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General Clothing and Needlework Questions

Table of Contents

I. Overview: How did SCA-period Welsh clothing relate to that of other cultures?

Question: So how do I "dress Welsh" in the SCA's period? I can't find anything specifically on Welsh clothing.

Answer: Part of the answer is that relatively little information is available (compared to many other medieval European cultures), but part of the answer is that the question may be misguided. We modern people tend to have a concept of "iconic clothing" -- that clothing styles are closely and uniquely identified with specific cultures. While there is certainly geographic variation in clothing at any given time, it doesn't always neatly follow national borders, and may affect different classes in very different ways. Keep in mind that the concept of "national dress" or "national folk costume" is an invention largely of the Romantic movement and the 19th century.

To the extent that we have information on the topic, the clothing worn in Wales seems to have been part of a continuum with that of their neighbors, of which England is the most obvious (and best documented) example. This isn't to say "Welsh people wore English-style clothing" any more than it would be correct to say "English people wore Welsh-style clothing", nor is it to say that there was no geographic variation -- even within England one can find regional variations in style. But one should not expect to find a major, clear discontinuity of clothing style on crossing Offa's dyke.

Because, for the majority of the medieval and early modern periods, England was the source of new styles for the Welsh upper classes, the clothing of those classes would tend to be more similar to that of the upper classes of England than lower class clothing of the two regions would be. And many of the medieval commentaries on specifically Welsh styles seem to apply primarily to the "ordinary" people.

Given all this, one of the best starting places for developing clothing appropriate to a Welsh persona is to get a good general grounding in the clothing of north-western Europe in general in your chosen time-period, in addition to studying what material there is on Welsh clothing.

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II. Specific Time Periods

A. Early Period (dawn of time up to Norman Conquest)

Question: My persona is very early period, i.e. 600 BCE (and 5 minutes) -- what would I wear?

Answer: "Welsh" isn't really a meaningful term in 600 BCE, since that date is long before the divergence of the various Brythonic-speaking cultures (and quite possibly before the arrival of Brythonic-speaking culture in Britain at all!). So if you're talking about "the cultural ancestors of the Welsh from 600 BCE" then you may, in fact, be talking about people on the continent participating in early La Tene culture (or late Hallstat culture). (Of course, culture and language are not the only "ancestors" of later Welsh culture -- in all likelihood, the biological ancestors of the later Welsh included, at this date, a significant number of people living in the geographic region later to become Wales, but not yet speaking a Celtic language or participating substantially in what we know as "Celtic culture". There is a major philosophical debate as to what the term "Celtic" really means, historically, which cannot entirely be avoided in this question.)

About the only useful sources of information on clothing from that period that I've run across are some of the Danish and northern German finds. (Karl Schlabow's book "Textilfunde der Eisenzeit" is a nice starting place ... although it's a teensy bit more useful if you can read German.) Pretty much anything that anyone might say about 6th c. BCE clothing in the geographic region that would become Wales is going to be 95% speculation and 5% evidence. There is still debate as to whether the inhabitants of Wales at that time would have been culturally Celtic (such that evidence from Continental Celtic cultures might be highly relevant) or not. If I were trying to develop a persona from that period, I'd tend to place her in a somewhat better documented region than Wales, purely to avoid frustration.

If you are taking the "continental Celtic" angle, there are a number of useful books on archaeological finds associated with Celtic cultures of that era in Europe. There are no finds of entire garments (except, I believe, for a couple of hats), but some graves include textile fragments -- including at least one with embroidery -- and the nature and position of metallic fasteners can also give clues to the nature of clothing. A good single source on textiles and textile technology from this period is Elizabeth Barber's "Prehistoric Textiles".

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Question: I want to do something Romano-Celtic, but can't find any good descriptions for the style. I've got some ideas, but I don't know how good they are.

