The Romans in Dorchester
In this show we visit Dorchester in Dorset UK with Archaeologist Chris Tripp.
The area around what is now Dorchester has been inhabited for many thousands of years. When the Romans invaded South East England in 43AD they named the town Durnovaria.
In the 4th Century A.D. the Romans surrounded Dorchester with a stone wall of which a part can still now be seen. We begin our show here by the Borough Gardens. Chris then takes us to The Roman Town House built in the first decade of the 4th century. An incredible place with under floor heating, mosaics, a well and shrines. There are also plaques that mark the burials of babies which was common at this time to bury dead infants under the flooring of houses.
The Roman Town House was discovered in the 1930s when building took place for the Dorset County Council offices and is remarkably well preserved. To reach the Roman Town House walk down The Grove and turn right into Northernhay or access via the County Library.
We then took a stroll through Dorchester to Maumbury Rings with Chris showing us how the town was fortified with a ditch and earth embankment that would more than likely of had a wooden stockade on the top. Dorchester also had a market place lined with shops and public buildings and many artefacts can be found in the County Museum such as a mosaic floor found under Durngate Street and one of many skeletons found at Maiden Castle.
This skeleton was a member of the Durotriges tribe of Iron Age Britain and was discovered in the 1930s with a Roman ballista bolt lodged in his spine. The Durotriges tribe of Iron Age Britons were farmers and villagers who lived at Maiden Castle farming the land outside the ramparts. In the battle for Maiden Castle, the Durotriges were only armed with slings and stones and were massacred by the Roman Army.
Maumbury Rings is an ancient Neolithic Henge and Roman Amphitheatre with three distinct phases of construction. In the Neolithic around 2,500 BC a large bank was made with a series of shafts 3 metres apart and 10 metres below ground. There were 45 in total of which 8 have been excavated. Skulls and other fragments have been discovered and also a large stone Phallus.
The Romans converted the site into an amphitheatre removing earth from the centre of the rings to build up the banks. During the English Civil War, around 1642, the rings were remodelled into a an artillery fort to protect the Southern edge of the town.
Moving then on to Maiden Castle to close our show this is the largest and most complex Iron Age hill fort in Britain. The castle was first laid out in 600BC over the remains of a Neolithic settlement. During the following centuries the hill fort was extended and additional defences thrown up around it.
The vast multiple ramparts enclose an area the size of 50 football pitches, and the site was home to several hundred people in the Iron Age (800 BC – 43 AD). Excavations here have revealed that occupation of this hilltop began over 6,000 years ago, in the Neolithic period. In AD43 it was taken by the Roman army and its inhabitants moved to the new town of Durnovaria, modern Dorchester.
Maiden Castle appears to have been abandoned after the Roman conquest, although it is thought that the Romans may have had a military presence on the site. As you wander along the top of the hill you will see an area thought to be the location of a shrine dating from a 4th century AD temple. In the 6th century AD the hill top was entirely abandoned and was used only for agriculture during the medieval period.
What happened to Dorchester after the Romans left is not certain. The town may have been abandoned. Or there may have been a small number of people living inside the walls, grazing their cattle there and farming fields outside the walls. As time went by people seem to have trickled back into Dorchester. At some point a market began and slowly Dorchester grew into a town again.
Chris Tripp’s sites:
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