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The Wentlooge Level: a Romano-British saltmarsh reclamation in southeast Wales

  • J.R.L. Allen (a1) and M.G. Fulford (a2)


The large tracts of estuarine alluvium which border the Severn Estuary (FIG. I) and inner Bristol Channel have never been the subject of systematic archaeological enquiry. Now largely reclaimed and known as levels, the greatest of these tracts are the Somerset Levels, on the English side, and the Wentlooge and Caldicot levels between Cardiff and R. Wye on the Welsh shore. Smaller areas of reclaimed wetland range upriver as far as Gloucester. The manner and extent to which these wetlands entered into the economy particularly in the Roman period has hitherto been assessed only in the form of speculations or inferences from circumstantial evidence, in contrast to the firmness of our understanding, based on buildings as well as artefacts, concerning military activities, settlement, and daily life on the surrounding slopes and hills beyond tidal influence.



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1 Strong Norman influences (see Davies, M., Reports and Trans. Cardiff Nat. Soc. lxxxv (19551956), 515), have ensured that place names in the coastal lands of southeast Wales are somewhat controversial. To avoid confusing readers unfamiliar with the area, we use the place names given on the latest editions of the Ordnance Survey topographic maps. It is worth noting, however, that the terms ‘wharf’ and ‘warth’, meaning a salt marsh standing at a generally high level and suitable for summer pasturing, have been used interchangeably throughout the Severn Levels since at least the 18th century.

2 McWhirr, A., Roman Gloucestershire (Gloucester, 1981).

3 Scarth, H.M., Proc. Somerset Arch. Hist. Soc. xxxi (2) (1886), 19; H.C. Smyth-Piggot, ibid, xxxi (1) (1886), 19, 23; R.C. Reade, ibid, xxxi (2) (1886), 64–73.

4 RIB, 395; Morgan, O., Goldcliff and the Roman Inscribed Stone found there in 1878 (Caerleon and Monmouthshire Antiquarian Ass., 1882).

5 Godwin, H., Journ. Ecol, xxxi (1943), 199247.

6 Cunliffe, B.W. in Thomas, C. (ed.), Rural Settlement in Roman Britain, C.B.A. Research Rep. 7 (London, 1966), 6873.

7 Locke, S., Monmouthshire Antiquary III(i) (1970-1), 116.

8 Dewar, H.S.L. & Seaby, W.A., Proc. Somerset Arch. Nat. Hist. Soc. xciv (1949), 161164.

9 Hawkins, A.B. in Blackman, D.J. (ed.), Marine Archaeology (London, 1971), 6787.

10 Knight, J.K., Monmouthshire Antiquary 1(2) (1962), 3436.

11 Nash-Williams, V.G., Bull. Board Celtic Stud, xiv (3) (1951), 254255.

12 Boon, G.C. in Thompson, F.H. (ed.), Archaeology and Coastal Change, Soc. Ant. London Occas. Paper (n.s.) i (London, 1980), 2436.

13 Shennan, I. in Smith, D.E. and Dawson, A.G. (eds.), Shorelines and Isostasy (London, 1983), 255283.

14 Hawkins, op. cit. (note 9), figs. 1, 3; Kidson, C. and Heyworth, A., Proc. Ussher Soc. ii (1973), 565584 ; Kidson, C. and Heyworth, A., Q. Jnl. Engng. Geol. xi (1976), 217235.

15 Steers, J.A., The coastline of England and Wales (Cambridge, 1964, 2nd ed.).

16 Anderson, J.G.C. and Blundell, C.R.K., Proc. Geol. Assoc. lxxvi (1965), 367378 ; Williams, D.J., Proc. Geol. Assoc. lxxix (1968), 325348.

17 J.R.L. Allen, ‘Late Flandrián shoreline oscillations in the Severn Estuary: the Rumney Formation at its typesite (Cardiff area)’ Phil. Trans. R. Soc. (forthcoming).

18 Sollas, W.J., Q. Jnl. Geol. Soc. Lond. xxxix (1883), 611626 ; Strahan, A. & Cantrill, T.C., The geology of the South Wales Coalfield. Partili. The country around Cardiff, Mem. Geol. Surv. Gr. Br., (London, 1912, 2nd ed.).

