doyle, The Journal of Irish Archaeology, Vol. 18 (2009)



Roman Invaders’ Exit Shakes the British Economy


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In the West, it’s hard to imagine an economy without money. Five slips of paper is worth a good stout from the local brewery. We often don’t bother with the paper. A swipe of the plastic card and those five dollars go from our account to the tavern’s, which uses those dollars to buy grain to make more beer.

The Romans also believed in money, in very tangible coins. That’s how Rome paid its soldiers, including those in faraway Britain. The warriors then spent those coins on food, drink, and whatever else they needed.

Roman money

Photo by Sailko, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With their vast empire, the Romans also introduced Britain to a system of mass production and export. Farmers grew grain that could feed distant cities. Pottery made in British factories could be shipped elsewhere in the empire.

When the Romans left Britain in 410, it was liberation or abandonment, depending on your point of view. But no one could deny the economy changed.

Now that Britain was no longer part of the empire, making products on a mass scale and growing crops strictly for export didn’t make sense. Climate change and cooler and wetter weather had already made agriculture more difficult, with fewer places to farm and shorter growing seasons.

The system of money was another casualty. The system works when people believe the coin is worth something more than the metal. Without a Roman government to back it, the value of the coin often was the metal itself.

Britons needed to become self-reliant and turn to resources closer to home. My characters in “Betrothed to the Red Dragon” are no exception.

But as you will see soon, international trade did not die.


Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

Cats: Who Domesticated Whom?


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There are times when Ellie the cat (1995-2015) would remind me of ancient Egypt. When she sat upright, I thought of a statue of the goddess Bastet.

This comes to mind as I write about cats in Arthurian Britain for English Historical Fiction Authors. Cats in 5th century Britain weren’t that different from the felines who hunted mice in granaries 10,000 years. The friendlier ones decided to hang out with the humans who fed them table scraps.

My reasoning comes from something that happened in 1996. A year-old stray approached my husband while he was in the garage, and he gave her cat food. The next morning, I almost tripped on the dead mouse she left on the doormat. It was intact—perhaps her way of thanking us.

Of course we took her in and named her Ellie.

Ellie the cat



Released to public domain by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons

Celtic Cosmetics in the Dark Ages


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A scene in “Betrothed to the Red Dragon” has my heroine getting dolled up for an important visitor. This is not a date. Rather, she is conveying her respect and her status.

In 5th century Britain, Gwenhwyfar has her maid braid her hair and secure the plaits with glass beads. Combs were essential for men and women, and were carried in a special pouch.

Dye from elderberry reddens Gwenhwyfar’s cheeks, lips, and nails. Dye from another berry darkens her eyebrows. Women (and men) could check their looks in mirrors made of polished bronze or silver.

Celtic mirror

Photographed in the British Museum, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Perfume, made from steeping flowers in oils or wine, was applied to skin, combed in hair, and sometimes sprinkled on clothing. Gwenhwyfar opts for lavender, an herb to increase ardor. She doesn’t want to marry, but she will use every weapon she can.

Her male guest, Artorius, is also aware of his appearance and uses it to convey his rank. His cheeks are shaved, and he wears a torc, a silver collar.

Both of them choose clothing with the most expensive dye: red. The color flatters them but not in the way you may think. It is proof they have wealth.

Fussing over appearance is universal thing. We’re making ourselves attractive, sometimes for romance, sometimes to show we’re professional.

For Gwenhwyfar and Artorius, it’s a bit of both.


Early Gaelic Dress: An Introduction by Scott Barrett

Samhain: The Start of a New Year


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Although she is a Christian, Gwenhwyfar, the heroine of “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” would have observed Samhain, or Calan Gaeaf as it was called in Wales (where my Gwenhwyfar’s fortress is). At this time of year, she would attend sunrise Mass at the church she patronizes, and at dusk, join the revelers dancing around the bonfire.

In the 5th century, long before the Church adopted All Saint’s Day, she is like many Britons. Her beliefs in the supernatural are a mix of Christian theology and Celtic paganism. She will show Christian piety yet respect the pagan rites to celebrate the harvest, help the season of growth and fertility return, and keep the otherworldly beings from wreaking havoc.


By Roger Griffith

Like a lot of things about this time period, the exact nature of those rites remains unclear, and they varied by region.

The ancient Celts divided the year into summer and winter. Samhain (pronounced sow-an or sow-in) means summer’s end, and Calan Gaeaf means first day of winter. Either way, it marked the start of the new year.

Samhain falls on a cross-quarter day, between an equinox and a solstice. Celts would do the practical things to get ready for winter—bring in the harvest and collect the herds and slaughter all but the breeding stock. While there was all this meat, it was a good time for a feast. And find other enjoyment afterward—it was a favorable time for women to get pregnant.

It was also a magical time. The Three Cranes (what we call the Pleiades) would reach the highest point at midnight. Celtic souls came from this group of stars. The holy day was the boundary between light and dark. The line between mortals and otherworldly beings, and the living and the dead, blurred.