Answer: By "Romano Celt" are you including both Gaul and Britain or something more specific? The visual evidence from Britain in specific is somewhat sparse, but if you extend the question to Gaul (and pretty much the entire scope of the Empire period) then you open up a lot more visual representations ... and even at least one archaeological find. The cosmopolitan nature of the Roman empire means that the location of a piece of art may not depict a localized style of dress -- but conversely the same cosmopolitan culture makes it somewhat more reasonable to use evidence from one region when trying to reconstruct the dress of another region. (This doesn't always hold -- some parts of the Empire show clearly localized styles of dress -- there's a wonderful book on the dress of Pannonia as depicted in Roman art that makes this point fairly well.) In general, gravestones and wall paintings seem to be most likely to be products of local artists and reflect local styles. This is in addition to information from textile finds, of course -- but the only relevant whole-garment find from the Celtic regions is a 1st or 2nd century outfit from a woman's grave in Les Martres-de-Veyre in France. It's your basic unshaped T-tunic in wool, with woolen leggings and both cloth and leather shoes (the contents of a couple graves got mixed somewhere along the way, so it isn't entirely clear which shoes belong to this group) and a woolen belt. Another grave from the same location and period includes a rectangular woolen cloak with fringes.

One book that specifically addresses the question of regional variation in Roman clothing (in addition to taking the approach that of course people are interested in the topic because they want to wear the clothing) is A.T. Croom's Roman Clothing and Fashion (Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2000, ISBN 0-7524-1469-0), which also includes some rough sketches of the abovementioned Gaulish archaeological find.

Question: My persona is sort of nebulously "after King Arthur but before the Normans" -- I haven't narrowed it down yet. Can you give me any idea what I should be wearing? (I saw some really cool stuff in a movie, but I know better than to trust that as a historic source.)

Answer: This is one of the periods where you have to look at the general clothing context of north-western Europe and punt. There are occasional clothing references in Welsh poetry composed at this time, but they are limited mostly to names of specific garments (which don't necessarily tell us what the garment of that name looked like at the time) and occasional references to colors of garments or pieces of jewelry. For example, the "llen" is mentioned -- and based on later medieval descriptions probably described a rectangular cloak, worn pinned around the shoulders. Less helpfully, the "pais" also appears, but the word is about as useful in specifics as "tunic" or even simply "garment". Some of the clothing references in the medieval Welsh law texts may date to this period, but it is nearly impossible to be certain of any specifics. But, for example, the regular references to people having "both linen and woolen clothing" suggests that the typical pattern of the time for linen undergarments and woolen overgarments is probably reasonable for Wales as well.

Looking at the general NW European context at this period, however, it is reasonably safe to assume that both men and women wore some sort of relatively loose, relatively unshaped tunic-like garment, most likely long for women and short for men. This would probably have been covered with an unshaped rectangular cloak of some sort for both sexes, and women may well have worn some sort of head covering in addition. Beyond that, the specifics are going to be educated guesswork.

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B. High Medieval

Question: What types of garb are historically accurate for a 12th century Welshman? Are ther any good sources for illustrations? Would typical Celtic garb be appropriate (tunic , breeches, etc.)?

Answer: To the best of my research, the answer seems to be that Welsh people were not wearing clothing significantly different from that of their neighbors at this period, with a few possible distinctions:

You should try to purge your mind of the idea that there is such a thing as "typical Celtic garb". The various Celtic-speaking cultures of this period were quite distinct (if, indeed, they had ever shared any major amounts of cultural practice other than language). The idea of "pan-Celtic cultural unity" is much more a product of modern nationalism than it is of historic fact. In the medieval period, it is not useful to speak of "Celtic" anything, but rather to speak of Welsh things, and Breton things, and Cornish things, and Irish things, and so on. In terms of material culture, each of these various cultures will tend to have far more in common with their geographic neighbors than with non-contiguous groups with whom they share only linguistic roots, dating back a millennium or more.

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C. Late Medieval and Early Modern

Question: Anyone have any links to 15th century Welsh garb. Specifically womens garb?

Answer: If you're talking about upper class clothing, then 15th c. Welsh clothing can be considered functionally identical to English clothing of the same era. (There isn't a lot of direct evidence available on the topic, but if you look at things like funerary brasses or stained glass from this period in Wales, you see identical styles to England.) It is quite probable that lower class styles may have had some particular regional differences (both within Wales and between Wales and elsewhere), but it's difficult to find any concrete information on what they might be.

Question: No, really -- I need to know something concrete about what's available.

