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.


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.

November 2018 – Visit to Low Ham Roman Villa Excavation, Somerset

David Croot guides us through the Low Ham Villa excavation open day…

A small number of DAG members joined a surprisingly large group of very intrepid visitors to the Low Ham site in Somerset on 27th November. The weather could not have been worse! After months of good weather the wind blew and the rain poured down throughout the afternoon! Despite this, the Low Ham History Hut was so packed with visitors that the group had to be split into two: half went down to see the three new trenches and the rest stayed in the warm and dry to listen to an illustrated talk on the history of excavations at the site by Roger Leech. The two halves swopped over after 45 minutes and those of us who had enjoyed the warmth and talk ventured out into the torrential rain! Despite the weather we enjoyed a tour of the three new “trenches” (more like open areas!) led by David Roberts of Historic England. Unfortunately for David the skies opened at the final trench and we had to call a halt to the tour. All in all, a fascinating insight to a large scale excavation. Many thanks to David and the crew at Low Ham for arranging this and seeing it through despite the weather!

Blog post by David Croot. Images by David Roberts.

November 2018 – Finds Processing evening

John Russell summarises the DAG finds processing evening…

On a cold, dank November evening 18 volunteers arrived at the Upper Deverills’ Village Hall to process pottery finds from the August excavation at Brixton Deverill. The contrast between the gloom outside and the atmosphere inside the hall – fortified with sponge cake and tea – could not have been more stark. The evening started with the DAG Chairman, David Croot, giving an update on the August dig and we were very interested to hear of some early analysis of the ‘wet’ trench, which is already yielding information about the plant life and human activity for a range of dates that is believed to be unique in the chalklands of SW England. This is very exciting. David then brought us down to earth by reminding us why we were in the hall and gave us our orders for the evening – to complete the marking of Brixton finds and logging them by quantity and weight.

finds processing 2

Under the expert guidance of Dr Jörn Schuster, we all set to and armed with nail varnish, dip pens and white ink the finds were marked and processed in very short order. Such was the speed of work, several sticks of shortbread and a piece of sponge cake were also marked and had to be rescued from the finds bags. The evening made an excellent contribution to the Brixton excavation and made us all look forward to the next stages of the project. Our thanks to David Croot and Kevin McBride for setting up the evening and to Lou for providing the delicious and sustaining cake and tea!

finds processing 1

Blog post by John Russell. Images by Jörn Schuster.

The View from the Trench : DAG excavation August 2018

Sally Jones shares her experience of her first archaeological excavation, undertaken by the Deverills Archaeology Group in August 2018. 

…Day One

The warm August morning saw nineteen people gathered in a garden in the Deverill Valley: professional archaeologists, experienced amateurs, talented enthusiasts and a few, like me, complete archaeological novices. All were united in a common motivation to understand the people who preceded us through this special space, leaving an imprint, however slight, of their daily lives, experiences and histories. Over the next 10 days the professionals from Historic England would coach, encourage and lead us through all the stages of an archaeological excavation.

The garden was near the site of an historically significant, large Romano British Villa, discovered 3 years ago. Earlier in 2018, geophysical surveys of the garden area had revealed a possible enclosure defined by a perimeter ditch, together with a medium sized structure/building on the SE edge.

The enclosure exhibited rounded corners, which hinted, tantalizing, of Roman origins and a possible connection to the Villa.

Our task was to determine if excavation could support the Roman connection and, if not, what else lay hidden beneath these grassy acres that would further our knowledge of the history of the Deverill Valley.

 geophysical survey of Deverills excavation site

      Geophysical Survey

Three trenches were mapped. HE brought out our assault tools: mattocks, spades, shovels, trowels, wheelbarrows and an improbable number of yellow buckets. For the uninitiated, the difference between a mattock and pickaxe was not immediately obvious, until practical employment revealed the distinct advantages of the flat edge.

Turves, topsoil and an additional stony level were removed. Our mentors pronounced themselves satisfied, and cautiously suggested the possible appearance of Roman archaeology, by way of ditches, in all 3 trenches.

A small number of ‘finds’ showed examples of Medieval, Post-Medieval and, yes, Roman pottery sherds, together with some rather intimidating animal teeth.

possible roman ditch at Deverills excavation site 2018

        Possible Roman Ditch   

…Day Two

Rain threatened from the outset and only a little over an hour’s digging was achieved. Now we were to witness the frustration of the seasoned archaeologist, as, even in this short space of time, one of the hoped-for Roman ditches ‘disappeared’ under further trowelling.

Rain called a halt to outside work and we retired indoors for a teach-in on finds identification.

 marking a find Deverills excavation 2018

       Marking a Find

…Finds Identification

HE experts in pottery and flint identification gave us the most interesting insight into their respective worlds.

Roman pottery was mostly wheel turned (we learnt to look for the ripple effect) and well made; it was seldom glazed. ‘Glaze’ soon became a harbinger of dashed expectations. Many a hopeful sherd, on cleaning, revealed itself to be tainted with the despondent green glaze characteristic of medieval pottery and, like true Romano British enthusiasts, we soon cultivated the requisite dismissive shrug, so excellently demonstrated by our mentors, in the presence of green glaze.

