Discovering Dorchester
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Large rings and Cursus
Aerial Photograph showing the Large rings and Cursus

Four post structure
Reconstruction of four post structure
and a roundhouse

Dyke Hills
Dyke Hills today

Roman Cemetery
Roman Cemetery under excavation in1981

Roman Pottery
Roman Pottery

Saxon burial
Saxon burial, Wally Corner, Berinsfield

 
 

Dorchester-on-Thames is situated in the heart of England, and is also central to key events in England's past. It is one of very few places in the country where there are juxtaposed and overlapping Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon towns, an Anglo-Saxon bishopric and a nearby early prehistoric ceremonial centre of national significance. Following the transfer of the see to Lincoln in the 11th century, Dorchester lost its pre-eminent position as a local centre and it has seen relatively little post-medieval and modern development which has been beneficial for the preservation of buried archaeological remains within the town. On the other hand, the area has been a focus of gravel extraction in Oxfordshire, particularly in the mid 20th century.

Dorchester lies in a loop of the river Thames at its confluence with the river Thame and is on a peninsula of second gravel terrace above the river floodplains. Today, the town is encircled by gravel quarries which are mainly lakes, giving Dorchester the appearance of sitting on an island. Indeed, over half the peninsula has been quarried away (Benson and Miles 1974, fig. 18; the areas shown as not yet extracted but with planning permission have now gone). These quarries were largely active from the 1940s, when one of the most important Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial centres in the British Isles was destroyed following only limited excavation of selected sites (Atkinson et al. 1951; Whittle et al. 1992; Benson and Miles 1974, 91-4). Large areas between trenches were not explored, a number of monuments visible on air photographs were not investigated at all and there was very little environmental sampling. Excavations undertaken in advance of further quarrying and the construction of the bypass in 1981examined the south-east terminal of the cursus and an early Neolithic enclosure and demonstrated the range of small, but important features which probably would have been present over much of the ceremonial monument had it been possible to observe the entire area (Whittle et al. 1992). Air photographs show ring ditches and rectangular enclosures in the area between the cursus and the town and to the west of Bishop’s Court, and there are even hints that early 5th-century burials recovered from the east end of the Dyke Hills monument were associated with Bronze Age barrows and skeletons (Kirk and Leeds 1953, 63); the ceremonial complex may be more extensive than had been thought.

Dyke Hills is a remarkably well-preserved Iron Age oppidum of around 25 hectares to the south of the town, delimited by the Thames to the west and south, the Thame to the east and by impressive ditch and bank earthworks to the north. The dykes are largely intact, although levelled at their east end and riddled with rabbit burrows, the damage from which is a tangible cause of deterioration of the monument. Air photographs have revealed extensive remains of house circles, pits and other settlement evidence within the enclosed area which has been frequently ploughed in the past. Traces of later Bronze Age and Iron Age settlement and field systems have also been discovered to the north of the dykes, in the gravel quarries at Bishop’s Court to the west and in the area of the cursus (May 1977; Whittle et al., 159-62; and information from the Oxfordshire SMR).

Dorchester is one of only two walled Roman towns known in Oxfordshire. The 2nd-century and later defences enclose an area of c 6 hectares situated west of the river Thame. It was famously excavated by Frere in the 1960s, when traces of early Anglo-Saxon settlement were found above and cutting into the Roman levels (Frere 1962), but a number of other excavations have revealed similar evidence within the town (Bradley et al. 1978; Rowley and Brown 1981). Extra-mural Roman settlement is known to lie the north of the town, some of which was destroyed by gravel quarrying and house building with no archaeological observation (Benson and Miles 1974, 91) and settlement and a small group of burials have been revealed to the west of the defences (May 1977; SMR no 15838). Part of an extensive late Roman ‘managed’ cemetery, lying c 700 m north of the town, was excavated at Queenford Farm in advance of gravel quarrying in 1972 and quarrying and road building in 1981 (Durham and Rowley 1972; Chambers 1987), and another apparently similar cemetery on the other side of the Thame near Warborough also, presumably, belonged to the town. Both are possibly of Christian character. The late Roman inhabitants seem to have chosen to bury their dead at some distance from the town, a situation paralleled elsewhere (eg Verulamium), raising the possibility that funerary processions played an important role in late Roman burial practices.

Three nationally-important early 5th-century burials have been discovered at Dorchester, a man and a woman found in the Dyke Hills Iron Age ramparts and a woman from a gravel quarry next to the Minchin Recreation Ground (Kirk and Leeds 1953; Crawford 1927). These individuals provide tantalising and in many ways unique evidence of society at the end of the period of Roman rule in Britain. The early 5th-century objects buried with them suggest that they were not merely Roman provincials and that the women at least came from north-west Germany. The female burials contained an intriguing combination of Romano-British and Germanic artefacts while the man seems to have been associated with the Roman military. Their wider context is absolutely key, yet remains unknown. Were they interred in a late Roman burial ground(s), or were they so-called 'founder graves' of larger Anglo-Saxon cemeteries? Radiocarbon determinations on five unaccompanied, west - east burials from the Queenford Farm cemetery (Chambers 1987, 58) indicate, remarkably, that the cemetery remained in use, along with the typically late Roman burial rites, through the fifth century and into the sixth, if not later. It would appear, based on this evidence, that several groups, with apparently very different identities, were living in close proximity in and around Dorchester in the 5th century.

In addition to the apparently early Anglo-Saxon settlement within the Roman town (above), Saxon sunken-featured buildings, a well and inhumation burials were excavated to the west of Bishop’s Court in advance of gravel extraction (May 1977; Robinson DPhil; Dickinson 1976). Benson and Miles refer to nine Saxon inhumations cut into a prehistoric barrow near to the cursus and removed by gravel extraction (Benson and Miles 1974, 91).

In around AD 635 Birinus established a bishopric at Dorchester, the first within the kingdom of Wessex. The see was transferred to Lincoln by William I in 1071, leaving the former cathedral site as a minster of secular priests and then, in due course, an Augustinian abbey. The present abbey church contains probable remains of the late Anglo-Saxon cathedral; Graham Keevill's recent excavations north of the nave found mid-Saxon timber buildings, perhaps associated with the original cathedral foundation.

Large-scale gravel extraction began around Dorchester in the 1940s and, although this has lessened in recent years, its status is currently under review as Oxfordshire considers its new Minerals Plan. The results of most of the archaeological work undertaken in advance of gravel extraction have reached publication in one form or another, and evidence from Dorchester-on-Thames is very often used in regional and national syntheses. However, there has been no recent synthesis of the development of Dorchester and the surrounding area through time which takes all this evidence into account. Additionally, there is no recent, accessible account and this is an issue that has been raised frequently by the local people. There have been a number of local initiatives in recent years including the creation of the Dorchester Abbey Preservation Trust, and a public meeting hosted by them in the Abbey was attended by a large number of people from the local area who expressed great enthusiasm for learning more about their past and participating in the project.