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Caerleon Legionary Fortress

Priory Field Excavations 2010

Monday 20th September

A day of very mixed emotions. As I stood alone in Priory Field watching the trench being backfilled by large yellow machines it was hard not to think of the many great times we have had here over the last 3 link building service years or so, and the many friends that we have made in Caerleon and from far beyond. It is only 5 years or so since I talked to Tim Young about using Caerleon as the location for Cardiff University's geophysical field course, yet in these few years we have achieved an amazing amount and added a wealth of new information about Isca and its Roman inhabitants. Of course, archaeological excavations are very social events too and it was strange to be in the field without hordes of people bustling here and there - the patches of bleached grass where our campsite had been are now the only reminder of the many who joined us during the 2010 season. Finally, at the end of day and after the JCBs had gone and the site huts had been taken away, I spent a few very pleasant minutes beneath the ash tree looking at the remains of our trench and enjoying the calm that has settled once again over this quiet part of Caerleon.

So, this really is the end of the Priory Field research project. It has been a fantastic experience and we hope that all Cotto vs Margaritoof you who have followed our blog have enjoyed it as much as we have. Goodbye and 'Vale' to Caerleon and to everyone who made our time here so memorable. To paraphrase the most famous of Roman conquerors and statesmen, 'We came, We dug, We loved it!'

Posted by Peter, 21/9/10

The end of the dig

Friday 17th September

The last day of work on site passed in a bit of a whirl. There was a lot going on both on and off-site. The final bits of drawing needed to be completed in the trench, along with a few last-minute photographs, while off-site there were finds to bag up, environmental samples to complete, and then tools to wash and site-huts to sweep out and pack up.

We were delighted that our cook Steve Ash, recovering now from his earlier illness, was able to come and visit the site, and to receive the first of the official dig t-shirts in thanks for all his efforts over the three seasons of our excavations in Caerleon. When work drew to a close around 6pm, we cracked a few more bottles of bubbly and celebrated the end of the dig with a final feast and party. All-in-all it's been a fantastically successful season, and everyone deserved to end the dig on a high note.

Posted by Andy, 21/9/10

Thursday 16th September

Today was our penultimate day on site, so there was lots more bustling activity. We began by cleaning the site for final photographs, one of which is posted below. The trench looks amazing now – a testimony to the huge amount of work all of the diggers have put into the project. From right to left in the picture, you can see the cobbled courtyard towards the side of the trench, one long wall line (which was the outer wall of the warehouse) to the left of that, then the series of rooms running through the trench, and finally the line of the inner wall, which faced on to the internal courtyard of the warehouse. In each of the rooms there are standing cross-shaped baulks where we have left the floor deposits intact to record them in profile.

The rest of the day was spent on a whole range of tasks including final drawings and recording, and finds processing. Everyone worked overtime, but as a reward we were treated to a terrific performance by the Widders down at the Hanbury Arms (finds supervisor Chris and her husband Steve are members of the group), which was an excellent way to end the day.

Posted by Andy, 17/9/10

A view of the trench at the end of the dig
A view of the trench at the end of the dig

Wednesday 15th September

Today was planned as our last digging day, allowing two days for final recording, finds processing and packing up. At this stage of the dig things move even more quickly than normal and time flies by in a frenzy of activity. Work continued in all areas of the trench, with Rooms 1 and 4, 5 and 6 all now well below the construction levels. In Room 6, we seem to have revealed evidence that a black layer we had thought might be indicative of timber phase activity is actually a makeup layer within the stone building, but beneath this there are a couple of features which probably held timber posts and beams. It is exciting to get to the bottom of the archaeological sequence and have the complete history of the fortress and later buildings within our grasp.

In the afternoon we were delighted to welcome distinguished guests and friends of the dig for a cup of tea, a scone, and – after a tour of the site – a glass of bubbly to celebrate a highly successful season. Guests from the Welsh Assembly Government, Cadw, Newport City Council, National Roman Legion Museum, GGAT and Cardiff University were all present as the Mayor of Newport toasted the diggers and their discoveries. Thanks to all who attended to mark the culmination of the season.