Answer: I haven't done much specific research on Welsh clothing of the 15th century, largely because the available information for distinguishing "local" styles at that period is extremely scarce. The only pictorial sources I've been able to find are tomb brasses (see e.g. "Welsh Monumental Brasses" by J.M. Lewis, published by the National Museum of Wales), stained glass (see e.g. "Stained Glass in North Wales up to 1850" by Mostyn Lewis -- although stained glass is a tricky source for local styles, since it was often produced in a very few major centers and then imported by the churches from great distances) and a handful of other, less accessible fragments. (On the other hand, I've seen reference to someone working on a PhD thesis on medieval misericords in Wales, and these tend to be excellent sources of information on local "low-culture" styles.)

The overall pattern is one that I know people hate to hear: the nobility of Wales in the 15th century seem to be wearing pretty much the same styles as nobility elsewhere in north-western Europe. The tomb brass of "Wenllian Walsche" in Llandough church in GLamorgan, from 1427, shows a woman wearing a generous houpelande with bagpipe sleeves, a flattened collar, and the same sort of headdress her Frernch and English neighbors would be wearing with this style.

A late 14th century window from Treuddyn shows a woman wearing a close-fitted gown decorated with roses in an all-over pattern, with a simple half-circle cloak wrapped around her.

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III. Sources

Question: So what sorts of information are available on pre-1600 Welsh clothing? If I want to do some real digging, what's available?

A. Archaeological

Question: Where can I find archaeological information on Welsh clothing?

Answer: While there has been extremely little in the way of textile finds in Welsh archaeology, there are a great many published archaeological reports that cover more durable objects. There are several journals that are particularly good for this sort of information:

There is a great deal of scope for researchers to mine this type of material for information on particular types of artifacts or artifacts associated with particular times and places. There are extensive subject indexes published for Archaeologia Cambrensis that may help in looking for specific artifacts or topics. Be aware that older issues of these journals may include interpretations that have been superceded long since. The Cymmrodorion journal, for example, has been published continuously for a couple of centuries, and much of the early material needs to be used with caution.

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B. Pictorial

Question: I'm trying to find pictures of historic Welsh clothing, but everything I can find is on the 17-18th centuries. Help!

Answer: For a variety of reasons, not least including the low volume of (easily accessible) information, the topic of Welsh clothing is very sparsely covered before the 18th century (when Lady Llanover singlehandedly "invented" Welsh National Dress, from the ordinary clothing of the time). One of the difficulties in researching this topic, when compared to other pre-modern European cultures, is the small amount of information available on the visual arts in Wales, as well as the difficulty in disentangling representations of "native" culture in that art from art that represents a more universal pan-Insular or pan-Western-European style. The reasons for this scarcity of visual arts are varied and include the relative poverty of the native Welsh nobility before the Edwardian conquest, the cultural shift of focus towards England after that event, and a simple disinterest in publishing what _does_ survive among those studying the subject. For example, there are illuminated manuscripts that were produced in Wales that, as far as I can tell, have never been published, in full or in part, in a way that would make their art available to researchers.

This last deficiency is being remedied in part by Peter Lord's excellent series "The Visual Culture of Wales" (University of Wales Press), with volumes covering the dawn of time through the medieval period, early modern through the 19th century, and the 20th century. There are also interactive CD-ROMs available to accompany the volumes that include many of the images. The books seem to go in and out of availability, so be persistant and convince the publisher to keep them in print! Some reproductions from Welsh medieval manuscripts are also available on the web via the National Library of Wales web site, including the drawings of people from the Peniarth 28 lawbook, which are one of the few accessible visual images of "ordinary clothing" in medieval Wales that are now heavily influenced by pan-European artistic conventions.

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C. Written

Question: I've been reading the Mabinogion, and some of the stories talk about clothing. Is this a good source?

