Our Roman Heritage-The All Saints’ Pavement
by Father John, Assistant Curate
All of you have probably noticed the pieces of Roman tesserae (mosaic pavement), set in plaque in the southwest corner of the South Aisle of All Saints' Church and many of you probably know that the church was erected over the remains of a Roman building. The existence of this structure has been known for quite some time. Isaac Hamon of Bishopston, in his correspondence with Edward Lhuvd, the famous antiquary and first curator of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, wrote in July 1697 that at All Saints': ‘part of the churchyard was formerly paved with small bricks like dices, but something larger, of divers colours as red, white, yellow &c, which lies scattered about still. The people called it The Saints pavement, and this is their Report, That in old time there came a company of Strange people & lodged in a Cave in the Cliffe, which is now called Saints hole, they troubled noe body and all the worke they did was to make the said bricks & pavement &c, But this is very true, The Sextons & others of late yeares have found in making graves many plates or pieces of the said pavement...’ Trans. Cymm. Soc., 1965, P.97]
Neither Hamon nor Lhuyd associated 'the Saints Pavement' with the Romans, but we, of course know now that what the sextons had been smashing through in order to make graves, was an ornate Roman floor (clearly the churchwardens had not applied for a faculty for this work! Today they would be fined very heavily for not doing so! And Cadw might have a word to say about it, too!).
Isaac Hamon's information seems to be a garbled interpretation of the ancient story of St. Illtud having lived for a time in a cave at 'Loyngarth', which some scholars identify with Oystermouth. Garbled as the story is, it does however, raise the question which archaeologists and historians have not been able to answer conclusively.
The question is: How much continuity was there from the end of the Roman occupation of Britain into the period that followed it — the so-called Dark Ages?
The existence of a church on a Roman site does not necessarily mean that there was an immediate transition from one to the other. Yet, we know that a number of Roman sites in Britain have churches built on them. In South Wales, for example, two churches associated with saints of the Dark Ages are built on Roman sites: at Loughor and Caerleon. Most of the Roman legions had left Britain around 410 A.D to fight for the Emperor Honorius against the barbarian tribes, which threatened the Empire. We also know that the Christian faith had been brought to Britain by the middle of the Second Century, and that it had become established in many Roman towns and cities by 410. By that date, many British chieftains had increasingly come to take over the functions of the Roman administration, as indeed had many bishops. Perhaps the presence of churches on Roman sites reflects this fact - and just perhaps, that may be the case at All Saints'.
Roman coins of the early Second Century were found in the Oystermouth area in the 1820s and '30s. During grave digging at All Saints' in 1860, the only known surviving fragments of the mosaic floor were found along with pieces of Roman brick.
The construction of the mosaic floor was a skilled craft, and both the materials and the labour for it would have been imported. The legionaries usually made the bricks for the buildings themselves (many of the bricks of the fortress at Caerleon are stamped 'LEG II AUG’ the Second Augustan Legion). But what sort of building was constructed at Oystermouth? Earlier thinking suggested that it was a villa, the private residence of a wealthy Roman, much like those found elsewhere in Britain. But current thinking suggests that it may have been a mansio, a kind of official way-station or inn for travellers. One such building has been excavated at Cold Knapp, near Barry. Roman ships would have sheltered in the lee of
Swansea Bay at Oystermouth1, the mansio providing a convenient stop over. If the stories associating the Romans with iron-ore mining and oyster fishing at Oystermouth are true, then the mansio might also have provided a suitable administrative centre too.
Recently, during work to improve the entrance to the car park at All Saints,' Mr. Gareth Dowdell, the Director of' the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust Ltd. (my former employers), carried out a 'watching brief '—the monitoring of work carried out on a sensitive archaeological site. Gareth confirmed that the piece of brick, which I found there earlier in the year, is Roman. Your Assistant Curate is pleased to announce the first such find since 1860! A piece of tessera (mosaic fragment) might also have been found. During the watching brief, a number of pieces of brick came to light, along with what might be fragments of stone roofing flags, possibly from the Medieval church. I came across another piece of brick whilst the workmen were clearing up. All finds are now with the Glamorgan Gwent Archeological Trust. It is unlikely that there is any Roman structure in the area of the new car park entrance, however. The fragments, which have been found so far, have probably been moved around the churchyard by generations of gravediggers. The mansio itself is most likely situated in the area of the southwest part of the church and churchyard. But who knows what may turn up in the future?
On behalf of the Parish, I thank Mr. Dowdell and the G.G.A.T. for their help and advice.
First published as
‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’
in All Saints’ Parish Magazine
November 2001 – Volume 102 No. 11
1. - Further research is required into the position of the shoreline during this period, to confirm if Roman ships would have been able to shelter in the lea of Mumbles Head at Oystermouth. It may have been difficult for boats to have come close inshore at Oystermouth, due to a marshy coastline.