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Windows on the Past

The Roman Period - AD 50 - 400

From the late 40s of the first century AD the Roman army probed the eastern margin of Wales. The Severn, Usk and Wye valleys and their tributaries acted as gateways to the interior and it is in these lowlands and the hill-country margins that monuments associated with a phase of early campaigning — temporary camps, campaign bases and forts — are to be found. During the course of the final conquests in the 70s a network of forts linked by an all-weather road system finally became established.

Roman forts such as Forden and Caersws in the Severn valley show us the well-known face of the conqueror. CPAT, as a result of a number of minor, but on-going excavation opportunities, has been able to throw increasing light on the history of the military occupation, and significantly upon the villages (vici) populated by camp-followers, merchants and craftsmen which lay outside the defences of the forts. Indeed, CPAT has been in an unique position in illuminating this aspect of the Roman conquest — the growth of substantial villages, with workshops, taverns, temples and cemeteries, whose economic existence was entirely wedded to the continued existence of a garrison post. As the Roman garrison was reduced from the mid-2nd century, the vici began to decline; few of them show evidence of occupation beyond the end the 4th century AD.

Mid and north Wales never experienced urban development in the Roman period. The vici are the nearest equivalent, and represent centres of trade and exchange where native communities were brought within the orbit of Imperial civilization.

Rome ruthlessly exploited conquered lands and nowhere is this better exemplified than in those provinces which were rich in minerals. Halkyn Mountain in Clwyd, among other areas of Wales, possessed valuable deposits of lead and silver, and these are known to have been worked in Roman times. The lead was fashioned into large ‘pigs’ which bear cast stamps either indicating direct working by the state under the supervision of Imperial agents (a local procurator) or by civilian lessees (conductores) who sometimes formed business partnerships. One certain and two possible settlements associated with lead and silver mining have been explored by CPAT — Pentre Oakenholt near Flint, Prestatyn, and Ffrith.

An extensive building complex on the Dee estuary in the Pentre Oakenholt area of Flint has not only produced clear evidence of the processing of the ore but also a unique example of a building most likely to be the combined administrative centre and house of a procurator. Though the precise status of the settlement complexes at Prestatyn and Ffrith are unclear, the presence of bath-houses and brick and tile stamps of the 20th Legion — Legio XX Valeria Victrix — suggest an official link, whilst the lack of evidence for a fort and their proximity to a mineral-rich area suggest an industrial base. The re-examination of a small bath-house on the periphery of the settlement at Prestatyn has led to its preservation and display, whilst an interesting discovery was the remains of the well-preserved supports of a timber aqueduct supplying the baths.

Clwyd and Powys is a region lacking overt traces of Roman civilization. Villas are absent and Romano-British material most frequently occurs on settlement sites of later prehistoric date — on hillforts such as the Breiddin and defensible enclosures such as Collfryn, and on similar enclosure sites constructed in the Roman period, as at Arddleen.

One of the greatest challenges is to determine whether these known ‘native’ settlements are typical of the region as a whole, and whether they represent an essential continuity of settlement, society and economy, relatively untouched by Rome, from later prehistory into the post-Roman era.


Roman tile kiln

Right: Roman tile kiln found in the northern annexe of the fort at Caersws during excavations in advance of a road improvement scheme in 1990. The kiln produced tiles for floors within the principal buildings inside the fort and in the bath-house near the river further south. The kiln had a stokehole (visible in the background) which heated the firing chamber by means of the flues (visible in the foreground). © CPAT

Two Roman forts are known at Caersws, an earlier campaign fort to the east of the village belonging to the conquest period and a later fort just to the north of the village dating from about AD 70. Excavation and recording work in response to roadworks, the construction of pipe-trenches and housing developments have revealed parts of an extensive Roman civilian settlement lying below the present village.