Posted by Andy, 16/9/10

The Mayor of Newport leads a toast to the success of the dig
The Mayor of Newport leads a toast to the success of the dig

Tuesday 14th September

Back to wet and windy weather today, unfortunately, but at this stage work must continue whatever the elements throw at us. For the second day, Mark, Penny and Evan were working long and hard on the wrapping and lifting of the delicate armour fragments that Peter described yesterday. By the end of the day, they had successfully dealt with all of the material in Room 2, culminating in a huge block-lift of a large concentration of parts, which definitely includes some lorica segmentata hoops. Many thanks to them for all of their efforts to help us with this major find. Coverage of the discovery can be seen on the ITV and BBC websites.

Meanwhile, digging continued apace across the trench, with clay deposits at the bottom of the Roman sequence emerging which, combined with the continual drizzle, left everyone rather muddy! The construction levels of the masonry warehouse are now revealed in Rooms 1, 5 and 6, and we can start to see the sequence of activities that began the building’s life, including the levelling up of the ground surface, the cutting of the foundations (including extra-wide footings for the main outer wall), and even the dressing of the stone of the internal walls. Little insights like this seem very personal: the scatter of waste left by a stonemason doing their job nearly 2000 years ago, sealed until now. A humble counterpoint to the more spectacular finds perhaps, but still one that tells us about the people who lived and worked here.

Posted by Andy, 15/9/10

Saturday 11th – Monday 13th September

Apologies for the temporary interruption to the blog – there have been some incredible discoveries on site in the last few days and we wanted to make sure that we fully understand them before letting everyone know. Excavation has progressed nicely across the entire trench, but it now turns out that the scatter of objects on the floor in Room 2 includes part of (and possibly most of) a soldier’s body armour, as well as weapons and perhaps some items of parade or ceremonial equipment!

The body armour is the lorica segmentata type that is so typical of the early Roman imperial army and which appears in almost all films set in the Roman period (makes the legionaries look a little like armadillos). We have numerous iron bands from the torso and possibly shoulders together with lots of copper studs, rivets and buckles for the leather strapping that would have held the armour together. The room was under excavation for six days and Ray, Chris, Kenji, Dave and the other students involved have done a fantastic job in often difficult circumstances to excavate the material from around these very fragile objects and reveal their distribution across the floor. Everyone is very excited by what we have found and it really is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery for all of us, whether student archaeologists or experienced professionals. Even our real ‘dirt’ archaeologists who love their stratigraphy and tend to be rather dismissive of ‘finds’ have admitted (albeit quietly) that they are rather impressed with the discoveries in Room 2.

The first photo below was taken from the scaffold tower late yesterday afternoon and shows the room fully excavated with the iron and copper objects in situ. We have been joined today by curators and conservators from the National Museum Wales who are carefully block-lifting the objects and surrounding soil so that they can be excavated in their labs – we are immensely grateful to Mark, Penny and Evan for helping us with this intricate job that we simply do not have the capacity to undertake ourselves.

As if this isn’t enough, the room also contains some pieces of what we think must be parade or ceremonial armour. We have found a fragment of what looks like scale armour, but rather than the usual Roman scale this is made of tiny copper circles that must have been pinned to a leather backing. There is also a piece of copper sheet with a head in relief and we wonder if this might have come from another very expensive suit of armour, perhaps an officer’s, or from a cavalry parade helmet. The second photo shows these finds in detail and you can see the tiny disks extending into the surrounding soil.

So, sorry for not keeping you informed, but I am sure you can see why we wanted to be certain of what we have found before announcing the find. A great way to begin our last week in Priory Field – who knows what the last few days will bring!

