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Pen-y-gaer Roman settlement

The third season of excavation outside Pen-y-gaer Roman fort was conducted in mid June 2012 with the help of volunteers from the Llangynidr Local History Society, Monmouthshire Antiquarian Association and Brecon U3A.

The previous year’s excavation saw the team uncover an area containing several phases of Roman buildings which included an oven, a well and part of what may be a smithy, extending an area originally investigated by CPAT in 2007. The 2012 excavation has uncovered more exciting discoveries, including a previously unknown building. As before the site has produced a wealth of Roman pottery, roofing tile and also some glass.

The Roman fort

Pen-y-gaer Roman fort (SO 168 219) stands on a small knoll approximately half way along the Roman route linking the larger forts at Brecon and Abergavenny, about about 2km to the east of the village of Bwlch in southern Powys. The fort is relatively small, measuring 129m by 90m, enclosing an area of around 1.16ha. Only limited excavations have been conducted within the fort, identifying three phases of occupation dating from a little before AD 70 until at least AD 130

The Roman settlement

The presence of Roman remains outside the fort was first noted in the early 1800s, although at the time they were thought to be part of the fort itself. It is only relatively recently, however, that we have begun to develop a picture of the nature and extent of the settlement which grew up on the southern side of the fort. The first traces were revealed by a geophysical survey in 2005 which identified what appeared to be a complex of buildings in pasture fields between the fort and Upper Gaer, along with evidence for a possible strip settlement alongside the Roman road, which is assumed to lie beneath the modern road.

The building complex was first investigated in 2007 when small-scale excavations uncovered several phases of stone walling and evidence for a nearby smithy. This was followed up in 2010 by the excavation of a larger area, the results from which provided a partial plan of the complex. This included the low, stone foundations for several buildings which were probably largely built in timber, with ceramic tile roofs.

The 2011/12 excavations revisited the site of the earlier excavations, as well as investigating two new areas adjacent to the Roman road. Further stone foundations were uncovered for a previously unknown building, which contained a small oven, while the elsewhere the evidence suggests the presence of another building.

Civilian settlements, known in latin as vici, developed around many of the Roman forts in Wales, housing shops, taverns, workshops and small scale industries. Our excavations have added significantly to our understanding of extra-mural activity and, together with antiquarian sources, indicates that a civilian settlement, or vicus, developed to the south of the fort, lying to the west and east of what is believed to be the via principalis, which was later adopted by a modern lane. To the west of the road at least it is now clear that the area was occupied by a complex of buildings which may have been laid out with respect to the Roman road, along with one or more side roads. Although the nature and extent of the occupation remains uncertain, it is clear that there was significant industrial activity, in the form of iron smithing, and it seems likely that the buildings in this area housed a variety of small-scale industries, perhaps including glass-making. There are also tantalising hints of a bath-house in the vicinity, suggested by the presence of several unguent bottles and window glass.

All of the buildings which have been identified to date appeared to have been constructed on stone sleeper walls, which would have supported timber-framed structures with tiled roofs. Domestic structures have also been recorded, including a small oven, a hearth and a well. The evidence from one of the areas investigated indicates the presence of at least three buildings, each of which may be associated with a different phase of activity, suggesting some longevity to the occupation, including a probable smithy. It is hoped that the results from post-excavation analysis of the pottery will provide an indication of the period during which the vicus was occupied.

Pen y Gaer, CPAT

Location of the fort, together with the excavations and areas of geophysical survey

The date range for the main occupation of the vicus at Pen-y-gaer is broadly similar to that of the other Roman civilian settlements in mid Wales which developed to serve their respective auxiliary forts. In each case their reliance on the military appears to have hindered the development of an independent settlement with its own hinterland and trade links, such that as the garrisons within the forts were reduced during the 2nd century AD the prosperity and success of the attendant vicus inevitably faltered. While some settlements appear to have continued, perhaps in a reduced form, into the 3rd century, at Pen-y-gaer the evidence suggests that the main period of activity dates from the late 1st century to the end of the 2nd century, although a small number of pottery vessels indicate some activity continuing into the 4th century, while numismatic evidence from elsewhere outside the fort includes two early 4th-century coins.

Download a copy of the Pen y Gaer project report.

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