British Collection Highlights:

Late Roman Grave Group from Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

Among the more important pieces in the Ashmolean's collection of Romano-British material are objects from two graves discovered in 1874 during levelling of part of the earthworks known as the Dyke Hills, at Dorchester-On-Thames. A male burial contained elements of a late Roman military belt set, while an adjacent female burial produced an interesting mixture of late Roman and early Anglo-Saxon metalwork. These two grave groups have since occupied a central place in academic discussions of the controversial questions surrounding the transition from late and 'sub-Roman' Britain to early Anglo-Saxon England. An important question left unresolved by the nature of the original discovery was whether these burials were isolated or formed part of a larger cemetery group of late fourth to early fifth-century date.

A imited opportunity to consider this question was presented in September 2010 when a small excavation was undertaken on the top of the inner bank of the Dyke Hills, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, in advance of reinstatement work.

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Dorchester Buckle (Click to enlarge)

Buckle from Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (AN2011.33.1)

Damage to the monument the previous year had revealed human bones which dated to the late Roman period and one of which bore a substantial green stain, suggesting contact with a copper alloy object. Re-excavation of the disturbed material produced more fragmented human bones and objects showing that there had indeed been a further burial of a character comparable to that of the 1874 male.

No in situ traces of the grave were found, but three significant metal objects left little doubt about its interpretation. These included a buckle of the same late Roman type as the one from the 1874 burial, but larger and more elaborate, and a matching tubular-sided belt fitting. Both pieces have relief cast (‘chip carved’) decoration around the margin of the attachment plate and on both the plate and loop of the buckle. Grooves between the cells of this decoration may have contained material such as niello to provide a contrasting colour. The ends of the buckle loop terminate in small animal heads, a distinctive characteristic of this type. More striking is the decoration of the pin with elongated animal snouts projecting from each side, the turned-back ends of which appear to be modelled as snake heads.

No strap end (which might have been expected to form part of such a belt set) was found, and it is possible that the tubular-sided plate served this function. The third principal object recovered was a small iron axe head, of a type well known in late Roman Britain and akin to the continental francisca, but apparently not hitherto recorded from a grave in this country. This ensemble indicates the presence of another warrior burial like the one found in 1874, but lying some 250 metres distant from it. This type of burial is one that is familiar from the near Continent, but is almost unknown in Britain, the combination of belt set and weapon (other than a knife) being particularly striking in a British context.

The date of the Dyke Hills burial remains slightly uncertain, but the buckle is unlikely to date before the last quarter of the fourth century at the earliest and an early fifth century date is at least possible and perhaps likely.

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Buckle Plate (Click to enlarge)

Buckle Plate from Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (AN2011.33.2)

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Francisca (Click to enlarge)

Francisca from Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (AN2011.33.3)

The burial is extremely important in showing that the 1874 find was not a ‘one-off’. Rather than representing fortuitous use of the earthwork, the Dyke Hills burials should perhaps be seen as ostentatious reminders to the local community about who was in charge of the Dorchester area in the uncertain period at or just after the end of formal Roman rule in Britain.

The question of date is of course of crucial importance in helping to define the context of the burial; was the man a regular in the late Roman army, or did he perhaps belong to a more local setting in the second decade of the fifth century – was he British, or perhaps Germanic? These are some of the questions that may be clarified by further study of these striking objects, generously donated to the Museum by the landowner of the Dyke Hill site, Miss A. Bowdich.

As soon as conservation is complete the objects will be on display in the 'England 400-1600' gallery alongside the 1874 finds.

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Paul Booth
April 2012