Volunteers were again involved with excavations in the Deverills valley recently. The Deverills Archaeology Group continue to work with Dr David Roberts of Historic England in an area where a large Roman villa was discovered just a few years ago by workmen laying a trench. Investigations last year, and this, have been into features showing up on geophys suggesting banks and small buildings – potentially a farmstead associated with the villa.
The dig was planned to
be brief, over a long weekend, but even then was shortened by heavy rain on the
first day. Two trenches were opened the next day and features immediately began
to appear – a bank in one and a hard surface in the other, with possible post
There were numerous
finds from a number of periods – prehistory, the Roman period, and Medieval –
mostly pottery sherds, animal bone and a small number of iron finds, such as
horseshoe nails, as one would expect. Amongst it all, a Roman coin,
provisionally identified as from the rule of Tetricus (latter part of 3rd c).
All the finds, with the exception of metal work, must be cleaned, dried, and bagged with a careful record of where they were found.
We are very fortunate to work alongside the residents of the Deverills, always enjoy their company, and were treated to an almost endless supply of delicious cakes, brownies and biscuits while there. The setting was beautiful. What more could we ask, except perhaps, better weather…..?
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…
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…
Salisbury Museum Volunteers have been involved with the Deverills Archaeology Group (DAG) since last summer and joined a packed village hall at Kingston Deverill last week for their inaugural talk, given by Simon Esmonde-Cleary (Emeritus Professor of Roman Archaeology Birmingham University) on the end of Roman rule in Britain (c AD 410).
The early 5th century AD is, of course, the start of what is often called the ‘Dark Ages’, but the name refers to our lack of knowledge of the era, rather than, necessarily, the state of the country, or the weather! The Professor posed the question right at the beginning of his talk – did the end of Roman rule mean mass annihilation, bloody invasion by Saxons and so on? Did it, in fact make much difference at all?
Under attack itself, Rome was too distracted to govern this far-flung part of the empire. We know from the archaeology that coinage ceased to come in to the country which meant that Roman soldiers still based here were not being paid. Neither were the local officials. Most of the Roman army in Britain was British anyway. Within a generation, two at the most, those soldiers had settled with their families in the general area of their posting, and begun to farm or provide ‘policing’ perhaps for anyone who would reward them. Similarly, the civil servants moved away from the towns (which no longer had a much purpose) or died off. Excavations at Birdoswald fort and Chedworth villa show that sites and buildings were taken over by the far less privileged, with hearths set up on the sitting room mosaics and timber buildings erected where stone ones had previously existed. A member of the audience shared an interesting parallel – in recent times, modern British army barrack blocks in post colonial Africa were used by local families as they became vacant but those families continued to live as they had done in their relatively simple dwellings, with open fires in the rooms and so on.
The point was made that in 5th century AD Britain the local people were largely untouched by Roman rule (for a fascinating book on this, read Miles Russell’s and Stuart Laycock’s ‘UnRoman Britain’ pub by The History Press 2011) and were still living an Iron Age life. Hence the limited takeover of villas and so on as described above.
Did the Saxons seize their chance and invade? There is limited evidence for invasion and research into DNA, excavation of burial sites, etc (different burial rites are often indicators of new groups arriving in an area) offer a confused picture. Some Anglo Saxon settlement was encouraged by the locals. In other areas, settlers may not have been welcome and there may have been bloodshed. Once some settle, others follow, for a variety of reasons. Within a couple of generations those settlers are adapting to local culture and language while ‘locals’ are adapting to theirs. It is an age that is still ‘dark’. Fascinating.
It was a sometimes delightfully funny talk but also very thought provoking. We sat there as our Prime Minister faced a no-confidence vote in Parliament and thought that nothing changes very much!