Over the bank holiday, I went down to Cardiff to visit some friends of mine who are getting married in September, and to deal with some associated admin in my role as head bridesmaid and troublemaker. I had thought to myself “gosh, isn’t it a shame that I am going to be in Wales and not have an opportunity to go over to Caerleon to see the dig that has turned up a Roman port on the banks of the Usk, but I can’t possibly ask my friends to change whatever their plans are to humour my professional interests”. Imagine my delight when it turned out they had already decided to take me for a visit! Sadly I didn’t think to bring my camera with me so I don’t have photographic evidence. I should also mention that the dig has its own blog, with plenty of photos and narrative description, and it’s well worth clicking through to visit it.
As we went on the Sunday of the bank holiday, the site was properly set up for vistors, with plenty of volunteers and students from the University of Cardiff to show people around, explain selected finds and, erm, dress up in appropriate costume (come on, you can’t have an open day for this kind of thing without having someone dressed up as a soldier, there’s probably a law against it). The target audience was of all ages, with plenty of activities for the children, and good guided tours around some of the most interesting trenches for adults. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Luke, a second year at Cardiff, who acted as our guide – he was lucid, enthusiastic and did an excellent job of explaining what the team had found and why it was important.
And what have they found? If you’ve been following the coverage, you’ll know that they’ve found a port complex that appears to be part of a larger military settlement in this area. Just up the hill from the dig site is the Caerleon amphitheatre, which I’m shocked to say I didn’t know existed until visiting it, and a legionary camp; what the University of Cardiff thinks they have uncovered is the administrative buildings of the port which would have run alongside the River Usk. It’s a bit difficult to envisage how the site would have looked, because there’s now a blooming big hedgerow running alongside the river that blocks a direct view to the Usk, but we got a bit of an idea from standing on top of the amphitheatre to look out over the landscape.
The trench nearest to the Usk seems to have uncovered the piers that boats would have used to moor at the administrative buildings, and the front wall of the relevant building; the Usk’s course has changed a bit since the Roman period, so there’s a chance that there might be remains of boats further down in ‘the natural’ level of the earth if the dig is extended. Other trenches have uncovered various walls and internal surfaces, not to mention the inevitable robber holes – so called because somebody has dug down to rob whatever is beneath. The buildings on the site were clearly quality builds, because one of the most exciting finds is a complete lead water pipe which runs through one trench. The really interesting thing about this pipe is that it demonstrates a quality of workmanship that is previously unrecorded in Roman lead pipes – I’m not an expert in this at all, but apparently the level of skill needed to make a smooth pipe, as opposed to one where the joins between bits of lead are visible, is really quite quite high. The trenches have also covered the remains of a rather grotty mosaic floor, which looks like it was damaged before the dig got to it, and a wall with plaster still intact - this is kind of amazing because that’s the sort of thing that happens in Pompeii, but I don’t know of any parallel examples in the UK (please tell me if I’m wrong!).
I was particularly interested in the mosaic floor; despite being very battered, it reminded me of the floors in the Billingsgate Roman baths. The tiles, both from the surviving segment and others found on the site, are big, chunky and mainly in black and white; that suggests workmanlike floors without particularly sophisticated designs, appropriate for an administrative building that has a lot of dockers trekking through it. But at the same time, the pottery finds have turned up some remarkably delicate pieces of work from (if I remember correctly) Gaulish potteries – just the sort of drinking cups you might expect a Roman official to have in his office for a beaker of wine with chosen visitors. In a more light-hearted vein, one trench also turned up a rather lovely bone die, presumably used during quiet moments to break the monotony of the import/export paperwork.
Anyway! This is clearly a site that deserves further excavation, not least because of what it might tell us about how administration and governance worked in Roman Britain – it’s only the second Roman port that has been found and excavated in this country after London. What’s more, the dig site is a field that’s not used actively for agriculture and hasn’t been built over – and it’s right in the vicinity of the fort, the amphitheatre and goodness knows what else. That’s a really quite substantial surviving administrative complex, and it may fill in an awful lot of information about how these (semi?)-permanent structures were put together and the day-to-day running over the empire was managed at this distance from Rome. It might also be very useful for people interested in ancient trade; Caerleon would have let boats get into Wales, of course, but it would have also been a stopping point on the way to London, and from there to the main body of the Roman empire in Europe.
Whatever new information we might get out of a full dig of the site is going to have to wait. The nine trenches that have been dug so far are exploratory trenches only; that is, they were dug to see if the site was worth digging. The find reports now have to be written up and published, which will take about three or four years; then permission will have to be sought from the appropriate heritage bodies in Wales to do a more substantial dig. I can’t imagine, given what they’ve already uncovered, that the team at the University of Cardiff will have any trouble at all in making their case for why this site deserves further study.