19 NERC Radiocarbon Laboratory SRR-2678. We are indebted to Dr. D.D. Harkness for this date.

20 Locke, op. cit (note 7), 5–7.

21 We are indebted for this general information to Dr H.S. Green of the National Museum of Wales.

22 Hawkins, op. cit. (note 9), 81; Murray, J.W. and Hawkins, A.B., J. Geol. Soc. Lond. cxxxii (1976), 385398.

23 Beckinsale, R.P. and Richardson, L., Geogr. Journ. cxxx (1964), 87105 ; Seddon, B., Proc. Bristol. Nat. Soc. xxxi (1964), 101106.

24 Reynolds, S.H., Proc. Bristol Nat. Soc. (4)1 (1906), 204208.

25 NERC Radiocarbon Laboratory SRR-2677. We are indebted to Dr D.D. Harkness for this date.

26 Harkness, D.D., ‘The extent of natural 14C deficiency in the coastal environment of the United Kingdom’, PACT 8(IV.9) (1983), 351364.

27 Boon, op. cit. (note 12), 30.

28 J.R.L. Allen, ‘A short history of salt-marsh reclamation at Slimbridge Warth and neighbouring areas, Gloucestershire’ Trans. Bristol Glos. Arch. Soc. (forthcoming).

29 Sylvester, D., The rural landscape of the Welsh Borderland (London, 1969), 396.

30 Strahan, A., The geology of the South Wales Coalfield. Part I. The country around Newport, Mem. Geol. Surv. Gr. Br. (London, 1909, 2nd ed) ; Strahan and Cantrill, op. cit. (note 18); Squirrell, H.C. and Downing, R.A., The Geology of the South Wales Coalfield. Part I. The country around Newport (Mon.), Mem. Geol. Surv. Gr. Br. (London, 1969, 3rd ed.).

31 Sibly, T.F., Special reports on the mineral resources of Great Britain, Vol. X – Iron ores – the haematites of the Forest of Dean and South Wales. Mem. Geol. Surv. Gr. Br. (London, 1927).

32 Adams, H.F., Bradburn, E., Boon, G.C., ‘Coal from the legionary fortress of Caerleon, MonmouthshireGeol. Mag. cii (1965), 469473.

33 We are indebted to Mrs Annie Grant (University of Reading) for these determinations and their analysis.

34 See note 33.

35 N.M.W. Cat. Nos. 62.1; 63.257; 66.182; 68.119; 75.20H/b.

36 Young, C.J., Oxfordshire Roman Pottery, BAR 43 (Oxford, 1977).

37 Gillam, J.P., Types of Roman coarse pottery vessels in Northern Britain (3rd ed., Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1970).

38 Gillam, op. cit. (note 37).

39 Boon, op. cit. (note 12), 26.

40 Boon, op. cit. (note 12), 26.

41 Young, op. cit. (note 36).

42 Gillam, op. cit. (note 37).

43 See note 35.

44 Young, op. cit. (note 36).

45 Gillam, op. cit. (note 37).

46 We are indebted to Mrs Annie Grant (University of Reading) for these determinations.

47 We are indebted to Dr M. Aitken and Dr J. Huxteble (Research Laboratory for Archaeology, University of Oxford) for this determination.

48 Craig Hampton (Department of Geology, University of Reading) kindly undertook this investigation.

49 Tylecote, R.F., Metallurgy in archaeology: a prehistory of metallurgy in the British Isles (London, 1962).

50 N.M.W. Cat. Nos. 68.119; 62.1/45; 63.257. Mr J.M.Lewis of the National Museum of Wales generously furnished notes on which this account is based.

51 NERC Radiocarbon Laboratory SRR-2679. We are indebted to Dr D.D. Harkness for this date.

52 Boon, op. cit. (note 12), 30–32.

53 I:25,ooo sheets ST 17/27, 28/38; Six-inch sheets (first edition) Glamorgan XLIII, Monmouthshire XXXIII, XXXVII, XXXVIII.

54 Sylvester, op. cit. (note 29), 404 (fig. 50).

55 Gwent County Record Office D1365.2. Commissioners of Sewers for the Levels within the Hundreds of Caldicot and Wentlooge in the County of Monmouth (1831, Wentlooge Level). Gwent County Record Office A210 G56, tithe map for Parish of Peterstone Wentlooge (1844).

