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The Caerwent Iron Age Head  



This Celtic head was found in Caerwent in what was then the Romanised civitas capital of the Silures Tribe, Venta Silurum. The head was made of yellow quartz sandstone and was carved in a simple native Iron Age style. It was found in a shrine discovered in the garden area of a 4th century Roman style dwelling, House 8. 


Copyright Newport Museum and Art
Gallery

Photograph taken at Newport Museum and
Art Gallery by Steffan Ellis
Stone Heads
This head may have already been very old in the 4th century and may have represented a local Iron Age deity. It was never attached to a torso. It is known from ancient literary sources that the native Iron Age peoples, who originally occupied most of northern Europe from Hungary to the British Isles, represented human heads in their art. Possibly the human head represented the seat of mankind’s magical energy. Stone heads similar to this one have survived in large numbers, especially in the upland regions of northern England (the Pennines, the Peak District, and Cumbria). Such stone heads were probably placed in religious shrines or grottoes and were possibly associated with springs, well heads, or natural landmarks which became features of ritual veneration.

Crudely carved from local sandstone, this head is devoid of any Roman styling or influence despite being found in the Romanised town of Caerwent.  The face is asymmetrical and one eye, the left, was deliberately less well carved and shallower than the right and is a phenomena noted in Bronze Age and Iron Age wooden figures. The Romans used the word sinistram for the left hand and dextera for right handed and the left side became associated with 'evil' and 'unlucky' and remains in English as sinister while the word dexterous has the meaning skillful. Similar heads have been discovered in Gaul, mainly on the sites of native temples, as offerings to local deities to perhaps cure illnesses in the parts portrayed. Often they were placed in niches and looked at from below. The back of this head lacks detail and so it would make sense if it was only intended to be seen from the front.

The term ‘Celtic’ in describing the stone head is problematic. The term is associated with Iron Age peoples from Britain and Europe who used similar languages and a cultural and stylistic similarity in their art. Such peoples covered a vast amount of geography and time. The head was important in their art. However, a modern view points to the head as being important for many cultures as well as so called ‘Celtic’ cultures and heads remain significant for many world wide cultures. (See Celts art and identity, The British Museum 2015, p.67)


Here are examples of  'Celtic'  art using the human head and face as a symbol. The first is the plaque from Tal-y-llyn in Merionethshire. Below you can the curious pillar carved with a schematic human face which was found built into a modern wall in Port Talbot. On the right is the pebble with a human mask found at Bont Dolgadfan, Montgomeryshire.
H. N .Savory Guide Catalogue of the Early Iron Age Collections  (NMW, 1976)

Caerwent - the Roman town where the head was discovered See Coflein.

People were always aware that there was some ancient remains at Caerwent because of the large stone walls that surrounded the site. However it has taken excavation over a long period of time for archaeologists to achieve our present level of understanding.
The walls and the South Gate - which was blocked up in the 3rd Century


The map below shows how little was known about what lay underneath the village of Caerwent in 1786. See Jeremy Knight's post in this blog about the Bristol clergyman and schoolmaster Revd. Samuel Seyer's visit Caerwent in 1786.


By the time Thomas Ashby, who was the director of the Caerwent Exploration Fund, had completed his excavations of 1903 more areas of Roman Caerwent had been discovered. The plan below comes from Ashby, Thomas. “69. Excavations at Caerwent in Monmouthshire.” Man, vol. 4, 1904, pp. 101–107. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2839511. Accessed 28 July 2020. 


As you can see from the plan above excavations had taken place near the Norman  Motte to the south west undertaken by Octavius Morgan in 1855.  By 1899 excavation was taking place near the North Gate on land owned by Lord Tredegar and further excavation was undertaken by Thomas Ashby in 1903 in the south-east area where the 'Celtic' head was discovered.

The Civitas Stone
The Civitas Stone inside the porch of St Stephen 
and St Tatham's Church, Caerwent
Like the Roman head the Civitas Stone was also discovered in 1903. It had been re-used as part of a post-Roman construction of blocks in the centre of the village on which the war memorial now stands. It was found in Caerwent known as Venta Silurum to the Romans. It is one of Britain’s most important Roman towns which was established in about AD 75–80. It served as a settlement of the native Silures tribe who were renowned for their resistance to Roman rule. However, the Civitas Stone reveals that the Silures were given a degree of autonomy by the Romans. The curia or tribal council is part of the basilica which is mentioned in the Coflein database. Here the magistrates, including the provincial governor, would have held court. The inscription reveals the level of self government. It is recorded in the Roman Inscriptions of Britain, RIB 311.
Translation to RIB 311
'To [Tiberius Claudius] Paulinus, legate of the Second Legion Augusta, proconsul of the province of Narbonensis, emperor’s pro praetorian legate of the province of Lugdunensis, by decree of the council, the Canton of the Silurians (set this up).'




The forum
The curia






























The photographs show the forum in the photo which was a market place and to north it was bordered by a suit of rooms that made up the basilica. The second image shows the basilica with the curia or council chamber in the foreground. Its south wall survives to a height of 2 meters and has evidence of painted plaster and in later years there was a mosaic panel on the floor. There is evidence also for grooves which supported the timber framework of the benches on which the councillors of the tribal assembly would have sat. Also a stone base for a stepped wooden dias was discovered which related to the area where the magistrates presided. 

