The Lost Kingdom of Rheged


Pictish carvings

Archaeologists studying ancient Pictish carvings began excavations at Trusty’s Hill in Galloway, Scotland in 2012. While the study of such symbols is both a fascinating and important endeavor, research at the Trusty’s Hill site has revealed something even more astonishing: the long-lost kingdom of Rheged. The dominant kingdom in northern Britain until the seventh century, Rheged’s actual location has been disputed for centuries.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeyTreasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third century. Older and more mysterious than ancient Egypt, the strange kingdom of Dodrazeb ignites a Persian warrior’s curiosity when he leads an army to conquer it. Mesmerized by Dodrazeb’s puzzles, the warrior is determined to peel back its layers of secrets as its desperate princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What have they been hiding from the rest of the world for thousands of years? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.

Researchers initially chose the Trusty’s Hill site because Pictish symbols were carved into a rocky outcropping near its entrance. Such Pictish carvings are more common further north, but quite rare as far south as Galloway. The Picts were a loose confederation of Celtic tribes that lived in what is now northern and eastern Scotland during Roman occupation of the British Isles. While their exact origin is unknown, the Picts were eventually absorbed by other Gaelic cultures of the region.


Fortification at Trusty’s Hill, dating to around 600 CE

Archaeologists discovered timber and stone fortifications, a royal hall, and a blacksmith’s workshop. This type of structure is known as a “nucleated” fort, a stronghold from which the local royals would have ruled the surrounding countryside. Dating to around 600 CE, the fort had numerous defensive reinforcements and enclosures in the same style as other high-status settlements of the period in Scotland.

In fact, this was not a simple farming village, but a far more important regional center that managed the surrounding farms and natural resources on a large scale. There is also evidence of leatherworking and wool spinning operations at the site, along with a metal workshop that produced high-quality objects in gold, silver, iron, and bronze. Archaeologists studying the site believe that the Pictish symbols flanking the entrance indicate that royal ceremonies took place at the fort.

Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles tell the story of the amazing discovery in their book The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged (Oxbow Books, 2016). Bowles said, “This was a place of religious, cultural and political innovation whose contribution to culture in Scotland has perhaps not been given due recognition. Yet the influence of Rheged, with Trusty’s Hill at its secular heart…and Urien its most famous king, has nevertheless rippled through the history and literature of Scotland and beyond.”

Rheged and its powerful warrior king, Urien, inspired some of the earliest medieval poetry composed in Britain, by the poet Taliesin. Some Arthurian legends say that Urien married Morgan Le Fay, King Arthur’s sister, but the marriage was not happy. In one version of the story, Morgan plotted to use the sword Excalibur to kill Urien and Arthur and take the throne herself with her lover.


Location of Trusty’s Hill in Galloway, Scotland

Previously, historians thought Rheged might have been located in Cumbria, a county in northwestern England. Surviving early medieval historical records show King Urien’s dominance in southern Scotland and northern England before a rival group wiped out the settlement in the early seventh century. The site was destroyed by fire, suffering sustained burning for weeks or even months as evidenced by many sections of the timber-reinforced stone rampart found to be fused together. As the researchers concluded, “The deliberate and spectacular destruction of Trusty’s Hills is a visceral reminder that the demise of this kingdom in the early seventh century AD came with sword and flame.”

The Glorious Ruins of Ani


The ruined church of the Holy Redeemer.

Location, location, location… As history teaches, any ancient settlement that survived and flourished for a significant period of time did so because it was located in a strategically defendable spot that provided easy access to water, fertile land for growing crops, space for herding livestock, and other amenities that attracted large numbers of people to live together. But in ancient times there were downsides to developing a thriving city in a great location as well. A bustling center of commerce attracted hostile invaders looking to plunder. A strong, established, and prosperous city invited unwanted attention from political rivals seeking to expand their influence and territory.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeyTreasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key, is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third century. A Persian warrior’s curiosity is ignited when he leads an invasion of Dodrazeb, a strange kingdom isolated from the rest of the world. Ancient Dodrazeb’s puzzling choice to remain hidden draws the warrior deeper into layers of mysteries as its princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What is she so desperate to keep hidden? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.


The Monastery of the Hripsimian Virgins, thought to have been built between 1000 and 1200 AD, near the height of Ani’s importance and strength. The Akhurian River below acts as the modern border between Turkey and Armenia.

