2016 – annus horribilis

Where to start with 2016.

What an absolute shower. Brexit, Trump, our heroes dropping like flies, Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. This is all, all awful.

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Which is why I’m not going to write another word about any of it and focus on all the cool things about 2016.

2015 ended like this…

And 2016 started like this…

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I spent the New Year in Jordan, at Petra and also a few other places like Madaba and Amman, over the course of a week or so. This was pretty cool, although it was quite cold and there was something going on at Petra which meant that the army was called out. This was, initially, slightly alarming, but it was all fine and I was able to spend some quality time looking at archaeology and cats. Two of my favourite things.

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By the end of January, I’d handed in my notice at work and was looking forward to some freedom. As I had to work quite a long notice period, freedom had to wait, but at least it was on the horizon.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be…

I’ve been travelling a fair bit this year, mostly, but not exclusively, in northern Europe and mostly chasing Romans, so here’s a little round-up (with links where I’ve already blogged my travels).

At Easter I popped off to Morocco for a bit. Friends had warned me to be careful because some people have had negative experiences, especially in Tangier, getting a lot of hassle from pushy touts and over-eager shopkeepers. I had no problems at all (except for one grumpy taxi driver). No, I had a great time visiting some of the Roman sites in northern Morocco, including Volubilis

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Lixus

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Chellah

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and Tamouda.

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I think that most people don’t really think of Morocco as a Roman area and, it’s true, the Romans only really settled the north, away from the main tourist areas of Fez, Marrakesh and the desert. Still, Romans were what I wanted and Romans were what I got.

Once I’d done with work and was free (FREE!!) I was off to Paris.

While there, I visited the last resting place of millions of humans (Les Catacombes de Paris) and hundreds of animals (Le Cimetière des Chiens). It’s rather telling that it was only the latter of these that reduced me to a sobbing wreck.

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Then up to Northumberland to meet up with some digging pals; Tim and Laura, AKA Lord and Lady Trowelsworthy; Pete; Pierre; Scott; Jeff…the gang.

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It’s not often that I get a welcoming committee and a banner!

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And then down to Marseille for a week of sun, ships and … Romans 😀

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And now I must mention ATP.

In the spring, ATP was holding two festivals at a holiday camp in north Wales. I wasn’t going to go because I find the whole holiday camp schtick a bit trying, but a number of friends were at the first of the two. These festivals didn’t exactly go as planned (cue: divers alarums) and the fall out left a rather bitter taste in many mouths.

There had been another ATP festival due to take place in Iceland  at the end of June, which I was going to. To be honest, I was already well prepared for this to go pear-shaped and, as I’d been able to book flights and accommodation for good prices, I had already decided that Iceland was on, whatever happened with ATP. Obviously, as it turned out, ATP went west but I still went north, and had a great time.

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Boats, beaches, puffins, architecture, spelunking, and football 😀

And even…Romans!!

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Seriously, these are the only four Roman coins in Iceland.

In August, I spent some time in Belgium, again looking for Romans. Based in Liege, I made several trips to sites in the surrounding area.

Heerlan

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Tongeren

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Arlon

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and in Liege itself

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At the end, I popped over to Berlin for a few days (the flight from Brussels was £9! £9!!) and hit the museums and hot-spots like a total tourist.

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I was actually back in Berlin again in November, as my friend Katherine was going over and that seemed like a great excuse to join her.

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Levitation France was on in Angers in September, so I went over for that and…Romans (obviously).

Starting off in Nantes

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Then moving on to Angers for the festival with side visits to Jublains

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Le Mans

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and Tours

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Life is good

The dark dreary wintery end of January was brightened up with groovy lights at Lumiere London.

Summer saw a visit to excavations at the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch

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And I started working on a research project for the Petrie Museum. This is the museum of Egyptian archaeology at UCL and the project was looking at archaeology in the middle east during, and around, the First World War.

Summer also saw me doing a bit of digging with Hendon & District Archaeological Society at a site in north London.

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The society has been investigating Clitterhouse Farm for a while and my friend Roger suggested that I come along for a bit of a dig. We had a lot of fun and found 6 courses of a wall that wasn’t supposed to be there!

