The City of the Legion

Lying on the west bank of the River Usk, just north of the city of Newport in South Wales, the town of Caerleon lies over some of the most remarkable and evocative remains from the Roman period in Britain. Beneath Caerleon’s roads, buildings and gardens is the fortress of Isca, the headquarters of the Second Augustan Legion and one of only 3 permanent Roman fortresses in Britain (the others were at Chester and York). Isca was constructed during the final campaigns to subdue the Silures – one of the native tribes whose territories lay within the boundaries of modern Wales – in the 70s AD, and the fortress was strategically located on the lowest crossing point of the river while still accessible from the sea (interestingly, both ‘Usk’ and ‘Isca’ are derived from the Celtic word for water). Home to 5,500 heavily armed Roman citizen legionaries, Isca represents an extraordinary period of British history, and the presence of such a large group of professional soldiers and their followers, who must have been different to the natives in almost every conceivable way, had a profound impact of the landscape of south-western Britain for over 2 centuries.

Antiquarians and archaeologists have been digging in and around Caerleon for more than 150 years and have recovered a great deal of information about the fortress in the process – particularly its layout and history. The results of all this work can be seen in Caerleon itself - the great amphitheatre, barracks and parts of the bath-house are on display – and in the galleries of the National Roman Legion Museum where artefacts almost 2000 years old tell the story of Isca and its legionaries. We should not think of these men simply as fighters and occupiers, though of course the Second Augustan Legion was involved in the conquest of much of Britain, and the evidence shows that they were the Roman Empire’s builders, peace-enforcers and tax-collectors: legionaries from Isca built large stretches of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall in the second century, while civic building projects, such as the forum-basilica at the nearby city of Venta Silurum (Caerwent), were probably planned and built by soldiers from Caerleon too. However, despite all of this previous work there is still a lot that we do not understand about Isca – for instance, the fortress plan is incomplete and we have had trouble finding evidence for later Roman occupation or explaining the lives of people who lived there.

The invention and development of geophysical technology means that it is now relatively cheap and easy to detect substantial buildings, like those within a Roman fortress, beneath he ground without digging (magnetometry and resistivity, which measure local variations in the earth’s electromagnetic fields, are the 2 most commonly used techniques). We are fortunate that the western side of Isca has not been covered by Caerleon and also that these open fields are the least known parts of the fortress. Between 2006 and 2008 staff and students from Cardiff University carried out geophysical surveys of 2 large areas within and outside the fortress, revealing for the first time buildings lost for many centuries. These included (in School Field) an enormous industrial complex, or fabrica, where metal objects such as weapons and armour, but also nails, hinges, hooks and brackets, would have been made an repaired in vast quantities. In Priory Field we found evidence for 8 barrack blocks, 3 very large granaries and a square courtyard building that might have been a club-house, a hospital or a store. In less than a total of 2 months these geophysical surveys have added almost as much to our knowledge of what Isca looked like as the previous 150 years of digging. On the other hand, magnetometry and resistivity are remote-sensing techniques that produce only two-dimensional results and to understand the history of Caerleon and its inhabitants means putting a spade (several spades in fact) in the ground.

In 2007 archaeologists from Cardiff and UCL followed these geophysical surveys with trial excavations and in 2009 the same team returned to Caerleon for 6 weeks to excavate a large trench over the square courtyard building in Priory Field. This is a two-year project and our objectives for the first season were to find out what the building was for and how this part of Caerleon had been used in the many centuries since the Romans left Britain around AD 400. The diggers (some prefer to be known as excavators) were university undergraduates or volunteers and training is an important element of this project: students learn how to excavate, record and understand the archaeological remains – finds as well as the stratigraphy being excavated – while working on a research project that is uncovering important new information about Isca and Roman Britain in general. We located the original stone legionary building, which appears to have been functional rather than comfortable and was probably a store-building or warehouse (horreum), as well as the more superficial remains of later buildings – some of which could be late- or post-Roman in date. This would be significant new evidence for the shadowy years from about AD 300 to 1000 when little is known about the archaeology of Wales or western England. Roman sites invariably produce lots of finds and last year’s excavation recovered many thousands of pottery sherds, pieces of animal bone, plant seeds, bricks, tiles, coins and tools, as well as personal items such as jewellery, buckles and buttons. Most of this material dates from the Roman period and the artefacts are being cleaned and identified at the moment. Perhaps our most spectacular find was not a weapon or piece of jewellery, but an inscribed stone that records the building work of men under the command of one of the legion’s senior officers. Flavius Rufus was Primus Pilus – senior centurion – at the time and one of the main roles of this largely honorary title, held by centurions for one year, was to guard the Legion’s eagle standard. To find a Latin inscription is a special event for archaeologists as they are very rare and an inscription can bring the past to life like no other find. Flavius Rufus would have been an experienced soldier when he was given responsibility for the construction of a building in Isca – possibly our warehouse – some time soon after AD 100/120. A tombstone of a wealthy woman from Italy mentions a Flavius Rufus who had retired from the legions and perhaps this is also our man from Isca who decided to leave Britannia and spend his retirement years in the Italian countryside – if so, who can blame him?

Archaeology has the power to bring the past to life in a different way than ancient texts and many people are fascinated by the past and what an excavation like Priory Field can teach us about distant or forgotten lives. Thousands of people came to visit the excavation during our time in Caerleon and we also shared our day-to-day experiences online with a website and blog. We will be back in Priory Field in 2010 when we will excavate the earliest remains of the warehouse and try to discover when it was built, what was stored there, and what happened to it. We will also recover more objects that people made, used, perhaps cherished, and eventually lost over 1500 years ago – the archaeology beneath Caerleon still has much more to tell us about the mighty fortress of Isca. 

Dr Peter Guest is Senior Lecturer in Roman Archaeology at Cardiff University.