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Archaeology

Veterans, Students and Local Community Excavate Major Roman Site to Find Lost Mosaics

Roman Caerwent - Image Credit : Markus Milligan

A charity which uses archaeology to help vulnerable people, including armed forces veterans, non-military uniformed services and disadvantaged groups, to integrate better into mainstream society is taking place at Caerwent village.

This site is one of the best preserved Roman towns in Northern Europe and the group will help solve a major archaeology mystery: what is the “Rich Mosaic” marked on a map within Caerwent Roman town in the 19th century, of which no record now survives?

The intent is to excavate an area within Caerwent Roman town to explore a large Roman town house with intact Mosaics. If they can be uncovered, it will be the first time in 160 years they have been seen and will further understanding of the Roman presence.

The privately owned site covers an area of approximately two acres and is a combination of grass and pasture and a house dating to the 19th century.  The front part of the site, comprising mainly lawn, is not a scheduled historic monument and is the focus of the works.  The pasture and the area to the rear of the house are scheduled and will not form part of the excavation.

Archaeological interest in the site arises primarily as it is part of the Roman civitas (tribal capital) of Venta Silurum (Caerwent). At the time of the Roman conquest, south-east Wales was inhabited by the Silures, a tribe described by the Roman historian Tacitus. Their territories included the counties of Gwent, Glamorgan, and part of Powys.  Their settlements, ranging in size from small farmsteads to large sites, covered many hectares such as Llanmelin just over a mile north-west of Caerwent.  They were fortified and often located on coastal promontories or inland spurs.

     

Extensive excavations within the civitas, undertaken during the late 19th and early 20th century, revealed that the earthwork defenses originated during the late 2nd century AD and were reconstructed in stone during the late 3rd century. The stone defenses were reinforced by semi-circular bastions on the northern and southern sides during the 4th-century and these are still visible today. The excavations also indicated the presence of Roman suburbs beyond the town walls, although the locations of any cemeteries associated with the settlement have yet to be identified.

By the late 70s AD, a settlement was beginning to develop at Caerwent, sited on a slight rise in the middle of a broad open valley of prime agricultural land two miles from the River Severn and astride the main Roman road from Gloucester (Glevum) to Caerleon (Isca).  Little is known of the character of this early settlement.  However, during the late 1st and for much of the 2nd century AD, the town is unlikely to have consisted of more than an irregular, unfortified sprawl of buildings adjacent to the road.

The town quickly became a market centre for agricultural produce and other natural resources from its rural hinterland.  Later, around the mid-2nd century, the Silures were granted a form of self-government and Caerwent became their administrative centre and capital.

Town walls of Roman Caerwent – Image Credit : Markus Milligan

Although it is difficult to estimate the population with any accuracy, it is likely that Caerwent boasted between 2,400 and 3,800 inhabitants during the later 3rd and 4th centuries AD.  The reasons are unclear but by the late 4th century AD, Caerwent was in decline, with some of its high-status houses abandoned. Limited activity seems to have continued into the 5th century, but much of the town was ruined by this time.

Although Roman remains in Caerwent were mentioned by the many antiquarian ‘tourists’ visiting the area during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, archaeological excavations only began in1855 when Octavius Morgan revealed part of a small bath-house and another building in the south-east corner of the town.  It is these excavations we believe our building was part of.

