Regional Historic Environment Record
Hillfort, Dinas Emrys, BeddgelertPrimary Reference Number (PRN) : 1462
Trust : Gwynedd
Community : Beddgelert
NGR : SH60604920
Site Type (preferred type first) : Early Medieval HILLFORT
Legal Protection : Scheduled Ancient Monument
Dinas Emrys is well known as the site of the legendary confrontation between Vortigern and Ambrosius, recounted by Nennius in the 9th century. The site occupies a small, steep-sided hill some 70m above the floor of the Glaslyn valley. The summit is craggy and irregular with an enclosed area of approximately 1.2 hectares.
The fort was partially excavated by H.N.Savory in 1954 and since then a number of different and occasionally contradictary interpretations of the site have been offered. However the main phases of occupations seem to start with a possible palisade of pre-Roman date, followed by an early Romano British phase evidenced by 1st century AD pottery. A later Romano British phase is indicated by ceramics and glassware, including late 3rd or 4th century mortaria and colour coated wares. The glassware is dated as late or post Roman. An imported amphora and a sherd of pottery stamped with the chi-rho symbol are evidence of early medieval use of the site - this is also the period to which the ramparts are thought to date. The latest phase of activity on the site is the rectangular stone tower, likely to belong the the reign of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (d.AD 1240).
A fort occupying a small hill the ancient remains are generally ruinous and confused.
The entrance seems to have been from the west end, the natural line of the ascent in narrowed by a ruinous wall. Above this the ascent led to a gap in a second rampart, about 80yds east of the first. This rampart extends for about 40yds ending on the top of the precipices. The innermost rampart lies 40yds further east penetrated by a gap. Halfway between these two ramparts access is further hindered by a natural crag about 10ft high, ending on a precipices, and only to be passed by a narrow track.
The ramparts are very ruinous, but they appear to have been about 10ft thick, of rubble faced with laid stone. Where natural slopes provide sufficient defence the walls seems to be absent or have been reduced to no more than an ordinary field boundary in thickness.
A tower measures 32ft N - S by 23ft the walls are about 4ft thick with the external face battered of rubble masonry laid dry and jointed with clay, there is no visible entrance.
The remains are probably those of a 12th century tower comparable to the earlier building at Dolwyddelan.
Dinas Emrys figures in several traditional stories Nennius records magical events associated with Vortigern's attempt to build a palace above the spring there, later the burial of the dragons which appear in that story is explained, and a very late tradition makes the fort the site of a battle between Owen son of Maximus, and the Irishman Urnach. <1>
An Iron Age bronze teret from this site is now in the NMW. <2>
Dating of a sample of wood from a 1.2m deep posthole yielded a date of 650+ or -100yrs. The sample was originally thought to be Iron Age. C14 date of 650+/- 100yrs unexpectedly late. Sample originally thought to be Iron Age with site extending into the 12th century. <3>
Site description <4> <5> <6>
A stone walled fort making use of natural scarps or slope and therefore irregular in outline, with a lower annexe enclosing a lower terrace of the hill. (Smith, 2006)
Dinas Emrys has been the focus for relatively extensive excavations in the twentieth century, with work being undertaken first by Breese in 1810 (1930) and later by Savory in the 1950s (1960). The site was the focus for much antiquarian work as it figures in a number of Medieval linguistic and mythological sources (Savory 1960, 13). The hillfort boundaries (Figure 6.45) have been interpreted as dating to the Iron Age (W. Davies 1980, 383), the post-Roman period (Savory 1960) or the early medieval period (Edwards and Lane 1988, 56).
The hillfort is bounded by a stone faced rampart wall up to 3m thick, which incorporated the natural topography in places, and with a simple oval-shaped annex located on a lower terrace where the western entranceway is positioned. While the entrance through the annex comprised a simple gap, the inner rampart had an in-turned entranceway and this was probably the original entrance to the enclosure.
A number of areas were investigated by Breese (1930) and these included the rectangular-shaped stone building on the summit of the hilltop. The rubble infilling the rectangular building was found to contain fragments of rotary querns as well as bronze objects comprising studs, ring-shaped objects and wire, many of which were gold plated, alongside some struck flint and pottery (Breese 1930, 347-8). Many of the objects were retrieved from a layer of charcoal but the finds have unfortunately been lost. The building itself was c. 9.7m by 7m and was constructed from clay-jointed stone-faced walls. It was acknowledged that this form of construction does not occur in other early medieval settlements and it may be a keep or tower dating to the twelfth century AD (Savory 1960, 15-16). Part of the badly disturbed ramparts to the north was also investigated and quernstone fragments and animal bones were recovered. A turret, made from iron and bronze, was found in an area next to the internal pond (Breese 1930, 349). This find hints at a phase of occupation in the late first or second century AD (Edwards and Lane 1988, 56).
Savory’s excavations were comprehensive and he targeted a number of different zones, including sections through the ramparts, the pond and the keep (1960, 18). The excavations of the rampart demonstrated its structure was largely uniform and consisted of inner and outer facing stones with a rubble and earth core (Savory 1960, 21), similar to most Iron Age hillforts in the region. The rampart in area of the inner entrance was found to be constructed on top of a dark-earth occupation soil which contained charcoal. This layer apparently spread out either side of the rampart and it contained fragments of late fourth century AD pottery, and hence the ramparts have been interpreted as post-Roman in date. None of the pottery derived from the layer sealed directly beneath the banks and it is possible that the post-Roman deposits represent colluvial accumulations against the bank, which would post-date its construction. A number of postholes and a gully were discovered around the inner and outer walls of the entrance, some which were sealed by the rampart and indicate an earlier phase of roundhouse construction and a row of postholes running along the inner face of the bank were interpreted as an early timber palisade (Savory 1960, 24). These features were all sealed by the late Romano-British layers and they probably belong to an earlier phase of hillfort construction in the first millennium BC.