The Armenian city of Ani in present-day eastern Turkey is a prime example of a magnificent medieval city that fell into ruin over the centuries. At the height of its prominence, Ani boasted numerous palaces, places of worship, and military fortifications that were some of the most technically and artistically advanced structures anywhere. The city is located on a triangular site at an elevation of 4,390 feet, protected on the east by a deep ravine and the Akhurian River, and on the west by the steep Bostanlar valley.


A gate in the medieval walls of Ani.

Unlike many other prominent ancient cities, Ani did not spring up along any established trade routes. It was Ani’s size, power, and wealth that made it an important trading hub, attracting business from the Byzantine Empire, the Persian Empire, the Arabs, and smaller nations in Russia and Central Asia. Ani is first mentioned in the 5th century by Armenian writers who referred to it as “a strong fortress built on a hilltop and a possession of the Armenian Kamsarakan dynasty.”

As the Armenian Bagratuni Dynasty expanded, they acquired Ani. Between 953 and 977, King Ashot III transferred the capital there from Kars. In 992, The Armenian Church moved its seat to Ani. By the beginning of the 11th century, Ani was renowned as the “City of Forty Gates” and the “City of a Thousand and One Churches.” Its population was well over 100,000 and it housed the royal mausoleum of Bagratuni kings.


Ani cathedral with Armenia’s Little Ararat in the background.

Ani’s downfall began soon after it achieved its apex of power. A quarrel between two sons of King Gagik I (989-1020) left one brother in control of Ani while the other ruled over other parts of the Bagratuni kingdom. Decades of escalated disputes led to attempts to capture Ani, but the city repulsed several attacks by Byzantine armies. In 1046 Ani surrendered to the Byzantines, spurred by many pro-Byzantine citizens among its cosmopolitan population. Then in 1064, an army of the Turkish Muslim Seljuk Empire attacked Ani. After a 25-day-long siege, they captured the city and killed many citizens.

In 1072, the Seljuks sold Ani to the Shaddadids, a Muslim Kurdish dynasty, who were tolerant of the city’s overwhelmingly Armenian and Christian population for several decades. But eventually the Shaddadid governance became too rigid, and the population appealed to the Christian Kingdom of Georgia for help—more than once. The Georgians captured Ani five times: in 1124, 1161, 1174, 1199, and 1209. During brief periods of peace, prosperity returned to Ani and its defenses were strengthened and many new churches were built.


The Ani Cathedral, in the Turkey-Armenia border province of Kars, Turkey.

The Mongols tried to capture Ani in 1226, but didn’t succeed until 1236. When they captured and sacked the city, the Mongols also massacred large numbers of its population. Later ruled by many different Turkish dynasties, Ani was devastated by a massive earthquake in 1319. No longer the grand and important city it had once been, control of Ani passed through many hands as its population shrank. Reduced to a small town of no particular consequence, it became a part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1579. The site was abandoned by 1735 when the last monks left the monastery in the Virgin’s Fortress.


Damaged frescoes of the church of St Gregory of Tigran Honents.

Eager to share their discovery, European travelers in the first half of the 19th century described the ruins of Ani in popular travel and academic journals. By then most of the structures were nothing but piles of rubble, but the grand public buildings and portions of the city’s double wall had survived. In the early 20th century, archaeologists professionally excavated large sectors of the city. Buildings were uncovered and measured, the whole site was surveyed for the first time, and emergency repairs were undertaken on buildings that were most at risk of collapse. A museum was established to house the tens of thousands of items found during the excavations. In 1918, during World War I, archaeologists saved thousands of the most portable items from the armies of the Ottoman Empire fighting their way across the region. Everything left behind was later looted or destroyed. Ani reverted to Armenian control when Turkey surrendered at the end of World War I, but Turkey recaptured it in 1920.

The archaeological site of Ani was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on July 15, 2016.


Ancient Underground Cities

derinkuyu_graphicThe Cappadocia region of central Anatolia in Turkey earned a World Heritage site designation some time ago for its underground cities. They’ve been there for millennia, but most were forgotten when they were no longer needed for protection from invaders. In 1963, Derinkuyu became a popular tourist destination shortly after a man discovered a man-made passageway linked to subterranean tunnels while renovating his home.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeyTreasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third century. Older and more mysterious than ancient Egypt, the strange kingdom of Dodrazeb ignites a Persian warrior’s curiosity when he leads an army to conquer it. Mesmerized by Dodrazeb’s puzzles, the warrior is determined to peel back its layers of secrets as a desperate princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What have they been hiding for thousands of years? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.

