Tribes of Wales at the time of the Roman invasion. Exact boundaries are conjectural.

Deceangli and the Romans
Before we go on to the Roman history of North Wales we should first mention the Deceangli. The Deceangli or Deceangi were one of the Celtic tribes living in the British Isles, prior to the Roman invasion of Britain. The tribe lived in North Wales, though it is uncertain whether their territory covered only the modern counties of Flintshire and Denbighshire in the north-east of Wales or whether it extended further west.

The first attack on the Welsh tribes was made under the legate Publius Ostorius Scapula who attacked the Deceangli about 48 AD. They appear to have surrendered with little resistance, unlike the Silures and the Ordovices who put up a long and bitter resistance to Roman rule. No Roman town is known to have existed in the territory of this tribe, though the auxiliary fort of Canovium (Caerhun) was probably in their lands and may have had a civilian settlement around it.

Ancient Welsh Warrior
Ancient Welsh Warrior

Like their Ordovician neighbours, the Deceangli lived mainly in hillforts, notably in a chain of settlements dotted along the length of the Clwydian Range in the eastern part of the tribal lands. From Moel Hiraddug near the mouth of the Clwyd they continue in close succession along the eastern bank of the river; Moel y Gaer (Bodfari), Pen y Cloddiau, Moel Arthur, Moel y Gaer (Llanbedr) and Foel Fenlli. Continuing west along the northern Welsh coastline from the mouth of the Clwyd, we find other Deceanglian forts at Pen y Corddyn, Conwy Mountain at the mouth of the Conwy and Pen y Gaer further inland along the Conway valley, also possibly Dinas Dinorwig overlooking the Menai Straits and Mona Insula. Also at Prestatyn there was a fort and minor settlement.

The Tribal Name
The most famous reference to this Celtic tribe is without doubt, the passage in Cornelius Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome:
By the Icenian defeat all who were wavering between war and peace were reduced to quietude, and the army was led against the Ceangi. The country was devastated, booty collected everywhere, while the enemy declined to risk a battle, or, if he made a stealthy attempt to harrass the marching columns, found his treachery punished. And now Ostorius was within measurable distance of the sea which looks towards Ireland, when an outbreak of sedition among the Brigantes recalled a leader who was firm in his resolution to attempt new conquests only when he had secured the old.
(Tacitus Annales XII,32)

The tribal name Deceangli is phonetically connected with the Tegeingl district of Flintshire. The cantref of Tegeingl was created by Edward I and extended from the Wepre Brook to the River Clwyd. The lead deposits of the Halkyn Hills were certainly known by the Romans before they arrived in the area.

Celtic hut at the Museum of Welsh Life
Celtic hut at the Museum of Welsh Life

The native villages in Flintshire during the Romano-British period were characterized by collections of circular or rectangular huts with stone footings and thatched roofs surrounded by crudely-built stone enclosure walls. Their preferred location appears to be on or near hill-tops.
The presence of these hill-sites then testifies to the backwardness of the inhabitants of North Wales as compared with South-East Britain, and to the apparently small effect of Roman influence within its borders.” (Taylor 1922 pp.63/4)”

The Tribal Industries
The Lead/Silver Mines of Flintshire – “As pigs of lead have been unearthed in Cheshire and Staffordshire, inscribed DECEANG or the like, it is presumed that the tribe occupied the lead district of Flintshire. Whether the name was Deceangi or Ceangi depends on the unanswerable question whether, in the inscriptions, DE is a preposition or not. Ptolemy’s Kaiagganwn akron (II.3,3) tells in favour of the second form.” (LOEB footnote)

Gordian III Coin Rome 238-244 AD
Gordian III Coin Rome 238-244 AD

The most notable export of the Deceangli tribe was lead and silver, which was mined in the form of the ore Galena, most notably at Pentre Flint. Roman mine-workings have also been identified at Halkyn, and a coin of Gordian III found in the lead mines at Talar Goch near Meliden may point to Roman exploitation of lead there. A possible hypocaust reported at Holywell may indicate occupation in connection with lead-mining, perhaps in an administrative or regulatory role. At least two large pigs of lead – useful by-products of silver extraction – have been found at Deva Victrix (Chester), another far to the east along Watling Street near Letocetum (Wall), also a ship-load turned up on the shores of the River Mersey.

  • Found in river gravel in June 1885 at the Roodeye in Chester, 23 ft. beneath the surface and 50 yds. from the present channel of the River Dee, along with potsherds, two skulls and other bones. This lead sow measures 24 ins. long, 5 ins. wide and 41&Mac218;2 ins. thick, and weighs 192 lbs. Inscribed on top are the words IMP•VESP•AVGV•T•IMP•III, and the word DECEANGI appears on the side beneath (Dated: AD74).
  • Found in 1838 11&Mac218;4 miles E of Chester’s Eastgate near Tarvin Bridge beside the Roman road to Northwich and Manchester. It measures 24 ins. long, 6 ins. wide and 4 ins. thick, weighing 179 lbs. On the top, was the stamped incription; IMP•VESP•V•T•IMP•III•COS, and again, on the side beneath; DECEANGI (Dated: AD74).
  • Lead ingot AD 76 with the letters DECEANG
    Lead ingot AD 76 with the letters DECEANG

    Found in 1772 on Hints Common in South Staffordshire (see Letocetum), this pig measures 221&Mac218;2 ins. long, 53&Mac218;4 ins. wide, and 4 ins. thick, weighing in at 152 lbs. It is inscribed on the top IMP•VESP•VII•T•IMP•V•COS, and on the side DECEA G (dated: AD76).

  • Around 1590, Camden reported the finding of twenty lead sows on the shores of the River Mersey near Halton, all reputedly inscribed IMP•DOMIT•AVG•GER•DECEANG (dated: AD81-96).

Of these, the first two now reside in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, the Watling Street sow is in the British Museum, London, and the lead pigs found in the River Mersey are all lost.

Roman bath house Prestatyn

Roman Bath House
Artist impression of the Roman Bath House

The Roman’s Twentieth Legion had its headquarters at Chester 2,000 years ago and it is presumed at this time that an auxiliary detachment of the legion was based in a fort sited on what is now Ysgol y Llys (formerly St. Chads) in Princes Avenue, Prestayn.

Roman Bath House
Roman Bath House excavated in 1984

A Roman bath house dating back to this period was discovered in the 1984 excavations at a site in Melyd Avenue.
The main reason for the Twentieth Legion coming to Prestatyn was great mineral wealth – namely lead – in Meliden that could be processed on site then shipped around the coast to Chester.

Among the more interesting find at the site was a number of bronze brooches that suggested that buildings in the area housed bronze-smiths producing items that were for sale in the settlement. A more unexpected find was that of an Iron Age baby – carbon dated to be about 30 BC.

Roman bath house roof tile LEG XX
Roman bath house roof tile LEG XX

The bath house was constructed of stone with a tile roof, part of the house excavations can still be seen at the bottom of Melyd Avenue.
Pictured here is a roof tile from the bath house stamped with the insignia of the 20th Legion LEG XX and a charging wild boar. The roof tile and other finds from the site were on display at Prestatyn library.

More information coming soon…
In the meantime see the Meliden History Timeline