National Roman Legion Museum
In AD75, Roman settlers built the mighty fortress of Isca Augusta in present-day Caerleon. One of only three permanent fortresses in Roman Britain, it housed a 5000-strong force and defended the furthest outpost of their empire for two centuries. You can find out about this fascinating period of history at the National Roman Legion Museum, which contains artefacts found in and around the site.
The Bath stone coffin
Of all the treasures found in and around Caerleon since the 1600s and displayed at the National Roman Legion Museum, this stone coffin is a major highlight. Using forensic technology, a 3D computer model has been made from the skeleton inside, which belonged to a man of moderate build who died around 40 years of age. A painting in Roman style shows what he might have looked like.
The oldest writing in Wales
In pride of place at the museum is a first century wooden tablet, found in a well on the site. It’s not complete, but you can still make out the words on it, written in ink. Also on display are several memorial stones including a beautifully carved stone for resident Tadia Vallaunius and her son, soldier Tadius Exuperatus, who died on an expedition to Germany campaign.
Coins and gemstones
Heaps of treasure are on display at the museum. You can admire one of the finest hoards of silver coins from second century Roman Britain, 599 in all, found by a local metal detector enthusiast in 2006, and the largest collection of engraved gemstones in Britain, as small as a fingernail with exquisite designs of gods and animals on them, discovered in the bathhouse drain.
Glimpses of past lives
Among the curiosities at the museum are stamps used to mark bread and a third century iron frying pan with a folding handle, designed to fit inside a soldier’s pack. The decayed children’s milk teeth, found, like the gemstones, in the bathhouse drain are perhaps a reminder of how little has changed since Roman times. Could these be evidence of poor dental hygiene and a love of sweet things?
The garden, barrack room & bedroom
The Roman-inspired garden at the museum evokes the sights, sounds and smells of the age, with herbs and flowers used at the time for medicines and food. There’s also a reconstructed barrack room, open to the public at weekends and school holidays, where you can see where the soldiers would have slept and children can try on replica armour.
Caerleon’s amphitheatre, just a few minutes walk southwest of the Museum, is the most complete example in Britain. The residents of Isca liked nothing better than to turn out en masse for a brave show of hand-to-hand combat, blood and gore. These days, of course, we prefer to go to the rugby.
The Roman baths
This heritage site, immediately east of the museum, focuses on the favourite Roman pastime of communal bathing. A section of Isca Augusta’s original bath house remains, beautifully brought to life with sound and light effects. You’ll find out about the caldarium, tepidarium, frigidarium and natatio, which might sound like one of Harry Potter’s spells, but are actually pools with different temperatures. Posh spas use the same principles today.
The Roman legionary barracks
Caerleon has the only legionary barracks on show in Europe. In a grassy field west of the Museum, the remains of four long, narrow blocks of 12 pairs of rooms can be seen, each fronted by a veranda, with a larger suite at the end to house the Centurion – in some style, presumably.
Do as the Romans do
The National Roman Legion Museum has an active events programme throughout the year. It you’d like to see soldiers in Roman armour, experience Roman cooking, find out about Roman medicine or celebrate Saturnalia, the lively Roman midwinter festival, this is the place!