Between the 23rd July and 1st August 2018, we hosted an archaeological excavation in Caerwent Roman Town, South Wales. Our partners for this project were North West Heritage and Liverpool John Moores University. Participants included several students, former members of the armed forces and other non-military uniformed services, teachers, refugees and a young man currently in foster care.
We were working on private property on land that is ‘unscheduled’, that is to say an area of land that is not protected under the 1979 Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act. Armed with a map from 1893, there were three aims to our project. Firstly, we wanted to examine the Roman buildings and see how accurate the Victorian drawings are to what we might find today. Secondly, we noticed reference to the ‘Rich Mosaic’ something we have not come across in other documents covering the same area, what was this mosaic, if indeed it existed at all? Thirdly, and arguably the most important part of our work, we wanted to bring together people from disadvantaged backgrounds, some of whom had suffered unbelievable trauma, some of whom were desperate to get some field experience, give them a break, introduce them to archaeology, and for some, to use the ‘dig’ as a platform to aid their integration into mainstream society.
The 10-day excavations produced a multitude of exciting artefacts including coins, dress pins, pottery, animal bone, intact and damaged walkways. In addition, we also found and recorded the well preserved main Roman road running through the town.
The most important part of the practical work was the mapping and recording of a well-preserved Romano-British dwelling that originally was dated to the fourth century. However, we can confirm that we actually identified two buildings dating to the mid 2nd century and the 3rd century.
It appears the 2nd century structure was destroyed by a large fire that was so intense it had turned a piece of sand stone into glass which adds to the mystery of the building and why it was destroyed.
As a result of the excavations that took place in the late C19th, the area was littered with large quantities of Victorian debris. Thanks to our bone expert, from Liverpool John Moores University, we were able to identify both Roman pig bones as well as the remains of Victorian meals eaten, we presume, during the last excavations. We also found some more recent things such as a button from a British Army uniform, (pre-1953 as identified by one of the veterans), and one belonging to a worker from the Great Western Railway Company.
The exciting aspect of this building was the intact and damaged tessellated floors one of which had animal bones containing an arrow head within the remains. We did identify the lost “Rich Mosaic” floor, but it appears large parts of it were destroyed by the 19th century excavators.
The project established that the original plans of the building drawn up in 1893 are not entirely accurate and this will affect the interpretation of other excavations within the town dating to the late 19th Century. We found that the location of the building was incorrect, and parts of the building marked on the old plans did not exist.
On Saturday the 28th July, we held an open day, where approximately 250 people, of all ages, came to Caerwent to learn more about our project and to be taken by the owner of the site on a guided tour of the ancient town. The entire day, the refreshments, logistics of the tours, tile painting and colouring in for the children, as well as talks and demonstrations showing our ‘finds’, was planned and managed by our participants. They did an exceptionally good job and the feedback from visitors was all really positive. We would however, like to say a special thank you to Beth, a student from Canterbury Christ Church University, who took on the responsibility for much of our social media during the dig and managed the open day.
In addition to making some wonderful discoveries, some of which will affect previous thinking about the site thus ensuring the area remains a place of great interest to Roman enthusiasts, the project showed what can be achieved when a group of 25 people from all sorts of backgrounds, many of whom were battling trauma or recovering from illness or injury, come together under a single mission.
After a few days of Mediterranean weather, something our Roman ancestors must have longed for, the clouds arrived, and the wind picked up. It is testament to the team bonding of this project that when a six-man tent was ripped from its pegs and flew into the sky with three people, and a dog, inside, that the drenched field, that was our home, was buzzing with the exhausted efforts of everyone helping their colleagues find a way out of the tent.
We took advantage of the rain to run a personal development course for those people who were either unsure about what they want to do with their lives or felt they needed to challenge their assumptions and confirm their choices. When projects such as ours come towards their end, many people start to feel sad and anxiety stemming from the lives many of them sought to escape creeps in. Those who took part in the course said it was unique, of immense value, and something that was making them have a new focus and reason to face the journey home with a sense of excitement.
Throughout the 10 days we welcomed various people to the site who were interested in our work. They included a team from ITV news whose report was on the 6pm news, the Head of the Army in Wales, the Commanding Officer and RSM of 1 Rifles and a senior social worker from Monmouthshire Council.
We would also like to express our most sincere thanks to our partners, Liverpool John Moores University and North West Heritage, especially Paul and Jim, whose input was immense and who lent us some of their equipment and Nick from Monmouthshire Council who gave up his weekend to join us. We would also like to thank Cadw for letting us use their facilities, the St. Pierre, Marriott Golf Resort who let us use their showers, which was a most welcome moment of relief in the hot weather and to the Coach and Horses Pub for putting up with our dirty boots and references to ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ ever time we wanted a beer.
Finally, we would like to say thank you to the landlord of the area we were excavating. Respecting their desire to remain anonymous, they will hopefully see this update and know how extremely grateful we are to them. As a final act, before raking in the soil, covering what had remained hidden to the sunlight since, in some cases, the second Century, we placed a tile of our own, signed by all and inscribed, ‘Soldier On! 2018’..what will the archaeologists of the future think of this?! But that is the wonderful thing about a project such as this, that our legacy is something far more fundamental than an autographed tile, it can best be summed up by one of our participants;
“I had no idea what to expect when I arrived on Sunday evening. I knew no-one, I had never been to an archaeological site before and to be honest I was a little apprehensive. I leave 10 days later, a changed person, with new friends, having found ancient artefacts, feeling that although I arrived with no experience, no qualifications, in fact no right to be here at all, I believe I have made a valuable contribution to the knowledge of this special area. I wasn’t patronised, quite the opposite, I have been encouraged and allowed to participate in all aspects of this programme and I am so grateful for the opportunity of a lifetime. I am more positive than I have been for a very long time”.