Posted by Peter, 13/9/10

Room 2 with armour finds in situ
Room 2 with armour finds in situ

Detail of armour finds
Detail of armour finds; note the small relief head, lower centre-left

Friday 10th September

Recycling was the ‘R’ word of the day on site today. As finds of all sorts continue to come up from across the site, we discovered something quite unusual and spectacular – the carved piece of sandstone below. According to Mark Lewis of the National Roman Legion Museum, this seems to show either a god/hero figure or perhaps a bound captive. It was part of the rubble on the western side of the trench in Area B and so seems to have been reused in one of the lean-to buildings of our ‘intermediate phase’, which was also the case with our inscription two years ago. A further stage of recycling beyond this phase emerged as we dismantled the wall-collapse feature on top of the external courtyard. Rather than being a straightforward fallen-over wall as had been the case with last season's example, this rubble seems to have been compacted and levelled off as some kind of building platform, with a little bit of flagstone flooring surviving. This reuse probably all dates to well into the Middle Ages.

On a different note, our cook Steve Ash was taken ill a few days ago and has since been in hospital. We've all been worried about him but he's on the mend now and we wish him all the best for his ongoing recovery. We’d also like to thank a range of people, including Dave Lewis and the folks at the Caerleon Town Hall, for helping us out with catering facilities; Archie, Rob and Chris cooked up a good feast at the end of the day.

Posted by Andy, 10/9/10

Carved sandstone
Carved sandstone fragment

Thursday 9th September

A super-busy day for everyone on site today, luckily with fair weather despite the forecast earlier in the week. In the trench, the northernmost rooms are progressing downwards very rapidly and in Room 5, the narrow chamber on the north side of the carriageway through the building, Dawn and Meg made great progress down to a black layer which may belong to the timber-phase structure(s) preceding the masonry building. In Rooms 1 and 2, work also continued with Room 1 now down to construction levels, and Room 2 revealing a scatter of military equipment. This seems to include some highly corroded iron objects which may have been scrapped and abandoned, and then fallen onto the floor. As well as being intrinsically interesting, the way the finds have come to rest should tell us a lot about the history of this room.

Meanwhile, Peter and I spent much of the afternoon in the company of various visitors, including the Welsh Assembly Government Minister for Heritage, Alun Ffred Jones AM, and a BBC film crew. We were very pleased to welcome all of these guests to the site, which is now looking really good. The day ended with a very pleasant picnic in the grounds of Chepstow Castle, making the most of the fine weather.

Posted by Andy, 10/9/10

Andy and Peter discuss the site with Alun Ffred Jones AM
Andy and Peter discuss the site with Alun Ffred Jones AM

Wednesday 8th September

As a volunteer on the site, I have been asked to contribute today’s blog posting. I should begin with a bit of background. I am an archaeologist employed by the United States Army, stationed at a logistical facility in Kentucky. My duties include the identification and protection of historic structures, landscapes and archaeological sites in accordance with laws similar to the Ancient Monuments Act. I first got word about the Priory Field excavation from a friend and former colleague of mine, Amelia Schaefer-Rutherford, who arranged my visit with the archaeologists in charge of the site. So basically, I took a busman’s holiday from my job on a military logistical installation to work on another military logistical installation – the only difference being 1800 years and roughly 6000 miles: a short trip when one considers the rewards.

It is hard to describe my initial impressions of the site, as the sheer depth of history can be intimidating to citizens of such a young country. Once the shock wore off, the areas of ordered space and uniformity of construction become apparent. The Romans imposed a strictly standardized spatial order on the landscape, which serves not only efficiency, but as an expression of the power and reach of the Empire. The imposition of order, clearly visible in the excavations at Caerleon, is similar to that found in U.S. military installations. On the surface, they serve efficiency, but the subtext of power and domination of the landscape is not far from view. In addition, the United States, at several points in history, has seemed to develop the habits of empire. One finds the same ordered landscapes from Kentucky to Afghanistan, and from Montana to Okinawa. Although, as an American, I hope that these installations are temporary – we’ll see how that story turns out.

As far as my hosts are concerned, it is comforting to know that history and archaeology are valued so highly. The integration of universities, commercial archaeology and the local community is wonderful. I certainly hope that we in the States can live up to the example set here. Finally, I would like to thank everyone, on and off the site, who has made my visit so fantastic. And it is also comforting to know that archaeologists like a pint (or more) at the end of a long day. The archaeology, the people (and the beer) have made this busman’s holiday a rare pleasure. Thanks so much!

