Highlights of the British Collection:

Military Belt Set from Dorchester-on-Thames

In 1874, during levelling works on the eastern part of Dyke Hills, the ramparts of an Iron-Age oppidum outside Dorchester-on-Thames, workmen discovered two graves – one male, one female – dating to the very end of the Roman period in Britain. The bronze artefacts from the burials came to the Ashmolean in 1886, but any other material has been lost. We know that there were several pieces of iron, including a knife, that were thrown into the river.

The male burial contained a large number of bronze objects which formed part of a late Roman military belt set. The objects include a buckle, a strap end, four attachments with suspension rings, eleven belt stiffeners and two long, flat plates originally attached to the ends of the belt. These attachments are fairly plain, though the D-shaped loop of the buckle ends in simple, stylised animal heads with open mouths full of fearsome, pointed teeth.

This sort of belt is very rare in Britain and most of our knowledge comes from the Continent where these belts were made and where they are much more common in late-fourth and early-fifth century cemeteries along the Roman frontier (limes) in northern Gaul and along the Rhine. They belonged to soldiers living in these regions and responsible for the defence of the frontier regions.

A Germanic origin for the Dorchester man has been proposed based on his reported large size (estimated at time of discovery at 6 feet) and by two distinctively north-German brooches found in the associated female burial, which also contained a buckle, suggesting her identity as the companion of a military man. It has been assumed that the man was one of the troops brought from the Continent to Britain either by Theodosius in AD 368-369 or Stilicho in AD 398-399, and that these troops brought their women with them. However, the skeletal remains have not survived and the evidence of the finds is not conclusive about a Germanic origin for the two people.

The material is clearly Roman in date, meaning that we must see the people buried in these graves as having been associated with the Roman army rather than as Saxon settlers, which appeared in Britain slightly later. The man is likely to have been garrisoned at Dorchester for the protection of the town, probably during the final phase of the Roman occupation of Britain. There is also evidence for military personnel in the countryside, for example at Shakenoak, though their role there is less clear.

The destruction of ancient monuments, such as Dyke Hills, inspired the creation of the Ancient Monuments Protection Act, passed by Parliament in 1882. It was the first law to protect archaeological sites in England and included in its original list Stonehenge, Avebury and the Rollright Stones.

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Photograph of Dorchester Belt (Click to enlarge)

Military Belt from Dorchester-on-Thames, metal work original but belt reconstructed (AN1886.1448)

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Line Drawing of Dorchester Belt (Click to enlarge)

Line drawing of the Dorchester miliatary belt

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Large Buckle from Dorchester (Click to enlarge)

Large buckle found during restoration work on the Dyke Hill site in 2010 (AN2011.33)

Though Dyke Hills was one of the earliest scheduled ancient monuments and is still under protection, it is a very vulnerable site due to ploughing and extensive burrowing of rabbits.

During efforts to restore a section of the monument in 2010 the Dorchester-on-Thames Research Project found a burial with two pieces from a similar belt set and an iron throwing axe (francisca). These have been very kindly donated to the Ashmolean by the landowner and are now on display alongside the 1874 Dorchester belt in the ‘England 400-1600’ gallery.

Further Information

Hawkes, S. C. and Dunning, G. C., ‘Soldiers and Settlers in Britain, fourth to fifth Century, with a catalogue of animal ornamented buckles and related belt-fittings’, Medieval Archaeology, 5 (1961), 1-70. (Available online from the Archaeology Data Service).

Kirk, J. R. and Leeds, E. T., ‘Three Early Saxon Graves from Dorchester, Oxon.’, Oxoniensia, 17-18 (1952-3), 36-76. (Available online from the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society)

MacGregor, A. and Bolick, E., A Summary Catalogue of the Anglo-Saxon Collections (Non-Ferrous Metals) (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1993).

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Kristina Glicksman
23 December 2011