Cappadocia - Kaymakli Underground CityIn 2013, a public urban building project unearthed a complex of hand-carved rooms and tunnels beneath a Byzantine-era hilltop castle. The newer find in Nevşehir Province includes artifacts and hidden rooms interconnected by miles of tunnels that may date to 3,000 BCE. The new site appears to be even larger than Derinkuyu, an impressive 18-story underground city that once housed around 20,000 people. Millions of years ago, the region was buried under layer upon layer of volcanic ash. The hardened volcanic rock, known as “tuff,” provided a natural building material that was easy to work with. Because the caves are carved from natural rock, archaeologists can’t date their first use, but most agree that the Anatolian Hittites are the original builders.

derinkuyu-underground-city-roomWhen the region’s ancient inhabitants retreated to their subterranean homes, everyday life continued as usual. They carved out sprawling underground cities that featured apartments, stables, worship centers, ventilation shafts, tombs, water tanks, kitchens, and communal rooms. Some contained functional freshwater wells and stone doors for added protection. There are also arsenals for storing weapons, wineries, chapels, schoolrooms, staircases, and bezirhane—linseed presses for producing lamp oil to light the underground city. Hidden escape routes offered residents a last chance for a getaway.

1_460973772cappadocia-adapt-1900-1Over time, the need for hidden shelter varied. When dangerous invaders threatened, Cappadocians went underground, blocked the access tunnels with stone doors, and sealed themselves in with livestock and supplies until the threat passed. They lived comfortably in the year-round consistent temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In peacetime, people returned to building and living on the surface, using the subterranean city as cold storage for food and stables for livestock.


Ancient Persians Invented Pizza

How do you define “pizza”? Today’s modern version is basically a flat, baked bread crust covered with tomato sauce and cheese and a range of toppings from meats to vegetables to fruits. Is it still pizza if you take away the tomato sauce? Maybe…

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeyTreasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third century. Older and more mysterious than ancient Egypt, the strange kingdom of Dodrazeb ignites a Persian warrior’s curiosity when he leads an army to conquer it. Mesmerized by Dodrazeb’s puzzles, the warrior is determined to peel back its layers of secrets as a desperate princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What have they been hiding for thousands of years? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.

pepperoni-pizzaThe fact is, flat bread served with toppings has been around for millennia. The addition of tomato sauce is a modern variation. For this discussion, let’s broadly define pizza—or the ancient ancestor of modern-day pizza—as a flat bread with toppings. Who invented that? Ancient Persians, that’s who!

shieldThat’s right, way back in the sixth century BCE, warriors in the armies of Persian King Darius I turned their battle shields horizontal and heated them to bake flat bread that they then covered in cheese and dates. “But,” I can hear you mumbling, “dates don’t belong on pizza! Dates are a weird fruit that come from palm trees. Anything with dates on it can’t be pizza!” Oh, really? Personally, I don’t think pineapple—ewww!—should ever be considered a pizza topping, even in an emergency. Pineapples are a weird fruit native to South America that were spread to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 1500’s. Anyway, my point is that particular toppings are a matter of taste.

pizza-1Most people assume the Romans must have invented pizza because the modern version we crave came from Italy. Remember Persian King Darius I and his troops who used their shields to make that ancient version of pizza? Generally speaking, soldiers won’t pass up an opportunity to devour a good, hot meal back at camp after a long, hard day of slicing and dicing the enemy. Well, the Persian Empire didn’t get to be the Persian Empire without fighting a lot of wars with its neighbors, and even some of the Greek city-states were Persia’s allies when they weren’t its enemies. So it’s easy to understand how the idea of cooking bread, cheese, and toppings was spread through the region by soldiers.

