Inaugural talk given by Simon Esmonde Cleary on 16th January 2019

John Russell provides a lively overview of DAG’s inaugural talk on Late Roman Britain…

There might not have been much confidence in the Government today but there was shedloads in Kingston Deverill village hall where 70 of us listened spellbound to Professor Simon Esmonde Cleary’s talk on the end of Roman Britain, and whether it ended with a bang or was business as usual for most of the inhabitants most of the time.

Our Chair, David Croot, opened the evening by whetting appetites with a list of the Deverills Archaeology Project’s up-and-coming events over the next few months, which included: geophysical surveying at the end of January, talks by David Roberts and Mike Allen in February and March respectively, and an excavation of an area of the cricket ground in May. While the hall probably sits at the unflashy end of the village hall scale, his announcement that the loos were behind the projector screen would still have come as something of surprise to those for whom it was a first visit.  Once this had been clarified, he then introduced the professor and we settled down to hear for the next hour a fascinating yet amusing resume of the facts as they are known.

Left: Chair David Croot and Professor Simon Cleary. Top right: The crowd gathers for DAG’s inaugural lecture. Bottom right: David introduces Simon.

Professor Simon started by putting up slides showing perceived views of the end of Roman Britain: eg pre-Raphaelite painting of inconsolable Roman soldier saying goodbye to British sweetheart before dashing off to a dinghy and sailing off to Gaul from what looked suspiciously like Lulworth Cove; arrival on a beach of trendily bearded Vikingesque warriors; and the sack of Rome with lots of scantily clad Roman ladies lying around the forum awaiting their fate (wouldn’t hob-nailed boots and layers of sensible tweed been more sensible in the circumstances?).

He then went on to describe the likely happenings that led to the end of Roman Britain in around AD 410 (I liked the non-PC use of AD rather than CE!).  His premise was that up until 400 or so Roman Britain was functioning pretty well and the archaeological record supports this with coins, flashy villas, military garrisons and so forth.  However, with the sack of Rome by the Goths and their fellow travellers, Rome lost its ability to govern this far-flung part of the empire, and in any case there were big problems close to home. Constantine III’s disappearance to the continent with a large part of the British-based army didn’t help and things began to crumble. The record shows that there was a huge decrease in coinage, which probably meant that what was left of the Army and civil servants weren’t being paid (sounds a bit like the federal government shutdown in the USA at the moment).  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. Simon also showed us a spectacular slide which showed the number of rooms occupied in private buildings and the rapid decline in the 5th Century. How on earth that was calculated I will never know but full marks to whoever worked it out. Hoards have also been found.  These appear to have been the 5th Century equivalent of putting your cash in an offshore tax haven except it was not the taxman who was after it but a bloke with an unpleasant beard and a very big knife. Simon concluded this part by telling us that there was probably a mass extinction of the landed Romano-British gentry over one or two generations but that the timescale is difficult to determine as coinage disappears from the record.

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Above: Professor Cleary delivers his lecture

However, the gentry only represented 10% of the population and he believed that for the remaining 90% life continued pretty well as normal. For most of the 90%, life centred around hoping against hope that your parsnip crop would see you through to the next year. No Domino’s in those days if you were feeling a bit peckish.  Unsurprisingly the archaeological record for the 90% is pretty thin, not helped by the fact that because it is not very sexy, archaeologists prefer instead to excavate ritzy sites packed with coins, mosaics, pottery, foundations etc. Fortunately, the absence of deep ploughing on Salisbury Plain has preserved some of these sites and Professor Simon showed us air photos of field systems and humble settlements on the Plain. Interestingly, pollen analysis shows that there was little difference between the Roman and early medieval periods, reinforcing the view that for the 90% life plodded on as normal.

Professor Simon concluded his talk by saying how important it is for us to have understanding of how life was for the 90% not just the 10% and that is why the Deverills Archaeology Project has such an important role to play as it looks at what most of the people were doing most of the time. For those involved in the project this was an inspiring message and one that underpins our work. He then very thoroughly fielded a number of questions, which ranged from the ethnicity of those in Roman Britain, what happened to the stone from their buildings, and the location of mints (not the Trebor extra strong type).

Our first talk was a resounding success and we were very privileged to have such an eminent speaker, to whom we are extremely grateful. As the audience was not just made up of those who are actively involved in the project but included many others, we will also have achieved some very useful wider, community engagement.

Blog by John Russell. Pictures by Mike Stanley and Denise Wilding.

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