Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

The Ancient Secrets of Welsh Gold #history #Wales

Gill jean smWelcome to author Jean Gill to inspire us with the ancient secrets of Welsh gold.

The Ancient Secrets of Welsh Gold

In 1824, a gold treasure hoard came to light, found in the South Wales estate of Dolaucothi. The exquisite jewellery included wheel designs on chains and snake bracelets, and was dated as 1st-2nd Century, Anglo-Roman. This led to exploration of a location that had been ignored – or shunned – for centuries, yet which held 2,000 plus years of extraordinary history.

Roman gold treasures have been found elsewhere in Britain but not beside the goldmine they came from. Dolaucothi is Wales’ – and Britain’s – only goldmine that was worked in Roman times and probably earlier. Early mining was easy, using panning and open cast methods. Then, tunnelling and deep mining followed, using the Roman engineering skills with aqueducts to flush out gold, then wheels to extract water in lower tunnel levels. Welsh gold went to the Lyons mint in Gaul to make Roman coins.

Gill welsh gold dragon

In 1153, my fictional troubadour heroes found themselves in the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth, South Wales, which was then ruled by two brothers, Lords Rhys and Maredudd. These nomadic warrior-rulers lived in the woods during the worst attacks from the Norman marcher-lords. They must have known every inch of their homeland and they must have known of the mines.

Yet there seems to be no word of Welsh gold in medieval records. Why didn’t the men of Deheubarth seek wealth there? Lack of mining skill? Lack of interest in gold? Or superstitious beliefs about the mines?

Beside the mines is a standing stone called Pumpsaint (Five saints) with hollows in the stone where four of the saints lay their heads while the fifth went to join King Arthur. All of them await the day they rise to fight again with the once and future king. Then there is the ghost of Gweno, the girl punished for her curiosity in exploring the mines and doomed to frighten others.

Gill snake & necklace Gill snake braceletI found it easy to imagine that the spirit of such a place demanded respect in medieval times and deterred looters by its very atmosphere. One person’s treasure-hunting is another person’s sacrilege, and the spirits of our ancestors haunt our imaginations in different ways; who hasn’t felt ‘bad vibes’?

Maybe, somebody in 1153 did find part of that treasure hoard.


Song_hereafter_eBcov-197x300Open at either end, each finished with a snake’s head, the bracelet was beautiful – and worth a fortune. Estela slipped her wrist into it, moved the bracelet up her arm, where it rested as if made specially for her. The diamond-shaped heads were cross-hatched in likeness of snakeskin and the small tongues had the hint of a fork, but not enough to weaken the gold.

‘It’s so beautiful.’ Estela felt like a high priestess of some ancient cult with the double-headed snake coiled round her arm. Surely such a talisman would bring magic to its bearer. She brought her arm up close to study the snake heads more closely and caught the bracelet on her cloak brooch, pricking herself against the pin.

(Extract from Song Hereafter)

Maybe, in 1153, somebody did explore the goldmines.

Dragonetz looked over the rocks beside him, down into the river valley where the mist snaked thickly, and over to the other side where the hills rose from the mist like an island, floating. He walked down, towards the caves, the tunnels and the ghosts.

The patterns of the terrain, bumpy, with trenches, told of some form of quarrying. Gemstones? wondered Dragonetz, cursing his ignorance. The signs were all here, if only he could read them.

Maybe the river was important, as it had been to his papermaking, but there was no mill here, just water and, if the square coverstone was any sign, the movement of water. Dragonetz followed the workings in the land, towards the dark holes that led into the earth.

The rainwater lay in the trenches and trickled its way like a liquid tree in ever lengthening branches. While avoiding one such pool, Dragonetz was distracted by a small pile of gravel thrown up from the churning mud, held fast by something more solid. He crouched and saw something glinting through the gravel. Not that foolish notion again he chid himself, but he scraped the gravel aside all the same, to see what lodged beneath.

What he found took his breath away.

(Extract from Song Hereafter)

Maybe, some secrets could never be told.

