The awe-inspiring beauty of the Preseli Hills and the surrounding wild moorlands have long drawn visitors to north Pembrokeshire in Wales. Now an archaeologist has found evidence that even the Romans were drawn to the area, with the discovery of an ancient road showing they travelled farther west across Britain than previously thought.
Dr Mark Merrony, a Roman specialist, tutor at Oxford University and “a native of Pembrokeshire”, said the road had been completely missed. “This thing is just extraordinary. I’m astonished,” he said.
“I think they’ll go crazy in Wales over this because it’s pushing the Roman presence much more across Pembrokeshire. There’s this perception that the Romans didn’t go very far in Wales, but actually they were all over Wales.”
He said antiquarians in the late 17th and early 19th centuries had embraced the existence of a Roman road and it had been marked on 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps. “But the idea was then rejected and removed from those maps,” he said.
Merrony spoke of finding a section of perfectly preserved Roman road buried in peat and further evidence in sunken lanes and low causeways barely discernible today but which followed straight routes and worked round hill contours “with perfect economy”, all typically Roman.
At up to five metres in width in places, the road was “quite wide”, he said, and stretched to around 11km. “Whoever did this must have had hundreds and hundreds of men doing it. It can only be an army.”
He said he expected evidence of a fort could emerge along its course, but that the Celtic Demetae tribe, who inhabited modern Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, were thought to have been pro-Roman, so there would have been less need for a major military presence to quell local resistance.
Merrony is the founding editor of Antiqvvs, a quarterly magazine dedicated to archaeology, ancient art and history, where he will publish his latest research this month. He was also the founding director of the award-winning Mougins Museum of Classical Art in southern France and his books include The Plight of Rome in the Fifth Century AD.
Discussing antiquarians of previous centuries who referred to a Roman road, he singled out Edward Lhwyd, a keeper at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in the 1690s who visited Wales in 1698. He observed that “along this mountain is to be seen an old dyke, or as it is conjectured a Roman way, Roman coins being frequently found near”.
Lhwyd was not only right, he said. The existence of a road made perfect sense because it linked Roman farmsteads or villas, the remains of which have been found in the area: “That’s how I started to investigate the road,” he said. “I thought ‘why is a villa in the middle of nowhere?’”
The route also goes straight past a mine, which may be significant, he believes: “I think that’s one of the reasons this road is there, the silver mine, which has never been investigated archaeologically … If there’s a silver mine, odds-on the Romans knew about it and were exploiting it.”
Much of the route is within the Pembrokeshire Coast national park, which would oversee any exploratory excavations.
• This article was amended on 6 June 2022 because the second mention of Edward Lhwyd’s last name was misspelled as Llwyd.