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Caerleon Legionary Fortress

Priory Field Excavations 2008

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Friday 27th June

"I often regret that I have spoken; never that I have been silent" Publilius Syrus

A strange day to end the week, mainly occupied with preparation for the Roman Military Spectacular weekend. We spent the morning continuing our excavations down to more rubble, with some more details emerging of the late flagging which seems to extend quite widely across the trench, and more hints of walls too. However, we'll have to wait until next week to see how these features are to be understood as the afternoon was given over to setting up our various activities and display boards for the weekend. There'll be finds washing and flotation, displays of some of our discoveries, and activities for kids too. The students took the lead in planning and preparing these various elements, and did a fantastic job of setting it all up. Let's hope the weather stays friendly!

Posted by Andy 29/6/08

Thursday 26th June

"Do not forget: A [wo]man needs little to lead a happy life" Marcus Aurelius

My time at Priory Field has too quickly come to an end. Just less than two weeks ago, I arrived on site with my car full of kit and myself full of nervous apprehension over what to expect on my first proper archaeological dig. Today, I leave the excavation feeling confident in my growing skills as a field archaeologist and with many new friends. I have learned a tremendous amount about excavating from our excellent project directors and supervisors. I have also lived like an archaeologist, sleeping in muddy tent in the wind and rain and taking advantage of the vibrant Caerleon nightlife. Yesterday, we were privileged to visit a Time Team excavation in nearby Caerwent and had an opportunity to speak with Tony Robinson himself. While I am certain that I will not miss the chemical toilets, I will miss the fun of excavating and the thrill associated with discovering something as ordinary as a Roman nail. Most of all, however, I will miss the wonderful people I have met these past two weeks and the camaraderie that has grown amongst us through living and working together at the Priory Field site.

Jenny Nye, MA student, Institute of Archaeology UCL

Wednesday 25th June

"It is a general human weakness to allow things uncertain and unknown to set us up in hope or plunge us into fear" Caesar

Exciting developments with our inscription. As can be seen in the photograph below, the stone is between two of our grids and initially only half of it was cleaned up. Now we have been working on the adjoining area and have thus exposed more of the inscription. In addition to confirmation of the name of the centurion, we now discover that he was the Primus Pilus (abbreviated as PP on the stone), the senior centurion of the legion who was in charge of the first cohort based in the barracks we partially explored last year in Golledge's Field, just the other side of the Broadway from our current excavations. This level of seniority perhaps explains why we now have more than one inscription recording the work of a century under his command, as he would have served with the legion for a considerable time and been promoted through a number of cohorts (of which there were ten in the legion).

In addition to this new information about a specific individual in the legion, we are also getting more details about the building, although there are still many unanswered questions. Part of an internal wall has been exposed towards the south of the trench, in the grid being worked on by Josh's team. In the same area we seem to have some fine cobbling outside the building which may actually be an internal surface of a shed or some other enclosed lean-to structure. There are also more impressive flagstones appearing which are probably associated with those mentioned yesterday, but it is still not clear how they relate to the main building. We hope to finish exposing the rubble across the entire trench next week and hopefully then the pieces of this puzzle will fall into place.

Posted by Andy 25/6/08

The centurial stone more fully revealed
The centurial stone more fully revealed

Tuesday 24th June

"An easy task becomes difficult when you do it with reluctance" Terence

Into the middle of the second week now, and we are seeing some interesting things in our collapse rubble. The wall identified last Wednesday is now much clearer and has facing stones on both sides. We are still of the view that this is part of the Roman building, but are more puzzled by the flagstone flooring material which is being found on either side of it. Because this is not exclusively inside our building, it is hard to believe it is part of it, especially as it seems to lie on top of some of the rubble. At the same time, we cannot as yet identify any walls it is associated with. So at the moment it is rather floating in time between the late Roman period and Medieval or later eras; we hope to understand it better as more of it is exposed and particularly when we can excavate it to reveal some dateable finds. Congratulations to Michelle and her team for cleaning the wall, flooring and rubble up so well for this photograph!

Posted by Andy 25/6/08

Rubble, wall and flooring fully exposed in Grid 4
Rubble, wall and flooring fully exposed in Grid 4

Monday 23rd June

"If you are wise, you will mingle one thing with the other: not hoping without doubt, not doubting without hope" Seneca

Our three areas of current excavation are now all revealing extensive areas of building rubble overlying the structure we are targetting. It seems fairly clear now that the wall revealed last week is part of the outer wall of this building, adjacent to the yard on its western side. As yet no other stretches of masonry have appeared, but more will hopefully emerge in the sections of the trench we have yet to fully open up. In addition to the inscription Pete discussed yesterday, there are some well-preserved pieces of tile in the rubble which confirm that very little ploughing has occurred in the field.

