If Prydain might have ever existed in what is now Wales, its existence had to have occurred prior not only to the Roman invasion of the early 1st century AD, but prior to the internal division of the region into the distinct tribal groups recorded by the Roman conquerors.These tribes -- the Deceangli (in the northeast), Ordovices (central/west), Gangani (northwest), Cornovii (east/northeast), Demetae (southwest) and Silures (southeast) -- were divisions which had evidently been in place for centuries prior to 48 AD, when the Roman military campaign began in the west of Britain.
Any nation-state approximating what Lloyd Alexander conceived of as Prydain would have been largely, but not entirely, self-sufficient (that is, relying on a minimum of foreign imports), with its own large mineral wealth in the form of gold, copper, lead, and lesser quantities of zinc and silver. Tin for bronze would have had to come from what is now Cornwall, and iron would have had to come from farther afield. Just as Alexander describes, sheep and cattle would have been abundant, and farming in the lowlands would have been a major source of foodstuffs.
It is now known through archeological research that the modern population of Wales has its origins at latest in the Halstatt culture -- central Europeans of the 8th - 6th centuries BC -- and at earliest in the Mesolithic -- some 10,000 - 15,000 BC -- with little Anglo-Saxon contributions. Mesolithic hunter-gatherer material has been recovered from all over Wales, including decorated pebbles and post-holes at chambered tombs. The last period of glaciation in the region occurred at about 7000 BC, when Wales became roughly the shape that it is today. The earliest farming communities are Neolithic, dating from about 4000 BC. From that time onward forests were cleared on an increasing scale. Many chambered tombs were constructed in this prehistoric period, mainly in western lowlands.
There were close cultural links to Ireland at this time, for example in pottery wares. Polished stone axeheads were produced in the north of Wales, then exported eastward into what is now England. Metal tools appeared about 2500 BC, made first of copper, then of bronze. This was a warmer period, a fact deduced from domestic remains found in what are now bleak and inhospitable uplands. Copper was mined on the Great Orme from about 2000 BC and used to make axeheads and other tools. Burial mounds changed to round barrows with the appearance of grave goods; by 2000 BC these had changed to cremations in cemetery mounds.
A highly decorative gold cape (known as the Mold cape) was deposited around 1900 - 1600 BC in a burial mound inside a cist (a stone-lined grave) on skeletal remains, showing that inhumation still occurred. The spectacular craftsmanship of which this prehistoric culture was capable is astonishing. An urn filled with a large quantity of burnt bone and ash shows that cremation was likely more usual, and that inhumation was reserved for persons of political or religious prestige -- in the case of the Mold cape, probably a woman. Few weapons have been found in grave goods of this period, so farms and hamlets may have gone undefended at this time.
From 1250 BC, a chilling of the climate -- higher rainfall, lower summer temperatures -- may have led to the abandonment of upland settlements, leading to conflict and the rise of hillforts beginning about 800 BC. This period also saw more advanced bronze metallurgy techniques, with more weapons reflecting regional variations worked from introduced styles. Tool types correspond with regions to southeast, southwest, northeast and northwest -- areas later occupied by the tribes of Silures, Demetae, Deceangli and Gangani, respectively.
A language indentifed by linguists as belonging to the Celtic group was being spoken in Wales by about 700 BC. Iron implements dated as early as 650 BC include a sword (possibly imported), a sickle and a spear-head. This age saw the rise of many hillforts. A hillfort is a fortified refuge with defensive structures (timber palisades, dry-stone ramparts and earthworks ditches) erected following the contours of a hill. Castell Odo on the Lleyn Peninsula in northwestern Wales dates to about 400 BC, and is the earliest distinctively Iron Age settlement in Wales. Larger hillforts are most numerous along the eastern border (on the line of Offa's Dyke), with some found in the lowlands of the northwest. In the southwest such forts are plentiful, but small (under 1.2 hectares). A cache found in Anglesey has weapons, shields, chariots, plus fittings, harnesses, slave chains and tools -- all broken as votive offerings. Pottery is rare in this period, and much of what has been found was imported.
Formerly, historians believed that the La Tene Iron-Age culture was spread via large-scale invasion, which brought a shift in material culture along with the Celtic language that later developed into Welsh (in Wales) and Gaelic (in Ireland and Scotland). The current, and the more sensible and evidential view is that movements occurred on a smaller, more gradual scale, and that non-military cultural diffusion accounts for most changes rather than extensive warfare. Evidence in support of this "diffusion" theory includes burials at earlier religious sites, indicating a continuous population rather than replacement by invaders.
In 48 AD the Roman army began their Welsh campaign against the Deceangli in the northeast, but encountered the most stubborn resistance from the Silures (southeast) and Ordovices (central). By 79 AD the campaign had ended; thenceforward the Romans' presence in Wales was primarily military rather than civic. Anglesey was at that time a Druidic stronghold. The Gwynedd hillfort called Tre'r Ceiri continued to be in use for some time.
The Prydain culture must have initially been late Bronze Age, recognizable from about 2000 BC; the bronze breastplates and studded belts of the Cauldron-Born -- dead warriors pulled from "long barrows" and resurrected by the Death-Lord -- are evidence of this past history. The agrarian and herding culture which had developed in the Neolithic era between 4000 and 1700 BC continued into the improved methods of "Celtic fields" system of that age.
Yet swords and other weapons described in the Chronicles of Prydain are iron, not bronze. Hillforts such as those possessed by Lords Gast and Goryon are timber-palisaded clusters of buildings. The potter's wheel employed by Annlaw Clay-Shaper was a relatively late invention. Thus the land of Prydain, if it could ever have existed, must have been an Iron Age culture lying somewhere between 700 BC -- when a distinct Celtic language developed, and when hillforts were numerous -- and 48 AD, when the Roman military campaign began. This then is the Welsh legendary period, when the tales collected in the Mabinogion would have occurred or been engendered.
This ancient period gradually saw the rise of the tribes that (apparently) did not exist at the time of High King Math and Taran of Caer Dallben. From the previous Bronze Age system of every-man-for-himself, an increasingly feudal system must have developed, based on the strongest protecting their holdings of farms, mines and pastures against incursion and pillage by their many neighbors. This system of vassalry is precisely what Lloyd Alexander described among the cantrevs of Prydain.
Of course, Pryain is a land of magic and impossible events, and of course its creator wrote that it was a land of imagination, not history. Yet it bears noting that the imaginary country developed out of Alexander's research into Welsh archeology and tradition. And it sure is fun to speculate.