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Tuesday 10 February 2015

Review: ‘Digging for Britain’, Episode 2, BBC4

This evening’s ‘Digging for Britain’, the second in the series, moved location from Norfolk to the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, to focus upon some of the more significant archaeological discoveries made in the West Country during 2014. One theme which ran through much of the programme was the question as to what extent the population of the region was Romanised, not only during the period of Britain’s formal incorporation into the Roman Empire, but also in the late Iron Age and after the departure of the legions in 410.

Evidence from a number of the featured digs bore testimony to the pre-conquest trade between the island and the continent, with certain goods from the Roman world being imported as luxury items. Some of these – such as chicken and wine – may not be viewed as luxuries today, but in the first century BC, they were exotic and something to be shown off. One excavation at Winterborne Kingston in Dorset, named the Durotriges Bid Dig Project, has uncovered evidence of life in a late Iron Age ‘banjo enclosure’ (an undefended farmstead), with its period of occupation running from the first century BC right through to the fifth century AD. Interestingly, the quantity of characteristically Roman finds from the first century BC to the second century AD remained relatively constant, with the imposition of Roman rule in the middle of the first century AD having no discernible impact upon the material culture of the site. It was not until the third and fourth centuries AD that there was a marked change, making the site appear more ‘Roman’.

A Roman villa had previously been discovered in a neighbouring field, and the Durotriges Dig turned up four burials dating to the middle of the fifth century AD which appear to be associated with it. Judging by the positioning of the skeletons and grave goods, it seems that Romano-British life continued after the imperial collapse. One of the most intriguing items discovered in one of the women’s graves was a Roman earthenware bowl, worn smooth by many years of use, which suggests that it may have been used for 60 or 70 years before being interred with the burial. It is reckoned that she was buried around 450 AD. Elements of Roman culture would seem therefore to have been adopted before the conquest, and retained after the withdrawal of the imperial administration, but the question regarding the depth of its penetration into wider Romano-British society remains open to debate. A further excavation undertaken by Exeter University at Ipplepen in south Devon, also suggested that Roman rule may, to a certain extent, have extended westward beyond Exeter, judging by the Romano-British burials uncovered there.

Back at the Dorchester Museum, the ever-engaging Alice Roberts put her knowledge of anatomy to good use in examining two skeletons excavated from the ‘war cemetery’ at Maiden Castle. Both bear the marks of violent death: one possessing a ballista bolt embedded in a vertebra, the other with a large hole in the top of his cranium and cut and slash marks on his jaw that indicate that someone had twice attempted to decapitate him after death. It would seem that these men fell victim to Vespasian’s campaign at some point during the period AD 43-47.

In terms of burials, the most spectacular featured in the programme were unearthed at Barrow Clump on MOD land on Salisbury Plain. The site dates back more than 5,000 years, but a decision was made to excavate before badgers destroyed the archaeology with their burrowing. After two days, a Bronze Age burial urn containing burnt human bone was discovered, with a second much larger vessel being found buried upside down, but the most interesting finds were from a more recent, although still distant, period. The latter were uncovered by armed forces veterans being introduced to archaeology as a therapeutic activity through a project named ‘Operation Nightingale.’ They discovered a collection of 75 Anglo-Saxon burials dating to the sixth century, the graves of the warriors being found alongside the Bronze Age ones. One group of a dozen bodies were found buried close together, with what appeared to be a symbolic “shield wall” lining the burial area. However, one burial stood out, for no other individual amongst the group was found with a spearhead, a shield boss, a knife and, most importantly, a sword; objects bearing testimony to his high status. X-rays revealed the sword to be pattern welded, forged from three bars of iron twisted together. When new, this would have been a visually impressive object, as well as a terrifying weapon of war.

Other sites visited included Chedworth Villa in the Cotswolds, where a re-excavation revealed a previously unsuspected large mosaic and remains of coloured plaster from the collapsed villa walls, revolutionising archaeologists’ understanding of this site. A leprosy hospital dating back to 1070 was excavated in a field at St Mary Maudlin just outside of Winchester, revealing some gruesomely disfigured skeletons. In contrast to this, in terms of visual appeal, was a horde of three pairs of gold Bronze Age bracelets discovered by metal detectorists in the Forest of Dean. One of them had been made for a young infant, which is quite unusual for such a high status object, indicating that the child’s parents must have been in possession of significant wealth.

Other than the last artefacts mentioned, there were no recently discovered items of high visual appeal, but in the absence of a written record, the bones and remains of everyday life nonetheless have their own interesting tales to tell. The Durotriges and the Romans are gone. Are the English going the same way?


  1. Thanks for this post, Durotrigan. Very good to have you back!

    1. Thank you! I couldn't neglect commenting upon a programme dealing with the Durotriges.


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