Among our visitors during the day we were very interested to talk to a gentleman who worked on some of the last large-scale excavations in Caerleon, outside the western perimeter of the fortress in the 1950s, and whose elder relatives worked with the Wheelers in the amphitheatre. The methods archaeologists use have changed considerably over the years but sometimes aspects of how they worked have not been recorded, and it is fascinating to learn how earlier generations of investigators at Caerleon recovered the information that we in turn hope to build upon. We would love to hear from anyone else who worked on some of these earlier digs.

Posted by Andy 24/6/08

Sunday 22nd June

"Do not expect strangers to do for you what you can do for yourself" Quintus Ennius

Back to work after a well earned day off. We are aiming to reveal as much of the latest Roman levels across the trench as possible in time for the Military Spectacular being held in Caerleon this weekend (28th and 29th). This is a great event (gladiators in the amphitheatre and hairy Britons in the museum), which regularly attracts several thousand people - hopefully seeing the excavation in progress will inspire members of the public to find out more about Isca, Roman Britain and archaeology in general. So, lots to do, but things are going remarkably smoothly. The student excavators and their supervisors are working together well and the students are starting to look more and more like archaeologists.

The find of the day has to be the inscription uncovered by James Goodsell (on his fifth day of digging!). The stone itself is still half buried beneath rubble and roof tiles, but we can make out several letters within the ornately carved panel. It is a centurial stone that records the completion of part of a building (probably the one we are excavating) by men under the command of a named centurion. The first line begins with the centurial chevron and is followed by the letters FLA (Flavius?), while the second line at the moment contains the letters RV (a carved V is the same as our U). The Wheelers' excavation of the amphitheatre in the 1920s produced a centurial stone with the name RVFINI, which is on display in the National Roman Legion Museum here in Caerleon. Is it possible that the same Rufinius was involved in building the warehouse in Priory Field as well as the amphitheatre all those years ago?


James cleaning the centurial stone
James cleaning the centurial stone

Friday 20th June

"Human dignity and freedom are our birthright" Cicero

In the morning Michelle took the student archaeologists off to transfer the tbm (temporary bench mark) from the tower of St Cadoc's church to Priory Field - an exercise to practice using 'old' methods (dumpy level) when 'modern' technology fails (flat battery in the edm). Meanwhile, the rest of us completed the pre-excavation plans and photographs of the trench, and in the afternoon we began excavating in three of the ten 'grids' that the site is now divided into. Most of the trench appears to be covered with stones, bricks and roof tiles that are presumably the remains of the building after it had collapsed or been demolished, although the flagstone floor is also growing as we clear the material overlying it. We are beginning to believe that the wall we found a few days ago is the front wall of the Roman building, which suggests that the structure may well survive relatively intact (Roman buildings are a convenient source of stone and in Caerleon many were 'robbed' of their stone in later centuries). Very good news indeed!

Had our first official visit from Cadw (our main sponsors): Gwilym Hughes and Richard Turner are both very experienced archaeologists and it was good to show them the results of our first week's hard work. Steve served up his usual generous portions of bangers and mash followed by sticky toffee pudding, and we spent the rest of the evening (and night) celebrating the summer solstice with a few drinks around a campfire.


Overall view of the trench
Overall view of the trench, with collapse deposits visible

Thursday 19th June

"Time discovers truth" Seneca

Our fourth day began with the aftermath of a major storm. Late on Wednesday night a gale and heavy rain blew through the area, leading to trouble for a few of the tents in our camp. We had to battle with billowing flysheets to secure guy-ropes and pegs, and make sure everyone had somewhere reasonably stable to sleep. Everyone helped out, though, and by morning things were much calmer.

The day was breezy enough still to give us some scares on the photographic tower, but our main business of the day involved a few trips up this edifice to record the site we had by now exposed. Having cleaned off the topsoil left on the site we can now see much more of the building rubble overlying our Roman structure. The day ended with us poised to make a start on excavating through this material. We've divided the site into more manageable elements and will now begin to work on three of these over the next few days. With the weather improving, a hearty lunch from the White Hart, and another terrific evening meal from Steve Ash, our troubles of the night before were forgotten.

