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The Realm of Vortigern
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The Treasure of Vortigern
Robert Vermaat

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Rhaeadr

Rhaeadr Gwy/Rhayader
Treasure
Powys
Very good access for the disabledFree access to the monument
Nearest town: Rhayader
Map reference: SN 970680
Location of Rhaeadr Gwy by UK Streetmap

This page is associated with
Rhayader & District History Archives


On the 26th of May 1899, a treasure of both Late Roman and Late Celtic artwork came to light on a hillside deep inside Wales. Could this treasure have belonged to Vortigern?

The treasure of Rhayader;  one gold ring set with onyx and engraved on the setting an ant, a portion of a gold necklet of nine pieces (eight links set with stones and one stone with the link missing), one piece of gold scroll, a small piece of embossed gold (both forming part of the necklet) and a gold armlet in four pieces.
The treasure of Rhayader; one gold ring set with onyx and engraved on the setting an ant, a portion of a gold necklet of nine pieces (eight links set with stones and one stone with the link missing), one piece of gold scroll, a small piece of embossed gold (both forming part of the necklet) and a gold armlet in four pieces. (click here to enlarge)

The Find

On that fateful day, a young man from the Welsh village of Cwmdauddwr, by the name of James Marston happened to climb among the Carregwynion Rocks in the parish of Nantmel. He later stated he only meant to roll a stone downhill to scare the foxes out, which may have been a senseless act of bored vandalism in itself, but things turned out differently. When he took the iron bar he had with him and started to dislodge a piece of rock, he noticed that several pieces of material fell out of the crevice he just made. Gold! Our young man must have been both shocked and flabbergasted. Jewellery! Did he just make his fortune?

As it turned out, our James must have been more of a gentleman than his playful acts with rocks seemed to make of him, or else something happened that made an honest man out of him. But most probably it was the reason that the find became known to a large audience! Anyhow, he turned his find over to the High Sheriff of the county. But not after he did send one piece of jewellery to London to be tested, which piece unfortunately was melted down in order to establish the amount of gold. And lo and behold, it was found to be 22.5 carat gold! Maybe this shocked our James into handing the lot over, or else well-meaning friends did. For British law stipulates that, if the true owner cannot be established, the find is declared a treasure-trove, and the finder gets the lot or most of it. This law, crated under Edward I, holds that when gold, silver or plate are found under certain conditions (such as dropping rocks down slopes), it is the duty of the coroner to hold an inquest to discover who is the finder and the owner.

Anyhow, the High Sheriff, Col. Stephen W. Williams, notified the British Museum, and a coroner’s inquiry was held at Magistrate’ Room, Rhyader, in the presence of a large crowd. This inquest entailed that a jury would have to decide the true owner of the treasure, in accordance with the law I mentioned above. Our James testified that he had found the jewellery loose in the ground, and not in any case, and that he had handed the lot to the High Sheriff when he knew it was he duty to do so (I guess the word when is significant here..). The Sheriff confirmed this, after which Mr. Reed, Director-General of Antiquities of the British Museum, gave a written evidence that the pieces were clearly Roman, but with late Celtic work, and that our (by now) lucky man James, under a Treasury minute of 1886, was the full owner of the lot, minus 20 percent (but who’s counting..). And a rich man no doubt, though nowhere is mentioned what the final value amounted to.

The Treasure

What did the treasure contain? The inquest reported one gold ring set with onyx and engraved on the setting an ant, a portion of a gold necklet of nine pieces (eight links set with stones and one stone with the link missing), one piece of gold scroll, a small piece of embossed gold (both forming part of the necklet) and a gold armlet in four pieces. They were described by the High Sheriff (who thus proves to have been an antiquarian or at least a kind of expert in ancient artwork) in the following way:

The Rhayader RingThe Ring

The Ring is distinctly of Roman workmanship. The onyx with which it is set has been engraved at a very early period. This can be seen by the fact that the interior of the engraving is highly polished – a characteristic of Egyptian, Greek and Roman times. (Click here to enlarge) Later comment from the British Museum: The ring has a thick loop expanding at the bezel which is set with an intaglio of banded onyx engraved with an ant. Diameter 2.7 cm.

The Rhayader NeckletThe Necklet

The stones with which the necklet are set are carnelians with the exception of two, which are blue stones of an unknown quality, one possibly being an amethyst or a sapphire, but more probably of blue paste. Between each section of the necklet set with stones is a small plate of embossed gold with somewhat peculiar ornament thereon of Celtic type. The filigree work round the stones is of very beautiful character, composed entirely of exceedingly small granules of gold, fused together very much after the type of some of the Etruscan jewellery in the British Museum. Each section has been hooked together with hooks and eyes which are covered by the gold plates. The necklet is incomplete. The portion which has been found consists of nine sections, one stone is missing. It would rather appear as if the person who hid it had only obtained a portion as his share of the loot, and one armlet and a ring. Originally the treasure consisted of a complete necklet, two armlets, a ring, and possibly other articles of jewellery, and in dividing the spoil this appears to have fallen to the person who hid it in the rocks. (Click here to enlarge) Later comment from the British Museum: The necklet has a diameter of 34.5 cm.

