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Roman Army Study Day at Caerleon

It’s been a while since I’ve been on an archaeological study day with Andante, so it was clearly time to expand my archaeological horizons further. This weekend, I opted to learn more about the Roman army, on a Study Day at the Legionary Headquarters at Caerleon, a few miles outside Newport in South Wales.

Roman barrack block at Caerleon

Twenty of us assembled in the car park just outside the little Welsh village of Caerleon on Saturday morning, and were first taken to view the excavated remains of some of the legionary barrack blocks. Eight men would have shared a pair of rooms – the one in the front being storage for their equipment, and the one in the back having four sets of bunks for their sleeping quarters. Our guide lecturer, Dr Mike Bishop, is an expert on the Roman army, and it was fascinating hearing about how it operated, and drawing parallels with the modern British Army.

Caerleon Roman Amphitheatre

We also went to the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre just outside the fortress walls – surprisingly well preserved after nearly 2000 years. OK, it’s hardly the Colosseum, but not at all bad for South Wales!

Much of the rest of the Legionary Fortress is buried under the village of Caerleon, and indeed much of the stone was robbed to build the village in medieval times – many Roman buildings were apparently still standing as late as the 13th century, but were deliberately destroyed by the English as part of their campaign to subdue the local Welsh princes. We went to the remains of the Fortress Baths, which are very imaginatively displayed with sound and lighting effects to give you an impression of how magnificent they must once have been. A huge number of beautifully carved intaglios were found in the main drain, and are now on display in the museum. These would originally have been set in rings, and the heat from the hypocaust system would have loosened the glue holding the gemstones in place so that they fell out. You can just imagine the frustration and disappointment of the owner when they got home and realised they’d lost the stone from their favourite ring!

After lunch, we spent the afternoon in the National Roman Legion Museum, being given a guided tour by the Senior Curator, Dr Mark Lewis. We started in the public area of the museum, being told the stories behind some of his favourite exhibits (including gravestones, a coin hoard, and a burial where they had got a forensic scientist to reconstruct the man’s face from his skullbones). We then went down into the basement, off-limits to normal visitors, to visit the storerooms, where Mark had got out a selection of items for us to examine and handle. His only request was that we should handle the items over the table, and lift them no more than a few inches – so that if we dropped them, they would be likely to survive! There was a whole range of priceless stuff which we were very privileged to be able to see and touch – pieces of armour for both men and horses, glass beads, delicate glass bottles, large intact Samian ware bowls, roof tiles, etc etc. What the Roman Legion wanted, the Roman Legion got – so there was a lot of high-status stuff, imported from all over the Empire.

It was an absolutely fascinating day, and I learned a huge amount – both our guide lecturers were deeply knowledgeable and hugely enthusiastic about their subject.