Roman Caerleon: Southern Canabae

Trenches excavated in 2011 explored several structures within the recently discovered suburb of monumental buildings between Caerleon’s Amphitheatre and the River Usk. Their size and layout suggest these could have included administrative buildings, bath-houses and possibly accommodation for travelling army officers and government officials.

The suburb looks like it should be at the centre of a town or city, but there is no evidence for the presence of a large civilian population living around Caerleon. Instead, it is believed that together these buildings formed Caerleon’s canabae legionis – the official settlement around the fortress from which the wider territory under legionary command was governed

Caerleon Southern Canabae excavation trenches
Caerleon Southern Canabae Trench 1 students

Nine trenches were opened across an area of approximately 5 hectares, which found that the remains of the Roman buildings are remarkably well preserved just below the modern ground surface. Four of the trenches were located around a very large courtyard structure close to the River Usk, while another found evidence for a row of buildings lying parallel to the river that were probably associated with a quay that has since been eroded away

The remaining 5 trenches revealed parts of two basilica-like buildings whose rooms and corridors had been provided with concrete opus signinum floors and painted wall plaster, a disturbed hypocaust, open courtyards, and buildings that could have served as workshops. Numerous segmented circular bricks demonstrate the use of brick columns in parts of at least two buildings

One trench produced a length of lead pipe, presumably supplying fresh water to fountains or water features that remain to be discovered. Another trench, overlooking the main axis of the large courtyard structure, produced the remains of a collapsed barrel vault. This discovery, together with the edge of a tessellated floor uncovered at the end of the same trench, indicates that several of the buildings in the Southern Canabae were very elaborate indeed

Analysis of the thousands of finds is currently underway. The preliminary study of the pottery assemblage indicates the suburb could have been first constructed at about the same time as the fortress (i.e. AD 70s), but that the majority of the buildings would seem to have been abandoned perhaps as soon as the early 3rd century. Some seem to have been used for the disposal of rubbish during the late Roman period (including the remains of unusually large quantities of pigs and birds), after which the buildings were stripped of their stone and tile before disappearing for 1,500 years

Caerleon engraved gemstone

The Southern Canabae excavations featured on the BBC’s landmark series The Story of Wales presented by Huw Edwards, as well as Time Team, who helped out during the dig

The excavation was directed by Peter Guest and Mike Luke from Albion Archaeology. The interim report describing the results of the 2011 season is available here (Guest, P., Luke, M. and Pudney, C. 2012. Archaeological evaluation of the extramural monumental complex (‘the Southern Canabae’) at Caerleon, 2011. Cardiff: Cardiff University)