This link shows the 1948 plan of Caerwent with the Caerwent Exploration Fund excavation sites annotated with Roman numerals. This was based on the plan made by architect Frank King in 1911 following the excavations by the Caerwent Exploration Fund. The plan above reveals other signs of Romanised life. The remains of the public baths, shops and temple had been discovered as well as houses which indicated wealth. Roman buildings are easily recognisable as they tended to be built in similar grid patterns through out the Empire. The houses for the higher status citizens were courtyard houses, set out with rooms around one or two courtyards and the rooms were lined with wall plaster and sometimes tessellated pavements and were often heated with hypocaust systems.
Religion in Caerwent
(Coflein) Caerwent Roman Temple

The temple in the town is recognisable by its shape. We do not know which deity was venerated at this temple. It was left open for display after excavation. The temple consisted of a square chamber, surrounded by a colonnade or corridor. Worshipers would bring offerings and sacrifice to the deity on an alter set up in the court yard. The temple's apse held the cult's statues and was not entered by the public. It was built in the 3rd and 4th century AD  and was constructed on the site of an earlier townhouse. Click on Coflein above to access more information and scroll down for photographs.

Although we do not know which deity was worshiped in the temple there are inscriptions found at Caerwent showing a conflation between the Roman god Mars, and Ocelus a native deity
RIB 309 
'[Deo] Marti Leno
[s]ive Ocelo Vellaun(o) et Num(ini) Aug(usti)
M(arcus) Nonius Romanus ob
immunitat(em) collegni
d(onum) d(e) s(uo) d(edit)
Glabrione et H[om]uḷo co(n)s(ulibus) [a(nte) d(iem)] X K(alendas) Sept(embres)'


Translation
'To the god Mars Lenus or Ocelus Vellaunus and to the Divinity of the Emperor Marcus Nonius Romanus, in return for freedom from liability of the college, gave this gift from his own resources on 23rd August in the consulship of Glabrio and Homulus.'

This inscription was discovered in a secondary wall in room 5, in House XI at Caerwent. in 1904 .This was a year after the discovery of the native 'Celtic' head. As Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RIB) indicates there was often a conflation between Celtic and Roman deities as the Romans demanded that the Emperor was worshiped and then left the Romanised populations to worship as they wished. This is shown in this inscription as it conflates with the Roman God Mars with two Celtic deities Ocelus and Lenus. Lenus was a Celtic healing god worshiped mainly in eastern Gaul and so Ocelus might also have been a healing deity.
Inscription 310 also refers to Mars and Ocelus and was found in 1910 standing against the south wall of the central block of House XVIs at Caerwent. The Roman altar stone is now in  the porch of St Stephen and St Tatham's Church and again shows the conflation between Roman gods and native gods. Its discovery in a private house suggests it was for personal use rather than public use. 


RIB 310
'Deo
Marti
Ocelo
Ael(ius) A(u)gus-
tinus op(tio)
v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)'
Translation
'To the god Mars Ocelus, Aelius Augustinus, optio, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.'

Casts of these two inscriptions can be found in Newport Museum and Art Gallery. 

The discovery of the 'Celtic' head also indicates a preservation of Iron Age native religious belief as does RIB 309 and 310 mentioned above. Given this conflation it is less surprising to discover such a head, in a Roman context. It was found in a shrine in the garden of House 8. It is obviously of Iron Age native design and bears no resemblance to the Roman deities who would have been represented in the temple and in private houses and in the aedes or shrine in the Basilica. One cannot state what level of society used this shrine and venerated the head. Certainly in the House 8 there would have been a Romanised elite and slaves. 
Between 1899 - 1913 the Caerwent Exploration Fund excavated approximately two-thirds of the Roman town of Venta Silurum (Caerwent). This was largely undertaken by the Clifton Antiquarian Club which had been founded in 1884. The link between Bristol and Caerwent had been made easier by the construction of the Severn Tunnel which opened in 1886. See George Boon's article for more details. It was published in the Transaction of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society in 1989, and was titled 'Archaeology through The Severn Tunnel: The Caerwent Exploration Fund, 1899-1917.'  This article has used many sources but the photographs used by Boon come John Ward's collection in National Museum Wales. However, there are photographs taken at the time in Newport Museum and Art Gallery's collection. This was because Lord Tredegar  insisted that the artifacts were given to Newport in 1916 rather than to Cardiff Museum which had become the National Museum of Wales in 1912. The collection at Newport Museum is considered to be one of the most important collections of Roman material to have been discovered in Wales. Many of the artifacts are on display in Newport Museum and Art Gallery's Roman exhibition. We suggest that you visit when the museum re-opens. There are also collections in Peoples Collection Wales and the collection includes a photograph showing the Celtic head in situ.
Copyright Newport Museum and Art Gallery

Between 1984 and 1995 Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales - undertook a programme of research excavations to improve knowledge of the early development of Caerwent. Earlier excavations had only revealed the tops of the buildings, therefore only providing a view of the late Roman town. Richard Brewer's excavations increased our knowledge of this important archaeological site. See publication below and click to see more from National Museum Wales. Also visit Newport Museum and Art Gallery to see important artefacts from the Caerwent Exploration Fund which Lord Tredegar (the President of the Fund) insisted were donated to Newport. See a post below in this blog by Oliver Blackmore on mosaics from the excavations.  


Relevant information
Coflein is the database produced by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW). 
Richard J. Brewer, Caerwent Roman Town, Cadw, 2006.
See also Brewer, R. J. (1982). Excavations at Caerwent (Venta Silurum) in 1981: summary of results. The Monmouthshire Antiquary 4 (3-4). Vol 4, pp. 52-53.


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