Posted by Nathan White, 9/9/10

Tuesday 7th September

The start of our penultimate week - and our last full-length week - brings a great sense of anticipation and not a little anxiety. After a rather worrying weather forecast the day turned out to be fine, though we still hedged our bets by moving another of the white tents into the trench to give some protection to Room 1. The rooms in Area B, although currently at a higher level than those to the south, are also starting to produce some rather nice finds, such as the brooches shown below. These perhaps help address an interesting question, posed by Nigel Young of, as to whether the artefacts we're finding are material stored in the warehouse, or dropped by people using it. The brooches seem more likely to be the latter, while the armour and equipment fittings might be a mix of the two.

Meanwhile, we're continuing to work on the entrance-way with its flagstones. So far the bedding material for these has not produced the cornucopia of datable finds that we'd hoped for, but there is more to come off and the cobbled surface underneath this should also help us to pin down the sequence. At the moment this area has the best potential to help us understand the longevity of the building; compared to the rooms themselves, it probably had heavier usage and therefore more resurfacing, creating the deposits we're digging. As is always the problem with archaeology, not all kinds of human activity generate stuff in the ground, so we have to make the most of those that do.

Posted by Andy, 8/9/10

Three fish-motif brooches
Three fish-motif brooches

Sunday 5th September

The letter R seems to be a theme on this excavation. We’ve now got rid of our early friends ‘rubble’ and ‘robbers’, and we had hoped that we would now be able to concentrate on the ‘Romans’ for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, our other regular R-related companion - (sotto voce) ‘rain’ - returned to Caerleon again today and we spent much of the morning dodging heavy showers before finally giving up and calling a halt to work after lunch.

We have 10 days of digging left and, so that any future rain showers don’t slow us down too much, we have moved some of our marquee tents into the trench to cover particularly sensitive areas of archaeology, particularly in the 2 rooms where we are now excavating layers that appear to be associated with the construction and use of the masonry warehouse. These deposits are producing large quantities of finds, especially iron and copper alloy objects as well as pottery and animal bone. The metal artefacts include some fabulous examples of Roman military equipment, such as scabbard chapes, belt plates, strap-ends and harness pendants, together with large lumps of iron which may need to be lifted in blocks and excavated later in the conservation laboratories. The coins we are finding still include later 3rd and 4th century bronze issues, but now we are beginning to recover more early coins including several silver denarii of the 1st and 2nd centuries. So, after almost 10 weeks of digging in 2008 and 2010 we are firmly within the Roman period and revealing lots of new information about Caerleon almost 2,000 years ago – amazing!

The site looks superb and the photo below was taken yesterday after our big clean. We used the archaeologists to show where the walls of the building would have been had the ‘robbers’ not completely removed them and you can see the various rooms contained within our 35m long trench. We are all looking forward to a well-earned rest tomorrow before we begin the push to complete the excavation in the final 2 weeks of the season. Will we make it? Not entirely sure at the moment, but if the weather gods are kind to us (which might require more student sacrifices) I think we might just cross the finishing line with seconds to spare!

Posted by Peter, 6/9/10

The Roman warehouse foundations fully exposed
The Roman warehouse foundations fully exposed

Saturday 4th September

Today was a very exciting day as most of the team are now down onto Roman levels. The team in Area A have mainly been working on the two rooms at the South end of the trench. These have been divided into quadrants to allow for more efficient and speedy excavation down through the sequence of floor deposits. The levels which have been removed today revealed quite a few small finds, mainly copper and iron objects. Further analysis of these artefacts should tell us what types of items were being stored in the warehouse. This in turn may provide us with valuable dating evidence showing when the building was in use. Some of the soil from these deposits is also being sieved to catch any small objects or environmental evidence such as shell and small bones. This a very exciting and crucial time for the project as it could help reveal how a legionary fortress was supplied, what it was supplied with, and where it was supplied from.