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September started off with a horrendous dental nightmare (root canal is hell) which I managed to get sorted, eventually. To cheer me up, the Dice People, John, Guy and me, went on a jolly to Richborough Roman Fort.

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The Dice People also became Lamp People as we spent a few days at the Archive (LAARC) seeking out all the Roman pottery lamps for the next Volunteers’ project. We found some cracking lamps, some of them complete.

London also commemorated the 350th anniversary of The Great Fire of London, by building a huge model of the City on a barge on the Thames and torching it!

This was actually ridiculously exciting.

Luck was on my side when I entered a draw for tickets to attend a lecture by Stephen Hawking at Imperial College. The lecture was on recent developments in the science of black holes. Apparently, 25,000 people applied for tickets so this was a bit of a coup for me.

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Now, I’m a scientific ignoramus so most of the sciencey stuff went whizzing way over my head but Prof Hawking is actually quite an accessible speaker. He tries to make it comprehensible even to thickies like me so the opportunity to attend one of his lectures was a treat.

Also, he’s on Big Bang.

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2016 was also the year that I, rather unexpectedly, became a great-aunt when my nephew and his girlfriend popped out a surprise baby. None of this was planned of course but, hey ho, these things happen. I’m delighted to report that all is well and his name is Roman…ROMAN!! 😀 😀

Music makes me lose control

There has been no Loop in 2016. This is a source of great sorrow to me and the implosion of ATP caused me to assume that there would be no more in the future. I’m pleased to say that there is now the promise of more Soundhead action in 2017, so I live in hope.

Nevertheless, I have been to some cracking gigs this year and here’s a little round-up of some of the best.

Cavern of Anti-Matter at The Moth Club, Patterns in Brighton, Dingwalls (for my birthday), and at Liverpool psych Fest. I like Cavern of Anti-Matter. The band features Tim Gane and Joe Dilworth of Stereolab  fame and sounds pretty well as you’d expect them to sound. This is a good thing. Plenty of bounce, groovy drums and some cool squelchy electro- synths. Nice.

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The Vacant Lots at the Shacklewell Arms, the Prince Albert in Brighton and The Moth Club. The Vacant Lots are definitely too cool for school, but Jared really should be more careful. He actually ended up in stitches (at Homerton Hospital) after the Shacklewell Arms gig.

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My focus in the first quarter of the year was to drag myself to the end of my notice period and escape work with my sanity, and I was helped along by two cracking, and very loud gigs by The Heads.

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I also got to see The Coathangers at The Moth Club and Follakzoid, playing at the Raw Power Festival. I was also treated to a brilliant gig by Sonic Boom with a new find (for me) in support; Happy Meals.

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And Sonic also played at Levitation France, and with Etienne Jaumet (of Zombie Zombie)  at a gig with James Holden at St. Luke’s.

There have also been lots of very good gigs by (in no particular order) Camera, Michael Rother, Damo Suzuki, Xaviers, Silver Apples, Minny Pops and Ulrika Spacek. Girl Band, Big Naturals, Spiritualized, Spectres, K-X-P, Anthroprophh, Zombie Zombie, Traams, and Tomaga.

And a spooky Christmas gig from Low.

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However, the latter part of the year has undoubtedly been owned by Teenage Fanclub.

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I’d had to miss the Teenage Fanclub gig in Islington in September because of the aforementioned dental issue and the resulting facial deformity (seriously, it was baaaad 😦 ) but I was recovered sufficiently to see the Fannies at Rough Trade the following week, with Dave and Adam.

That album I’m holding was their first new album for 6 years and I have been crushing on it, HARD, ever since the second listen (the second listen, mind).

To support the new album, the Fannies had embarked on a pretty extensive tour, first in the US/Canada then the UK. Initially, I only had a ticket for the Cambridge gig but that would just not do, and I was fortunate enough to bag a ticket for the London gig just a couple of days before the gig.

Good move 😀 I haven’t seen TFC in ages but seeing them again filled me with all the same good feelings of old.