We were educated in spotting the cuts and whirls of debitage, the offcuts occurring in the manufacture of flint tools. As the week wore on, it became clear that our earlier Valley settlers had left us much debitage, or by–product of their labours, but thoughtlessly failed to discard a single cutting tool or arrow head to excite us further.

…Days Three, Four and Five and the trenches started to disclose their own special stories and round-up talks at the close of each day’s digging were beginning to reveal serious trench envy amongst some of the excavation participants.

trench envy on Deverills excavation 2018

        Trench Envy, A Bad Case

Trench B roman ditch from Deverills excavation 2018

          Trench B’s Roman Ditch, evidenced by exclusively Roman Pottery Finds

Trench A was definitely failing to deliver, having revealed two ‘Red Herrings’ by way of Victorian drainage ditches, evidenced by a small section of clay tobacco pipe.  With more hope than expectation, another possible feature was being offered up to the mattock in this trench.

hopeful in trench A on DEverills excavation 2018

    Hopeful in Trench A

Trench C, however, was unveiling an interesting puzzle, with the beginnings of a possible Roman track, a Roman ditch and another decidedly peculiar parallel ditch, the depth and width of which seemed to be growing by the hour.

puzzling in trench C on Deverills excavation 2018

          Puzzling over Trench C

…The Technicals

HE’s education programme was designed not simply to enlighten us in the finer points of trowelling. With great patience from the professionals, the technical aspects of excavation were not permitted to slip through our fingers.

We looked at stratigraphy, the layering of deposits in our trenches and became very familiar with the particularly unyielding alluvial clay deposits typical of this area.

Context sheets for ‘deposits’ and ‘cuts’ were produced and we were soon rolling soil samples between our fingers and identifying colours courtesy of the Munsell soil guide. Finds from each context were bagged and labelled with their respective site reference and context number.

Then came the photography (light relief):

photography on site at Deverills excavation 2018

…followed by the complexities (to the novice) of section drawings and measurements; building up an accurate and annotated cross sectional map of each trench. A Harris Matrix was drawn to create a flow chart recording the sequence in which the levels and features of the trench occurred.

sdection drawing  on Deverills excavation 2018

                     Section Drawing of the Trench A

Having established that the cry of “Dumpy Level !”  was not an order for me to start leveling my trench, we moved on to general surveying techniques.

…The Tours

During the 10-day duration of the dig, HE engaged with local residents and DAG members through several conducted tours of the excavation. One of these tours was fortunate enough to coincide with the appearance of an Environmental Archaeologist in Trench C.

taking soil samples on Deverills excavation 2018

          Taking Soil Samples

By studying the tiny things, like soil, pollen and snails the environmental archaeologist hopes to discover the nature and occupation of the site. Snails will reveal whether the site once had long grass, short grass or woodland. Pollen will tell what cereals were grown, chaff will tell whether the site was producing and growing, or buying in and processing. We can learn what type of foods were prepared and eaten.

…Day 5 and 6 and back in the trenches a more consistent image of the site was beginning to evolve. Trench A and B confirmed the existence of the boundary ditches surrounding the main enclosure and the small southern building/enclosure. No evidence was found of the foundations for this building, but in all likelihood it was wooden in nature, possibly a barn.

Trench C was now the decided hero of the week. The excavators were uncovering a blushingly embarrassing wealth of Roman pottery. Utilitarian in nature, the sherds were suggesting cookware and everyday utensils. A hypothesis was beginning to emerge.

squeezing into trench C on Deverills archaeology project excavation 2018

         Squeezing into Trench C

 In the above photograph, it is also possible to see the cobbled surface of a raised Roman track heading off towards the Villa.

A fourth trench was opened in the middle of the enclosure, attempting to explain the area of high resistivity visible in the geophysics; was it a cobbled pathway? Probably.

…Down Tools

By Days 8 and 9, the excavation was drawing to a close and a clearer picture beginning to unfold. As the geophysics hinted, the large enclosure indeed seemed to have been Roman and probably part of the support structure for the Villa, perhaps an area where cattle were penned before slaughter, having been brought to the site along the Roman track. The smaller structure/enclosure to the south may have held a barn, as its ditch was too shallow to have acted as a boundary, but might have been drip gully to take water running off the roof of a large wooden building.

We look forward to the post-excavation work supporting these finds, soil samples, pottery analysis and carbon dating of the fragments of wood. The Villa would have had a huge support network; it is fascinating to speculate what else lies out there.

The landscape of this area has changed little over the intervening 1,500 years, but now, as we watch the sun set over the Western Downs we try to imagine the lives of those who lived on our land before; gentle smoke rising from a fire, a clatter of wood on cobbles across the track way, raised voices and laughter.

Our little excavation has merely scratched the surface of this special place and we look forward to understanding more as we explore further along the Valley.

Deverills sunset after archaeological excavation 2018