4791207-9790062099-pizzaI hear you saying, “But pizza is Italian!” Yes, the Romans were great assimilators. When they saw something they liked, they replicated it and incorporated it into their own culture, just like every culture since the dawn of mankind. However, it takes some things longer to be accepted than others. Take tomatoes, a somewhat weird fruit, by the way, discovered in the Americas. Tomatoes were introduced to Italy in the 16th century, but were widely thought to be poisonous. In fact, when highly acidic tomatoes were served on pewter plates used by many wealthier Europeans, lead would leach from the plate into their food. Rich Europeans died from lead poisoning, but the tomatoes were blamed. Poor Italian folk who fed their families with basic staples such as flour, olive oil, lard, cheese, and herbs couldn’t afford pewter plates, but they ate tomatoes with no deadly consequences. What we immediately recognize today as a pizza originated in Naples, Italy as a cheap meal for the lower classes.

cheese-pizzaSo there you have it. Poor Italians added a layer of tomato sauce to the bread before covering it with mozzarella cheese and other toppings. By the way, real mozzarella cheese was originally made from the milk of water buffalo. Water buffalo were brought to Italy by Hannibal, or maybe they came with Arab invaders, or perhaps were imported from India…


The Origin Key: Read a FREE Excerpt

Read a free excerpt of my sword-and-science fantasy adventure! Happy reading!

logo-stackedTreasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key, is a sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third-century. While on a quest to avenge a horrific attack on his father the king, a Persian warrior discovers a strange kingdom isolated from the rest of the world. He thinks the villain is hiding there, but a sly princess is determined to sabotage the Persians to protect her kingdom’s ancient secrets. What is she so desperate to keep hidden?  Get your copy on!

Readers praise Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key

  • OriginKeyCover_lo-res“Filled with wonderful imagery, distinct characters and adventurous plot points that kept me turning the page. I recommend this book to anyone that enjoys a compelling story, and am looking forward to whatever’s next from this first-time author.”
  • “Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key by Susan McPhail is a smart, intriguing tale that seamlessly melds historical fiction, fantasy, and suspense… Highly recommended for fans of history, fantasy, and mystery stories.”
  • “My ONLY criticism is that I was left wanting more. Luckily McPhail left the tale so it can be taken up again. Soon, I hope.”
  • “McPhail paints vivid pictures of the world she’s created and engages all of the readers senses in the story.”
  • Very descriptive. I could easily imagine being in some of the battles! I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a great storyteller!”
  • More books, please.”
  • WOW! Add Susan McPhail to your must-watch writer list!”
  • “This book is definitively the best third-century Persian sword-and-science novel I’ve ever read!

Authors praise Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key

  • “A smart, thrilling mix of history and fantasy. S.D. McPhail is definitely an author to watch.
    – Brian Niemeier, author of Campbell-nominated Nethereal and Dragon Award-winning Souldancer
  • “Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a stunning debut novel. McPhail’s creation is packed with tension and excitement, from the political machinations of the empire to the almost Atlantean history of Dodrazeb and mythical Anutupi. The imagery is enchanting, but the adventure is mesmerizing.
     Ashley Chappell-Peeples, author of  Of War and Taters and the Dreams of Chaos series

Ancient Urkesh: The Real Thing

I write historical fantasy adventure, but the archaeologists working to study and preserve ancient sites are the true heroes. Unique and priceless sites like Urkesh are in danger of being destroyed because of war and political turmoil before we can learn about our ancient ancestors and the civilizations they built.

swordtodMy novel, Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key, is a sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third-century. A Persian warrior discovers a strange kingdom hidden from the rest of the world. Their vast library contains ancient texts they have translated into common languages to preserve the knowledge of long-extinct civilizations. But what other secrets are they hiding?  Get your copy on!


Ancient city of Urkesh, home to the Hurrian culture.

One of the most ancient cities known to exist on earth is Urkesh. Its exact location was a mystery until the 1990s when, after ten years of painstaking excavations, archaeologists identified Tel Mozan in northern Syria near the borders of Turkey and Iran as Urkesh. The capital city of the Hurrians, it flourished between 4000 and 1300 BCE. It initially became powerful because of its location at the intersection of major trade routes as well as its control of valuable copper deposits.


Intact stone stairway at Urkesh.

Ruins of monumental public buildings, including a large temple and a palace, have been found. The architecture is not only mud-brick construction, but also rare stone structures. Archaeologists have discovered remains of an open plaza, a monumental flight of stairs, and a deep underground shaft related to religious rituals known as the “Passage to the Netherworld.” Urkesh dominated the ancient skyline at the top of a built-up terrace that rivaled nearby mountains.


Lion and stone tablet inscribed with Hurrian language.

