Strawberry pickers standing on the site of an ancient, bustling Roman town
THERE is nothing outwardly remarkable about the swathe of luscious countryside that separates sleepy Lower Wanborough, with its thatched pubs and olde world charm, from Swindon’s Covingham housing estate just over a mile away.
A rural belt predominantly known for strawberry picking, it is a picture of relative tranquillity. How different then from the scene at the same location some 1,700 years earlier. A hive of noise, activity and commerce, it rang with the tumult of industry and the endless hubbub of hundreds of people going about their daily business: shopping, working, squabbling, laughing.
Mules and oxen hauled wagons laden with anything from cloth to pottery along a sturdy stone-paved road where horse-drawn carriages conveying dignitaries vied for position with mounted soldiers and herded animals.
An assortment of buildings made from brick, limestone or timber-and-daub, some with finely decorated with extravagant patterns and colours, lined the busy main road adjoined on both sides by a neatly planned grid-system of streets.
Within this chessboard of squares was the market hall where farmers, artisans and tradesmen from surrounding villas, farmsteads and minor settlements sold locally grown produce, pots, baskets and leather-ware.
Shops that lined the streets included a bakers, butchers and blacksmiths; alongside them, a smattering of smart, comfy town houses for the well-off, some with richly painted walls and courtyards.
Temples were an essential part of daily life as was the bathhouse, with its hot and cold plunge pools, where townsfolk relaxed and enjoyed a spot of gossip.
As night fell, the taverns filled with local people, journeymen and soldiers carousing and partaking in rowdy sing-songs, games of dice and the occasion brawl as the wine flowed. Others chose to while away the evening from a choice of several brothels. At the centre, the “mansio” – a large hotel where government officials or military messengers on imperial business stayed overnight after a tiring day travelling the road on which the settlement was built.
This is Durocornovium, circa AD300/400 – Swindon’s Roman town.
Self-employed archaeologist Bernard Phillips, who probably knows Durocornovium better than anyone, says: “At its peak during the 3rd and 4th Centuries around 1,500 people would have lived there. “It wasn’t a large Roman town but it would have been a busy place, very noisy with a lot going on. Many people would have been passing through. Without question, it is the most important Roman settlement in the Swindon area.”
Mouth-watering quantities of Roman artefacts have been found in and around the shallow ruins of Durocornovium: coins, brooches, bracelets, statuettes, a vast array of every-day implements – cleavers, tweezers, knives, hammers - and heaps of tiles and pottery fragments which once “teemed” from the site.
But much has been lost, notably during the construction A419 bypass, the bridge which crosses it, a flood lagoon and housing in Covingham in the late 60s/early 70s.
In what can only be described as wanton acts of archaeological vandalism, unexcavated buildings including a suspected octagonal temple and a roadside shop crammed with red glazed pottery from France were brazenly bulldozed.
Archaeologists didn’t get the chance to record, let alone preserve these important elements of Swindon’s heritage. “The experience was horrifying,” recalls Bryn Walters, Director of the Swindon-based Association for Roman Archaeology (ARA).
There are new fears that Swindon’s impending eastern expansion, which will creep to the edge of Durocornovium, a Scheduled Monument that cannot be developed, will destroy the remains of structures dotted around the Roman town.
Today, experts say that Durocornovium was of far greater importance – both politically and strategically, and a lot bigger too - than previously thought.
It is believed to have begun life almost 2,000 years ago as a fortress some four years after the Roman Invasion of AD43 as the empire’s legions forged westwards.
Built on one of the great Roman roads, Ermin Street – the M4 of its day - eventually linked London with Cirencester and then Gloucester.
Says Bernard, 65, who lives in Stratton and grew-up in Swindon: “We haven’t found any remains of the fort but there is plenty of evidence of military occupation: spears, spear-heads, arrow heads, pilum (javelin.) A civilian settlement quickly sprung up around the fort sparking the emergence of taverns, lodgings and brothels; assorted merchants, workmen and a labour force catered for the fort’s needs.
When Rome’s military machine decamped to Wales around 15 years later Durocornovium continued to thrive as a stop-over on an important, well-used route and junction, which included a southern road to Winchester. A late 2nd Century roadmap, Antonine Itinerary, reveals the town’s name; although how it was derived is today debated.
Durocornovium existed for more than 350 years; at its height it occupied 94 acres – 52 football pitches – before its gradual decline into oblivion after Romans abandoned Britain and the Dark Ages descended.
Fast forward some 1,300 years to the late 17th Century when finds of “Roman coyness and ruins of houses” were recorded for the first time.
Over time the area became a veritable treasure trove of Roman finds. One account goes: “Every heap of earth, every new-made ditch, and every adjoining road teemed with Roman pottery of every description.”
The existence of a town was confirmed around a century ago and various archaeological excavations took place during the Sixties and Seventies.
The 2nd Century ‘mansio’ was discovered when Bernard and Bryn took aerial photos in 1976.
Comprising a range of rooms, corridors and possibly stairwells it was arranged around two courtyards, with a covered link to a “substantial range of baths.”
Several large houses were built from limestone quarried at Swindon Hill (Old Town.) Bryn says: “By the early 2nd Century a commercial centre based on a substantial and well-appointed town was growing.
“It can now be shown that the town at Lower Wanborough had been at the hub of a major communications system.”
Tools, treasures... and an ancient curse
FINDS from Durocornovium include glass vessels from France, pottery from France and Germany, a lamp from Italy and a bowl from Northern Africa as well as household goods from all over Britain.
Shears, needles, saws, chisels, drill-bits, an axe, hammers, cleavers and knives indicate industries ranging from textile to carpentry – even a small-scale glass factory.
Brooches, rings, bracelets, hair-pins, buckles, belt-fittings, nail-cleaners, tweezers, leather shoes have also been found; intriguingly, an assortment of keys, locks and latches demonstrate “a need or desire for security,” says Bernard.
Evidence of a GP’s surgery – for those who could afford it – are suggested by the discovery of surgical implements such as spatula, a scalpel and a wince-inducing traction hook. “Don’t ask me how they used it,” says Bernard.
Coins, there have been quite a few – bronze, silver and one gold. In 1688 two workmen digging a ditch unearthed 1,600 to 2,000 silver denarii concealed during the reign of Commodus (AD180-193).
Other finds include a carved stone statue of Mercury, the god of merchants, possibly from a road-side shrine or temple.
And – fascinatingly - a curse, scratched on a lead tablet.
Only partially complete, it runs along the lines of “I beg that you do not permit him to drink nor eat nor sleep nor walk and that you do not allow any part to remain of him or the family from which he springs.”
Sadly the god or deity invoked is missing, as is the crime – which may have been theft, or perhaps one of passion.
Says Bernard: “Such curses inscribed by priests were nailed to a wall of a temple, rolled up and buried, or broken and thrown onto water where it could only be seen by the god or deity invoked.”
Durocornovium artefacts are held at the Swindon Museum, Bath Road, Old Town and the British Museum, London.