Whatever happened in the 12th Century remains a work of fiction and what we do know is that the late 19th Century saw the mines worked again. Gold was also discovered in North Wales, where it is still extracted today, although with difficulty and in small quantities. The Dolaucothi mines closed down in 1938, to open again years later as a top National Trust tourist attraction.

If you take the guided tour, listen carefully. You might hear the ghosts of Dragonetz and Estela, the troubadours, amid the hubbub of 2,000 years’ history. Look carefully; craftsmen skilled enough to make that jewellery must have had a workshop, and there would have been a settlement nearby, but nobody has found them yet.  Welsh gold remains rare, precious and prized by modern royalty.

Song Hereafter is available as a paperback and an e-book.

Find Jean on Twitter , via her website, where you can sign up for Jean’s Newsletter for exclusive news and offers, with a free book as a welcome, or find her on her Troubadours Facebook page.

Credits: Photo of the dragon pendant in Welsh gold by Jean Gill, photos of the 1st-2nd C Gallo-Roman gold snake bracelet and necklace from the Dolaucothi hoard, courtesy of the British Museum.

Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – A Viking Slave Collar

Today I welcome Ken Hagan who writes historical fiction set in the age of the Vikings. Here, he explains how an artefact from a museum inspired his story.

Dublin was the hub of the Slave Trade in 10th Century Europe

For the Norse kings and warrior merchants of Dublin, overseas trafficking of war captives was a vital element in their seafaring economy, as was the raising of lucrative ransoms for men and women of noble Irish blood, whose families could afford the huge booties of silver and cattle demanded for their release.

A Viking Market for the Free Movement of Labour

In the latter half of the 20th century, during my university years in Trinity College, Dublin, there were a startling number of archaeological finds under the city. Excavations have since revealed the extent of the old Viking port of Linn-dubh under modern-day Dublin. From artefacts and architectural remains it is possible to imagine the context, in which a ruthless warrior class controlled the eastern estuaries of Ireland, before finally being expelled in the 11th century.


Viking Age iron slave collar found at St John’s Lane, Dublin

This cruel iron shackle is the starting point for my story, in which Kregin, a young Ostman sentenced to exile from Iceland for manslaughter, becomes a luckless captive, a slave on the black river isle of Inis-dubh, awaiting shipment overseas.

Kregin and the daughter of an Irish Chieftain, a young child, whom he befriends on the isle of slaves, plan an escape by sea. Their bid for freedom ends in failure. They are re-captured as war looms between Irish clans and their Viking invaders.

 This horrifying reality was the historical setting chosen for Forged in Blood, ‘Warrior in Exile’, Book 2 of my trilogy, Viking Odyssey.


More about Viking Slaves can be found in this National Geographic Article here

Did you know?

A ‘thrall’ is a slave or serf in the Viking Age.  Thrall is from the Old Norse word praell, meaning a person who is in bondage or serfdom. The Old Norse term was lent into late Old English, as þræl. The English derivation thraldom dates from medieval times, and so the verb “to enthrall” means literally to enslave.

So an enthralling book is one which holds you in bondage!

Forged in Blood by Ken Hagan is available from and from

Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – A 17th century ‘kicking’ lock


On the Sherborne Museum website is this gorgeous picture of a seventeenth century lock. In 1654 diarist John Evelyn wrote that sophisticated lock mechanisms were ‘rare contrivances’ and regarded as technological marvels, ‘esteem’d a curiositie even among foraine princes’.

Chest - StrongBox

In the days when there were no banks, a surprising number of strong boxes were made to house the coinage on its way to daily transactions, such as paying wages and taxes, and for other large purchases such as houses, horses or livestock. So demand for the production of locks and chests was surprisingly large.