Posted by Andy 20/6/08

Wednesday 18th June

"Their [the Britons'] sky is obscured by continual rain and cloud" Tacitus

Day 3: Tacitus knew what he was talking about! However, despite the steady drizzle all day we managed to get a great deal done. Welcomed several volunteers organised by the National Roman Legion Museum who were soon in the trench digging side-by-side with the student archaeologists. The finds processing part of the excavation began in earnest today, with the material from the first two days digging being washed and sorted: lots of Roman pottery and other objects mixed with a smattering of medieval and modern finds. Scott was pleased to find a very nice blue glass mellon bead - his first archaeological discovery!

We appear to have found the front wall of the Roman building, which (if it is Roman) survives remarkably well and does not seem to have been robbed at all. An area of very substantial stone slabs seems to be associated with the wall and we think this is probably the remnants of the building's last floor. We'll have to see whether these features turn out to be late Roman or medieval, but archaeologically things are looking much brighter than the weather.


Joe and Jenny working on the wall
Joe and Jenny working on the wall

Tuesday 17th June

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" Seneca

Our second day of digging and second day of (mostly) good weather - and some good finds. Although we are still cleaning up the trench and have yet to get into the Roman deposits, it was exciting to find a mid-4th century coin. One of our major aims this season is to pay close attention to the final phases of Roman occupation of the fortress. This is a problematic period at Caerleon. It has been established that several major structures, including the fortress baths and the headquarters building, were disused and partially dismantled in the 290s AD, implying a significant change in the legion's presence here, perhaps even full withdrawal.

However, sporadic 4th century material has been found across the fortress and in the settlement outside, so there were certainly people living in Isca in this period. Who were these people? It is possible that a part of the legion remained while other detachments went to Cardiff and (perhaps later in the 4th century) to Richborough, where a 5th century document lists the Legio II Augusta in residence. Locating and characterising 4th century occupation in the area we are excavating would be a very exciting development. Hopefully this unstratified coin is an indication of things to come...

Posted by Andy 18/6/08

Monday 16th June

"He lives doubly who also enjoys the past" Martial

Welcome to the Priory Field 2008 excavations! The team are all here and after a gentle morning wandering around Caerleon, the afternoon saw the first serious digging among the remains of ancient Isca. The project staff consists of Andy and me, three supervisors (Michelle Collings from Archaeology South-East, Josh Hogue from UCL and Caroline Pudney from Cardiff University), an assistant supervisor (Joe Lewis also from Cardiff University) and 14 student excavators, most of whom are from Cardiff.

The last remaining topsoil was machined off within the trench this morning, allowing us to begin the initial cleaning of the uppermost archaeological deposits. This is going to take us a few days to complete over the entire 25m by 20m trench, but already we can see extensive deposits of rubble, brick and tile that are typical of collapsed masonry buildings. Cut into this are a number of features, (including the goal posts from when Priory Field was home to Caerleon Rugby Football Club), though the medieval and post-medieval archaeology is conspicuous by its absence (for the time being at least).

After work we all trooped down to the amphitheatre for a team photo. The ampthitheatre was excavated in the 1920s by R.E.M. (later Sir Mortimer) Wheeler when he was director of the National Museum of Wales and the first lecturer in archaeology at what would eventually become Cardiff University (though most of the hard work was done by his wife Tessa Verney Wheeler). A great backdrop for the 2008 project in Caerleon and a lovely way to end the first day.


Team Photo
Caerleon Priory Field 2008 Team Photo

Friday 13th June - Sunday 15th June 2008

"Be favourable to bold beginnings" Virgil

Cows in the trench!

Our first couple of days have passed eventfully. Lots of activity on Friday with deliveries of equipment and the majority of the trench being stripped by heavy machinery. Then preparations over the weekend with shopping for supplies, sorting out the office and the toolshed and welcoming our digging team. The trench looks promising with signs of building rubble but will need thorough cleaning... especially after an accidental break-out of cattle from the next field on Saturday evening. After an hour or so of running around the field, in and out of the trench, and behind the spoilheap they were finally lured home. Some of them seemed keen to help excavate, but the archaeologists sheltering in their tents or the minibus were still pleased when they went - especially the angry-looking bull!

Posted by Andy 16/6/08

Cows in the Trench!
Cows in the Trench!

Blog entries for weeks 3-4


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