The photographic tower was also erected today, for the first time in a while, to enable us to take photographs of the site in its entirety. As the team moved the pieces of the scaffold to construct the frame it was discovered that a friendly vole family had decided to make its home under the boards and in one of the wheels! After fifteen minutes of coaxing and many exclamations of how cute it was, it finally decided to abandon ship to find a more appropriate home (don’t worry, no voles were harmed during the making of this excavation!)

The site photographs were then taken from the top of the tower. We also took some team photographs in which all the members of the excavation stood within the robber trenches, where our Roman walls once would have been. It has been a great achievement for us to finally reveal and better understand the placement and orientation of this phase of the building’s structural elements. Obviously we can only see those contained within the limit of our excavations, but these findings could help us re-create what the rest of the buildings layout might have been like.

Finally, the site tours are still proving to be very popular with members of the public coming to see what is going on in the beautiful town of Caerleon this summer. We had many visitors today and if there was ever a time to come and see this important excavation, it would be now. The site has changed so much over the last four weeks and we would very much love to show you around during our daily tours at 11:00am and 2:30pm. Looking forward to seeing you!

Posted by Becky Smith, 5/9/10

Our smallest visitor!
Our smallest visitor!

Friday 3rd September

After the excellent summary of the recent finds from Chris yesterday, it's time to catch up on developments concerning the structural sequence of the site. As we have been completing the excavation of the last robber trenches and some of the other later deposits, we've discovered further partition walls - some in unexpected places - further 'intermediate phase' walls on top of the courtyard outside the warehouse, and we are also now well into the deposits inside some of the warehouse rooms.

To deal with the Roman elements first, it now looks as if the area we have been calling an entranceway or carriageway, with the flagstone floor that has featured quite often in the blog, was flanked by two narrower rooms or passageways - perhaps for foot traffic. One of these has been heavily disturbed by a post-Medieval pit but the other is well-preserved and we'll soon see what kind of surface it had. The rooms that we have begun excavating - the southernmost Rooms 1 and 2 - have not yielded proper floor surfaces yet, but have contained some interesting finds, including a scatter of oyster shells, which is a bit of a puzzle.

The post-warehouse phase now contains two further unmortared stone walls, one of which is at a slightly odd angle in the north corner of the trench, while the other is very similar in alignment to the collapsed wall we found in 2008 - though this one fell over to the east, rather than the west. These all seem to be further elements of what must have been quite an extensive complex of stone buildings utilising the main outer wall of the warehouse as a spine-wall. Dating on this phase is still elusive but now we have further opportunities to pin this down - so hopefully we can finally resolve whether this is 4th/5th/6th century or much later.

Posted by Andy, 4/9/10

Section of collapsed wall
Section of collapsed wall, being cleaned by Jonathan and Becky

Thursday 2nd September

Steve’s Meal of the Day: Chillis (meat and veg), spicy rice, salsas and tortillas

It has been three and half weeks on site, but we have been waiting for a truly exceptional find to match last season’s inscription. There has been a constant line of students bringing finds in to be 'Small Finded' (written up in the special finds Register), but most have been everyday objects or small parts of the varied equipment of the legionaries. Today, though, was that exceptional day.

I think it started with Alex, who was pot-washing the bulk finds in trays outside my window of the Finds Hut. She was quite excited: “we thought this was a piece of bone but it’s a lead tag and it’s got writing on it!”

Next I heard a shout out in the trench. “We’ve found a head!” Hmmm, as the Finds Supervisor, I would have to deal with this if it turns out to be a grisly decapitation, but nobody screamed so I relaxed. Clemmie had found a beautiful little head of Minerva with her crested helmet. It is only very small and when it made its way to the finds hut it was passed immediately to Evan Chapman from the National Museum of Wales who just happened to be visiting along with Ed Besley, the Numismatist from the museum. He thought it may well have been a decoration from a lamp. It is gorgeous.

Another shout from Peter from the trench and Evan, Ed and I, along with about 3 students who had been queuing up to get to the Small Finds Register, rushed out to join in the general celebrations and photo opportunities provided by Caroline lifting up the first of the flagstones from the paved area which has been on display in the trench for the majority of both seasons of digging.

