A Roman belt-buckle that escaped the Edwardians

Late Roman Belt-buckle from Caerwent
Late Roman Belt-buckle from Caerwent
Belt-buckle decorated with fish and a pair of peacocks facing a stylised tree
The only other example known from Wales — from Pen y Corddyn hillfort, Conwy. Decorated with fish and a pair of peacocks facing a stylised tree.
Excavation at Caerwent in the early 20th-century
Excavation at Caerwent in the early 20th-century
Re-excavating the Edwardian trenches at Caerwent
Re-excavating the Edwardian trenches at Caerwent

Archaeologists first excavated the forum-basilica at Caerwent in Monmouthshire early in the twentieth-century. When Museum staff returned to excavate the site again they found items that had previously been overlooked, including this late fourth-century copper alloy buckle and plate.

The buckle loop has a pair of dolphins' heads facing inward and a pair of horses' heads facing out. The sheet metal plate was originally fastened to a leather belt with two rivets at the end. It is decorated with a cable pattern border and three circular motifs with marigold-rosettes on a dotted background. The curving projections rising from these look like the heads and necks of birds, suggesting that the motifs could be peacocks.

Peacocks can be seen on the buckle plate from Pen y Corddyn hillfort, Conwy, the only other example of this type of buckle-plate known from Wales That example is decorated with fish and a pair of peacocks facing a stylised tree.

Immortal peacocks and a tree-of-life

Peacocks as a symbol of immortality (their flesh was said to be incorruptible), fish and trees-of-life can all be interpreted as Christian symbols. This has led some to connect these buckle-plates with Christianity, but they could simply be conventional decorative motifs.

Roman Military Belt

Buckle-plates like this have been seen as official issue military equipment. The 'military belt' was an important symbol of rank, although the style of belt was clearly adopted more widely. This example could be a more broadly official 'civil service' issue, rather than purely military. It seems likely, however, that their spread was wider, possibly as a sign of status among people who merely fancied that they were servants of the state. They have been found in a few female burials, which suggests they were worn by women.

The Caerwent belt-buckle should probably be regarded as no more than an item of dress that reveals the personal tastes of the owner. It does not directly reflect its owner's rank or even sex, although it may tell us a little about the wearer's aspirations to look like one of 'the Great and the Good' in society.

Article by: Evan Chapman, Curatorial Officer, Archaeology and Numismatics

Article Date: 14 September 2010

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