56 Sylvester, op. cit. (note 29).

57 Boon, G.C., ‘Excavations on the site of a Roman quay at Caerleon and its significance’. Monographs and Collections (Cambrian Archaeol. Assn) 1 (1978), 124.

58 Cunliffe, op. cit. (note 6), 70.

59 Boon, op. cit. (note 12), 26–27.

60 Dilke, O.A.W., The Roman land surveyors(Newton Abbot, 1971).

61 Barnett, C., Monmouthshire Antiquary I(i) (1961), 1213.

62 Nash-Williams, op. cit. (note 10); Boon, G.C.. Monmouthshire Antiquary II(3) (1967), 121127.

63 Morgan, op. cit. (note 4).

64 Knight, op. cit. (note io).

65 Boon, G.C., Isca. The Roman legionary fortress at Caerleon, Mon. (Cardiff, 1972), 17; ibid., (note 62), 125–126; ibid., (note 12), 27–29.

66 Morgan, op. cit. (note 4), 13.

67 Barnett, C., Monmouthshire Antiquary II(I) (1965), 6263.

68 JRS xliii (1953), 95; located at ST 483 874.

69 Boon, op. cit. (note 62), 125 and collections in the National Museum of Wales (note 35).

70 By Mr Derek Upton of Caldicot at ST 437 843, now in National Museum of Wales.

71 Gwent County Record Office D1365.1. Commissioners of Sewers for the Levels within the Hundreds of Caldicot and Wentlooge in the County of Monmouth (1830, Caldicot Level).

72 Rae, J.T., How to estimate. Being the analysis of builders' prices (London, 1951, 11th ed.), 47.

73 Phillips, C.W., The Fenland in Roman times, Royal Geographical Society Research Ser., 5 (London, 1970) , maps 1–17; Simmons, B. in Thompson, F.H. (ed.) Archaeology and coastal change, Soc. Ant. London Occas. Paper (n.s.) i (London, 1980), 5673.

74 SHA, Vita Probi, xxi, Victor, de Caesaribus, 37.4. Better known are the canals dug by the army, primarily, it seems, for navigational purposes, such as that engineered by Marius to by-pass the Rhône delta in 104–102 B.C. (Plutarch, Marius 15), or Drusus' canal to link the Rhine and the Yssel in the Rhine delta in A.D. 12 (Tacitus, Annales II, 8). Such works, if not originally intended for this purpose, would have inevitably improved the drainage of the surrounding land.

75 Cf. Salway's discussion in C.W. Phillips (ed.), op. cit. (note 73), 10–11.

76 Boon, op. cit. (note 65), 62–64.

77 Reviewed by White, K.D., Roman Farming (1970), 146171.

78 Fulford, M. in Blagg, T.F.C. and King, A.C. (eds.), ‘Military and Civilian in Roman Britain’ BAR 136 (1984), 129142.

79 Helbaek, H., New Phytologist lxiii (1964), 158164.

80 Fulford, M. in Howard, H. and Morris, E.L. (eds.), Production and distribution: a ceramic viewpoint, BAR Int. Ser. 120 (1981), 202204.

81 Boon, op. cit. (note 12), 26–27.

82 A., and Everton, R., Bristol Arch. Research Group Review ii (1981), 5758.

83 At ST 541 822 material was found in a layer 0–05–0–1 m thick amongst greenish-grey silts at about 1 m below grass level in a ditch-like feature with a shallow profile. Associated with sherds of pottery of third- to fourth-century date was charcoal, daub, animal bone and platy pieces of quarried sandstone (Old Red Sandstone, Carboniferous). There were numerous pebbles, probably originating in local Quaternary gravels, and snails representing the following species: Cepaea nemoralis, Oxychilus cellarius, Helicella itala and Trichia hispida. We thank Dr D. Holyoak (University of Nottingham) for determining the snails and commenting on their implications.

84 Lilly, D. and Usher, G., Proc. Univ. Bristol Spelaeol. Soc. 13(1) (1972), 3740.

85 Copeland, T., Bristol Arch. Research Group Review ii (1981), 4757.

86 Green, M. and Solley, T.W.J., Bristol Arch. Research Group Review I (1980), 3034.

87 McDonnell, R.R.J., Archaeological survey of the Somerset claylands. Summary report on the area north of the Polden Hills (Ref. ARXI12), (Taunton, 1985).

88 Phillips, op. cit. (note 73); Simmons, op. cit. (note 73).


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