Romans in Wales

Wow … the archaeologist types in Wales keep coming up with discoveries. In the past week, I’ve read of three major finds … typically, things from Wales don’t seem to make it beyond the local papers, but the first two items are a bit different. Here’s the Telegraph coverage about a Roman villa find in Aberystwyth:

Archaeologists have discovered a 4th Century villa near Aberystwyth, the first time they have found evidence of Roman occupation of North and mid Wales.

Findings indicate Abermagwr had all the trappings of villas found further south, including a slate roof and glazed windows.

The villa is likely to have belonged to a wealthy landowner, with pottery and coin finds on the site indicating occupation in the late 3rd and early 4th Centuries AD.

It was roofed with local slates, which were cut for a pentagonal roof. The walls were built of local stone and there was a cobbled yard.

Roman villas were high-status homes of wealthy landowners which sat at the heart of a farming estate. They are common throughout southern England and south Wales, but rare in mid and west Wales.

It was thought that Wales was a “military zone”, abandoned by the Romans a few decades after the first century.

Dr Toby Driver, of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Dr Jeffrey Davies, formerly of Aberystwyth University, had previously excavated at the nearby Trawscoed Roman fort, which had been abandoned by AD 130.

“Our trial excavations this year have confirmed the remains of an imposing Romano-British building in the heart of mid-Wales, where no Roman villas were previously known” they said.

“The discovery raises significant new questions about the regional economy and society in late Roman Wales, and raises the possibility of future villa discoveries in the surrounding countryside”.

The BBC picked up a story about a lime kiln find during road construction:

The most significant find – a large lime kiln – was previously hidden under an earth mound.

The Gwynedd Archaeological Trust says the kiln, and slates from a building for high-ranking officials, indicate a large Roman settlement.

Building work began on the £34.4m bypass earlier this year.

Iwan Parry, from the trust, said the the presence of the roofing slates was documented after a dig in the area in the 1920s but the lime kiln was a complete surprise.

“We’re not certain of the dates yet because radio carbon dating has not been carried out, so this is really the beginning of the research we’ll have to carry out,” he said.

Mr Parry added the kiln was “huge” at round 4m (13ft) across and 2m (6ft) deep.

“They had cut into the stone – which would have been a lot of hard work – to create a bowl,” he said.

“The purpose of the kiln would then be to create the lime for cement,” he added.

As the land around the kiln had not been reclaimed from the sea at the time the Romans were around, the kiln would have been on a small island in the estuary, he said.

“The kiln is a surprise too because we did not think there was any lime locally in Tremadog.

“The nearest source we thought was on Anglesey – but there might have been a type of lime around here” he added.

The roofing slates – cut into a diamond with two sides squared off – were first thought to be from the Nantlle Valley near Caernarfon.

Similar slates were then found at a barracks in Chester however, and they came from Bethesda (near Bangor), he said.

Wherever they are from it is still a significant find as the slates are “one of the first examples of Welsh slates being used as roofing”, he added.

Excavation work on the bypass also revealed signs of human habitation in the area from 6,000 years ago.

“We found small bits of flint which they would have used,” said Mr Parry.

“The location, on an island, would have meant there was a plentiful supply of food there in Mesolithic and Neolithic times.”

Fulfilling the scholastic rule of three, and just hitting my email box a few moments ago (and so, still ‘local’), comes something from the Mail:

A ROMAN home or trading post is being excavated at Tai Cochion near the village of Brynsiencyn.

Gwynedd Archaeology Trust held an open day at the site and over 200 people visited to find out about the discoveries.

The location of the site – over the water from Segontium in Caernarfon – together with initial discoveries, suggests the settlement to be a trading post linking Anglesey with the mainland.

This is the first site of its kind to be found in North Wales and will help historians to understand the relationship between the Romans and the indigenous people.

The excavation is the subject of a programme which will be screened on S4C in November.

Trust staff and volunteers are trying to find some final clues as to the exact history of this site by finishing some detailed excavations and making vital recordings before the excavation is finished.

Dave Hopewell, senior archaeologist, said: “Over 15 volunteers have joined Gwynedd Archaeology Trust staff to excavate the Roman settlement in Brynsiencyn during the last three weeks. This excavation was made possible due to funding from CADW.

“A land survey undertaken last winter indicted there was a large settlement.

This excavation has supported this interpretation with a wide roman road, buildings, a boundary ditch and a rubbish pit being unearthed in the small excavated area.”

A large amount of pottery has been found including some made in France. This indicates the settlement was of high status.

The Trust has high hopes the origins of this piece of pottery can be traced to a specific location and time helping to date the settlement and perhaps learn more about what went on there. […]

First Elephant in Britain?

Lisa the Iconoclast
Image via Wikipedia

As I dig deeper into my pile of things I’ve marked with little purple question marks, I find an interesting item I first came across toward the end of May. Something called the Londonist had a feature called An Historic London Elephant Parade which included this in its timeline:

43 AD: Emperor Claudius brings the first recorded elephant to England during the Roman conquest. It journeys to Colchester but would have probably passed through the London area.