A plan dated 1898 was published that clearly shows the building we are excavating with intact rich mosaic floors.  However, no records of the excavation exist and no photos or plans of these mosaics survive. These mosaics are very important as much of buildings within the town did not have mosaics and, apart from the ones in Newport museum, none survive.  To uncover and record these mosaics using modern archaeology techniques will shed new light on the best preserved Roman Town in Northern Europe

The objectives of the archaeological work within the proposed development area are:

  • To assess the accuracy of the 19th century plan against the actual remains
  • To gain an understanding of the construction methods and development phases of the building
  • Carry out a Geo Physical survey of the building using state-of-the art Ground Penetrating Radar, to see if there are early remains that pre-date the current building
  • To recover an assemblage of finds in order to assist with understanding the function of the building and its dates.  While the finds will be un-stratified due to the back fill, it will provide some understanding as to dates and building use from the pottery assemblage and small finds not recovered in the original 19th century excavation

The ‘Services Archaeology and Heritage Association’ (SAHA), part of Solider On!, a registered charity (1136567) whose President is Lord Frederick Windsor and counts actor, Laurence Fox and historian, Dan Snow, amongst its Ambassadors, has organised the project in collaboration with students from Liverpool John Moores University and has invited other organisations to benefit from this work.

Roman Caerwent – Image Credit : Markus Milligan

This project gives veterans, members of non-military uniformed services, some of whom have complex physical and mental health needs, along with members of the local community who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and archaeology undergraduates, the opportunity to learn a series of skills including excavation, land survey, drawing and mapping techniques and building recording on a site of national importance.  Additionally, during the project, a personal development programme will be delivered to help participants plan and manage their futures.  This includes preparation to find meaningful opportunities in work, education or volunteering.

The excavation at Caerwent will start on 23 July and run until the 1 August 2018.

The charity runs circa 8 projects per year in different regions and is funded through donations. Soldier On! needs to raise approximately £4,000 to deliver each project. No salaries are paid.  Find out more


Diarmaid Walshe CEO, Solider On!  who is also a qualified archaeologist and a serving member of the Royal Army Medical Corp, said:

“This unique project provides an opportunity to demonstrate the skills of veterans, members of the emergency services and individuals within the local community in helping to preserve, explore and record their local heritage. It’s helping to build links with the local community and also engages with elements of the local population that normally have no interaction with heritage

Additionally, it provides a programme that helps prepare participants, through training and experience, to make considered choices on education and employment”.

The feedback from individuals, who have attended previous programmes, is not only that have they enjoyed themselves and had a positive experience, but that it has helped them deal with issues that were holding back their recovery”

“The key to the success of the project is that the participants find themselves the main focus of everything we do. They will engage in all the different activities, from digging to surveying, photography and finds processing. We give them the responsibility to ensure that the key tasks expected to be carried out are achieved. This builds the element of teamwork and comradeship that they tell us they have missed.

Dr David Jordan – Liverpool John Moores University said:

“We are delighted to be involved in this project which not only expands opportunities for our students but also helps support of individuals and communities in accessing their heritage.  Additionally, it also allows our institution to help support former military, emergency service personnel and other disadvantaged people, to go forward into education, employment and supports community cohesion.”

Local MP David Davies said:

“This project sounds like a great way to support veterans along with local communities and discover a little more about the rich history of Monmouthshire. I am looking forward to visiting with a trowel and lending a bit of a hand.”

Gary, a former member of the Kings Regiment and veteran of the Northern Ireland Campaign said:

“Taking part in these projects has had a major impact on my life.  Before I got involved I found life difficult and had become isolated having difficulty going out.  Since I got involved I have found that I find it easer to deal with life, made some great friends and now have a new focus in life.  The best thing about taking part is the comradeship and feeling of belonging that I have missed since leaving the Army” 

Megan, 14, from Yorkshire who lost her mother last year due to cancer, said.

“I have always loved history and for the past year I have had a difficult time due to the

death of my mother.  I had applied to go on digs but had been turned down as too young.  To be given the opportunity to take part in this excavation is a dream come true and has given me something to look forward to over the past few months”.

Karl, from Liverpool who spent 10 years in the RAF and is registered blind said.

“This project has made an amazing difference to my life.  They were the only charity willing to take me due to my disability.  Since I have been involved my life has turned around and now have my own place, friends and a doing a lot of volunteering.  This is solely down to my involvement in this project”

Soldieron

Header Image Credit : Markus Milligan

 

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