Early medieval occupation is well demonstrated by the finds assemblage recovered from occupation contexts inside the hillfort. A deposit within the entranceway produced a sherd of Mediterranean imported ware, and finds from other occupation deposits within the vicinity were also dated as Romano-British and early medieval. The internal pond contained a wooden cistern structure which was dated to the later centuries of the early medieval period due to the recovery of Mediterranean imported wares which were associated with construction contexts of the pond (Savory 1960, 20). An unusual and vaguely linear and concentric arrangement of 33 postholes was discovered at the base of the cistern (Savory 1960, 33). The overall plan of the postholes suggest that they supported a wooden platform, which was roughly circular in shape, with outlying posts possibly indicating small walkways which led to the platform from the dryer ground. The lower silts infilling the cistern also produced an early medieval sherd as well as a radiocarbon date of cal. AD 1265-1410 (Edwards and Lane 1988, 56). A stone lined pit was also identified in the central area and this was found to contain fragments of ceramics or daub (Savory 1960, 56-7) which were later identified as hearth lining (Edwards and Lane 1988, 56). An iron brooch and handle fitting, a crucible fragment and some sherds of Romano-British pottery were also found nearby (Savory 1960, 37). A curvilinear gully cutting the upper fills of the stone-lined pit reveals the presence of a roundhouse in the area as well.
A layer of dark-earth occupation deposits overlay the central area and this produced finds dating to the fourth and sixth century AD, including pottery and glass vessels, animal bone, slag, brick, slate, and iron and stone artefacts. Stone rectangular buildings and roundhouse, c. 5m in diameter, were constructed on top of this layer and over the infilled cistern (Savory 1960, 38). These buildings are associated with the occupation of the hillfort in the early medieval period. A large pit filled with slag and clay deposits was interpreted as a metalworking feature, and while it contained a sherd of early Romano-British pottery, it is argued to be sub-Roman in date due to its stratigraphic relationship to the other deposits (Savory 1960, 40).
This account demonstrates how complex the site is, as well as the difficulties faced by archaeologists in securely assigning particular contexts with the various phases of occupation. While no dateable finds have been recovered which would demonstrate an Iron Age phase of occupation, the stratigraphic sequence does suggest that this is a complex site and a first millennium BC origin should be considered. The finds assemblage certainly reveals that the site was the focus for building and occupation during the first millennium AD. Sherds of early Romano-British grey-wares, amphorae and samian wares were recovered, but the later Roman material is more abundant, consisting of ceramic and glass vessels (Edwards and Lane 1988, 56). The recovery of 45 pottery sherds dating to the fifth – seventh centuries reveals that the site continued to be an important monument in the first few centuries of the early medieval period. (Waddington 2013)
Smith, G. , 2006 , A Survey of Prehistoric Defended Enclosures in North-west Wales 2005-6: Gwynedd Dwyfor and Meirionnydd. Part 2: Management Gazetteer
Smith, G. , 2006 , A Survey of Prehistoric Defended Enclosures in North-west Wales 2005-6: Gwynedd Dwyfor and Meirionnydd ( © GAT)
Waddington, K. , 2010 , Early Celtic Societies in North Wales
Waddington, K. , 2013 , The Settlements of Northwest Wales: From the Late Bronze Age to the Early Medieval Period
Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments , 1960 , Caernarvonshire , <1>
Ordnance Survey , 1976 , SH64NW 2 , <2>
Taylor, A. J. , 1980 , Culture and Environment in Prehistoric Wales , <3>
Davidson, A. , 1988 , FMW Caernarvonshire , <4>
Breese, C. E. , 1930 , Archaeologia Cambrensis , <5>
Savory, H. N. , 1960 , Archaeologia Cambrensis , <6>
Davidson, A. , 1993 , Dinas Emrys Camp , <7>
Brooks, I. & Laws, K. , 2002 , Topographical and Geophysical Surveys at Dinas Emrys , <8>
Campbell, E. , 2007 , Continental and Mediterranean Imports to Atlantic Britain and Ireland, AD 400-800 , <9>
Russell, M. , 2009 , Current Archaeology , <10>
Taylor, A. J. , 1951 , The Archaeological News Letter , <11>
Avent, R. , 1983 , Castles of the Princes of Gwynedd , <12>
Davies, W. , 1982 , Wales in the Early Middle Ages , <13>
Cathcart King, D. J. , 1983 , Castellarium Anglicanum , <14>
Avent, R. , 1994 , Chateau Gaillard , <15>
Kenyon, R. & Williams, D. , 2010 , The Impact of the Edwardian Castles in Wales , <16>
Barker, P. & Higham, R. , 2004 , Timber Castles , <17>
42000 : Cn 018 Fmw Site Visit (year : 1988)
42001 : The Fort of Dinas Emrys (year : 1910)
42002 : Excavations at Dinas Emrys, Beddgelert, 1954-56 (year : 1956)
40996 : C14 Dates (year : 1980)
42003 : Cn 018 Fmw Site Visit (year : 1993)
40618 : A Survey of Prehistoric Defended Enclosures in North-west Wales 2005-6: Gwynedd Dwyfor and Meirionnydd (year : 2006)
44557 : Early Celtic Societies in North Wales (year : 2010)
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