Answer: There are a number of types of written sources on clothing, with varying degrees of usefulness. It should be needless to say that a story describing the clothing of an ancient legendary king may be less reliable than, for example, a traveler describing the clothing of the people he sees on his trip. There are four general types of written evidence on clothing from medieval Wales:

The first of these would include the stories of ancient heroes and legendary figures, including Arthurian stories -- the Mabinogi, the various Welsh versions of medieval Romances. As a general rule, while medieval story-tellers tended to clothe their characters in familiar dress, they were also prone to exagerating and "exoticizing" the clothing in their stories. So, for example, the types of garments named may be similar to contemporary dress, but everyone will be wearing fancy silk brocades encrusted with gems and fastened with gold pins and buckles. Specific details of dress may be lacking, or may be interpretable only if you are already familliar with the basic clothing styles of the time. One of the most concentrated sources of clothing descriptions in medieval Welsh literature is in the story "The Dream of Rhonabwy", where elaborate, detailed (and often highly fanciful) descriptions of clothing are an important aspect of the story. Because we have a clear composition date for Rhonabwy (despite its Arthurian motifs), we can be somewhat more confident that the author was describing contemporary possibilities, rather than repeating older, traditional descriptions. Some of the "foreign" romances translated into Welsh are more contemporary and "everyday"in setting and so may be less likely to involve exotic clothing descriptions. I'm less familiar with this genre at the moment, so I can't speak to specifics.

The largest single non-fiction source of information about clothing written within Welsh culture are the law tracts. (One of the most accessible editions of these, in translation, is Dafydd Jenkins' "The Law of Hywel Dda", by Gomer Press.) In addition to describing entitlements to various items of clothing that were part of the pay of court officers, there are extensive lists of the "legal value" of everyday items, and a number of different types of clothing are specified. There are other clothing references of this sort in some biographical literature (e.g., the biography of Gruffudd ap Cynan) or in records of law courts (e.g., descriptions of stolen items or bequests).

A different type of information is offered by outsiders describing Welsh culture and everyday life. For the 12th century, the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis (his "Itinerary Through Wales" and "Description of Wales" -- available as a single edition from Penguin Books) include a large variety of clothing references, even if they are not always as precise and specific as one might wish. There are a number of other authors who may include brief references of the same type that may be hunted down with dedication and effort.

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IV. Special Topics

A. Needlework and Other Embellishments

Question: I am interested in finding out when what we know today as the typical "Celtic" knotwork was used on garments. Was it ever used on clothing? And was there a variation for the Irish vs. Welsh styles or symbols?

Answer: "Ever" is an awfully wide question. The knotwork and interlace styles that we tend to think of as "Celtic" belong primarily to (very roughly) the second half of the first millennium, and the amount of visual evidence we have about clothing decoration in Ireland or Wales from that period is extremely small.

Looking purely from the "art" viewpoint, while there are some clear "schools" of interlace/knotwork style, it isn't at all clear that they correspond to particular ethnic groups. It must also be kept in mind that the association of interlace/knotwork specifically with Celtic-speaking cultures is false and misleading. Nearly indistinguishable styles of artistic motifs were in common use in Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture at the same period, and strongly related styles can be found in manuscript art on the continent. So, for example, when you look for textile applications of interlace/knotwork motifs, if you restrict yourself only to the "Celtic" lands, you're going to miss objects like the 9-10th c. Anglo-Saxon embroidered cloth (IIRC it's generally known by its association with Saints Harlindis and Rilindis, but this is from memory) with a motif of romanesque arcades decorated with interlace, foliage, and insular-style zoomorphic designs -- or the 10th c. Danish embroidered garments from Mammen, which include some fairly simple strapwork designs.

In my experience, it is a general rule of thumb that if a culture has a tradition of embroidery (whether on garments or furnishings) the motifs involved will be in the same general style as motifs used for manuscripts. But not all cultures with manuscript art traditions did have a tradition of embroidery, so the one doesn't imply the other.

Even given the use of embroidered decorations on clothing, cultures vary widely in what sorts of decorations are used, both in terms of layout, and of internal structure. Consider, for example, the ways in which decorative elements are displayed on Byzantine and late Classical clothing -- bands and square or round patches in particular, highly formalized locations. Then compare to the use of applied decorations on secular clothing in 15th c. France, where you are more likely to have individual scattered motifs (this is based on wardrobe descriptions, correlated with artistic representations); versus ecclesiastical embroideries of the same period, which are more likely to be worked in applied bands or in all-over lattices of pattern reminiscent of brocade patterns.

Even given a known pattern of ornamental style, it isn't always possible to predict how (and if) that style will be interpreted in the context of clothing.

