Caerleon Fortress Mapping Reveals Palatial Scale Building

Reconstruction of Caerleon - or Itca, by its Roman name - showing the newly discovered monumental suburb - Image copyright 7reasons Archaeology students learning to use mapping equipment have discovered a complex of monument buildings outside the Roman fortress at Caerleon, South Wales. The team says it will lead to a complete rethink about how Britain was conquered and occupied by the Roman forces almost 2,000 years ago.

The students from the Cardiff Universitys School of History, Archaeology and Religion were learning how to use geophysical equipment in fields outside the Caerleon fortress. Squeezed into the ground between the amphitheatre and the River Usk, the outlines of a series of huge buildings were revealed. The discovery of the settelement’s monumental suburb came as a surprise. It was thought the Roman legionaries had little use for this area outside the fortress walls.

Caerleon is one of the best-known Roman sites in Britain, so it was a great surprise to realise that we had found something completely new and totally unexpected, said Dr Peter Guest, Senior Lecturer in Roman Archaeology.

The biggest is enormous and must be one of the largest buildings known from Roman Britain.

It is difficult to be certain about what we have been found because nothing like this has been discovered in Roman Britain before.

The building’s ground plans do suggest that the structures were of some importance. They could have included markets, administrative buildings, bath-houses, store buildings, and possibly even a temple. But it is the largest, enormous structure that is most fascinating.

The biggest is enormous and must be one of the largest buildings known from Roman Britain. We can only guess what it was for, but at the moment were working on the idea that it had something to do with a harbour on the river, although it does look uncannily like a residential villa building if thats the case it was built on a palatial scale.

Caerleon is one of only three permanent legionary fortresses in Britain. The ancient military base was originally an Iron Age hill fort. When the conquest of Roman Wales started inthe first century AD, the locationbecame the headquarters of the Legio II Augusta.

Around Isca Augusta, the usual array of military buildings such as a hospital, a bath house, barracks, metal shops and granaries were built. The settlement even included an amphitheatre, which in medieval times became known as ‘King Arthur’s Round Table’.

An interpretation of the geophysical survey, shows the various monumental buildings outside the fortress - Image copyright GeoArch

Most of the fort is thought to have been demolished in the late 3rd century and by 4th century the Roman baths were nothing but a cattle pen.

The layout and scale of the buildings look like they should be at the centre of a town or city, continued Dr Guest, but here at Caerleon we seem to have the central public spaces without the surrounding city where are the people who would have used these buildings?

Perhaps they were intended for the legionaries of the Second Augustan, but it is also possible that this is the first evidence for Roman plans to develop the fortress at Caerleon into a major settlement in western Britain plans that for some reason never came to fruition. Thats the great thing about an archaeological discovery like this lots of new questions that we just dont have definite answers to at the moment.

Over the last four years, excavations at the site have uncovered eight previously unknown barrack blocks, three large granaries, a monumental metal workshop and a very large store building. Until 17 September 2010, the team of archaeologists will be at Caerleon for their final season of excavation. Taking place near the site of the new discovery, the team hope to uncover yet more information about the fortress and its inhabitants. Follow the Carleon Dig on twitter and its excavation blog on the British Archaeology website.

We will be spending six weeks in Caerleon this summer, excavating within the fortress walls with colleagues from UCL. We hope to reveal yet more information about the fortress and its legion and I am sure that our work will produce some really exciting results, said Dr Guest.

The dig is open to the public and wed be delighted to see people coming along with family and friends to find out more about the work we are doing.

Earlier this week it was announced evidence of a Romanfort at least twentyyears older than Itca Augusta has been uncovered at Monmouth, about 20 miles from Caerleon. It is thoughtthe fort covered most of the town centre and could hold up to 2,000 troops. Steve Clarke of Monmouth Archaeology told theSouth Wales Argus that theMonmouth Roman fortexisted in AD55 and is likely the oldest in Wales.

Guided tours of the Caerleon Roman fortress Priory Field excavation are available twice daily (11 am and 2.30 pm, except Mondays).Throughout the Summer Bank Holiday weekend (28th 30th August 2010) there are ‘Open Days’. As well as tours, there will be displays of the latest finds, a mini-dig, and the chance to talk to archaeologists about how they excavate ancient sites.