Every child I ever taught about the Roman conquest of Britain was told about the Roman ballista bolt still lodged in the skeleton of the slaughtered Durotrigian lying in the museum in Dorchester. Those children, and a couple of generations of others. Why? Because it is what the text books said. Problem? It isn’t a Roman ballista bolt. It is the tip of an Iron Age spear, according to Dr Miles Russell, who should know. His talk, Digging the Durotriges, last Thursday, was as up to date on the archaeology of Iron Age and Roman SW England as it is possible to be. He and his team from Bournemouth University have been excavating at Winterborne Kingston in Dorset since 2009 and as a result, many of the existing stories about the period have had to be re-written.

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Excavations at Winterborne Kingston

THE story about the Roman Conquest in Dorset has been that of the brave Dorset Brits in a last ditch (literally) defence of their lands at Maiden Castle near Dorchester. The text books tell us the Romans advanced and defeated them, with their ballista,  killing them all and leaving them roughly buried within their fort, the bones discovered centuries later. Well maybe. But as well as the man who wasn’t killed by a ballista bolt, many of those buried there weren’t killed at the time of the Conquest.

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Maiden Castle nr Dorchester and Durotriges defending (painting by Nicholas Subkov)

The archaeology shows that Maiden Castle had been, like most Iron Age forts in southern England, largely abandoned by 100BC, as had other, smaller settlements. By the time the Romans arrived in 43AD, the old Iron Age ways had already gone and a new, different, way of life had already been established. The defended settlements were no longer used and large agricultural settlements had been established on lower ground, such as the one excavated at Winterborne Kingston, dubbed Duropolis. And these settlements probably continued into the Roman period, first and second centuries AD, as long as it suited the new governors after the Conquest. Because there are no written records from Britain c100BC we don’t know why there was a change in the way the Durotriges lived but the changes are there to be seen in the archaeology.

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Pits have been found with strange assemblies of bones deposited

That isn’t the only mystery of Dr Russell’s excavations. Some may remember the popular press and its mocked up images a few years ago of a sheep with cow’s head growing out of its tail. This was a response to the discovery in dozens of excavated pits at Duropolis of oddly assembled animal bones. The archaeologists can tell that the bones were placed deliberately, when they still had meat on them, in the bottom of each used, but empty, hole, the pit then immediately filled in. What the archaeologists can’t tell, is why.

There is also a later Roman house at Duropolis where there is evidence of even later, so called sub Roman activity. That is, once the Roman period of rule ended, people had used the materials from the site to strengthen or improve their less salubrious domestic buildings at the time Britain entered the Dark Ages. Who were they? Probably the descendants, four centuries on, of the same people who lived in Duropolis, but we can’t be sure.

More mysteries! Wonderful stuff.

Excavations continue next summer. Go to the Bournemouth University website to find out about dates of open days at Winterborne Kingston.