After the fun of the London and Cambridge gigs I was eager for more so, having a pal up in Scotland who I knew was going to the Barrowland gig, I set about investigating the possibility of getting up to Glasgow without being utterly ridiculous. This worked out pretty well (despite the initial hiccup of my train being cancelled!!) and I was able to go to a top night out in the East End with Simon, Andy, Rob and Donna. I wished that I could have stayed for the second night (at the ABC O2) but, really, there are limits and I had to get back for the cats.

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So,  2016 has been, nationally and internationally, as dodgy as flip, but, personally, I’ve had a blast. Clearly, I’ve had a pretty self-indulgent year so I’m ending it working some shifts at a Crisis centre. I haven’t done this in a couple of years because I’ve been out of the country but now I’m back in my usual chair with the sewing team. We do repairs and alterations for guests, on items that need a bit of TLC; clothing, bags and rucksacks, sleeping bags, that sort of thing.

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It’s fun and we always have  a good time but housing insecurity and rough sleeping are on the increase and, clearly, it would be far better if this wasn’t necessary at all. It can feel a bit overwhelming and I certainly can’t fix anyone’s problems. I can, however, fix the seam on their trousers, or the zip on their bag, so that’s what I’m doing.

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Of course, I’ll have to go back to work now. I’ve had my fun but, not being independently wealthy, I do actually have to earn a living (my friend thinks that I’ve won the lottery. I haven’t). Still, it was great while it lasted.

So goodbye 2016 and hello 2017. Love to you all from me, and from my own little Beastie Boys, Archie and Bertie.

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Soundheads-on-Sea

I’ve been on my travels again (blogs coming later) but I had barely touched down when I was off again. From Tehran to Prestatyn. Do I know how to live, or do I know how to live?

After an early morning fight from Tehran (+3.5hrs time difference, fact fans) and a journey time of around fifteen hours, you won’t be surprised to hear that I was pretty tired, and I wouldn’t have done this for just anyone, so you know what’s coming next…

Loop. (whoop whoop!)

I was pretty wild about the fact that Loop played a gig in Manchester while I was still in Tehran 😥 . They, apparently, played a good’un, but at least a stroke of good fortune had allowed me to come to the ATP Festival at Pontins, Prestatyn for the evening* to catch their set there. The weather in Prestatyn wasn’t quite as good as in Tehran.

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Hooking up once more with the awesome Soundheads of the Edinburgh Chapter, Ellen and Simon, we made a point of getting to the front for Loop’s set.

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The set list for this gig was great, starting with old favourite Afterglow and taking in three out for the four tracks on the most recent ep. It was fantastic to hear Radial live and it set off quite a frenzy of shimmying from the crowd.

Unfortunately they didn’t do the encore tracks on the setlist. I don’t know if this was because of time.

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There was some hilariously drunk heckling from the lads from Younghusband (their album has been produced by Robert, so they’re pals), including a disastrous stage-diving attempt which just ended with a loud thud.

At these types of festivals, most people stay onsite in the holiday camp chalets but I found the whole holiday camp thing a bit alarming. When I first walked onto the site, I felt quite sure that I was going to be attacked by a psychotic clown at any moment,

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so I was staying in a hotel right next to the camp, on the seafront.

The Prestatyn seafront in November o_O

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As I said, I was pretty tired, so I was glad of a nice quiet bedroom to collapse into. And so, mind racing, ears screaming, I drifted off into a delicious Loop-infused slumber.

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Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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*Thanks to ATP

Also thanks for the security guy from London for the set list, and to Dan for the life-saving coffee.

I managed to grab a few film clps:

Aphelion: https://youtu.be/jn8FP2HD2Q0

ArcLite: https://youtu.be/vQvfFCCd3Yc

Forever: https://youtu.be/0NrUOp9K8cA

Radial: https://youtu.be/AFxzCVxh5OI

A legionary fortress in Wales: Who are you?

The Romans were a relatively literate lot. That is not to say that every common man and woman went around spouting Horace but they did leave a remarkable quantity of written information about themselves. Inscriptions, dedications, painted and handwritten notes, monikers, you name it, they left it.

At Isca, Caerleon Roman legionary fortress, we can see a whole range of written evidence for the people who lived and worked there, including the very people who built the place.

