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.
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.
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)