If you look at the highly stylized representations of clothing in early Irish art (speaking here of the period when you find "interlace" common in manuscript art) the decorative elements that are identifiable seem to be either applied bands (e.g., at the hem) or an all-over pattern of spots. The latter are hard to interpret clearly as an applied textile decoration, as opposed to a "space-filling busy-work" artistic motif, given that you also find similar patterns in art applied to animals, or even simply empty spaces. It is possible that similar spot patterns might have been applied to clothing as decoration, but I don't think it's necessarily a foregone conclusion. The artistic representations that appear to be applied bands are more likely to represent an actual decorative style for clothing. But again one needs to question whether these bands would be decorated with embroidery, or whether they would simply be contrasting (perhaps expensive and exotic?) fabrics, such as some of the applied silk bands found in Norse contexts, or whether they would be woven decorations such as brocaded tablet-woven bands rather than embroidered ones.

In a specifically Welsh context, I can think of only three things I've run across that speak (even confusingly) to the question of embroidered decoration. One is clearly too late in time to be relevant to the interlace/knotwork question: the references in the literary tale "The Dream of Rhonabwy" to clothing being "sewn with" a thread of a contrasting color to the garment. But by the date this story was composed, interlace/knotwork motifs had passed out of use in the culture. The second item is a reference in the medieval Welsh laws that only the king may wear clothing with "gold borders", which suggests a reference to the sorts of applied bands, heavily decorated with gold thread, commonly found from that era in surviving ecclesiastical decorations. (See, for example, the relics of Saint Cuthbert.) These "gold borders" might be embroidered, but looking at the larger European context, they're more likely to be woven brocades, like the gold-brocaded tablet-woven bands found in some Norse archaeological sites (and discussed in such wonderful detail in Nancy Spies' book Ecclesiastical Pomp and Aristocratic Circumstance). These brocaded tablet-woven bands often did involve strapwork designs, but it would be a mistake to associate these designs specifically with Celtic culture -- they were common on brocaded bands from all over Europe (and the types of strapwork that work well on such bands aren't necessarily the type most "typical" of insular manuscript art). The third piece of evidence relevant to the topic in Wales is a scrap of fabric found at an archaeological site in southern Wales from the 10th century involving a type of counted-thread embroidery worked solidly to resemble complex woven patterns in silk. I have a brief discussion of it here.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that, in my opinion, the most typical types of "Celtic interlace embroidery" that you tend to see in the SCA aren't likely to be historically sound -- at least based on the available information. I'm thinking of the sort where a relatively complex interlaced band is applied directly to the ground fabric following the line of a neck edge or hem, and especially when it is done using satin stitch. This isn't to say that I don't think you can come up with some relatively plausible extrapolations from known material that would involve embroidered interlace-type motifs on clothing. But the more you work by extrapolating from actual known material, the more likely you are to come up with something plausible. Too often, people start by saying, "I want to do this interlace design, on this piece of clothing, using this stitch that I already know how to do, and then I want it to be historically plausible". By the time they get to the "want it to be historically plausible" consideration, they tend to have already locked themselves into wanting a particular motif, application, set of materials, and technique.

Here's some brainstorming I can think of that would result in embroidered interlace-type decorations on clothing in an early medieval insular context (keeping in mind that "insular" includes Anglo-Saxon culture and the Norse settlements in the British Isles) that would involve the fewest leaps of extrapolation from known material:

Anyway, that gives you just a few ideas to get started.

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B. "Medieval Welsh Clothing to 1300" (publication)

Question: Why hasn't someone written a book about medieval Welsh clothing, bringing all these snippets of information together?

Answer: Funny you should ask .... I did, it's just a little hard to get ahold of right now. My booklet Medieval Welsh Clothing to 1300 is a compilation and analysis of visual, literary, and other descriptive information on the title topic. The booklet is available from a few SCA booksellers -- unfortunately I'm not selling it retail at the moment for the duration of writing my PhD dissertation. [Note: having finished the PhD, I plan to get this back in print Real Soon Now, posibly in a slightly revised version.] There are two other directions I'd like to go with this material. I want to put the raw data (e.g., extracts and translations of text descriptions) up elsewhere on this web site, and I hope to re-work the book into a more mainstream costume history approach and see if I can get a real publisher to take it on. All very pie-in-the-sky at the moment, though.

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C. What would a medieval Welsh archer wear?

Question: I was wondering if anyone knew where I could find some pictures of 13th century armor for an archer? What sort of armor would a medieval Welsh archer wear?