Lets start with the Legion which called Isca home, the Second Augustan Legion, Legio II Augusta.

We’ve already seen the terracotta tile in the bathhouse stamped with the moniker of the Legion.

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But the Legion is namechecked again a number of inscriptions recording the dedication or rebuilding of buildings in the fort by units of the Legion.

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This inscription (above), one of the few in Britain cut in marble, records rebuilding at the fortress, although it is not known which building it relates to. It was found later reused as a paving slab.

Individual units of the Legion also left their marks, often recording construction works. These few are from the construction of the amphitheatre.

This records work by the century of Rufinus Primus, from the third cohort.

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And below, (top) the century of Claudius Cupitus (centre) from the fifth cohort, the century of Paetinus and (bottom) the century of Julius Gemellus from the eighth cohort.

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RIB334; RIB340; RIB339

These blocks record sections of work carried out but this less formal inscription (below) looks more like a personal mark, perhaps left by a particularly keen gladiator-fan. It shows symbols of the amphitheatre; the victory palm and the trident of the retarius gladiator, flanked by representations of the shoulder-pieces worn by the gladiators.

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Smaller and more personal inscriptions can be found on objects from the fort.  Living in close proximity with so many other people, individuals often tried to ensure that personal possessions didn’t go walkabout by engraving, writing or scratching the name of the rightful owner into the fabric of the object.

This mortarium, an ever-useful kitchen mixing/grinding bowl, has been etched with the name of, presumably, the owner.

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Ok. That isn’t easy to make out and I have to fess up to not photographing the label. If anyone is in Caerleon and can go and have a look, or if anyone knows, please leave a comment. I’d be very grateful.

Right, here’s one that I did make a note of.

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Compare this one to the one above. The hand is more polished, more formal and, as a consequence, more readable. It even has that little decorative flourish.

It runs:

‘(GENIO FELI)CITER AEL ROMULI’ which is translated as:

‘Good luck to the presiding spirit of the century of Aelius Romulus’ and is presumed as being connected with an annual regimental dinner.

And talking of wine…

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The shoulder of this wine amphora bears the name of the legion, ‘LEG.II.AUG’ and a cursive inscription. This kind of wine jar arrived in Britain, probably from Crete, in the ’50s and ’60.

There is one type of object in the museum which is always of particular interest. An ink writing tablet. These are great. The most well known ones have been found at Vindolanda, up near Hadrian’s Wall, but there are others, from Carlisle, London and here at Caerleon.

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The writing on the tablet is pretty crisp and clear but it’s still tricky to make out as it’s written in a script called Old Roman cursive. Basically Roman handwriting. This should help

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Still none the wiser?

Well it has been dated to the late first century CE and it’s basically a record of works being carried out my men of the legion. Some guards have been sent to fetch the pay (ad opinionem petendam) and parties who are out collecting building material (material). One of the soldiers in charge of the pay-escort is called Ofillio.

Phew!  So there you have a little selection of the written evidence from Caerleon and I’ve managed to get through an inscriptions post without even mentioning gravestones.

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Roman Inscriptions of Britain: http://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/

Roman Trajanic marble inscription from Caerleon: http://education.gtj.org.uk/en/item1/25413

A legionary fortress in Wales

And so back again to the legionary fortress at Caerleon, Isca. This is one of the relatively few legionary fortresses in Roman Britain. Home to around 5000 men, Roman citizens recruited to Legio II Augusta, the Second Augustan Legion  from northern Italy, Provence and southern Spain.

Visible remains around the modern town of Caerleon  include an area of barracks, an amphitheatre, stretches of fort walls, a number of ovens in which the troops’ bread would have been baked and impressive bathhouse. We’ve had a little look at the impressive bathhouse, so let’s have a look at the rest of the remains of Caerleon Legionary Fortress.

Let’s start with walls.

There are stretches of the north-west and south-west quadrants’ walls still standing, some now just under the under turf, some standing up to a height of about 3.5 metres.

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There are the remains of a turret in this stretch of wall but there was a young couple canoodling in there so I couldn’t get a decent picture of it without looking like a total creep.

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You’ll just have to use your imagination. It looks like a turret.