Left: Caersws, Montgomeryshire, viewed from the north. The later of the two Roman forts at Caersws lies below Pendre Farm at the centre of the photograph. An associated Roman civilian settlement has been shown to lie below the present village, between the fort and the river Severn. © CPAT 90-C-298

Work in and around Caersws since the mid 1980s has been funded by a number of bodies, principally Cadw, the Manpower Services Commission, Welsh Office Highways, and undertaken with the co-operation of a number of different landowners including Powys County Council and Mr Brian Brown.

Best dressed Roman soldier

Right: Members of the Ermine Street Guard judging a competition for ‘best-dressed Roman soldier’, held during the course of excavations at Melyd Avenue, Prestatyn in 1984. CPAT was able to carry out a considerable amount of work with schools during the 1970s and 1980s because of various training schemes funded by the Manpower Services Commission. Unfortunately, few resources are available for this work today, particularly given the increasing emphasis on local archaeological sites and finds in the National Curriculum for history taught by schools in Wales. © CPAT

Pentre Farm

Excavations at Pentre Farm, Flint, beside the Dee estuary in Rhuddlan Borough were undertaken between 1976–81 in advance of housing development. Previous chance discoveries indicated reasonably intensive activity in the area of Pentre Oakenholt during the Roman period, probably associated with the mining of lead and silver ores on Halkyn Mountain to the south.

Pentre Farm

Left: Reconstruction of the early timber complex at Pentre Farm, probably built about AD 120 as the residence and administrative centre of an official overseeing the local lead-mining industry. © CPAT

The excavations revealed that a complex of imposing timber buildings was built soon after AD 120, probably as the residence of an official overseeing the local lead and silver industry. A yard with a D-shaped ornamental pool lay at the heart of the complex. Remodelling and rebuilding in stone was undertaken in the later 2nd century and early 3rd centuries AD, including the addition of rooms with painted wall-plaster, under-floor heating and a small bath-house with a plunge bath. Much of the complex was demolished in about AD 250.

The mining and processing of lead ores had begun in the region by AD 70, and no doubt met both military and civilian demands as far afield as Chester and beyond. Although the mining sites themselves have not yet been identified, evidence of lead processing is known from several sites in the Pentre Oakenholt area. A number of lead ‘pigs’ are known inscribed with the letters DECEANGL from the name of the local native tribe, the Deceangli. Excavation at Pentre Farm were undertaken with funding provided by Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments.

Melyd Avenue, Prestatyn

Roman bath house

Left: Roman civilian bath-house , first discovered in the 1930s, during the course of re-excavation in 1984. The bath-house, built in about AD 120 and extended in about AD 150, had a cold plunge-bath at the far end which was fed by a local spring by means of a timber aqueduct. The floors and roof were made with tiles transported all the way from the workshops of the 20th Legion at Holt near Wrexham, over 40 miles to the south-east, suggesting that it was built with official help. © CPAT

Opening ceremony

Right: Opening ceremony of the Prestatyn bathhouse, following consolidation and landscaping by Rhuddlan Borough Council. © CPAT

Excavations between 1984–85 at Melyd Avenue, Prestatyn, in advance of proposed housing development, revealed part of a civilian settlement established shortly after AD 70, overlying an earlier Iron Age settlement dating to the 2nd–1st century BC. A bath-house and other buildings were added in the period AD 120–150, and there is evidence of continued occupation until the late 3rd or early 4th century AD. Apart from the stone bath-house all the buildings identified by excavation were of timber. Preservation of organic remains was good because of waterlogging, and in some cases parts the timbers of the Roman buildings had been preserved. The presence of other more imposing stone buildings within the settlement are indicated by fragments of stone columns and column bases which have been found in the immediate vicinity.

Clay moulds

Left: Clay moulds for casting bronze brooches, found during excavations at Melyd Avenue. These and other metalworking residues show that a number of the timber buildings in the settlement were the workshops of bronze-smiths, producing goods to be traded further afield. © CPAT

Excavations at Melyd Avenue were carried out with funding provided by Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments and the Manpower Services Commission.

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Early Medieval period

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