Answer: To the extent that there is any historical evidence, the answer seems to be "none". There is actually a drawing that is supposed to represent a Welsh archer in a 13th c. collection of English legal documents known as "Liber A". The figure wears a knee-length tunic with long sleeves, and a short cloak fastened in some way at the center front. Rather peculiarly, the figure wears only a single shoe (on the left foot) and shares this characteristic with the depiction of a Welsh spearman in the same manuscript. But there's no sign of armor or a helmet at all. (Nor in the depiction of the spearman, for that matter.)

The "one shoe" motif is one of those things that is nearly impossible to interpret. As far as I know, the only source for the motif is two drawings in a manuscript known as "Liber A" (Edwards, J. Goronwy ed. 1940. Littere Wallie. University Press Board, Cardiff.), a collection of legal documents from the reigns of Henry III and Edward I. The documents are grouped generally by subject matter, and groups of documents are introduced by a drawing related to the contents e.g., the Pope for the papal bulls. The sections on Welsh, Scottish, and Irish documents are introduced by figures presumably intended to represent those nations, but it isn't clear how true to life they might be, or in fact if they have any relation to the people they are supposed to be depicting except in the English artist's imagination. For example, McClintock is fairly well convinced that the Irish figures have no relation to reality. The two figures depicted in the Welsh-related section of the collection -- an archer and a spearman -- each feature only a single shoe, on the left foot. Other sources of information sometimes note people going barefoot (or bare-legged, which may or may not imply the same thing), but as far as I know, this one manuscript illustration is the only source for "one shoe on and one shoe off".

So is it a representation of an actual Welsh practice of the day? Or is it intended to iconically represent "Welshness" in some way? Is it based on a misunderstanding (like the misunderstanding that led people to believe Jewish people had horns on their heads)? Or is it simply an imaginative whim of an artist who wanted to make them look "different" and made something up? How likely is it that an artist/scribe working most likely in London, copying out a stack of assorted legal documents into a single continuous manuscript, was a careful anthropological observer of contemporary Welsh dress habits? (Make that, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and Papal dress habits.) Maybe yes, but that's unlikely to be how he got the job.

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D. What were medieval Welsh shoe buckles like?

Question (paraphrased): I want to make some shoes consistent with the descriptions found in medieval Welsh sources. They mention buckles, but what sort of buckles would that be?

Answer: It's impossible to know precisely what sort of buckle is being referred to in the written sources, but you can interpolate based on archaeological finds from Welsh sites and from shoe-buckles used in neighboring cultures (especially England -- for which purpose I'd start with the Museum of London books on shoes and on dress accessorites).

The archaeological finds from medieval Wales generally come from fortifications or urban sites, and so are likely to be influenced strongly by English culture. With that in mind, here's an assortment of buckles from Welsh archaeological reports in my files. (This isn't exhaustive -- just representative. I've included all sorts of buckles and strap fittings, not just shoe-sized ones.)

Manley, J.F. & J.M. Lewis. 1987. "A Collection of Medieval Artefacts Found Near Holywell, Clwyd" in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 34:12-282.

The items are chance finds with a metal detector rather than from a formal dig -- coins involved in the finds date from the 12th to 15th centuries, so more specific dating of particular artefacts has to be done on a stylistic basis.

Knight, Jeremy K. 1994. "Excavations at Montgomery Castle: Part II - the finds: metalwork" in Archaeologia Cambrensis, 142:182-209.

[numbers are from the publication, I've used the article's text rather than summarizing, but my added comments are in square brackets]

Lewis, J.M. 1994. "Excavations at Loughor Castle, West Glamorgan 1969-73" in Archaeologia Cambrensis, 142: 99-159.

Several iron buckles of a roughly oval shape, slightly flattened at the end where the tongue attaches, with the following sizes and dates:

Butler, L.A.S. 1974. "Medieval Finds from Castell-Y-Bere, Merioneth" in Archaeologia Cambrensis, 123:78-112.

Although the material is unstratified, based on the historic context, it most likley dates from the later 13th century. All items are of bronze or copper alloy.

To reiterate: stylistically, these items are quite similar to contemporary ones found elsewhere in Britain, also this may be at least partly due to the English influence on the sites involved.

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