Atlas Image courtesy of 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF

Bonfires were started afresh from rubbing wood on wood. Representing the sun, the sacred bonfire was a source for a new fire brought to each house. With the gates between natural and supernatural open, Celts saw this as a time for divination. In Wales, revelers danced around the fire and placed stones with their names into the flames. Before the fire died, they hurried home to escape the short-tailed black sow and lady in white. If any stone with a name was missing the next morning, that person would die within a year.

Gwenhwyfar heard those stories growing up, along Adam’s fall from Grace and Jesus’s Resurrection. In a time when supernatural forces could determine survival through winter and victory on the battlefield, it made sense to please every deity. If lighting a fire brought summer back a few months later, so be it.

Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons.


“Samhain and the Celtic Origins of Halloween” by Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night

A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick

Sacred Texts

Pleiades star cluster, aka Seven Sisters” EarthSky

Celtic Astrology from the Druids to the Middle Ages by M.G. Boutet

Myths and Legends of the Celts by James MacKillop

Little Book of Welsh Culture by Mark Rees

Sin and Grace: The Debate Goes Back a Long, Long Way


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Did Adam’s sin taint all of humanity? Does divine grace spring from the human will or is it implanted by God?

Those questions go back well over a millennium. In the fifth century, a monk who came up with answers the Church didn’t like was branded a heretic. Priests would tolerate vestiges of paganism like a believer wearing an amulet, but they could not ignore one of their own attacking core beliefs. Such disagreements threatened the Church’s unity and its power.

See my post at English Historical Fiction Authors for more about Pelagianism and the Church’s fight against it.

Illumination of Adam and Eve

Illumination from 12th century Passionary of Weissenau

A Delightful Curse on a Lead Scroll


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Only a historical novelist would use the word “delightful” to describe a curse inscribed on a rolled thin sheet of lead. Well, maybe an archaeologist or historian might know what I mean.

In research for my short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” I came across this tidbit. Followers of the Celtic deity Sulis would write their requests to her on a lead scroll or tablet and toss it in a sacred hot spring at Bath. When the Roman ruled over Britain, that spring did some double duty as a space for devotion to Sulis and the Roman goddess Minerva. In fact, she is often called Sulis Minerva.

Roman baths

Roman baths at Bath Spa in England (Photo by David Iliff, license CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To polytheistic Celts, it was not a big deal. They could still worship Sulis and let her know their wishes, a lot of them calls for justice. If the Romans wanted to call her Minerva and ask for her assistance, fine. The Romans cared little about the religion of the people they conquered except for one thing: acknowledge their emperor as a god. A lot of polytheistic religions likely greeted this with a shrug. What was one more god after all? They could even distance themselves and say that the Romans have their gods and we have ours.

The Jews were having none of it, but they were not proselytizing. So their belief was confined. Christians posed another problem. Like the Jews, they refused to accept any other deity, and they were trying to convert other people to see the world as they did. That was one reason Christians were persecuted, especially when a natural disaster like a drought hit. Pagans and Christians believed the cause was an angry deity, but they disagreed on who offended what supernatural being.

Christians got a break in 313, when Constantine the Great proclaimed they would be tolerated. Their faith became mainstream in 337, when the Roman emperor accepted baptism shortly before his death.

Sulis Minerva

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet religion among Britons in the fourth and fifth centuries was fluid. Seemingly disparate sets of beliefs could coexist not only in society, but within the same person. No one would fault a midwife who whispered a spell to an expectant mother to ease her labor. Nor did wearing an amulet alongside a cross draw much attention.

Some habits are just too hard to break. When your harvest or victory in battle depended on pleasing deities (or at least not angering them), it didn’t hurt to hedge your bets.

A request to Sulis Minerva on a small scroll of lead is more tangible evidence of Christianity and paganism existing side by side. About 130 such requests, or curse tablets, were excavated from Bath, and many more remain buried. Throughout Britain, there are about 500.

These tablets are thin pieces of lead or pewter inscribed in a somewhat formulaic way. In the case of theft, it’s a complaint, name of the thief or catch-all phraseology if the perpetrator is unknown, name of the victim, and the appeal to the goddess. The piece is then rolled and folded to be legible only to the goddess and pierced with a nail.

Folded curse

Folded curse from the Temple Courtyard in Bath (photo by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The reason I find delight in one from a guy named Annianus is that I am hearing the beliefs of an ordinary Christian in his own words (in translation).

Annianus, son of Matutina, signed his name, so it’s not like he’s hiding anything. Annianus is believed to be Christian because he used the word “pagan,” a term only an early medieval Christian would use to distinguish other religions. Apparently Annianus doesn’t know the thief, but on the back of his request, he provides Sulis Minerva with 18 names, probably people he suspects.

What Annianus asks for is anything but Christian: “Whether pagan or Christian, whosoever man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free has stolen from me, Annianus, six silver coins from my purse, you lady goddess are to extract … the blood of him who has invoked this upon me.”