The best chests of the time were manufactured by the Germans and the Swiss, who were clockmakers as well as locksmiths and had the fine skills needed for intricate work. Most money chests, or coffers, had heavy locking lids, reinforced bottoms and strong handles. High precision was required for locksmithing and it was all done by hand at the bench. The keyhole was almost always positioned in the centre of the lid, well hidden through some cleverly designed camouflage or extra function. The ubstantial key needed to have a stable bit- one that would lock all the pins with a single turn and strong enough to turn all the springs and moving parts. During the seventeenth century, a decorated or ornate cover of polished sheet iron was added. The interior was plain, except for the locking merchanism in the lid. The outside, however, was lavishly decorated to be individual, with coats of arms, insignia, ornamental chasing, etching, or gilding, and sometimes with welded brass detail on the corners or hasps.

Chest - detector lock desktop-1419211260

Whilst looking into locks, I also came across this beauty on the Sotheby’s site – it is a lock for a chamber door:
A rare English brass ‘Cavalier’ detector lock signed by John Wilkes of Birmingham.  Last quarter 17th century, with a fretted steel key, the Cavalier’s leg with ‘Kick’ mechanism to reveal a keyhole, the mechanism incorporating a catch in the form of the cavaliers hat to release the ‘kick’ (currently inactive) and activate a numbered indicator disc, the main plate engraved:
‘If I had ye gift of tongue, I would declare & do no wrong, who they are ye come by stealth to impare my Lady’s Wealth, John Wilkes e Birmingham, Fecit’

It is called a ‘detector’ lock, because the dial on the right side shows if the lock has been opened in the owner’s absence. What I love about it is that is shows the sense of humour of both the person who commissioned it, and the maker. Imagine the fine lady going out and cocking the Cavalier’s hat to lock her jewels in her chamber, and then checking her valuables were safe on her return by checking the dial. After that, a click to release the kick, and the keyhole is revealed behind the calf of the Cavalier, ready for her to slide in the key. A gentle click, and she returns to find her jewels safe on the cushion where she left them.

For a novelist of course, it’s fun to imagine what might happen if she found the dial showing that someone else had been in the room…

For comparison, see a similar lock in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, but the V & A lock features the words ‘my Master’s Wealth’ as opposed to ‘my Lady’s Wealth’. Watch the video of how it all works here

In my Cabinet of Curio-stories you might also like:

The Tudor Copperplate Map

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Entwined

Miniature Scottish Coffins


Locked up in the museum

Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – Tiny Cathedral Windows that Sing

V sellas-in
A Rose from a Vilhuela – Spanish Guitar
Up until the 17th century there were no real guitars – the only instruments similar to a guitar were the lute and, in Spain, where my book ‘A Divided Inhritance ‘ is set, the vilhuela.

In the early 17th century the Guitarra Morrisco became popular in Spain in the Moorish areas where what we know now as flamenco guitar and dance began. This type of guitar spread to other European countries where it became known as the Baroque Guitar or sometimes simply the Spanish Guitar. A good example of this sort of Baroque guitar can be seen in Vermeer’s painting “The Guitar Player.”
V guitar_player
Also evident here is the inlaid decorative edge and “rose” or fretwork, which was a feature of this period in many instruments. In the 17th century there were specific craftsmen who made a living carving this sort of decorative panel. They are so beautiful and intricate. They are crafted from wood, or for the more detailed ones, parchment, cut in ornamental layers to give a three dimensional effect.

You can click on the picture below to see more examples. I was almost tempted to invent a “rose” carver just so that I could feature a description of someone making one of these, but unfortunately I already had quite a few craftsmen populating my novel already!

V cittern-flush1
The designs are similar to those of “rose” windows in many of the great cathedrals, but in miniature, and they let the ‘light’of the instrument shine out to the listener.
V St stephen's Vienna
St Stephen’s Cathedral. Vienna Rose Window

As it is, the Spanish guitarist in my novel is a “bit-player” in my cast of characters – nevertheless, I think the look and feel of the guitar is important to the book, and I love this sort of research. This post first appeared on my old blog, and I re-posted it here simply because since I wrote it, I have come across this lovely video with the sound of the vilhuela, and I still love the delicate tracery of these ‘roses’ ! Music by Gaspar Sanz.

in this series you might also like The Tudor Copperplate Map , The Miniature Scottish Coffins, The Renaissance Gimmel Ring
Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – Miniature Scottish Coffins

In 1836, five young Scottish boys were out huntinCoffins 2g for rabbits on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, a hill in the centre of Edinburgh. After chasing a rabbit into a small cave, they saw something jammed into a crevice in the crag. It was the first of no less than seventeen miniature coffins – each one painstakingly carved out of pine and realistically ‘furnished’ with cut iron decorations.

