SNPA Strapline

Snowdonia from the Air

Llyn Trawsfynydd

Snowdonia from the Air

Historic Landscapes

From the Dark Ages to Modern Times

The seven centuries between the collapse of the Roman administration and the arrival of the Normans saw crucially important developments in Welsh politics, society and the church. There are, however, only limited historical sources which are very difficult to interpret and little is known about the archaeology of the period. The most frequent archaeological monuments are the Early Christian memorial stones and their inscriptions give us tantalising glimpses of people of importance who lived in the 6th to 9th centuries. Many of these stones have been found close to churches, emphasising the antiquity of their setting, and others have been found at early cemetery sites or close to the line of Roman roads. One such stone, now in Penmachno Church, was found at the site of Beddau Gwŷr Ardudwy, near Ffestiniog. Its unusual inscription records the grave of Cantiorix who was a citizen of Venedos (i.e. Gwynedd) and cousin of Magli the Magistrate, hinting at a degree of civil administration around the 7th century for which there is little other evidence. A reproduction of this stone has been erected at Garreg Lwyd waterworks (SH 725 427) near its probable find spot.

The only settlement site in Snowdonia which can be dated to the early part of this period is the famous hillfort of Dinas Emrys, near Beddgelert (below). Nennius, a 9th century historian, tells of legendary events here linking the tale of Vortigern and Ambrosius with a pool in which red and white dragons symbolically re-enacted the struggles of the Britons and Saxons. The 1955 excavations recovered finds from the late Roman period onwards, including high quality imported pottery and glass of 5th/6th century date, confirming in a remarkable way that there was occupation here at about the time of the events recorded in the ancient story. In the central hollow of the fort a sub-rectangular pool was found with a stone platform built over its peat and silt filling, beneath which were the remains of wooden structures. These are not easily explicable as conventional buildings and perhaps hint that strange events may indeed have occurred here.  A more prosaic explanation is that the legends are a later addition to the Nennian history, attempting to explain the place name. An interpretation of the evidence could be that Dinas Emrys had a ritual significance, perhaps harking back to prehistoric water-related cults, which was used by a Dark Age chieftain to enhance his position. The finds from the site, which include wine containers from the Mediterranean, a fragment of pottery stamped with the Christian Chi-Rho symbol and evidence for jewellery manufacture, indicate the sophistication and wide-ranging contacts of this chieftain.

There is some evidence for continued use of the hilltop, ending with a rectangular foundation on the summit. There is no documentary record for the date of its construction, but its similarity to the original keep at Dolwyddelan suggests that it may have been a small castle built by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in the late 12th or early 13th century.

Dinas Emrys, Nantgwynant

Dinas Emrys, Nantgwynant

Dinas Emrys, Nantgwynant © RCAHM 965063-69

The summit of this craggy hill was defended by a timber palisade, later replaced by a stone rampart which is just visible in the photograph. The access to the fort was up the very steep slope from the west to a lower shelf which is also defended. The entrances through both ramparts (A,B) are still clearly visible on the ground. The pool (C) is in the deep tree-filled hollow just below the summit. On the highest point stands the foundation (D) of the putative Medieval castle tower. In the background, top centre, is the prehistoric hillfort of Dinas, overlooking Beddgelert. Dinas Emrys is now in the ownership of the National Trust. Recent geophysical survey has shown that the rampart has been vitrified.