The Rhayader ArmletThe Armlet

The armlet is of distinctly different character from the work in the necklet. It is a solid plate of gold with interlaced wire-work, the pattern being of the same character, and resembling the work upon Celtic crosses of Wales. It was originally in two pieces, hinged together and fastened probably by a gold peg attached to a delicate chain, forming part of the armlet. The clasps or hinges are ornamented with scroll work of most distinctly late Celtic work. The scroll has conventional leaves, filled with green and blue enamel. It is also ornamented with three lines of granulated work and four lines of twisted wire. It is altogether a most admirable specimen of Celtic art. The work shows great refinement and delicacy of design, and is quite equal to anything that has been found in Great Britain, and is surpassed by none of the very beautiful gold work in the Copenhagen Museum, where there are such specimens of gold ornaments of the Viking age. (Click here to enlarge) Later comment from the British Museum: The bracelet has a length of 17.8 cm.

Col. Williams deplored, in my mind rightly, that one of the clasps had been melted down to ascertain the amount of gold.

The background

How did this treasure come to be hidden? Col. Williams was no doubt right when he supposed that the jewellery had belonged to a woman, and that is was quite old. The British Museum valued the date at second to third century, but that would of course not tell us when it was hidden - jewellery can be in the family for centuries. However, the opinion at the time was quite in favour of the start of the Dark Ages. The pieces were no doubt of high craftsmanship, and therefore of high value, which meant that the owners must have been of rank or high official position! We know for sure that ordinary Roman citizens were not permitted to wear jewellery that could imitate that of the Roman Emperor, which means these particular pieces belonged to a very influential person.

But what were their belongings doing in a hillside deep inside Wales? Of course, looking for any certainty is hopeless, which was admitted back in 1859 as well. Col. Williams had probably a Saxon raider in mind, but that need not have been the case. Indeed, it might have been deposited by a raider from Wales, who had plundered a rich Romano-British villa to the east and who hid his part of the loot in fear of greedy comrades. Or, as it comes to mind, an equally greedy servant may have made his way home with the jewellery of his (or why not her?) mistress, and hid it in fear of pursuers.

Col. Williams and others also speculated that possibly the lady herself could have been on the run, possibly dispossessed by Saxon invaders. The best candidate for the husband now was Vortigern, who they knew from the Historia Brittonum to have been on the run throughout Wales, running from enemies (either St Germanus or Ambrosius) from one Caer Guorthigirn to another. And so it was speculated that Vortigern and his wife fled to mid-Wales and the area of Gwrtheyrnion, where the region still bears his name. The find-spot is one mile dead south of the town of Rhayader (Rhaeadr Gwy), where there may have been a candidate for one of Vortigern’s Castles. Indeed, were that to have been the case, one could easily surmise the following:

Vortigern, on the run from his former supporters and enemies alike, retreated from his palaces, villas and other possessions in his ancestral Dobunnic (now: Gloucestershire) area towards his personal lands inside Cymru. Deep inside the hills, he went to his fortified lodge or ‘castle’ on the Wye, later Rhaeadr Gwy. Here he was free of pursuit for some time, at least until his enemies had made their way there also. Maybe the jewellery of his wife was spent in covering the cost of life, for on the run they no doubt could not take much with them. Maybe it was stolen at that point by a disloyal servant, choosing to run at that moment. Or maybe the final pursuit ended on the Wye, and Vortigern perished, the jewellery being looted by the victorious enemy?

Speculation is a nice thing, for it enables the mind to wander in all kind of directions, not hindered by the shackles of the bare fact. To speak (almost) with the 19th-century ‘father of archaeology’, Heinrich Schliemann (both discoverer, looter and destroyer of ancient Troy): did these pieces of gold once hung upon the arms or encircled the neck of the beautiful Rowena, daughter of the Saxon Hengist? Or maybe even on Sevira, daughter of the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus? On can always imagine..

(I would like to thank mr. Collard of Rhayader for his support in providing me with several images and the text of the History of Radnorshire.)

Bibliography

  • Janes, Dominic (1996): The Golden Clasp of the Late Roman state, in: Early medieval Europe 5, pp. 127-153.*
  • Radnorshire: Discovery of ancient jewellery at Corregwynion Rocks, Nantmel, History of Radnorshire, 2nd. Edition 1899, published by J. Williams. ed. E. Davies. Brecknock (1905).

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