Octavious Morgan was born 15 September 1803, fourth son of Sir Charles Morgan, 2nd bart. of Ealing, Middlesex, and Tredegar Park, Monmouth. His mother was Mary Margaret, daughter of capt. George Stoney, R.N. and he was a brother of the first baron Tredegar. He entered Christ Church, Oxford, 26 June 1822 (B.A. 1825, M.A. 1832). He was a justice of the peace and deputy-lieutenant of Monmouthshire, and he represented that county in Parliament from 1840 to 1874.

Joining the Society of Antiquaries in 1830 and becoming later a vice-president, Morgan was at the time of his death one of its oldest Fellows. He was a constant contributor to the publications of that Society (see Archaeologia, xxxiii, xxxiv, xxxvi), to Archaeologia Cambrensis, and to the Journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute. He was elected F.R.S. in 1832. His name and that of Thomas Wakeman are thought of immediately in connection with the publications of the Monmouthshire and Caerleon Antiquarian Association (founded in 1847). Both Morgan and Wakeman, severally or in conjunction, were responsible for most of those 'Publications.' The following titles give some idea of what Morgan himself published - 

'Excavations … within the walls of Caerwent,' 1856,

'Notice of a Tessellated Pavement … in the Churchyard, Caerleon,' 1866,

'Some Account of the Ancient Monuments in the Priory Church, Abergavenny,' 1872,

'Goldcliff and the Ancient Roman-Inscribed Stone found there,' 1882. 

In 1878 Octavius Morgan wrote an account of the 'ancient Danish vessel' found when constructing the Alexandra Dock. A fragment of this vessel is held in Newport Museum was dated to approximately 950 AD. 

He was also an authority on clocks and watches, and made gifts of some examples to the national collections. There is evidence that he was well-acquainted with the Tredegar Park muniments or documents. He lived at The Friars, Monmouth, and died, unmarried, 5 August 1888.

Excavations on a small scale in and around Caerleon preceded, as we have seen, the establishment of the Association, and they continued to form one of its major interests after the setting up of the museum.  By far the most important of the excavations conducted under the auspices of the society were those on the site of the Castle Baths, Caerleon, between 1847 and 1851, and at Caerwent in 1855.

The origins of the Caerleon excavation have already been described (66).  Some uncertainty surrounds the circumstances of the enterprise, particularly its funding and direction.  J.E. Lee appears to have been responsible for the job of supervision; initial financial resources were probably provided by the owner of the property, John Jenkins.  Later the society itself granted funds to the project: by 1849 it had spent a total of £6 4s 4d on the cost of ‘excavations, wood for trays, labour and sundry expenses’; doubtless, however, private funding continued, since the dig did not finish until at least 1851 and covered a considerable area of land: ‘none of our societies of antiquaries’, Lee proudly announced, ‘would have ventured on a work of such magnitude’.  The excavations revealed a large complex of interconnected buildings, of at least two periods, which included, in the earlier period, an extensive hot and cold bath system, and in the later period, a large courtyard and basilica.  Lee’s circumspect account of the discoveries (69) describes each room in turn and illustrates many of the more interesting finds, noting where appropriate comparative finds from other sites, but fights shy of attempting a detailed interpretation.  Notably absent is any discussion of the date of the remains: stratified coins were not yet appreciated for the dating evidence they could provide (70), nor, of course, was Samian pottery, examples of which Lee illustrated for their intrinsic interest.  Nonetheless, allowing for the fact that he lacked the tools of interpretation available to later excavators, Lee can be considered to have excavated and described the remains of the baths as intelligently and diligently as most of his contemporaries could have done in similar circumstances.  It is worth noting that the excavation was complicated not only by the changes in use of the Roman buildings, but also by disturbance of the site, which was later occupied by the bailey of the medieval castle (71).

Finds from the excavation were safely preserved in the newly constructed museum.  Lee was able to report with satisfaction that the altar found by John Jenkins early one day was deposited by him in the museum in the afternoon, ‘thus rendering it perfectly secure from further injury’ (72).  News of the dig spread – one distinguished visitor during 1848 was Charles Roach Smith — but apparently not far enough, because John Jenkins, although eager to preserve the remains for inspection, found after several months that only three or four individuals had visited the site, and decided to destroy them, much to the distress of the members of the British Archaeological Association who visited the site during their Chepstow conference in 1854 and found it ‘being trenched for the purpose of laying down draining pipes’(73).

