DAG’s second public lecture: ‘South-West Wiltshire in the Roman period – Farming, Pagans and Wealth’ given by Dr David Roberts

DAG’s second talk in its winter lecture series was given by the Deverill Archaeology Project’s director Dr David Roberts. John Russell takes us through the events of the evening.

Last night was the second in our series of Deverills Archaeology Group lectures and it was delivered by our very own Dr David Roberts from Historic England. The audience was north of 30, not bad considering it was a disgusting night and there was a re-run of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum on the telly. Before taking the stand he mentioned that he had only just made it back from the Cairngorms. This was most impressive news and there was a gasp of astonishment at the sheer professionalism of the man and his dedication at conducting archaeology in February, in Scotland and at 1200m.  A vision emerged of David in a Force 9 gale with beard covered in frost, knee-deep in mud and ptarmigans, busily excavating a Pictish midden or some such. A vision entirely in line with what we have come to expect from him. It was therefore with some disappointment that we heard him go on to say he had been on a stag weekend in Glenlivet. From this early low point the evening could only get better – and get better it most certainly did.

DAG Chair David Croot and speaker David Roberts prepare for the talk

The title of David’s talk was ‘South West Wiltshire in the Roman period – Farming, Pagans and Wealth’ and his intention was to provide us with an overview to give a wider context to our 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: Verulanium etc. I’m not sure if it was a typo or the author of the slide had a sense of humour but clearly visible on the south coast was a town called ‘Selsey’. That didn’t sound very Roman to me and I would have been only marginally more surprised if the map had marked Bognor or Peacehaven.

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 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, 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. 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…

The Roman campaigns in Britain AD 43-60. Source: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

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 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). This didn’t appear to be a particularly rich seam so he niftily moved on to antiquarian evidence, particularly Nan Kivell’s excavations on Cold Kitchen Hill. Perhaps not alone in the audience, I thought Nan was a woman and I conjured up an image of someone in a tweed skirt and very sensible shoes. However, on checking Wikipedia I discover that Nan was a chap, and a pretty exotic one at that.  Anyhow, I digress. Kivell’s excavation produced Samian ware pottery, more than found at the exploratory excavations of the BD 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! Given that some of the tablets referred to the theft of tools, perhaps there is a business opportunity here for those who have had quad bikes and chain saws stolen.

A Roman penannular brooch from Teffont, Wiltshire. Image credit: Teffont Archaeology Project.

  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 before giving us a fascinating readout on last week’s 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…

David packed an immense amount into his 40 minutes and we all departed into the disgusting weather feeling much more knowledgeable about our area and how it might have been. Our sincere thanks to David.

Blog by John Russell. Pictures by Mike Stanley (unless otherwise stated).


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