In the north-west quadrant are the excavated remains of the barrack blocks.

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Each barrack block had rooms for ten groups of eight men (a century) with a suite of rooms at the end for the centurion.

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The excavated blocks are just a small proportion of the accommodation in the fortress. These particular barracks are situated nearest to the fort wall in the north-western corner of the fortress, and there was a road that ran around the fortress just inside the walls. Between this perimeter road and fortress wall is a series of circular ovens. They are situated in this area so as to keep the fires used for baking well away from the buildings.

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In the museum are these two lead bread stamps (because who doesn’t want leadie-bread? Right?). N.b. the bread isn’t original. This isn’t Pompeii!.

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The top one, and the stamp in the bread says ‘Century of Quintinius Aquila’ [QVINTINI AQVILAE] (2nd century).

And below, ‘Century of Vibius Severus (produced by) Sentius Paullinus’ [VIBI SEVE – SEN PAVLLIN] (1st century).

The museum contains a large number of lovely artifacts, many of them directly associated with the military. There is this well-preserved helmet. You can see the much shinier replica on the model in the background.

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Other bits of soldiers’ kit include this great little field flask,

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This beautifully decorated 1st century plaque depicts Victory carrying captured arms.

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There is a selection of the large quantity of gaming equipment found around the fortress. You know how I love gaming equipment.

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Soldiers were cash-rich in comparison with many of the locals, but some of them seem to have lost/left some of their money behind when they left (or were killed), including this large collection of denarii.

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And I love this beautifully complete little money box.

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Well, as this is a Roman jolly, there must be an amphitheatre.

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This amphitheatre would have held around 6000 people, seated in tiers. The lower part of the structure was built in stone, with timber upper levels. Amphitheatres attached to forts were used for the usual gladiatorial games, beast hunts and the execution of criminals, but also for  military training and drilling.

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This is a lovely spot for a mooch or a kick-about on a sunny day.

Next time, we’ll meet a few of the individuals who lived, for a while, at Isca, including some of those who actually built the amphitheatre.

A legionary fortress in Wales: Rub-a-dub-dub

After visiting the civilian site of Venta Silurum at Caerwent, it was time for some military action, so I set off for Caerleon and the Roman legionary fortress of Isca.

Many of the (very cool) Roman forts in Britain were home to auxiliary units. Non-citizen troops working and fighting for Rome with the promise of citizenship and a nest-egg at the end of the period of service. A few sites, however, were home to legions; huge forces of citizen troops. Legionary fortresses were huge, the size of an large Roman town, housed at least 5000 men and had all mod-cons and amenities, and Isca was one of these. Home to Legio II Augusta, the Second Augustan Legion.

Visible remains around the modern Caerleon  include an area of barracks, an amphitheatre, stretches of fort walls, a number of ovens in which the troops’ bread would have been baked and impressive bathhouse.

I’ll start with the impressive bathhouse.

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Fort sites always have a bathhouse but, being attached to a legionary fortress, this one is particularly fine. It had all the usual hot, warm and cold rooms for getting clean but also a large external games and exercise area, an indoor exercise hall and a long swimming pool. More like an Imperial bathhouse.

The visible remains represent only a small part of the whole structure. The section of swimming pool gives a bit of idea of scale and construction. I notices that in the walls of the pool there are lots and lots of pieces of tile, mainly tegulae. I wasn’t sure why this was, except perhaps they helped in getting the stonework really level and watertight.

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Looking closely (and with the help of some handy indicators) you can see some other signs of fort life.

There are several animal footprints, cat and dog, left when those naughty animals walked across the wet clay times.

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Other, more human, animals also left their mark.

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And this more deliberate, and more official mark records the work of the unit responsible for the making the tiles and building the bathhouse, Legio II Augusta [LEGIIAVG].

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Around to an internal area of the bathhouse. This area is the end of the suite of bathing rooms, the frigidarium.

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Against the wall is a rectangular plunge pool which would have been filled with ice cold water, perfect for tightening the pores after the sweating and scraping in the hot rooms. On either side of this pool is a semi-circular recess which would have housed basins for dowsing with cold water.

