It had long been thought that the Roman legions who subdued the troublesome tribes in modern-day Wales had crossed Britain by land.

Yet archaeologists taking part in a month-long dig at a previously undiscovered site in Caerleon, Newport, believe they have discovered the well-preserved remains of a port on the banks of the River Usk that could change our understanding of the conquest.

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An artist's impression of the newly discovered Roman port at Caerleon
At the site, the academics have discovered a quay wall, landing stages and wharves where ships would have docked and unloaded their cargoes.

Dr Peter Guest, of Cardiff University, said that the site "exceeds all expectations" and could have provided a direct link from Caerleon to the rest of the Roman Empire.

"We believe that the port dates to a period when the legions were fighting and subduing the native tribes in western Britain and it's incredible to think that this is the place where the men who took part in the conquest would have arrived," he said.

"The port or harbour is a major addition to the archaeology of Roman Britain and adds a new dimension to our understanding of Caerleon as we can start to think about how the river connected the fortress and Wales to the rest of the Roman Empire."

Although accounts of the conquest of Britain vary, it is believed that the Romans struggled to subdue the Silures tribe that lived in the modern- day counties of South East Wales, failing in their first attempts and possibly not fully defeating them until nearly 30 years after their first attempt.

The port uncovered by the Cardiff University team is only the second known from Roman Britain and sheds new light on Wales' role in Roman Britain.

The well-preserved remains are just north of the city of Newport and in what the team has dubbed the Lost City of the Legion, an area of large public-style buildings discovered by the university last year. The only other Roman port discovered in Britain is in London, and it is believed to have been a commercial port.

He said: "The port that has been analysed there seems to have been built relatively piecemeal, individual shopowners and entrepreneurs building their own little quay sides.

"What we have here looks more planned as it is a single building. It's the Roman army building themselves a port and it looks more like it's going to be established by the Roman emperor for the emperor. Our trenches are also looking at several buildings adjacent to the port and we have also found rooms with under- floor heating systems, collapsed walls and roofs, as well as many thousands of objects made, used and lost during the Roman period."

The fortress at Caerleon was constructed in AD 74-75 during the final conquest by the Roman army of the tribes in South Wales. It was the headquarters of the Second Augustan Legion - one of four legions who invaded Britain during the reign of the Emperor Claudius.

The dig runs until September 1 and is open to the public with tours of the site at 11am and 2.30pm daily (except Wednesday).