The children pulled them out and were amazed to find that each tomb contained an individual wooden figure. All male figures, they had been individually and expertly carved, and then dressed up in their own set of clothes.

Unaware that they might be valuable or interesting, the boys played at throwing them about so several were “destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles”The Scotsman, 16 July 1836).

Now only eight of the seventeen remain intact, but what they were made for, or why they were hidden remains a mystery.

 the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier,  the effects of age had not advanced to far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.  Charles Fort

The coffins ended up in the collection of Robert Frazier, a South Andrews Street jeweller, who put them on display in his private museum  until he retired in 1845 . They were sold at auction as “The celebrated Lilliputian coffins found on Arthur’s Seat, 1836” and fetched £4.8s. It was not until 1901, that a set of eight were finally donated to the National Museum of Scotland (where they remain today) by their then owner, Mrs Christina Couper of Dumfriesshire.


Various theories have been suggested as to their origin and meaning – from being gruesome reminders of murder victims, memorials to dead children, pagan ritual dolls, hangman’s souvenirs, or sailors lost at sea.

An excellent in-depth article on the subject is here

In this series you might also like:

The Tudor Copperplate Map

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn Entwined

Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – the Lost Ruskin Daguerrotypes

Ruskin - Venice
Venice. The Ducal Palace South Façade. ‘Eastern Windows’ Tracery Looking Out Towards the Lagoon, c.1849–1852. Quarter-plate daguerreotype. By John Ruskin and John Hobbs (Ruskin’s valet)

I have just visited Brantwood, the Lakeland bolt-hole of Victorian giant of arts and literature, John Ruskin. Whilst I was there, I came upon this fascinating story. When Ruskin died in 1900, he was largely-forgotten figure, having suffered from bouts of mental illnesss, brought on, it’s said by a sense of powerlessness to change the industrial world and bring better conditions for the poor and the working classes. So his library, paintings, and personal effects were sold off in what amounts to a car boot sale in 1936.

Everything was laid out on the lawn at his family home, Brantwood, near Coniston, and locals were invited to make offers. All his possessions were sold that day, and have only gradually made their way back to Brantwood, which is now a museum to Ruskin’s life. Ever since then, his wonderful drawings, manuscripts, books and items of furniture have been gradually reappearing as Cumbrian people finally realise what they are, and their significance. The daguerreotypes had been owned by an elderly man who had inherited them, and who wanted to sell, having no idea they were of much value.

Ruskin john_ruskin_small
John Ruskin

The Penrith auctioneers did not help much either, because they misread the label on the box as ‘Vienna’, instead of ‘Venice’, and put in a conservative estimate of £80. Imagine their surprise when two separate bidders – having spotted the possibility they could be Ruskin’s lost photographs – started to bid against each other, each desperate to have them, until the price reached a whopping £75,000. And even better, imagine the face of the elderly gentleman when he heard how much they had made!

So what is a daguerreotype?

A daguerreotype photograph is one where, because of the process, each photograph is unique. The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful process in the history of photography. It uses an iodine-sensitized silvered plate, or even a real silver plate, and mercury vapour to produce the image. It was named after the inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. Nowadays, daguerreotypes are scarce, though some contemporary artists have re-embraced the medium today. Daguerrotypes can give very sharp and luminous images.

Ruskin The_Casa_d_Oro_Venice_Ruskin
The Casa d’Oro, Venice by Ruskin


BBC News  The Telegraph Brantwood, Coniston

Quotations by Ruskin:

‘Fit yourself for the best society, and then, never enter it.’

‘Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.’

‘There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.’

