30 April 2017

Roman Wales: Caerwent

Caerleon may have a reputation for the best Roman ruins in Wales but, to be honest, I preferred Caerwent, or, as the Romans called it, Venta. It may not have a museum full of interesting finds but I liked the fact that it had less modern buildings built on top of it so you could walk around it more freely, and perhaps it was also the beautiful setting and the fact that the sun had finally come out.

As my friend Jill left me her guide book to read, I’ve copied from that an illustration of the layout and I will number my photos and comments according to the numbers on the map. Only the areas shaded brown can be seen as ruins today – the other structures have been worked out from excavations and ground-penetrating radar but are not visible above ground. I didn’t take photos of everything – I was too busy just enjoying – and, as you’ll see, I was also a little obsessed with the walls.

I Courtyard House
Though my photo shows only one room of this house – one of two that had under-floor heating – this was a large and very impressive house which had been constructed in the early fourth century. It was built around two courtyards and, as well as having hypocaust heating in at least two large rooms, it also had mosaics on the floors, tessellated pavements and brightly painted walls (plaster remains were found during excavations).

VII Pound Lane
These are the remains of shops and a blacksmith’s workshop, which all faced on to the main street (in the background of my photo), though even these buildings were altered many times from their first incarnation in the late first century AD to their abandonment in the mid fourth century. Nearest the camera and at the rear of the shops was a large fourth-century house set around a courtyard (the green lawn, centre left). The family who lived here must have been wealthy as excavations have revealed thirteen rooms, a fine mosaic pavement, and a hypocaust heating system.

IX The temple
The temple complex, near the centre of town, was built around 330AD and has been the subject of two major excavations, the first in 1908 and the most recent between 1984 and 1991, though no evidence has yet been found to identify which god was worshipped here.

Unfortunately, I have no photos of one of the most impressive ruins of all, the Forum-Basilica, the civic hall and market place around which life in Caerwent revolved. Though parts of it have subsequently been built on, the original basilica was immense, measuring 260 feet (80m) by 182 feet (56m). Only the stubs of walls remain so the grandeur of the buildings themselves cannot easily by imagined by the casual visitor but the best thing about this area was that you can actually walk where the Romans walked, on the paved stones of the piazza.

The walls
Fortunately, large parts of Caerwent’s Roman walls still remain so you can walk alongside them and be impressed by their size, and along the tops of them and imagine how it might have been to be a Roman centurion guarding those walls so many centuries ago.

This is the west wall, looking south from where the west gatehouse would have been. You can get an idea of the height of the wall from the relative size of the man who was out walking his dog. The wall stands around 10 feet (3m) tall on average, though in some places it is still over 17 feet (5m), and it was about 10 feet (3m) thick at the base.

To quote from the guide book:
The builders began by laying rows, front and back, of facing stones of roughly hammer-dressed limestone blocks. Then the core was filled with pieces of limestone bedded roughly on edge, followed by a slurry of lime mortar; the whole structure was raised course by course. This method of construction resulted in the herringbone pattern of the core so clearly visible here [photo above].

The south wall also stands up to 17 feet (5m) tall in places but it has an additional feature: six hollow towers were added to strengthen the defences on this side. Though most of these towers had their stones robbed many years ago for local building construction, one is still relatively intact and, from close examination of its construction, archaeologists have determined that it had two internal levels as well as the top level – all wooden platforms.

This view looks west along the length of the south wall. The earth mound on the right is all that remains of a motte that was built by Norman invaders in the south-east corner of the town in the late eleventh century.

We walked along the east wall as far as the central gate and then back through the centre of Caerwent to the carpark. It had been a fabulous walk around, though we had both been itching throughout to find a handy trowel and have a bit of a dig at some of the intriguing lumps and bumps that can be seen in every piece of vacant land. There is so much of Caerwent still waiting to be discovered!