I thought it was interesting, and checked what Wikipedia had to say:

The first historically recorded elephant in northern Europe was the animal brought by emperor Claudius, during the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, to the British capital of Colchester. At least one elephant skeleton with flint weapons that has been found in England was initially misidentified as this elephant, but later dating proved it to be a mammoth skeleton from the stone age.[1]

Now one expects touristy type sites to take this to some extreme, e.g.:

Visit Colchester, Britain’s oldest recorded town and soak up its history. Discover the secrets of William the Conqueror’s impressive castle, which lay hidden for centuries. Walk through the Roman streets where Emperor Claudius once rode triumphantly in on an elephant.

But let’s see what the pros do … the Colchester Castle Museum includes this on their FAQ page:

6. Did Claudius really bring elephants with him when he invaded?

Yes he did, we are told that elephants were involved in his triumphal entry into Colchester or Camulodunum as it was called. Imagine being a Briton and watching those enormous animals marching past you.

Okay … we’ve gone from bringing elephants to having a ‘triumphal entry’. The Time Team folks echo something that is seen on several other sites, however:

Colchester is the oldest garrison town in Britain, the site of the most famous event during the Roman invasion, where Claudius rode in on the back of an elephant.

Similiter, the Colchester Archaeological Trust:

Fund-raising events in the pipeline include a reception at the Mayor’s Parlour, and Mrs Bailey said she would also like to recreate Claudius’ entrance to Colchester with elephants in an effort to raise awareness of the campaign.

So we’ve gone from Claudius being the first to bring elephants to Britain, to him including them in some ‘triumphal’ procession, to him — despite his famous disabilities — actually riding into Colchester on one.

Now here’s what I don’t get … as far as I’m aware, the ONLY statement about Claudius bringing elephants in his invasion of Britain comes from Cassius Dio 60.21 (via Lacus Curtius):

Shortly afterwards Togodumnus perished, but the Britons, so far from yielding, united all the more firmly to avenge his death. Because of this fact and because of the difficulties he had encountered at the Thames, Plautius became afraid, and instead of advancing any farther, proceeded to guard what he had already won, and sent for Claudius. For he had been instructed to do this in case he met with any particularly stubborn resistance, and, in fact, extensive equipment, including elephants, had already been got together for the expedition.

That’s all that is said about Claudius’ elephant(s), as far as I’m aware and it has clearly been witness to some ‘expansion’. But even the claims about this being the ‘first’ seem to be challengeable … In Polyaenus’ Stratagems 8.23.5 we read (via Attalus):

When Caesar’s passage over a large river in Britain was disputed by the British king Cassivellaunus, at the head of a strong body of cavalry and a great number of chariots, he ordered an elephant, an animal till then unknown to the Britons, to enter the river first, mailed in scales of iron, with a tower on its back, on which archers and slingers were stationed. If the Britons were terrified at so extraordinary a spectacle, what shall I say of their horses? Amongst the Greeks, the horses fly at the sight of an unarmed elephant; but armoured, and with a tower on its back, from which missiles and stones are continually hurled, it is a sight too formidable to be borne. The Britons accordingly with their cavalry and chariots abandoned themselves to flight, leaving the Romans to pass the river unmolested, after the enemy had been routed by the appearance of a single beast.

Polyaenus was writing during the time of Marcus Aurelius … Cassius Dio was writing in the first couple of decades of the third century. Both were very far removed from their subject matter, so you can take either claim with as many grains of salt that you care to. And just in case you were curious about ‘elephant fossils’ mentioned in the Wikipedia article, one of the (many) references to same that I came across was in The Monthly Review from May-August of 1826:

Now normally I’d put this sort of thing — especially considering the ongoing campaign to raise awareness of Colchester Roman Circus — in the same category as Lisa Simpson (in Lisa the Iconoclast) eventually put the Jebediah Springfield/Hans Sprungfeld revelation that the ‘myth brought out the good in everyone’, but since the folks in Colchester seem themselves to have been angry at the British Museum for suggesting no Roman circus had ever been found in Britain, I’m not so charitable … come on … elephants in the invasion are amazing enough; no need to claim priority (especially when there is competing evidence of equal weight) nor force us to imagine the physically disabled Claudius somehow getting up on the back of a pachyderm …

A Couple of Podcasty Thingies

I’ve got all sorts of little items lingering in my mailbox and need some principle of organization for them, I think. First, though, we should draw your attention to a couple of podcast type things … the first: Evaluating Alexander the Great is actually the free ‘first lecture’ in a series at This particular series is by Robin Lane Fox and even just this first freebie is worth listening to. Next, the BBC’s Digital Places has a segment on Google’s Ancient Places … it’s right at the beginning (tip o’ the pileus to Terrence Lockyer for this one).

Also seen: Other famous dads who might have inspired

Inter alia:

-Agamemnon. According to legend, this ancient Greek king sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia so the ships would sail. Her website might have run more along the lines of

… I’m sure there’d be pop up ads from carpet distributors and ax manufacturers …

via PostPartisan – Other famous dads who might have inspired