Pictures from Wikipedia and The Telegraph.
Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – stunning secret behind a Tudor painting


Imagine that you are an art dealer in Swinging Sixties London – 1962 to be precise. You manage to buy a bargain — an atmospheric early oil painting of the Tower of Babel, and intrigued, you decide to look on the back to see if you can find out more about this unsigned painting. A signature would add value to an already saleable thing.

Nimrod supervising the Construction of the  Tower of Babel by Martin Van Valckenborgh 1559

So, you turn it over and are surprised to see it isn’t painted on a wooden panel as you had expected. Instead, it’s painted on an old copper plate, of the sort used by engravers. You rub at it with the cuff of your floral shirt, hoping to see a name. But a thumb over the surface reveals that the plate has already been used to print something else, and there does seem to be something very fine incised into it. So, curious, you get out your magnifying glass and peering through it, carefully clean the surface grime away with some methylated spirits.

The scene that appears seems to be a birds-eye view of people and houses. But there is writing too – all in reverse of course. Excited, you rush through to the bathroom and hold it up to a mirror. It reads ‘Fynnesburie Field’, and you see more detail, and what appear to be windmills. Finsbury Field – that’s right here in London! Closer scrutiny reveals men in Tudor costume practising archery, and women laying out their washing to dry. This could be an original Tudor plate, you realise. But what to do with it? You daren’t destroy the painting of the Tower of Babel, but this copper printing plate seems to be even earlier, and it would be a shame to keep it hidden from view.

The copper plate engraved by Frans Franken

In a ferment of excitement you hot-foot it to the London Museum to see if they can find out more.

And that is how we come to have the extraordinary  “Copperplate” map of London. No copies of the printed map itself are known to have survived; but between 1962 and 1997 two more of the original plates were identified, both used as grounds for other paintings. It is lucky they were recycled in this way, or they could have been lost forever.  The three plates cover the greater part of the built-up heart of Tudor London. The map can be precisely dated to between 1553 and 1559 because Coldharbour House was given to the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1553,  and he re-named it Shrewsbury Place. St Paul’s Cathedral is shown with its spire which was burnt down in a fire in 1561. Also, nothing is shown of The Royal Exchange, which opened in 1571.

So here is the section showing Moorfields, and you can see the wonderful detail included by the Dutch artist who engraved it. I wonder if the person who commissioned it managed to find his way around London?


For more about the map, and to enlarge it, go here.

Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – Birth and Death, A Renaissance Gimmel Ring

Gimmel Met
Picture from the Met Museum

This ‘gimmel’ ring was made in Germany in 1631. This type of ring has multiple circlets that fit like puzzle pieces. The word ‘gimmel’ comes from the Latin word gemelli, meaning twins, and often signified two connected eternity rings denoting a couple’s permanent joining in marriage. This type of ring was popular during the Renaissance, but the idea of such rings continued well into the 17th century.

This example has two rings, beautifully crafted, that when separated reveal a hidden secret cavity within each one. In one side is housed an enamelled baby, curled into a foetal position, and the other cavity forms a coffin for a skeleton. The rings are designed to be like snakes, and the words engraved on the inside read,  ‘Whom God has joined together, let no man tear asunder.’

This particular type of ring, a Memento Mori which symbolises both the beginning and the end of life, is very rare. Obviously this took a lot of thought to design and make, and it is made from very expensive materials: gold, diamonds and rubies, so the couple were probably wealthy and from the upper portion of society. Despite this, they were also concerned with their inner life, as a Memento Mori, literally ‘remember that you have to die’ in Latin, is an expression designed to puncture delusions of grandeur.  

The expression derives from Ancient Rome. When a general returned victorious from battle, and during his parade, in which he would be lauded and complimented, a slave would follow behind, saying, Respice post te. Hominem te memento (approx. translation – Look to your end and remember you’re only a man.) Since then, these reminders of mortality have been  one of the ascetic disciplines used to perfect the character, encouraging detachment and turning the attention towards the levelling at death.