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Also displayed in this area is this fragment of one of the basins. Carved from purbeck marble and decorated with the Gorgon’s head.

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Also this fantastic drain cover. It’s quite large. About a metre across.

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Dotted around the bathhouse site and in the nearby museum are other finds recovered from the bathhouse. There’s this lovely dolphin water spout, probably from the fountain house at the end of the long swimming pool.

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One of the most interesting places for finds in Roman bathhouses is…the drains. Ok, bear with me.

Roman bathhouses were undoubtedly places in which people could get clean. Bathers would smother their skin in the oil, then spend time in the warm and hot rooms, sweating out the dirt, which was then scraped off with a curved blunt instrument called a strigil. At Caerleon, several bathers seem to have had accidental breakages.  These bottle necks, complete with bone stoppers, are from the little globular bottles that bathers used to carry their olive oil to the baths.

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But these baths had other functions; they were meeting places, places where deals were done, places to exercise and to relax, places to get a massage, places for naughty assignations, places to play games and get a bite to eat. All  of these activities have left their residue in the drains, heating flues and rubbish dumps of the bathhouses.

At Caerleon, the bathhouse drains have turned up a remarkable number of intaglios. These are the little gems made from materials like jasper, garnet, carnelian, agate, glass and rock crystal, engraved with images such as gods or animals, that were set into jewellery, often finger rings. The heat and damp of the baths evidently caused the gems to come loose as 88 of them have been found in the drains.

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There is a bit of reflected light on this, but you can see from the blown up image that this gem depicts a horse.

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Nice, but I bet that a few Romans would have been annoyed at losing them.

But bath-time is over now. I’ll have a look at the rest of the visible remains another time.

Pip pip.

Go West

Last weekend I spent a little time in Wales. I had to go over to Cardiff for work and so that seemed like a perfect excuse to stay an extra day or two and have a look at a couple of sites in South Wales while I was there. I’ve never been to these sites before so I was keen to get a look at them.

First stop was Caerwent, Roman Venta Silurum.

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Venta Silurum was the largest civilian centre in Roman Wales and the  administrative centre of the tribe of the Silures. This tribe was bested by the Romans in the third-quarter of the first century, but were finally allowed elements of self-government by the early second century. The Roman street grid, public buildings, shops, houses and other buildings were laid out around the late second century.

I got off the bus on the edge of town, by the Roman East Gate, and set off along the town walls. These survive up to a height of about 5m, complete with towers and were built towards the end of the third century. Who could resist such lovely #wallporn? And so much of it!

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In some area, the external facing stones are still in place. I expect that a lot of these have been taken away over the years for use as building material.

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Where the facing stones have been robbed out, you can see the rather beautiful internal structure of the walls, forming this rough herringbone pattern.

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A few specific features still survive along the wall.

The most obvious are these towers. They are five-sided in plan and were not built as part of the initial wall structure but were built onto the pre-existing wall at a later date, around 350CE. You can see that the stone blocks aren’t bonded into the wall, but butted up against it.

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The South Gate, a single lane gateway, was blocked up late in the town’s Roman history. The square (-ish) hole is a culvert built through the blocked up wall.

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Likewise, the West Gate was also a single-lane gateway and was also blocked up during the late Roman period. In this case, a postern (a little doorway) was built through to allow for pedestrian access.

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The floor and lower courses of the associated guardroom still survive.

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Round the corner, the blocked-up north gate is now in someone’s garden (the picture below was taken from the road) as, along the north side, there are houses and a pub built right up against the wall.

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As well as the walls, surviving in-situ remains include this fantastic area of shops and workshops.

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The lower courses of the stone buildings survive marking the layout of these small business units.

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Nearby there is this courtyard villa, built in the first half of the fourth century. At least some of the rooms had hypocausts and mosaic floors.

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Just down the road is the forum-basilica.

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And just round the corner is this temple.

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The  most striking feature, and what really marks it out as a temple, is the apse-ended cela.

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Caerwent is a very small village and the kind of place where missing the scheduled bus can mean a very long, possibly fruitless, wait so I made my way to the bus stop heading for Newport for my next visit. But that’s another story.