A very little time later, Anushé, who wrote the blog for Tuesday, came in with a lovely small crescent shaped copper alloy chape. This is the decorated part that sits at the bottom of the sheath of a dagger or sword. Evan was again consulted and he thought that it would have been likely to come from a dagger.

Meanwhile, Ed was getting quite excited by the number of coins of Carausius that we have accumulated. We have a small cluster of them and it seems that that might be significant for the later Roman history of the fortress.

So it was a very exciting morning, to say the least! I tried to persuade our visitors from the National Museum that this was just a usual morning, but I don’t think they believed me.

Posted by Chris Waite, 3/9/10

Miniature bust, possibly of Minerva
Miniature bust, possibly of Minerva

Wednesday 1st September

Today was a very productive day on site, with new features being discovered and good progress being made in the rooms of the warehouse. The team is working really well, and looking back at the past entries, it’s great to see that the students contributing to the blog have been having a wonderful time here, and are able to put this excavation in wider archaeological and global contexts. The wider significance of this site is also reflected in the constant flow of visitors to the site, who come from both near and far, and for all sorts of reasons.

My main interests lie in the folklore of archaeological sites – what people say about them and what they do at them. Of course, Caerleon has its own fair share of folklore and legends attached to it, and whilst our focus of the dig is its Roman archaeology, it is important to note that people are attracted to the site because of all the different stories they hear about it, and what significance it has to them. But an interesting thing occurs at archaeological excavations, where the staff and students themselves become entangled in new stories of their experiences – from how someone found a particularly interesting object, to the party games in the white tent. Thus, as we near the end of the week where our first team are about to leave Caerleon, a place of popular tales, the students will take with them tales of their own, which will enter the folklore of archaeologists and their own experiences of working on sites.

Posted by Tina Paphitis, 3/9/10

Tuesday 31 August

Honestly, I hadn’t thought there would be so much to say at the end of this month. Choosing the excavation at Caerleon as my first ever ‘proper dig’, frankly, caused me to panic far more than I would have admitted four weeks ago – partly due to guilt, and partly politeness. Unsure of my area of archaeological interest, I had picked a bit randomly and at times regretted not choosing some place more exotic or where more of my friends were going. But writing this, I know I made the right decision – and I mean every word.

Caerleon has been, in short, quite an experience. From terribly rainy days to the baking summer heat (my folks back in Pakistan would be ashamed by my complaints); from seemingly never ending (but ultimately rewarding) tasks such as spending a whole day sorting CBM or planning, to the indescribable excitement felt when unexpectedly discovering that beautiful piece of green copper (a Roman coin); from egg mayo baguettes to Steve’s delicious dinners, frequent trips to Spar and the bakery, and nights spent wandering from pub to pub and eventually, perhaps, drinking port in the white tent. At the end, it was the people around who made the tough times easier to get through, and who made all the rest worthwhile.

Lastly, even though this blog is meant for the Caerleon dig, as a Pakistani I cannot help but mention a few things. We seem to be stuck in the middle of far more turmoil than it seems possible to handle; as a student at UCL, living in London, I feel somewhat helpless as I cannot be back home helping out. What I can do is reach out to whoever I can, however I can. Everyone is probably aware of the ongoing situation regarding the Pakistani cricket players – and I hope it is not taken as a reflection on the rest of the nation. Secondly, I do not need to explain the current crisis at home, so all I ask is even if each one of us donates the worth of say, just one drink, to those suffering the vicious impact of the floods it will go farther than you think (

We’ve been taught at this dig to work through some hard times, and to help out wherever we can – whether it’s in our ‘area’ or not, whether it’s a Cardiff student or a UCL one, or a Colchester Sixth Former; different ages, nationalities, supervisors, directors, volunteers, students alike are working as one team, and working brilliantly. Let’s spread this spirit globally. Here, it’s always a good day to do some work – let it also be a good day to save some lives.

Posted by Anushé Hassan, 2/9/10

The dig team at the beginning of week 4
The dig team at the beginning of week 4

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