Caerwent Roman Town Walls, South Wales.
OS Grid Reference: ST 4692 9062. The Roman town of Venta Silurium, founded by the Romans in 75 AD, is now the modern village of Caerwent in Monmouthshire, and is located just to the south of the A48 road and just west of the M48. It is 5 miles west of Chepstow and 11 miles east of Newport. The modern village is built around the Roman ruins, which are some of the best preserved in Europe. Large sections of the Roman town walls are still in place, according to Wikipedia. The River Severn is a couple of miles to the south. In the village is the medieval church of Saints Stephen and Tathan, an ancient foundation which may date back to the early 6th century AD? Housed in the church porch are two Roman inscribed stones. The Roman legionary fortress of Caerleon is 8 miles to the west.
Continued from part 1:-
A typical Roman shop (illustration).
Pound Lane Shops And Houses. Shops:- The remains of these buildings were excavated in 1947-8, part of insulae VII. As is typical of these buildings the commercial part of the property occupies the front and the residential the back. Several phases of construction and re-development are also noticeable. Two narrow-strip buildings occupied the plot in the mid-2nd century separated by a passage. Each had a large work space/shop at the front and 4 or 5 residential rooms at the back. The buildings were single storey. It is uncertain but possible that the upper parts were of timber. The floors of the living areas were of concrete and the roofs were tiled while the walls were plastered and painted. The shop to the west was probably a blacksmith, the one to the east is unknown. At the beginning of the 3rd century both buildings were joined as one with some alterations. Again, it appears to be the blacksmith who had prospered. Towards the middle of the 4th century further alterations show that the blacksmith family who lived here became even more prosperous. The rooms were enlarged, two had mosaic floors, even the roof tiles were re-placed by stone slabs, and columns added a decorative feel to the front of the building, with a courtyard replacing the front of what had been the second shop. This once again illustrates that by the mid 4th century Britain was still a prosperous place to live. The building took on the feel of a very smart townhouse. The house was still occupied by the beginning of the 5th century, but evidence of industrial activity in some of the rooms suggests that its status had declined dramatically in-line with the waning of Roman influence and fortunes.
The Courtyard House: The remains of this building lie to the rear of the shops occupying the northwest corner of insulae VII. Two wings of the house have been excavated. The plan is of standard courtyard design and dating from the fist half of the 4th Century AD. Before this date the area appears to have been just an open space. The West Wing fronts onto a side street today known as Pound Lane. A Total of 13 rooms of varying size with only the lowest courses and foundations surviving are visible. The south wing had 5 rooms as did the west wing but all smaller than the south wing so perhaps they were bedrooms. Most were found to have floors of yellow concrete but one had a mosaic laid on stone-slabs beneath which was found a hypocaust system. The Romans not only invented concrete but also central heating. During the excavation traces of painted wall-plaster were found. It is quite possible that the house had an upper storey, as there was some evidence of a staircase. In keeping with its 4th century origins the house was roofed with stone-slabs. Part of the courtyard surrounding the house was paved and an enclosure to the north suggests a small garden.
Time Team visited in 2008 – their remit to explore the areas that had not been investigated. Mick Aston had hoped to look for medieval remains as he did not like the Roman’s, but was told by the dig’s lead archaeologist that they did not have time. They did ‘goephys’ and dug trenches in Insulae XIV opposite the Romano-Celtic Temple where they found more shops and, Insulae 1, where they found a large town-house with private bathing facilities similar to others found in the suburbs of the town. The best find had to be the penknife handle with two gladiators – someone’s once prize possession and one of only two found in the UK.
Later History: After the Roman occupation ended Caerwent became the administrative centre for the Kingdom of Gwent. The name Caerwent translates from the Welsh as ‘Fort of Gwent’. Post-Roman metalwork (broaches and fastening pins have been found, dating to between the 4th-7th centuries AD). The town is mentioned in the ‘Roman Cosmology’, a treatise written in the 7th century but based on an earlier account. It is then mentioned in the Life of Tatheus written in the first half of the 12th century. The saint came from Ireland and after performing a number of miracles was given the site of the Roman Town by the local king, Caradoc, to set up a monastic settlement. In 1910 a trench was dug just outside the East Gate where 30 skeletons were found within a cist of stone slabs of post roman date across the wall of a Roman building. A number of people thought the bones included those of St Tatheus. And in 1912, with due ceremony, the bones were interred in a coffin in the south aisle of St Stephen’s church. In favour of the reburial was a later discovery that a gift of 3 bones of St Tatheus had been made to Tewkesbury abbey in 1235 and that the note records that: St Tatheus is ‘buried at Caerwent’. Against is the fact that several other cist graves dating from the 4th-9th centuries AD have been found at Caerwent. All are of Christian origin. V.E Nash Williams’ interpretation of a structure built later over the west end of the Public Baths as an early Christian Church, has also now been disproved.
