Abonae: The Roman town of Sea Mills

Although no military structure has been found from the early part of the Roman occupation there are enough artifacts to suggest an armed presence at Abonae from Claudian times. It began life as a military fort. An auxiliary base which would provide a naval link to the legions in their conquest of SW England and Wales.

Once the south west had been subdued the port would provide vital ferry access to Wales at Caerleon. It would have been an easy matter to have sent signals across the Bristol Channel. Troops or provisions could then be sent quickly to the fontline by boat. The mere presence of an auxiliary garrison at Abonae would have had the additional benefit of providing a deterent to any would-be attackers along the River Avon.

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Peace and Industrial Growth

abonae map

In more peaceful times the port was used to link the Roman road from Silchester (Calleva) to Caerleon. There is evidence at Bath (Aquae Sulis) of troops from Gaul and elsewhere in Britain visiting the spa town. They may well have used Abonae as a landing point.

The military stayed in the area for about thirty years which, gave ample time for shops and traders to become established. By the time the garrison left, the settlement had already become a market centre for the growing local populace. There is evidence of glass making. metalware production, sheep and pig rearing, weaving, pottery manufacture etc. All the things that one would associate with a small industrial settlement.

Abonae seems to have been a town split into two main periods. The first period (approximately 43AD-120AD) would probably not have been very Romanised in appearance. There were no public buildings, no temples, baths or mausolea. Nor were there any statues or even town walls. The buildings were wooden structures and no villas have been found on the site.

The settlement was largely destroyed by fire in 120, although it is impossible to tell whether this was deliberate or accidental. Abonae continued to be used as a ferry port but town life would not reappear until the end of the 3rd century.

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The Second Period and Future Plans

Braikenridge map
19th century map of Abonae by S.S(eyer) from the Braikenridge Collection (Bristol Library)

Most of the buildings now had stone foundations but the settlement remained fairly small. Although there has still been no discovery of a villa a number of tessarae of fine quality (sadly no mosaic) have been found from this second period. Like most of the area it was the 4th century which saw its heyday. If it is true that bands of barbarian raiders attacked the area in 367AD (see Overview) then they must have avoided Abonae completely. This would suggest that either the town had become fortified (and no town walls have been discovered) or that the raids were an invention.

overview

Brislington

Gatcombe

Keynsham

Kings Weston

other Bristol sites

Avon sites

bibliography

tombstone
Tombstone found at Abonae

It would appear from the article by Dr Toby Parker (see bibliography) that further excavation work is being planned for the future.* If so then we will hopefully be able to greatly extend our knowledge of this important settlement. A settlement that at present remains shrouded in conflicting theories and inadequate evidence.

Abonae was probably occupied up until the plague in 443, although possibly with a squatter population at the end. Future generations would move the port to a more easily defendable site further along the River Avon. This would become the centre of Bristol. Sea Mills remained virtually unpopulated from the mid 4th century until the 1940s. It is now encompassed within the Bristol City area.

* It is now 2 years since the article appeared and no sign of any excavation work has appeared. So it is likely that I was reading too much into the piece. If this is the case I am not the only one who interpreted the article in this way.

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Page last updated 3rd December 2002

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