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Peter Guest’s Lecture: 'Roman Caerleon – Recent Discoveries and New Thinking'

LecturesPosted by Communications Officer Sun, February 07, 2016 09:50:54

Peter Guest began his lecture by looking at what the fortress might have looked like about 2,000 years ago. As he states in the website of the Caerleon Research Committee,

‘In AD 74/75 the Second Augustan Legion (Legio Secunda Augusta) was moved forward to Caerleon (Isca) during operations to subdue the Silures. Isca, the most westerly fortress in the Roman Empire, was to continue as the base of Legio II Augusta for more than 200 years. The importance of Caerleon cannot be overstressed in the opportunities it offers for the study of legionary fortresses and archaeological (as opposed to antiquarian) work has been on-going in and around Caerleon since 1908. The vast amount of evidence derived from these excavations allows archaeologists to explore in detail the structural development and history of the fortress, its garrison and the wider community.’


Research took place from 2006-2011. There are only 3 Legionary fortresses in Britain, York, Chester and Caerleon, but Caerelon has the advantage of open spaces which allow easy access to areas of the Roman fortress and surroundings. In 2006 Tim Young undertook a magnetometer and resistivity survey on the Priory Field and 15 new buildings were discovered, dated to about 100AD and were expected to be granaries or barrack blocks.

‘The geophysical surveys were followed by the excavation of a series of evaluation trenches in 2007, directed by Andrew Gardner and Peter Guest with students from Cardiff University and UCL. Six trenches were opened in Priory Field to investigate a possible rampart building, rooms in two barrack blocks, one of the military granaries, and the open 'yard' area between the granaries and the large courtyard building. … A second geophysical survey was undertaken within the fortress in the spring of 2007, this time of School Field and Golledge's Field between the via principalis and the barrack blocks in Prysg Field to the northwest. … The magnetometer survey of School Field located a very large courtyard complex, as well as part of the barrack blocks for the legion's First Cohort (these extended northwards from the via principalis in Golledge's Field). The main complex occupied an area approximately 70 metres square and appears to have included an aisled basilical hall with large tower-like rooms at each end, and other long buildings subdivided into large rooms around the remaining three sides of the central courtyard.’

The ware-house building and its finds

The 2008 excavation revealed a building that looked like the warehouse buildings in Ostia, or on the Tiber in Rome. The excavation continued until 2010. One of the important finds was stone fragment of a captive native, naked to the waist in a kneeling position and with his hands tied behind his back. This is typical of the type of iconography which is placed on tablets celebrating Roman military victories and shows how the Romans viewed the natives depicting them as subjugated and enslaved. The warehouse also revealed a host of artefacts in iron and bronze. They were excavated and removed in blocks and taken to the laboratory where Mark Lewis and Penny Hill excavated the contents of the blocks. Apart from bucket handles they found a set of armour. The studs seem to have been removed as they were probably recycling the reusable metal whereas the less recyclable iron was left in a corner. They also found a small terracotta figure with a Phrygian cap which came originally from Persia and was worn by Roman emancipated slaves. From one of the blocks emerged a chamfron, which was protective and decorative horse armour placed over a horse’s face. These were used in parades, ceremonies and mock battles. Why such an item was placed in the corner of a room with discarded amour is not known.

Interestingly, radio carbon dates have been obtained which prove that the site was re-occupied by people who built Roman style buildings on the site in 430-530-AD. This shows that life continued on into the 5th Century and it is the 1st building in Britannia to reveal such occupation during this period.

Outside the fortress

In 2011 the buildings outside the fort close to the river were discovered and were identified as being 3-4th Century AD with no evidence of post Roman occupation. The largest building surrounded a large open square a full hectare. It is one of the largest buildings in Roman Britain, but many have been found in Europe outside the walls eg., Ulpia Noviomaqus Batavorum in the Netherlands and at Carnuntum, in Austria where a Gladiator School has been identified. This open area outside Isca could have been a cattle market or a campus training area and the small post holes that were discovered could have been for practising fighting techniques against wooden posts. Peter Guest speculated that the space could have been used for important occasions such as when Hadrian visited Britain in 122AD and is known to have addressed the Legion.


2.5 thousand metal pieces were discovered and even more pottery. Some finds give a great deal of information. For example an intaglio which would have been part of a soldier’s ring was a lucky charm and the four images tell us about the Roman soldier’s beliefs. Graphs revealed the different histories of different sections of the site which reveal not only how long they were in use but also if they were demolished or merely fell down. Also on the large site outside the fortress large quantities of pigs and ravens were found. This suggests the site had a religious use as pigs were used for sacrifice and ravens were considered to cross over from the living to the dead


There was a gap of about 50 years before the natives were allowed some autonomy as is proved by the Civitas stone found in the Roman town at Caerwent. Just as some natives adapted to town life in Caerwent, the Legion became part of the local landscape and local wives and children can be seen in the inscriptions at the National Roman Legion Museum. Future research intends to look at the impact of the Roman presence on the surrounding area and the people who lived there.

For further information see the Caerleon Research Committee Website

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