Gimmel Met 2
The closed ring


The Saleroom

The Met Museum


In this series of Curio-stories, you might also like: An Apostle Spoon   Shoes from the Mary Rose


Blog Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet of Curio-stories – An Elizabethan Hair Pin

Silver bodkins for your hair,

bobs that maidens love to wear

The Pedlar’s Song, from ‘The Triumphant Widow’ 1677

opnamedatum: 2005-10-26
Portrait of Mertijntje of Ceters (1609-24), anonymous, 1623

I love looking at what people have found under our feet by metal detecting or digging in their garden. The past is buried so close to the surface! Here’s an Elizabethan pin found by Don Sherratt of Taynton Metal Detecting Club in a field on the outskirts of Newent in 2006. The pin is very small but decorated with coils of gold wire and raised heads – such exquisite workmanship! The loop was probably for the attachment of a chain to help prevent such a valuable item from being lost. It could have been used to pin a dress, or more likely, the hair.
Tudor Hair pin

During the Elizabethan period gold hair decorations were very fashionable with wealthy women, as you can see from these portraits . These ornate gold and silver pins were worn in the hair, often with dangling pearls, or droplets made of gold wire. Sometimes the decorated finial would protrude over the centre of the forehead, and sometimes the decoration would be set off-centre wound into the hair. Hair was sometimes padded out with horsehair or false hair to give the required bulk. Several Tudor hair pins have been found by metal detectorists during recent years, and most have the pin deliberately bent. You can imagine the lady twisting the pin into the hair to encourage it to stay put, but on this occasion the twisting obviously didn’t work as it was there for someone to find, all these years later.

BAL99924 Portrait of an Elizabethan Lady with a Parrot (oil on canvas) by English School, (16th century) oil on canvas Private Collection English, out of copyright
Portrait of an Elizabethan Lady with a Parrot (oil on canvas) by Anon. English School, (16th century)

You might also like: Tudor Jewellery on Pinterest

Cabinet of Curio-Stories – An Apostle Spoon

Sugar – Favourite Nip of the Tudors

Blog Cabinet of Curiosities Seventeenth Century Life

Cabinet of Curio-stories – Shoes from the Mary Rose

Mary Rose A-row-of-leather-shoes-The Mary Rose, warship of  King Henry VIII, lay undiscovered beneath the waves for almost 300 years until one day, a fisherman’s line got tangled in the wreckage and her whereabouts became known. That was in 1836, but the salvage wasn’t attempted until the 1980’s when about 60 million people around the world switched on their TVs to watch the salvaged hull rise to the surface.

The ship is now on permanent display at the Mary Rose Museum. Approximately 19,000 artifacts were discovered in the wreckage, ­including domestic items such as leather shoes and a velvet hat, alongside militaria such as weapons and the paraphernalia of war.

Very little is known about the clothing worn by everyday people in Tudor times, because most paintings depict royalty or rich people in court dress. The Mary Rose gives us a unique insight into what the average man wore in 1545. Preserved in the silt all that time, leather shoes survived well, as did garments made from wool or silk. Linen degrades in the damp, so few undergarments have been found as these would have been made from linen.

There is a collection of over 500 shoes. Doesn’t it make you shiver to look at them? Weirdly, my husband has a pair of leather loafers almost identical to these, and just as old-looking! More than  a hundred and thirty longbows and several thousand arrows were among the finds, so I guess these shoes may have belonged to English archers.

More about the Mary Rose on Wikipedia – (actually a rather well-compiled article)

Lovely unusual words for Tudor and Stuart footwear:

Buskins –  calf length boots, often open at the toe or worn as overboots. The word buskin, first recorded in English in 1503 means “half boot”, and is of unknown origin, perhaps from Old French brousequin

Gamaches – high boots

Chopines – sometimes called Chapineys, were slip-on over-shoes made of wood and covered with leather

Galoches – or Galage, was a protective overshoe – we get the more modern word ‘galoshes’ from this. It originally meant clog, in french.

Pantofles – soft slippers for indoors

Pinsons – or pincnets, delicate indoor shoes (see below)



The Mary Rose Museum

The BBC website

The Guardian

The Elizabethan Era

In my Cabinet of Curio-stories you might also like: An Apostle Spoon , Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn Entwined