Archaeology

Unexpected Iron Age Settlement and Roman Villa Found in Oxfordshire

In the vicinity of a hill fort site located at Wittenham Clumps, Oxfordshire, a team of archaeologists from DigVentures uncovered something unexpected and marvelous. While digging in anticipation of an upcoming construction project, unearthed a cornucopia of archaeological and historical treasures from two distinct eras, according to the DigVentures website . Amongst the find were remains from an Iron Age settlement and of a later Roman villa.

Discovery of Iron Age Settlement Causes Excitement

At the foundation of the excavation site, they discovered the clear and unmistakable outlines of 15 circular roundhouses that were apparently built sometime between 400 BC and 100 BC. They also discovered the now-empty footprint of a sprawling Roman villa , which had been constructed over the roundhouse imprints sometime in the late third or early fourth centuries AD. Various artifacts were also uncovered in relation to both discoveries, adding to the depth and richness of the find.

“We think we might be looking at a site that was continuously occupied from the middle Iron Age, all the way through the Roman period,” marveled DigVentures fieldwork supervisor Chris Caswell. “We won’t know for sure until we’ve had a closer look at all of the available dating evidence, but we’re very excited to find out the answer.”

The DigVenture team was dispatched to Oxfordshire County in central England at the request of the environmental nonprofit Earth Trust, which has stewardship over Wittenham Clumps and its associated Iron Age hill fort site . Earth Trust is planning to expand its visitor center, but would not proceed until a thorough archaeological survey could be carried out in the surrounding area.

Previous geophysical scans had turned up only scant traces of possible buried remnants, which is why the archaeologists were both surprised and delighted to unearth such an impressive bounty of artifacts and ancient ground markings. “It’s been one of those digs where you feel you can almost reach out and touch them,” Lisa Wescott Wilkins, from DigVentures, told The Guardian .

In recent snowfall, the archaeologists are able to clearly see the outline of the Roman villa’s footprint which was discovered along with the Iron Age settlement. (DigVentures)

In recent snowfall, the archaeologists are able to clearly see the outline of the Roman villa’s footprint which was discovered along with the Iron Age settlement. ( DigVentures)

Iron Age Settlement Patterns in Oxfordshire Revealed

The 15 circular Iron Age roundhouses discovered ranged in size from 25 feet (eight meters) to 50 feet (15 meters) in diameter. Included with the houses were postholes where support columns would have been installed, and gullies around their perimeters that would have acted as drainage systems when it was raining. Among the artifacts discovered near the houses were a collection of ceramic food storage jars, which would have been buried in pits to keep their edible contents safe, cool, and dry.

Based on the construction methods in use at the time, the houses would have been made from specially prepared mud that would become rock-solid when dried. A painted fragment was found at one of the housing sites, suggesting that the mud houses might have been painted or decorated by their owners. “We weren’t expecting to find so many houses within such a small space,” Caswell is quoted as saying in Sci-News. “The area we’ve excavated is just over a hectare [2.5 acres] and the settlement itself is clearly much larger. We’ve still only uncovered one corner of it.”

The residents of the roundhouses would have been subsistence farmers living off the land. The DigVenture archaeologists believe they would have been responsible for the construction and maintenance of the hill fort, which functioned as a fortified refuge that could be speedily occupied should the nearby settlement be sacked or attacked by invaders. Castle Hill (where the hill fort was built) and the newly discovered village at its foot were both conveniently constructed next to the River Thames , allowing for convenient transportation and trade between the coast and the interior.

Aerial view of the hillfort, with a portion of the River Thames visible on the left. (DigVentures)

Aerial view of the hillfort, with a portion of the River Thames visible on the left. ( DigVentures)

Roman Presence on the Thames

Many archaeologists felt certain that an Iron Age village would be discovered in the Wittenham Clumps area someday. But finding the outline of a Roman villa in the same place was an unexpected bonus. The Roman villa was approximately 100 feet (30 meters) long and wing-shaped, in the style preferred by wealthy Roman individuals at the time. It would have functioned as a country homestead for an elite landowning family, who of course would have employed others to actually raise and harvest crops for them.

Among the remains found inside the perimeter of the Roman building site was an assortment of cooking utensils, including spoons, knives, cooking pots, strainers, and tableware. Personal items discovered included well-preserved bone combs and a special medical spatula that would have been used to apply ointments and salves to wounds.

Another structure the archaeologists excavated was identified as a corn dryer, which would have been put into use shortly after harvest. The remains of charred cereal were found inside dryer, showing that wheat and barley had been grown on the farm as well as corn. Similar remains were found in pits dug by the Iron Age inhabitants of the larger site, establishing a continuity of practice between the agriculturalists who occupied the region at different points in history.

Adjacent to the villa, the archaeologists uncovered 42 graves, most interred according to Roman burial customs. This shows that the Roman villa was likely occupied for multiple generations, perhaps up to the time when the Roman occupation of England ended in the fifth century.

Archaeologist India Jago at the excavated corn dryer which would have been used after the harvest. (DigVentures)

Archaeologist India Jago at the excavated corn dryer which would have been used after the harvest. ( DigVentures)

Bringing Archaeology to the Masses

The DigVenture archaeological team launched their project with high expectations. But what they found exceeded their most hopeful wishes. “It’s everything you’d expect to find at a busy settlement, but that’s what’s so exciting about it,” Casswell said. “These are the foods, homes, and artifacts that made up the everyday reality of these people’s lives.” To introduce these discoveries to the broader public, DigVentures and Earth Trust are teaming up to present a series of live, interactive, online events that began on February 16 and will continue through March 9.

“Although previous digs by Time Team and Oxford Archaeology close to the site had already revealed the first few signs that something might be here over a decade ago, we are lucky that we are now able to complete the story, and reveal the true extent of what was going on here,” declared Lisa Wescott Wilkins, the DigVentures co-founder. “With so many people being confined to their homes, we’re really excited to be able to provide a glimpse of what ancient homes were like. People will be able to find out what was happening along the River Thames in Oxfordshire during the Iron Age and Roman periods.”

Top image: Archaeologist Ben Swaine at the recently discovered Iron Age settlement, showing the size of the largest roundhouse. Source: DigVentures

By Nathan Falde


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