Apparently, Annianus set aside that part of no other gods for the moment, and that part about forgiving your enemies hadn’t gotten through to Annianus.

In Annianus’s defense, those lost coins might have been six days of wages. One of those coins would have bought enough wheat for 20 loaves of bread. If he were a soldier, six silver coins could buy him a pair of boots and a good cloak.

The fellow likely just wanted his coins back. Appealing to Sulis Minerva might have been his best chance at justice.


Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, edited by John G. Gager

Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint by Brian Wright

Curse Tablets of Roman Britain

What Were They Worth? The Purchasing Power of Ancient Coins,” CoinWeek

Originally published Aug. 23, 2017, on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Announcing: ‘Betrothed to the Red Dragon’


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Today is launch day for my short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” my interpretation of Arthur and Guinevere—or Artorius and Gwenhwyfar as I call them—and why they marry.

This is somewhat intimidating. There are countless interpretations of the legends and the characters, and yet here I am, adding my version to the mix.

Betrothed to the Red DragonMy story is based on a legend that places Gwenhwyfar as monarch and Artorius as a general. The dynamic of a woman holding power in her own right intrigued me.

The plot is my imagination, but the setting and culture are as true as I can make them. The story takes place in fifth century Britain, when very little was written down, and the accounts are biased. We don’t even know if Arthur existed.

My Gwenhwyfar is a strong-willed queen, content to rule alone, but the Saxons are fighting their way west. When her own captain dies, she turns to an outsider—the general Artorius—for assistance. What he wants in return is more than she bargained for: her hand in marriage.

You will need to read the story to see how this turns out, and you can get it on Amazon. If you have Prime or Kindle Unlimited, it’s free. Get “Betrothed to the Red Dragon” now.

Tiff over Tonsures


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In The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, my heroine’s 9-year-old daughter asks an interesting question about accepting an offer of baptism: “Do we have to shave our hair in that strange way?”

The reply from Anglo-Saxon priest Father Osbald: “No, child. The tonsure is an honor reserved only for men of the clergy.”

To Father Osbald, there is only one true tonsure, the Roman style, or that of Saint Peter, in eighth century Europe. It’s the style we’re most familiar with – the head shaved except for a circle along the outside, resembling the Crown of Thorns.

But he would have been aware of a century-old controversy over which tonsure is the right one, the Roman or the Celtic, associated with St. John. (The other type, the Eastern, or St. Paul’s, where the whole head is shaved, was not part the dispute.)

Clerics with tonsures

9th century illustration, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Speculation about the shape of the Celtic tonsure varies. Either the back of the head is shaved ear to ear, or the forehead is shaved in a similar fashion, or the shaven area resembles a triangle. Scholar Daniel McCarthy, who examined primary sources, believes the Celtic tonsure was triangular, with the apex forming a V above the forehead. As the name implies, the Celtic tonsure was favored by the northern Irish and the Picts, especially those who followed the Rule of Saint Columbanus.

The controversy existed at least since the 664 Synod of Whitby, where the tonsure was debated. In a 672 letter to the king of Cornwall and Devon, Aldhelm, abbot of Malmsbury, is none too pleased to hear rumors of clerics in that area refusing to wear the tonsure of Saint Peter. Aldhelm goes on to allege that the Celtic style was worn by Simon Magus, a sorcerer who appears in the Acts of the Apostles.

Eighth century writers would echo Aldhelm’s claims of the Celtic tonsure’s link with Simon Magus, even though the evidence Simon wore his hair that way is hearsay at best. However, the triangular shape might have been favored by magi in Biblical times and resembled a style worn by druids.

The controversy over the clerical haircut, along with when to celebrate the Resurrection, would continue through the eighth century and at least into the ninth, as evidenced by an 817 order from Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, to the Abbey of Landevenec to conform to the Roman tonsure.

A clerical dispute over a haircut might seem a bit baffling to us in the 21st century. But in medieval times, a hairstyle was a statement of faith. According to a legend on the origin of the tonsure, people who wanted to mock Peter shaved his head, but Christ blessed his apostle, transforming the dishonor into a crown “with the stone and rock of faith,” as Germanus of Constantinople puts it.

Priests and monks would want to imitate Saint Peter, the first pope, not a damned sorcerer.


On the Shape of the Insular Tonsure, Daniel McCarthy

Tonsure” by William Fanning, Catholic Encyclopedia

On the Divine Liturgy by Germanus of Constantinople

This post was originally published on Sept. 17, 2013 at English Historical Fiction Authors.

Germanus is OK with the Forced Tonsure?

When I read a saint’s story, every once in a while I find something hard to believe. And I’m not talking about the miracles.

In this case, it’s about Saint Germanus and how a bishop forced him into the priesthood. Germanus, a high-ranking military official living in luxury, accepted it as God’s will.

Wait a minute. He’s OK with this? His wife and her powerful family are OK with this?

Apparently, they were. Read my post on English Historical Fiction Authors for more.

St. Germanus

Stained glass window in Truro Cathedral, c.1907 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)