Some years elapsed before the next major excavation, and the first to be sponsored officially by the society, at Caerwent in 1855.  It represented a bold extension of the Association’s interests outside the immediate area of Caerleon, and prefigured its change of name two years later, but had, apparently, been a ‘long-cherished wish’ of the leading members (74).  It was especially dear to the heart of Octavius Morgan, who, on his return from a visit to Italy in 1828, remarked of Caerwent ‘this is the Monmouthshire Pompeii’, so convinced was he of the archaeological potential of the Roman town (75).  Hitherto no planned excavations had taken place.  The town walls were visible, together with their towers, but little had been recovered from the interior with the exception of a number of mosaics, the most recent of which was exposed in 1777.  The modern village was small and enough of the interior of the Roman town lay undisturbed to encourage Morgan in the view that properly excavated excavations would yield worthwhile results.

The immediate stimulus to excavate, however, appears to have come not from the Caerleon society, but from the British Archaeological Association.  The BAA visited Caerwent as part of its Chepstow meeting in August 1854.  Passing through an orchard in the southeast corner of the Roman town, members saw so many signs of Roman buildings that the owner, Rev. Freke Lewis, was asked to grant permission to the Association to excavate.  Having gained his assent, the Council of the BAA began to arrange for the dig and invited local antiquaries to participate.  The plans were, however, halted abruptly by the disclosure of a scandal, the details of which remain unclear. According to the report of an extraordinary general meeting of the BAA, held on 6 December 1854, correspondence was read ‘respecting the Caerwent excavations, including communications from Dr Trevor Morris and Mr Wakeman, by which it appeared that the labours of that committee had been interrupted in consequence of certain letters written by the Rev. T. Hugo to the Rev. Freke Lewis and Mr Octavius Morgan, and the interest and honour of the Association thereby seriously affected’.  A motion that Thomas Hugo should resign his position as Secretary of the BAA, having laid a false accusation against T.J. Pettigrew, the Treasurer, was passed.  As a result the BAA withdrew from the Caerwent project, to avoid what was termed ‘the jealous opposition of certain local antiquaries’ (76), thus leaving the field open to the Caerleon society.

The Caerleon Association was unable to meet the costs of a comparatively large-scale excavation such as Morgan intended from its own meagre funds, and it was therefore necessary to set up an excavation fund and invite subscriptions from sympathisers within and beyond the county.  The response was generous, £45 14s being donated by August 1855.  The next problem was who should direct the excavation.  Neither Morgan nor Lee felt able to take on the burden of responsibility, and at first no suitably qualified archaeologist could be found.  Finally, however, John Yonge Akerman, the Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London, offered to oversee and direct the work.  It was a wise choice.  Akerman was a keen numismatist, a prolific writer on archaeological themes, and, most important, a careful and experienced excavator.  For several weeks during the summer of 1855 he gave his whole time to directing the workmen at Caerwent.

The site chosen lay in the south-east corner of the town, close to the Norman motte.  It was here that the mosaic had been discovered in 1777.  Two separate buildings were unearthed, the first apparently a house, the second a small but complete set of baths.  Despite the discovery of numerous coins and Samian pottery in the foundations of the house, the excavator was unable to establish any chronology for the several rebuildings that had apparently taken place, or indeed to suggest a coherent plan.  The bath-house proved easier to interpret.  A complete plan was obtained, and it was possible to assign a function to each of its rooms by tracing the passage of heated air from the furnace through the hypocaust system, much of which survived fairly intact.  A plan of the building was drawn by Alexander Bassett, a civil engineer from Cardiff, and a mahogany model was constructed, which was deposited in the museum at Caerleon; it was not possible to preserve the site.  A fine mosaic floor, together with other finds from the excavation, were removed to the museum (77).

The dig aroused considerable interest in the neighbourhood: the Monmouthshire Merlin reported that

… this district has been kept in continual excitement for some time past, which is not expected to subside very quickly, even after the grand demonstration to take place on Thursday next …

 When the Association held its annual meeting at Caerwent.  Akerman was on hand to conduct members around the excavations, explaining the significance of each part, after which they repaired to ‘luxuriantly spread tables beneath the apple trees, at a fitting distance from the dusty ruins for a hearty luncheon’(78).  The fame of the excavations spread far and wide: the French Ministry of Education wrote asking Morgan to send full particulars, for insertion in the Revue des Sociétés Savantes (79).

So successful were the 1855 excavations at Caerwent that the society intended to continue them in subsequent years, but nothing came of the project, partly because sufficient funds were never forthcoming (80).  


Popular posts from this blog

A Roman Soldier Visits Newport Museum and Art Gallery

Musket Balls and Misconceptions

Alex Jarvis and her family photographs of the 75th Anniversary of Newport Transporter Bridge in 1981