Very little was known about the Hurrians before Urkesh was positively identified. There may not have been many Hurrian cities in what is present-day southern Syria, but their civilization influenced the entire Middle East. They were a major influence on Mesopotamia to the south and cultures such as the Hittites as cities were first developing in that region. Unlike the centralized political structures of ancient Assyria and Egypt, Hurrian urban culture seems to have been more feudal in organization, possibly limiting the development of large palace or temple complexes.

The unique Hurrian language is unlike any other known ancient language. Historians believe that the speakers of this language originally came from the Armenian Highlands and spread over southeast Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia at the beginning of the second millennium BCE.


Hurrian incense container.

Accomplished ceramists, Hurrian pottery was highly valued in distant Egypt. Khabur ware and Nuzi ware are two types of wheel-made pottery used by the Hurrians. Khabur ware is characterized by reddish painted lines with a geometric triangular pattern and dots, while Nuzi ware has very distinctive forms, and are painted in brown or black.

Also known for achievements in metallurgy, Hurrians traded copper south to Mesopotamia from the highlands of Anatolia. The Khabur Valley had a central position in the metal trade, and copper, silver and even tin were accessible from Hurrian-dominated countries in the Anatolian highland. Among the few surviving examples of Hurrian metal work, some small fine bronze lion figurines were discovered at Urkesh.

Sadly, the Syrian civil war has disrupted the fascinating archaeological activities at Urkesh and endangered future discoveries about the Hurrian culture. The site lies close to the Turkish border, and is now protected by Kurdish troops and a team of local workers.


4,000 year-old bakery with paved floor and “beehive” oven.


Oooh! (BOOM!) Ahhh! The History of Fireworks



It’s common knowledge that fireworks originated in China, but like many marvelous inventions, it was an accidental discovery. History tells us that alchemists attempting to develop an elixir for immortality tried a recipe of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). What they got was gunpowder and soon firecrackers were in huge demand as their loud bangs were used to scare away evil spirits.

Fireworks7Just as in modern times, military engineers saw a practical use for the substance’s explosive properties. Stuffing gunpowder into bamboo tubes was just the first step. The first documented use of gunpowder in a weapon of war is a catapult in the year 1046. Imagine the numerous trials and failures that eventually led to enough success that someone proudly recorded it for posterity!

What you learned in elementary school about Marco Polo bringing fireworks to Europe from his travels in 1295 is true. But Europeans had already experienced gunpowder weaponry during the Crusades. China tried to keep the technology within its own borders, but the formula for gunpowder had been carried to the Middle East by caravans traversing the Silk Road.

Fireworks4By the 15th century, Italians had refined methods for mixing chemicals and shaping aerial shells to produce specific shapes and colors of pyrotechnics. Ambitious displays lighting up the night sky were incorporated into religious and public celebrations all across Europe. For instance, the marriage of England’s Henry VII and Elizabeth Plantagenet in 1486 saw an elaborate presentation of pyrotechnic prowess.

The rise of fireworks as entertainment coincided with the end of medieval warfare. The same science that sent colorful explosions into the air created advances in ballistic weaponry; metal armor could be punctured by projectiles and fortified walls could be demolished from a distance.

Logo-stackedIn my novel, Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key, an ancient ritual that incorporates fireworks causes chaos for the hero. A third-century Persian warrior who had never experienced pyrotechnics, he’s interested in using the technology to gain an advantage in war. Get your copy on!

Fireworks8Varieties of Fireworks

Stars: The small bits of explosive that scatter across the sky when fireworks explode
Peony: An explosion of stars in a radial pattern
Dahlia: Like a Peony, but with fewer and larger stars
Chrysanthemum: Like a Peony that leaves a trail of glowing particles as it falls
Crossette: A Chrysanthemum with stars that explode as smaller pieces, creating branches across the sky
Willow: Like a Crossette, but the glowing limbs must stay in the sky for 10 seconds or more
Palm: Like a Willow, but with slower-moving, slower-burning stars, resembling the limbs of a palm tree
Spider: Like the Chrysanthemum, but with longer-burning, droopy tails (like a spider’s leg)
Fish: Explodes into particles that wriggle like fish across the sky.
Rings: From a spherical shell, explosions that spread like Saturn’s rings
Time rain: Big, slow-burning stars that leave trails of sizzling, sparkling stars
Multi-break/Bouquet shells: A big shell containing smaller shells scattered by the first burst