There was certainly some occupation in the Norman Period as a motte can be seen in the southeast corner of the site. The parish church of Sts Stephen & Tathan is also worth a visit for the Roman artefacts in the porch. St Tathan (Tatheus) was the son of the Irish king, Tathalius. He left his father’s court to become a Christian missionary and, after receiving ‘a heavenly vision’, sailed up the Severn estuary, landing in south Wales (maybe at Portskewett) in the late 5th century. He is said to have founded a monastery at Llandathan (St Athan) in south Glamorgan – either soon after his arrival in south Wales or at a later date?
Then sometime after 500 AD Tathan founded a monastic school at Caerwent when the local king, Caradog, or maybe his son, Ynyr, gave him a ‘parcel of land’ there. St Cadoc is thought to have studied for the monastic life at this monastery. St Tathan was not made bishop of Caerwent as some historians have suggested, but he was apparently a renowned miracle-worker. The date of his death is uncertain but it was perhaps sometime after 524 AD and maybe as late as 560? His feast-day is 26th December, a day which coincides with that of St Stephen the proto-martyr. The supposed relics of Tathan lie beneath a large stone beneath the floor of the south aisle of the church. However, another legend claims that he was the son of Amwn Ddu and Anna of Glamorgan, which would make him a close relative of St Tewdric of Mathern. This alternative legend says that St Tathan’s relics were buried at Llandathan (St Athan) in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Roman Inscribed Stone. Drawing by R. G. Collingwood (1924)
The Paulinus Stone or The Civitas Silurum Stone: The large block of bath-stone is a statue base with a dedication to: Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, a commandant of the second Augustan legion about 214-17 AD. After this he held office in two Gallic provinces. In 220 he returned as Governor of Brittania Inferior (Britain had been divided into two provinces: inferior and superior at the beginning of the 3rd century by the Emperor Septimus Severus). As the inscription does not include this latter information the stone, which is a statue base (pedestal), probably predates this. Of singular importance, however, is the reference to the local civil administration: it tells us that the Silures were administered by a council. The dedication reads:-
To (Tiberius Claudius) Paulinus (once) commander of the second Augustan legion (next) proconsul of the province Gallia Narbonensis (now) Imperial Governor province of Lugdunensis by decree of the council of the community of the state of the Silures.
The stone was found in 1903 having been re-used as part of a post-Roman construction of blocks in the centre of the village on which the war memorial now stands. It can now be seen just inside the church porch.
A second Roman antiquity which also stands in the church porch is a stone made of yellow sandstone. This is an altar-stone dedicated to the god Mars (Ocelus). The inscription reads:-
To the God — Mars (Ocelus) — Aelius Augustinus — optio (a junior officer) — Paid his vow willingly and duly.
Caerwent’s earliest mention post-Rome and Medieval is in the works of John Leland (1540) by which time most of the internal buildings had been robbed out to create cottages and the church. In the late 18th and early 19th century the first tourists arrived leaving their impressions—the worst aspect of which, from our point of view, is that what was left of the limestone was being burned for lime!
Octavious Morgan was the first to conduct an archaeological dig in 1855 revealing a small bath-house together with another building in insulae XX. The extant ground plan of the town emerged during further excavations between 1899 and 1913 by the Clifton Antiquarian Club, funded by Lord Tredegar. Finds from this dig, which exposed 2/3% of the town, are now in the Newport Museum. Further digs in 1923 revealed the Public Bath House; in 1925 the walls on the SE side were excavated, while in 1946-7 the Pound Lane Shops and courtyard house; in 1973 the town cemetery outside the East Gate; in 1981 a large courtyard house in the NW corner, and then in 1992 the Forum Basilica was excavated.
Newport Museum and Art Gallery: The museum in John Frost Square is open Tuesday to Friday 9.30am to 5 pm, and Saturday 9.30 to 4pm. Entry is free. The museum houses many of the artefacts found at Caerwent over the years: a 2nd century broach in the form of a hare, a fragment of a painted wall depicting a girl’s face found in 1901, a statue of the mother goddess found near the temple precinct in 1908, a number of mosaic floors including the one found in the mansion, roof finials in the form of a lantern, a pine cone, locks and keys, a pewter bowl scratched with the Christian Chi Ro monogram, pots, coins and agricultural equipment. Other artefacts are housed in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.
Sources and other related websites:-
Barber, Chris, More Mysterious Wales, Paladin, London, 1987.
BBC Publication, Roman Britain, The British Broadcasting Corporation, London, 1966.
Brewer, Richard J., Caerwent Roman Town, Cadw Welsh Historic Monuments, 1993.
Evans, J. Barrie, The Parish Church Of St. Stephen & St. Tathan Caerwent – A Short Guide.
Spencer, Ray, A Guide to the Saints Of Wales and the West Country, Llanerch Enterprises, Felinfach, Lampeter, Dyfed, 1991.
Wilson, J. A., A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain, 4th Edition, Constable, 2002.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2017.