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Dr David Roberts at the Deverills excavation in August 2018

Dr David Roberts is an old friend of Salisbury Museum and a number of museum Volunteers have worked with him in recent years, particularly on community excavations near Teffont and in the Deverills where the Deverills Archaeology Group (DAG) has been putting on a series of exciting winter talks. We are grateful to John Russell and his DAG blog posted on 8 February, which gives an account of David’s lecture. We have used extracts which we hope will be of interest to our readers.

David’s recent talk there was ‘South West Wiltshire in the Roman period – Farming, Pagans and Wealth’ and his intention was to provide the audience with an overview to give a wider context to the Deverills’ villa and what may emerge in the valley. He started with a slide of the conventional view of early Roman Britain with names of British tribes and their areas, with a scattering of towns with their Roman names: Verulamium etc.

Having convincingly debunked the conventional view of a neatly tribal Britain, he then went on to establish his talk’s baseline by describing how things probably were in the First Century. He started by mentioning hill forts (of which there are many in Wiltshire) and describing how most were unoccupied by the time of the Roman invasion, that they had dominated the trade routes from the south coast and were displays of power. He then spoke about round houses and the very extensive villages of which they formed part. He gave a particularly interesting description of the village in Stockton Wood on Great Ridge (overlooking the Wylye valley), with the size and complexity of the village with its defensive ditches strongly suggesting the availability of large scale labour and an organised society. He then gave a brief resume of the Claudian invasion and the part Vespasian’s 2nd Legion played in it by advancing down the A303 (not so much traffic then). Vespasian was clearly a bit of a star having accomplished his mission on time and within budget. It appears that SW Britain thereafter was pretty secure and didn’t need a continuing military presence – that was reserved for the north…

Battlesbury , east of Warminster – a hill fort

David then focussed in on Wiltshire, starting by showing a map with roads, towns and villa sites. However, this picture doesn’t show what people actually did, which surely to my mind is the really interesting part of archaeology and a point that David, and indeed Professor Simon (Cleary – see earlier blog, 22 January, on our site) in the first talk, returned to a number of times. He structured his description of Wiltshire by using the various sources of evidence, starting with contemporary documentary evidence in the form of the Antonine Itinerary and its mention of Old Sarum (Sorviodunum) and then moved on to antiquarian evidence, particularly Nan Kivell’s excavations on Cold Kitchen Hill. Kivell’s excavation produced Samian ware pottery, more than found at the exploratory excavations of the Deverill villa, suggesting high status activity on the hill.

Next up in the evidence list was aerial photography. While this is efficient at showing what is there, it is expensive because of the large area it covers and doesn’t often help with dating. He showed an interesting slide of crop marks on the Great Ridge before moving on to research projects, using Teffont as the example; a particularly interesting project for us in the Deverills as it is also community-based. This blog is not the place to cover both the fascinating techniques and evidence revealed by the project but we were all intrigued to see how they provide the raw materials for forming a picture of life at the time. The last item on the evidence list was the finds made by detectorists. Their finds are very useful in geographically focusing archaeological effort and David described a temple site in Wiltshire that had subsequently produced a wealth of finds, including curse tablets!

 David concluded the main part of his talk by describing what he believed the archaeological evidence reveals about Roman Britain in Wiltshire at the time of the Deverill villa, namely: it was a strongly religious society with a mix of paganism and Christianity and rejoicing in large numbers of temples and other religious sites; its economy was based on farming (sheep, grain and cattle) but with significant iron smelting and stone quarrying industries; and there was not much instability.

His finale was to give us an overview of our recent archaeological activity in the valley. He described last August’s dig at Brixton Deverill (see earlier blog, 9 October, on our site) before giving us a fascinating readout on recent ‘geophys’ at Kingston Deverill. This suggested the possible presence of a henge and a multi-roomed Roman building. How exciting is that!? As only 15% of the field has been surveyed, there is more work to be done…